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Cambodia - January 2004
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Siem Reap
Dusty roads
Little toads
Yes for eat
And oh, the heat
Tour buses galore
Please no more
Stunning sights
Mosquito bites
Incredible mystery
Devastating history

The province of Siem Reap is the gateway to the amazing temples of Angkor, built between the 9th and 14th centuries AD. These temples are considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the world. Many consider them to be even more spectacular than the temples of Bagan in Myanmar (although I enjoyed visiting the site of Bagan more, but that is mainly because it wasn't crawling with tourists in the same way that Siem Reap was, so it actually felt like a more spiritual, peaceful place). The size, architecture, detail, and construction dates of these temples is truly amazing. They were overgrown with jungle and "rediscovered" by the French in the 1860's. We visited about ten of them, all notable for various reasons so I'll just mention our favorites. Ta Prohm still looks like most of the temples did when they were rediscovered - completely overgrown with the jungle - trees and their root structure completely taking over. It's also better known as the "jungle" temple. It was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of the king Jayavarman VII (who reigned 1181-1219). Angkor Wat is the most-known temple, and notable for numerous reasons, but primarily because of its size. It's surrounded by a moat that is 190 meters wide and the total area of the temple and moat is 1.5km by 1.3km. It is thought to have been constructed as a funerary temple for the king Suryavarman II (who reigned 1112-52) to honor the Hindu deity, Vishnu. Banteay Srei is also a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and is probably the most beautiful temple we saw, although relatively small. It's cut from a pinkish sandstone and includes some of the most spectacular stone carvings. Its construction began in 987 and it was one of the few temples commissioned by a Brahmin rather than a king.

The music in Cambodia was just as bad as in Vietnam. We went to a show with traditional dance and music, which was fun and interesting, but I'd much prefer to do this in Indonesia where the skill is much greater and where the dance and music is truly beautiful. We thought the music was pretty difficult to listen to.

Although we loved seeing the temples, had some interesting meals, and a cool hotel, we were not crazy about Siem Reap. It was crawling with tour buses and has a zillion very large hotels and more are in the process of being built. Supposedly tourism is still down 50% due to SARS, but that is hard to believe. I was really wishing we would have done this trip about five years ago. And it really would have been spectacular to have visited when there was just one hotel and you had to enter overland from Thailand like when Chris' mom was there in 1946!

Tonlé Sap Lake
We spent one morning on a small boat on Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia's largest natural lake. In the rainy season, this lake swells to five times the size that we saw it in dry season! There are floating villages, including schools, hospitals, floating restaurants, etc., around the lake, and the people build their homes so they can pick them up and move them further back in the rainy season. The houses are so tiny, but some of them even keep a small pen outside with a pig or two in them! Unbelievable…

Phnom Pehn
We spent only one day in the capital, Phnon Pehn, which was enough, but well worth the visit. It is situated along a pretty riverfront lined with grass and palm trees on one side and restaurants on the other side of the road. Our visit to the Royal Palace was interesting, and also on the palace grounds is the Silver Pagoda, known for its 5000 silvered tiled floor and its colossal mural of the epic of the Ramayana. It seemed amazing that these and much of their content were so well preserved during by the Khemer Rouge. Supposedly they did this to demonstrate to the outside world their concern for Cambodia's cultural riches (which makes no sense to me since they had no concern whatsoever for its people). The National Museum was well worth the visit as well. But probably most interesting to me, but incredibly devastating to see, was the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was a high school overtaken in 1975 by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21. It was the largest center of detention and torture in the country. Like the Nazi's, the Khemer Rouge kept meticulous records of its barbarism. There are pictures everywhere of the people they tortured (and of the torture). Seeing the people's eyes in these photos is truly haunting. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held there were taken to the extermination camp (Killing Fields of Choeung Ek). Chris and I haven't yet seen the movie the Killing Fields, but Cambodia, like most other large Asian countries has a pretty amazing market of pirated software and DVD's. We picked up the movie for almost nothing in one of the markets so we could watch it on the way home.

Overall, we were pretty disappointed with the markets in Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn. They were interesting as far as typical Asian food markets go, but the handicrafts were not very interesting, the workmanship fairly poor, and there is a lot of junk for souvenirs. But we still wanted some sort of souvenier from this trip so we purchased a wood carved Buddha statue in Siem Reap and with a lot of luck it will actually get shipped to us and arrive unbroken sometime soon! The Buddha's hand position, or mudra, symbolizes protection, peace and the dispelling of fear.

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