Friday, October 12, 2012

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat - Cambodia

This is post #6 of the Vietnam & Cambodia section.

Ta Prohm Temple - Angkor Wat
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On our looooong bus ride from the ship to Siem Reap, we made a quick stop to check out some rubber trees and learn about the extraction process.  According to our guide, one problem that persists in rubber tree fields there is that people come through the forest and steal other people's buckets of rubber.  Though farmers try to hide their buckets, it doesn't always work.  Even while we, a tour group, were there, a motorcycle sped through the grounds.  The rider in back hopped off, looked around, grabbed a bucket of collected rubber, and disappeared.

Sofitel Angkor
Arriving several hours later in Siem Reap, we unloaded the bus and made our way to our next Sofitel, where we were greeted by a drum crew dressed in traditional Cambodian attire.  This was by far the most paradise-resorty Sofitel we stayed in.  Everywhere we looked, there was a boardwalk, a lily pad pond, a white umbrella over a sunbathing chair, a heated pool with a bar, and incredible buffet, and entertainment.  Each day, a member of the Sofitel staff would knock on our doors and present us with a gift of spices or a scarf.

Table Cloths at the Old Market

On our first day in Siem Reap, my grandparents and I rode a tuc tuc from our hotel to the Old Market in the center of the city.  There, we did some shopping and took many pictures of the tapestries and foods.  While looking at a taupe table cloth with an elephant pattern in gold-colored thread, the vendor came over to tell me how beautiful the cloth was, that it was hand made, and that she would sell it to me for eight US dollars.  I replied that indeed the cloth was beautiful, but that I didn't have a table to put it on yet.  Not expecting this response, she paused for a moment, then smiled a toothy grin and exclaimed, "Ok, five dollars!"

Selling Fruit at the Old Market
I laughed and explained that I truly didn't have a table yet, but still decided to buy the table cloth, figuring that eventually I would use it.  After all, where can you get such nice table cloths for five dollars?  Only in Asia.  You could probably get a similar one in the US, but the import fee would be huge.  Come to think of it, I guess the issue wasn't not having a table; rather, the issue was not knowing what kind of table my new, furnished apartment at UChicago would come with.  Whatever, I'll use it someday.  It could even be a wall hanging.  In retrospect, I realize I should have bought more than one of these.  Next time?

Traditional Cambodian Dance Performance
Cambodian Dance

A while later, we returned by tuc tuc to the Sofitel Angkor for a spectacular buffet dinner and a performance of traditional Cambodian dances.  We recognized some of the dances from the dances performed by the group that gave a concert on our ship a few days earlier.  This time though, the costumes were far more elaborate.  I found the immense control in the steady, slow movements fascinating.  Some dances were entirely composed of these painstakingly slow movements and required patience, heightened awareness of each limb, and lots of balance - especially if you're on a rocking ship.  One signature of their movement vocabulary that I felt stood out from any other dances I had ever seen was the articulation of the dancers' hands.  They often had splayed fingers with the thumb and pointer finger together, and would hold this hand position at different angles.  Between the intricate hand movements and the costumes, I thought the dancers looked like the sculptures in the sculpture park in Kampong Cham.  For much of the performance, I found myself wondering how heavy their head pieces were.

Traditional Cambodian Dance Performance at the Sofitel Angkor
The next morning, we began the part of our trip that many of the travelers had been most looking forward to: Visiting Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is an ancient site in the jungle that contains about 300 temples in ruins.  Today, Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and different organizations are paying to restore some of the temples.
Part of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
We purchased 2-day passes and began by visiting the main temple of Angkor Wat.  This particular temple features the three tall structures that look like raised bees' nests, and also has a shrine-like place in this highest part of the temple, which is considered one of the holiest places in the country.  All visitors are required to wear long sleeves and long pants if they plan to ascent the staircase to this shrine out of respect and also because the temples are in the jungle with lots of disease-carrying bugs.

Angkor Wat
As we looked around, I noticed that nearly every wall had a design carved into it which told a story of the ancient people who had lived and worked there in the rice fields around the temples.  Our guide, Sky, explained some of the stories to us and told us that each block was hand carved.
Hand-Carved Block at Angkor Wat
Climbing the Staircase
Grandma Jean & Zaidy at Angkor Wat
In the main temple, when you finally get to the center of the ruins, you find yourself at the base of a tall, steep staircase.  Ascending these steps will lead you into the main shrine of Angkor Wat.  Despite the gruelling humidity in long pants and long sleeves, there was no way I would even consider missing this.  So, up I went!  Of course, the view was spectacular from the top.  While up there, I noticed that there were tons of little stairways everywhere.  To get into each of the rooms, you had to either ascend or descend a mini flight of stairs.
At the top of Angkor Wat
Later in the day, we visited Angkor Thom, which turned out to be my favorite of the temples at Angkor Wat because it's covered in faces.  Buddha's face, to be more specific.  Every facet of the structure has a Buddha smiling down at you.  Even the gates leading up to the temple have his face.  The place just makes you smile.  Our guide, Sky, showed us a fun pose to take photos with an optical illusion of us nose-to-nose with Buddha.

Me & Buddha at Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom
Ta Prohm Temple
The next day, we visited two more temples.  One was the temple used in the movie, Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie.  Honestly, I thought the place looked really different in person.  Less creepy and alive, more sunny and in ruins.  I'll have to go back and watch the movie again to see what I recognize.

One particularly cool part about the Bantey Srei Temple and the Ta Prohm Temple, both of which we visited on the second day, was that many of the stones there had been covered by growing banyan trees.  Everywhere I looked, roots stretched around stones and framed doorways.  Our group posed for a photo opp once we finally got around the gigantic group of exclusively Japanese tourists that we seemed to run into everywhere.

One part of the visit I didn't necessarily enjoy was that there were children all over the grounds begging for money and candy, and for us to buy scarves, t-shirts, books, and other things from them.  They tell you the money is for school, but our guide explained to us that school is free in Cambodia.

Children Begging at Angkor Thom
We were told not to give them candy, and that if we did want to give them something, it should be a pen or a pencil that they can use in school.  Additionally it was emphasized that we should never give them money, because then their families would be likely to send them begging for money instead of to school if begging became more profitable in the short term.  Also, if you give one begging child money, you get swarmed by a bunch more of them.  It's really sick that people take their children out of school and send them begging.

Angkor D'Artisan School
That night, we visited another artisan school where I found myself considering perspective on working conditions.  What I saw when I looked at the working conditions at the artisan school and silk farm was basically a sweat shop.  It was way, way, way too hot and humid to take a tour of the facilities, never mind work all day in them.  Kneeling on stools, bend over bubbling vats, and carving different works all over the place, I thought the workers and apprentices should at least have fans.  In contrast, it was explained to us that the artisans are selected to work there based on talent and dedication, and that it is a great opportunity for them.  This is a way for them to acquire a specialized skill and make a living from it.  Having difficulty seeing it that way and feeling faint from the extreme humidity (even more humid than Miami and New Orleans), many of the travelers on the tour strayed to the air conditioned gift shop.  The heat had been pretty extreme during the whole trip, but being outside all morning at Angkor Wat really zapped us.  It's really hard to stand over boiling silk kettles in that humidity; I can't imagine how the workers withstand it everyday.

Students at School in Cambodia

The following morning, we visited one more local school and chatted with some of the students.  We observed their English class and then they asked us the typical questions everyone in the villages had been asking us: "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"  One young student stood out though.  He spoke English well and wanted to know how to ask those questions in Spanish.  I made him a list of Spanish phrases before climbing back onto the bus to return to the Sofitel.

Ta Prohm Temple - Angkor Wat

After lunch, we were driven to the airport, where we boarded a plane for Hanoi, the last stop on our tour.  It was odd to note that almost the entire plane was filled with people from our tour.  The 61 of us basically chartered a plane.  I had bought a rectangular painting in the Old Market in Siem Reap, and had to carry it onto four different flights in the process of making my way home.  This was the first of those four flights.  About an hour after taking off, we landed in Hanoi, (got another passport stamp!) and headed out for our third and final Sofitel.

Faces of Angkor Thom

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