Monday, February 16, 2009

Siem Reap and Angkor

It's been a while since I've last posted. I've enjoyed writing the previous posts, but I was anxious to write this one. Here's why--the experience was amazing, but my words will do little to describe my experience here, neither in describing the temples nor my reactions to the tourist-instigated pity-begging which plagues all of Siem Reap, but particularly the entrances to each temple (Wat) site. Parents have trained their cute little children to engage the empathy of rich western travelers and sell trinkets such as wrist bands, etc. Their acts are incredibly convincing and it is nearly impossible to tell which people actually are in real need. The land mine victims playing music on the street were certainly an exception to the previous observations.

My bus travel to Siem Reap took me into a bus station which sold fried spider. A local bought one and entreated me to some of this delicacy. I tasted two of the eight legs. They were charred, but I could still feel a bit of the hair on the legs...the stomach was just too much, considering the fact that I had more hours on the bus.

My first day, I did much of the small curcuit at Angkor, by bike, but only made it to Angkor Wat itself just after dawn on the second day. Desiring more information, I joined a guided group at this point. The guide had unique insights because he'd been a monk for 6 years, enlisted upon the request of his parents (apparently this brings his parents good luck) and told by them that he should move on after 6 years. He is now married with a young child, but plans to go back to life as a monk when he is old again and his wife will become a nun. He enjoyed this peaceful life. Our guide described the Buddist religious stories depicted on the walls of Angkor along with other information. My lack of commitment to a specific guide enabled me to get a guide who was really good. The depictions of daily life around the Wat/Palace at Bayon/Angkor Thom were the most interesting to me. At the end of the day, we caught sunset at Bakkeng (along with hoards of others, but the people added rather than detracted from the scene). My favorite temple was Ta Prom (depicted in Tombraiders) which was not excavated as thoroughly as the others. Many large trees were left in place; their gnarled roots and trunks are inseparable from the stone structures at this point and lichen gives the stone a beautiful green color. I heard more birds calling from within this temple than I did in the jungles of Northern Laos...and for the arborists among you, Angkor is a jewel, with very old (labeled) trees that were protected for centuries because monks (rather than farmers) were residing in the region. Some latin names forthcoming, Jonathan.

The final day, we saw dawn at Angkor and then moved on to Bantea Srei, a smaller temple with some of the finest carvings along with some temples of the outer circuit and the land mine museum (a valuable and sobering stop for me, as I knew little about land mines). The multitude of road-side makers/sellers of palm candies was notable. They heat the sap and churn it before letting it dry in cookie-like circles. They were very tasty.

Back in Siem Reap, noodle bars enable one to avoid some of the Westerner-induced inflation of prices, but it's impossible to avoid all of it. After three days, I was ready to move on.

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