Thursday, May 29, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle

One of the best things that come out of much traveling is learning about other peoples, cultures, and histories. You get to read about these in school, but it's taken at a whole new level when you get to a place and see, hear, smell and feel for yourself (taste as well, if you're into food tripping). If you're into all that culture thing, I really recommend going to Siem Reap and visiting the Temples of Angkor.

From Singapore, you can get to Siem Reap via Silk Air or Jetstar. the International Airport is remarkably good. The name "Siem Reap", if you haven't Wikipedia-ed it already, means "in your face, Thailand", or more accurately "Siam (Thailand) Defeated". The guidebooks will point out that ironically, this place eventually got overrun by Thais themselves in recent times. You can easily imagine this as a small town IF you take away the hotels that line up the main roads, and the ones being constructed almost everywhere else. Hopefully, it won't get overdeveloped.

We got up early in the morning the day after we arrived to get a head start on The Temples of Angkor which is this big area with ancient temples spread around within the thick jungle/forest. The tour guide wisely recommended that we just go to the more notable ones:
  1. Ta Prohm - the "Tomb Raider" temple
  2. Banteay Srei - the red temple with carvings of great detail
  3. Angkor Wat - the grandest temple, proudly symmetrical in many ways
  4. Angkor Thom - the old capital
You could cover all those in a whole day, even with meal stops back in the city and that's just what we did. It's a very good idea to bring shoes you don't care to be ruined, especially during the rainy season as it can get muddy. It's also helpful to bring or buy a hat (especially if you're feeling a bit Indiana Jones) and put on some sunblock before making your rounds. Sunglasses would be good for the high sun. Lastly, bring extra shirts and/or a hand towel, as you will sweat like a pig. Bringing bottled water is a no-brainer. It doesn't hurt to be a little prepared. There are clean toilets spread around the area, free of charge given that you buy entry tickets to the temples ($20 for a day pass, but we got our along with the tour package)

The following day, we went to Tonle Sap Lake to check out the floating village full of Vietnamese boat people. On the way to the area, you can observe from looking around that except for a hill or two, and a couple of mountains off just near the horizon, that is may be the flattest country you will ever see. In this trip, we learned about a lot of frustrations by the Cambodia. Whether they're geographically surrounded by jerks to the left (Thailand) and to the right (Vietnam), or how their government and monarchy are basically unpopular, it's no wonder they're nostalgic of their great king Jayavarman VII even if his reign was around a thousand years ago. I'll get back to the brutal recent history a bit later.

Other notable places you can go to in and around Siem Reap is the Artisan d'Angkor silk farm, and workshops, which are in two different places. I really, really wanted to buy some silk products, wood carvings and statuettes because I saw how much hard work these people put in them. But nothing really struck me as "a compelling buy", given that it's a bit pricey, despite the excellent quality. There's the old market Psar Chaa in the middle of town which will give you the usual pashminas, artifact replicas, as well as counterfeit junk (like Lonely Planet guidebooks for rock-bottom prices).

Lastly, spread all over the country are memorials about the grim period of 1975-1979 when the Communist Khmer Rouge regime instituted slave-labor, genocide and other human atrocities known as infamous The Killing Fields. Our excellent tour guide, had first hand experiences of how they were forced to work the fields and narrated how in light of everything that's happened, he's one of the lucky ones. Really gives you pause, thinking about what kind of people would do these sorts of things.

So again, I definitely recommend going here at least once in your life. Don't wait until you're old and gray. You wouldn't appreciate the amount of walking that you'll be doing.

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