02 April 2008

ancient wonder

We get up early to make the canal boat that will take us six hours to the town of Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. We pass many stilted wooden houses along the river as well as a few floating villages. The transient nature of their home from the wet to the dry seasons is curious to me. Growing up in a house that flooded between three to thirty inches each spring, I wonder if this disruption is simply thought of as something that just happens.

Running aground, we climb out of our boat to find many excited tuk-tuk drivers vying for our business. Four follow us after we make our choice still pleading their cases. As in the rest of rural Cambodia I’ve visited, I see the old wooden thatched dwellings along with progress to stucco structures, families tending to their own animals for sustenance and likely working a private rice field behind their homes. While these families don’t have many material things, for most they would not be considered poor.

My friend and I rent fixed gear bikes for two days to tool around the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. This is the modern term for a bicycle with only one gear I suppose, when really the bikes we rented are just plain old cruising bikes that just happened to be made long ago with only gear. We immerse ourselves in the crazy traffic where walkers, tuk-tuks (motos pulling two- wheeled carriage like structures with a roof), cars, motos, big tourist buses, industrial trucks, bicycles, and push carts all share the road ways with each person often traveling diagonally, across, against traffic, at their own pace, or simply stopping where ever they find their need.

It’s like there is an agreement that you will let someone turn in front of you and in turn, they would get out of the way quickly. It’s actually more like a big game of chicken. All the horn honking is merely to show presence, not a "get out of my way" gesture as it is here in the States. I find it amazing that no one is hurt. This insanity is laughable and tests our nerves while we avoid being killed ringing our little bells at intersections to alert those we pass.

Angkor Wat is the brainchild of King Suryavarman II who ruled 1113 – 1150 AD. He made Angkor Wat the ruling center for Cambodia. Many who visit these temples and residences are amazed by the advanced architecture and necessary tools obviously needed to construct these grand structures for their time. The entire campus was mostly abandoned in the 16th century and the jungle has slowly started to reclaim its place. The temple formally named Angkor Wat is surrounded by a large moat. It is believed that the expanse of water has protected this particular temple from extreme over growth.

The area was discovered by Europeans in the 1800s. The French explorer, Henri Mouhot wrote of it, “One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo- might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”

We pedal past beautiful rice fields and in tree lined narrow roads. We hike all over those ruins taking photo after photo of what now seem like the same picture. Every temple is unique in style and many of the structures of Angkor Wat were built as residences. Each king that took rein over Cambodia wanted his own building of course. Most had gilded stucco towers and figures as well as wooden ceiling panels and doors. Now all that remains are weather worn sandstone and faint fanciful reliefs.

Rushing home our first day after visiting at least five or six temples to beat the darkness that comes so early this close to the equator, we come upon the north gate of Angkor Thom, (as I mentioned, there are many wats (temples) a part of Angkor Wat, where Angkor Wat has is it's own temple and is also the name of this temple region). The Angkor Thom gate is this amazing stone structure with a huge face carved in it. By huge, I'm talking eight feet tall or so (the face). Of course we have to stop and take a photo of it as we only have two days to cover the entire campus and will likely not pass this way again.

Three kids are playing near by and upon seeing us stop to take photos, they drop their toys (one carrying a large hatchet making me somewhat alarmed. As an aside this is how they cut grass!!!!!) and run toward us. As I was instantly alarmed, it is fortunate that they start to beg from us, "Candy?" "One dollar?" they chime. I nicknamed them the trolls of the bridge and tried to teach them a new phrase that I thought would earn them more laughs and possibly more dollars: "What's your favorite color?" I would say to them slowly. They would start to attempt to repeat for me then remember their original purpose of harassing us. “One dollar?”

The dark won and we found ourselves on the road with no lights and many tuks, motos, and large tourist buses whizzing past us as we tried to abide by the agreements of getting out of the way and holding our breath when someone honked. Getting through the signal-less intersections with everyone going this way and that was an exhilarating challenge if not completely frightful all at once.

The next day we spent a far amount at a temple known for its very large faces; Bayon of Angkor Thom. As you may have learned, I talk to most anyone where ever I travel; this exchange today worth sharing for its comedic value, my conversationalists unaware. There was an Australian family touring as we, parents and a son my age and I notice that the mother is heavy with a cast and make-shift sling on her arm. Her son is recommending to her that perhaps he'll go down the set of steep steps first (that will take them out of the ruin).

  • (me) "To cushion your fall?!" I chide to the woman
  • (son) laughing, "yeah"
  • (she) "I've already broken an arm once this holiday"
  • (me) "here?"

  • (she) snidely as if I should know, "New Zealand" then goes on to tell me a bit more
  • (son) to his mother, "are you coming?" insistently, impatiently
  • (she) "yes, yes" continuing to descend the stairs tentatively
  • (father/husband) rolling his eyes, saying to no one, "She had to have a running dialog; a necessity of the female condition before doing anything."
taking in the surrounds..

view from the canal boat en route to Siem Reap

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