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Destinations Siem Reap and Angkor Wat,Cambodia

Author: pakce  |  Category: Destination Angkor Wat Cambodia
Ancient temples at Angkor Wat.

The bus lurched forward and dust poured through the windows that wouldn’t quite close all the way. I glanced to the seat behind me where my fifteen-year-old son, Zeke, was fast asleep. If you can imagine riding inside four pieces of corrugated steel held together by a rubber band, then dragged along a rocky shore, all the while being doused in red dust, you’ll have some idea of what the bus ride felt like. Yet, there was my son, mouth hanging open, slumped against the window.

Zeke and I were headed to Angkor Wat the ancient ruins near Siem Reap, Cambodia. We were living in Hainan, China, at the time and homeschooling Zeke so the trip was to be a combination of history, and social studies with a little holiday thrown in.

Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, in a recent scoring of preservation in relation to damage by tourism, Angkor Wat scored a low 48 which means ‘moderate trouble’ — a mix of positives and negatives. The score places it in slightly better shape than Venice, but worse than Stonehenge. However, in the accompanying article by Jonathan B. Toutellot he stated that “All (sites) are still worth visiting. Thoughtfully.”

So I decided that’s what we would do. Zeke pointed out in an early discussion of the trip, “If nobody goes to these places, how will they know whether they’re worth saving or not”

Getting to Know Siem Reap

Monk on a motorbike in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat and the place to stay if you are visiting the temples. In many ways, Siem Reap felt like a city racing ahead of itself. Yet, it was also a dynamic place. While the negative sides of tourism were obvious with the karaoke clubs and dodgy bars, so were the positive. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, yet over and over I met people who are working to re-build the country.

Few countries have suffered as much turmoil in recent years as Cambodia. During the four year reign of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed off nearly one fourth of the population. Many others have been killed or maimed by land mines. While I had been aware of this fact, the evidence of my own eyes brought it home in a profound way. Zeke and I both noticed how few truly elderly people we saw in Siem Reap, especially compared to where we live in China where mornings and evenings the streets fill up with the elderly practicing Tai Chi or playing mahjong in the tea houses. And we also noticed a high number of amputees — victims of land mines.

We spent our first day in Siem Reap visiting some of the local organizations like The Akira Mine Action Gallery. Begun by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child conscripted soldier, the gallery and museum is dedicated to educating Cambodians about landmine safety, as well as continuing to support de-mining procedures. Estimates claim there are still 5 to 10 million devices in the ground in some parts of Cambodia. Not only does this constitute the literal danger of loss of life or limb, but it also prohibits farmers from using otherwise productive farmland for growing much needed crops for the country. Most Cambodians recognize children as the hope for the future and Aki Ra has also established the Cambodia Landmine Kids College Fund. Aki Ra and his wife, Bou Hourt, have unofficially adopted a number of homeless children who have fallen victim to landmines. Neither collects any salary from the donations.

Other establishments committed to social change are springing up all over town. The Singing Tree, an eco-venture cafe provides free space for community activities and supports a number of projects in the areas of environment, clean water and street children. As well as a cafe, The Singing Tree offers yoga and meditation classes, dance performances and special programs and talks on environmental and social concerns of the community. Michael, one of the founders, told me “Siem Reap has a unique facet whereat a seam-line between the extreme difficulties of the Cambodian poor and the lush leisure of the high-class traveling affords the community with a plentiful field for social innovation.”

Colors of Cambodia, which was initiated by an American artist and businessman, Bill Gentry, showcases artwork by children from some of Siem Reap’s most underprivileged schools. Visitors can buy the artwork or make donations. The money helps pay for a school nurse, medical supplies, an English teacher and art supplies. Bill said, “This project is not about making money. It is about sharing the joy of art and letting some kids know it is a viable career path, and it is this inherent creative talent in the Khmer people that built the amazing complex of temples commonly known as ‘Angkor Wat’ It would be a dream if this underlying talent could be ‘re-awakened’.”

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Exploring Angkor Wat

Unofficial guide at Angkor Wat. Jordan Clary photo.

Angkor Wat is the focal point, not only of the local community, but of Cambodia and I was anxious to see it. I had heard that the sunrise was the time to see the main temple, so the following morning I bicycled out there. Alone. The only major disagreement Zeke and I had on the trip revolved around the sunrise.

“You want me to get up at five in the morning to watch the sunrise! The sun rises every day. What’s the big deal?”

The more I pushed, the more he balked. So in a concession to the teenage metabolism, I let him sleep. Angkor Wat is only about six kilometers from Siem Reap so it’s an easy ride. The ticket price of $20 for one-day or $40 for a three-day pass allow for multiple entry to the sites.

When I arrived a large number of tourists had already gathered around the royal pond and the surrounding environs. I walked down the pathway and caught my first glimpse of this monument to the gods. In a secluded corner of the ruins a guard sat and sang a haunting melody. Angkor Wat is spectacular. In spite of the crowds, it still retains its mystery and I could understand why Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia.

After sunrise I rode my bicycle around the surroundings, then headed back to the guesthouse and found Zeke still asleep. After rousing him, we had breakfast and headed back to Angkor Wat for the day.

We spent the day exploring a number of the ruins. The entire complex was both larger and grander than I had imagined. The artistry that Bill Gentry mentioned earlier was evident in the detailed carvings of goddess figures, elephants and intricate scroll work along the walls of the temples. There were a number of children, some begging and some selling small handicrafts. Many of them were anxious to engage in conversation and once we began chatting with them excitedly followed us through the ruins. At a couple of the temples we paid them a small amount to act as mini-guides for a short time which I enjoyed more than a formal guide. I figured that these children are the decedents of the people who built Angkor Wat and probably have as much insight as anyone to the temples.

There is probably no way that the influx of tourism can not harm the temples. Yet, it is not just current tourism that is the culprit. The temples have been pillaged repeatedly over the years and many unique treasures have probably made their way to wealthy art collectors around the world. The elements, too, have taken their toll. In some areas the jungle encroaches on the ruins, huge root systems pushing up through the stone pathways. Signs of restoration were evident and more than once I saw a local Khmer chase some tourist off of walls where they weren’t supposed to be.

I’m not sure what the solution is, not just for Angkor Wat, but for historical ruins around the world. “What are you going to do? Rope them off so you can only see them from a distance?” Zeke asked. That doesn’t seem to be a viable solution. Sometimes the best way to make a difference is not by boycotting a place, but by going and actively participating in the life there. Angkor Wat is a wonder. And while many spoke of the corruption of Cambodia’s politics, many Cambodian people are dedicating themselves to re-building their country. Cambodia is well worth visiting. Thoughtfully.

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