by aengelson | April 5th, 2012
I recently gave a short talk at the latest edition of the Noi Hanoi lecture series. The topic was “Travel as Pilgrimage,” and most of it centered on a trip I’d taken to Tibet in the year 2000. I talked about an expedition to Western Tibet and Mount Kailash, one of Asia’s holiest mountains. It was fun to recall the magic and frustration of that trip. I suggested that a modern-day pilgrimage (to any place you consider sacred) requires at least four things: it must be meaningful to you, it must contain difficulty, it must involve some walking, and it has to have a sense of magic or mystery.
The day after I gave the talk, we began our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia and the temples of Angkor. Another pilgrimage was underway. And it had all those qualities.
To visit a gallery of photos from this trip, click on any picture in this post, or visit this link.
A visit to Angkor Wat and the ancient Khmer temples outside Siem Reap was high on our list of must-visit places in Southeast Asia. We waited until both the girls were old enough to appreciate and remember the experience. It’s a place with a fascinating history. The city of Angkor thrived from about 800 AD until 1430 AD. It was a Hindu kingdom and then became Buddhist, and at its height the city probably housed over a million people–the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The temples this civilization built to honor their god-kings (devarajas) are some of the most magnificent on earth.
We traveled to Siem Reap via Saigon, and we spent a day wandering the city and checking out the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which offered some exhibits on transportation, traditions, and industry in southern Vietnam. It was a good diversion for the kids in an elegant old French-era building.
Then it was off to Cambodia, our first trip here since living in Southeast Asia. In Siem Reap we stayed at the Hotel Borann, a French-owned boutique hotel that was just what we needed– clean, simple rooms surrounding a tropical garden, a small blue pool, a fantastic breakfast, and a very good menu of Western and Cambodian dishes.
Our days went something like this: out of the hotel before 8 am to visit temples. Finish playing Indiana Jones by about 10:30 am. Eat lunch, swim, and lounge by the pool. Return to the temples around 4 pm until sunset. Dinner and bed. Repeat. This worked very well as the light and temperatures were ideal early and late in the day. Plus it meant the girls (and parents) didn’t get archeology overload.
First up was the hilltop temple of Bakong at sunset. It’s a at the end of a short forest walk and a great place to start so you can get your bearings and view the surrounding countryside. The scale of Angkor and all it encompasses is mind-boggling. The city once covered some 1,000 square kilometers, close to the size of modern-day Los Angeles. An elaborate series of reservoirs, canals, and waterworks helped support agriculture and allowed the city to build up wealth and surplus labor to construct intricate temples.
The next morning it was on to Angkor Wat, the grandest and most famous of the temples. It’s massive and impressive. But what’s truly incredible are the walls upon walls of bas relief sculptures. Depicted here are thousands of figures: soldiers, elephant-riding generals, mythological creatures, gods, and everyday faces. The quality of the work is astonishing, and some friezes extend for hundreds of meters. The central towers of the temple are supposed to represent the mythical Mount Meru, home of the gods and wisdom (and what Mount Kailash in Tibet symbolizes to many). The vast quantity of fantastic art here is hard to convey. You realize that all this stone work and the kilometers-long moats that surround Angkor Wat added up to untold millions of hours of hard work and craftsmanship.
Each time we went to see temples, we rode with our trusty tuk-tuk driver Mr. Ya. He was a quiet and kindly man, and he drove his motorcycle-taxi proudly. The girls were surprisingly engaged and fascinated with exploring the temples, which was a relief. Because we were curious, too.
My favorite temple was Bayon, a mystical jumble of towers centered around a circular, mandala-like plan. Many of the towers are topped with the Mona Lisa-smiling face of Avalokiteshvara, the most revered bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. There’s a serene calm in the faces in the setting sun, and this bodhisattva is one of the most important figures in Buddhism. It’s the origin of Chenrezig, who the Dalai Lama is said to be the incarnation of, as well as the predecessor of Guanyin, the Chinese and Vietnamese goddess of compassion. It’s a quiet, spiritual place. At the center of Bayon is a tall, dark hall in which a small Buddha sits in a cloud of fragrant incense. High above, a small opening shines like a distant moon, casting a thin beam of light into the darkness. We sat quietly there for a long time.
Another day, we hired a car for the hour-long drive to Beng Mealea, a crumbling temple that’s still in the overgrown many of temples were in when French archeologists first began to study them 150 years ago. It was a true Indiana Jones experience, with large spiders, teetering blocks of broken temples, huge vines, and dark passageways inviting exploration. Later in the morning, we headed to see a large “floating” village. Most of the houses were on stilts, and it was fascinating, but as it was the dry season (and a rather long drought had set in) so there wasn’t much “floating” going on. We decided against a boat trip on the muddy trickle and headed back to Siem Reap.
We ate well on this trip, although we never found really superlative food. Our hotel actually had some of the best Cambodian dishes we tried, including the curry-like amok fish swimming in coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and garlic. We also liked lok lak, a yummy marinated beef dish, and samlor machu, a variety of sweet-sour Khmer soups that usually include fish, garlic, lemongrass, pineapple, and morning glory. Several times we stopped in at The Blue Pumpkin, a ubiquitous American-style restaurant and ice cream shop. The food was quite good (the amok fish ravioli was superb and the bacon & blue cheese sandwich quite edible). Their strong point, however, is the ice cream. The ginger and black sesame was pure genius: spicy sweet ginger studded with clusters of salty savory sesame. Nom nom!
Siem Reap is a heavily touristy town. That means you can find great ice cream, wood-fired pizzas and good deals on handicrafts. But it also means a nearly constant barrage of persistent sellers and tuk-tuk drivers. Tourism has exploded here with little concern for sustainability or cultural integrity. And there’s ample evidence of poverty here, which is disturbing in the shadow of the Sofitel and other massive new resorts popping up all over the place.
This is the unsettling thing about present day Cambodia. There are loads of fantastic things to see and do here. But I couldn’t shake the knowledge that it’s only within the past ten to fifteen years that Cambodia has emerged from extreme poverty and misery on an epic scale. Reading about the history of the Khmer Rouge and their merciless genocide of 1.4 to 2.2 million people while you’re sitting by the pool and sipping an Angkor beer is an experience of extreme cognitive dissonance.
To remind yourself of the impact of those terrible years, you can conduct a simple exercise: among Cambodians, look for anyone over the age of 50. What you will quickly discover is that you see very few, and those you do see you should accord great respect and deference. They survived something that most of can’t even begin to imagine.
So, Cambodia is a place of contradictions. The remnants of a 600-year-long civilization with some of the world’s crowning artistic achievements. And the remnants of one of the darker chapters in twentieth-century history (and that’s saying a lot). Time passes, but the ghosts linger.
Stepping back into deep history, we explored the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. The latter is fascinating not for its diseased king (one of Angkor’s rulers apparently suffered from leprosy) but the incredible variety of stone carvings found buried at this site and now unearthed: elegant dancers, snarling naga snakes, muscular Garuda figures (very similar to those in Balinese temples) and serene women (devatas). You could spend years trying to see all the art at Angkor.
Another day, we visited Ta Keo temple, which was notable for its incredibly steep set of stairs. At Angkor, the girls weren’t allowed to climb the central pyramid, but at Ta Keo no one was there to say no, so they scrambled up the steps like a couple of mountain goats.
We had high expectations for our visit to Angkor, and the experience proved to be better than we imagined. Our young budding archaeologists had a great time climbing ruins, drawing the figures they saw, making checklists and drawing maps of the temples. Hopefully, it’s an experience they’ll remember all their lives. I know it will be for me. It was a true pilgrimage to a very special spiritual place.