On our second day of exploring the largest religious structure in the world, we decided to watch the sunrise come up over the main temple of Angkor Wat. For $15, we hired a tuk-tuk driver, Danny, to take us around for the day. He picked us up at our hotel at 5am and we didn’t get back until 4:30. His day job was to check tickets and answer questions at Angkor, and he was one of several guides to ask if we wanted a driver on his day off. Unlike some of the other guides, he seemed to know the basic facts such as construction dates and which king built which temple. We also bought an awesome guidebook for five dollars and some Cambodian change, which had great details that even the really professional guides weren’t telling people. The sunrise was magnificent, and even with the large crowd of gathering tourists, we had a great view. Broc and I are always grateful to be tall at concerts and in a crowd, but we got there early enough to be right next to a waterlily pond, so not too many people were in front of us anyway.
After getting some good pictures, we bought some delicious egg and veggie sandwiches (with real cheese!) Either we were really hungry, or they were the best sandwich we’ve had in the last month. Food was more expensive inside the park, but these were still only $1, although my mocha was $2.25.
Our first temple exploration of the day was at Preah Khan, constructed in 1191. (We know the dedication dates and reigning kings for almost all the temples from the inscriptions!) The guide book said that Preah Khan was probably a Buddhist university back in the day. It seemed to go on and on, with outer gates and inner gates (the gates were large enough to have several rooms inside), ponds, and rooms within rooms, leading to more rooms. There were no large galleries inside, and the rooms were all small by our standards. Most were no more than ten feet by ten feet, but all have a doorstep or a few steps either up or down. There was a granary, two libraries, (which housed holy scrolls), and many rooms with fountains or Buddha statues with no heads (which were stolen)!
Next we drove to Neak Pean, which is an island with a long skinny bridge. Once across the bridge, there is another moat surrounding the much smaller temple. Even though we couldn’t go inside the temple, it was pretty cool to see all the water and think about how many men were needed to dig out the waterways. The water was more than just protection from invaders; it meant wealth. Without water there is no rice, and the extensive irrigation systems built a thousand years ago shows how wealthy the Khmer were. Even today, water is life. 80% of Cambodians are farmers, and 90% of crop production is rice. (50 years ago 80% of Thais were farmers, now 38%). Strange how quickly life has changed in the last 50 years, after hundreds of years of very little change.
We left Neak Pean to walk back across the long, skinny bridge to our tuk-tuk. We made two more planned stops at Ta Som and East Mabon, and also asked Danny to stop several other times to admire smaller temples or cool sites.
Ta Som is a smaller temple, almost simple in layout compared to the larger wats. It’s best known for its semi-ruined state, and indeed the overgrowth was pretty cool. East Mebon has the appearance of being on a hill, but in fact it was built on an island. Because the water, which was about fifteen feet high, is now gone, wood steps are needed for you to reach the beginning of the stone steps. Unlike other temples built on dry land, no moats or surrounding walls and gates were needed! Eight well-preserved elephant statues guard the four corners on two of the four levels.
Since we weren’t ready to go back to the hotel yet, we decided to drive up north another half hour to see the Landmine Museum and the Butterfly farm, along with another famous temple, Banteay Srei, aka the “womens’ temple”. (It’s possible the name was mistranslated, since Banteay Sri means “auspicious temple”.) I’m gonna go with “womens’”, because of how beautiful it was. There were flowers and large ponds with bright pink lilies everywhere. The carvings on every wall were fabulous, especially considering they were done in 967, over 1,000 years ago!
The Landmine Museum isn’t for everyone, but we are so glad we decided to take the trek to see it. Cambodia lives with the legacy of a civil war that spanned three decades, culminating in a genocide in the late 1970s that claimed the lives of up to three million people, or 1/3 of the entire population.
On the way in, we were reading a sign with a friendly family from Texas, and a local on his way out said sarcastically, “thank you, USA.” I was a little sad that other countries blamed us still, but I also welcomed the perspective, which I’ve never encountered before. Most of the destruction now is caused by landmines, which were placed by several different nations and factions, such as the Viet Cong who wanted to stop the Thai from supplying the Khmer Rouge. Even though the bombing by president LBJ didn’t occur during our lifetime, it still feels like recent events, rather than history. I have to admit that even with all the extra history classes I took and non-fiction books I read now, I have never studied the last fifty years. Broc took one class on the Vietnam War in college, but standing next to thousands of pounds of bombs disarmed by a single local, reading first hand accounts, and seeing pictures of local kids playing soccer with only one arm are much more impactful.
The founder of the museum, Aki Ra, is a local who originally fought for the Khmer Rouge. As an orphan, he was given his first gun when he was five years old. It was an AK47, and it was taller than he was. He described some guerrilla tactics that he used that were chilling, such as splitting up and carrying a variety of weapons to make it seem like their five person band was bigger, then sneaking up and throwing a hand grenade on the enemy once they were close. They would also plant a tank mine underneath another mine, so that once the first one was removed the second one would surprise the enemy with a huge explosion. Mines were used because maiming a soldier is more costly to an army than killing. Recent studies and accounts from experts show that modern weapons are more effective than mines, and we’ve also learned that mines cause more friendly destruction to the army that lays them than they do to the enemy. Most countries have agreed to not use mines in the future, but for political reasons the USA has only verbally agreed to not personally use them. (We haven’t signed because we support S. Korea, which has them in use in a hypothetical plan if N. Korea invades.)
The young boys who fought thought of the guns like toys rather than weapons; they never knew any other life. Aki Ra became a good shot, and eventually ran away and defected to the Viet Cong. At one point he saw his uncle across the field in the opposing army, and shot above his head to scare him away rather than kill him. Later, they laughed about the coincidence! After a lifetime of being a soldier for a number of armies in Cambodia, Aki Ra eventually came to know peacetime. Several million landmines and unexploded bombs still ravaged his country, however. For no monetary gain, Aki Ra risked his own life to begin disarming and removing the remaining bombs. There were a few towns he personally remembered burying landmines in, but more often he would travel to a remote town where he heard of locals encountering landmines, and dig them up using no more than a shovel and wire cutters. Eventually, Aki Ra was forced to stop using his unsafe old methods when new standards were formed, which require several licensed people working methodically through designated areas. He wanted to continue to help, so he started his own organization to rid his country of mines, and started an orphanage for victims. Deaths and accidents are down from around 1,300 per year in Cambodia to only 150 per year, so Aki Ra has since expanded his orphanage to accept kids who are victims of polio or birth defects, or orphans who have no access to education in their remote village. Despite the fact that between four and six million mines remain, the story of mine removal in Cambodia is a story of success.
After that sobering visit to the museum, we were able to cheer up at the Butterfly Farm, which is just down the road. Since it was the end of the day, the insects were tired, (which meant they held still for a pic!), and we had our own personal guide. A huge butterfly relaxed on my hand for a while, and we got to hold an enormous walking stick!
We stopped for some fresh squeezed orange and cane juice and tried palm seeds at one of the many palm markets. (They weren’t as good as the palm hearts we have back home in the can; they were mainly just watery, tasteless, and sometimes with a chewy exterior.) It’s crazy how many products can come from the palm tree. We see palm “gas” in recycled bottles everywhere, carved palm wood bowls and utensils, and of course the syrup, which can be boiled down into tablets that had a unique, mild sugary flavor.
We ended the day by relaxing by the beautiful hotel pool and having an early dinner at George’s Rhumerie, which was rated the #1 restaurant in Siem Reap on TripAdvisor, and was luckily next door to our hotel. We could write an entire blog post on the French Cajun food, but for now, it’ll suffice to say that everything was made from scratch by an amazing chef from an island off the coast of Madagascar. After dinner and a short walk we found the other hotel guests still hadn’t left for dinner. (They were drinking when we left, and still going strong!) As hard as it is to not overindulge in an open bar with your new friends from all over the world, we went to bed at a reasonable hour after swimming and hanging out with a Korean woman and two Ukrainian couples. (The Ukrainian couple made a pact with us that we’d visit each other someday!) What a day!