Cambodia Part II: The Temples

To give you some perspective on Cambodia’s temples: roughly two hundred years before the completion of Notre Dame Cathedral and a full five hundred before the rise of Taj Mahal, in the twelfth century, Khmer King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat – to this day still the largest religious monument in the world.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Aside from its majestic proportions and intricate bas-reliefs, the best part about Angkor Wat is that it isn’t alone. While it remains the biggest single complex, Angkor Thom surpasses it in overall spread and with its epic Bayon, where the 216 enormous faces carved in stone bear down upon its ghostly inhabitants and khaki-clad tourists alike.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman's own face very closely.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman’s own face very closely.

Further out, Banteai Srei, intricately carved in red stone bests Angkor when it comes to detail work and the clear perfectionism of its masters. Ta Prohm, generally referred to by the locals as the Angelina Jolie temple is mercifully NOT dedicated to the sensuous-lipped actress but happened to be the set for her Tomb Raider movie. Its real beauty comes from a mix of beautiful architecture, atmospheric crumbling walls and awe-inspiring trees that seem to both bolster and slowly cannibalize it.

Here's a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to  art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of ... Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Here’s a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of … Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Fine details of cornerstones  at Banteai Srey

Fine details of cornerstones at Banteai Srey

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

Preah Khan, Neak Poan, the reclined Buddha at Baphuon — we saw them all in a whirlwind three days with a little help from our tuk-tuk driving friend whom we had hired as our guide and chauffeur, per the local custom.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

Unfortunately, to be perfectly honest, three days of climbing crumbled steps, taking in photos with bas-relief Apsaras and Nagas and Vishnus and beheaded buddhas eventually all turned into one big blur. All we have now are about two thousand photos to sort through and a handful of amazing moments that will stick with us forever:

  • The self-appointed local guide who walked us though Prasat Banteay Kdei “The Citadel of Chambers” and conjured for us in kind but broken English the sad and the happy stories of that temple, from the hall of dancers that witnessed spectacular shows put on for the entertainment of kings to the pillaging of the Khmer temples during the Pol Pot era, culminating with the beheading of the majority of the buddha statues in most temples; Buddha heads apparently still fetch high prices in the Asian antique black markets to the bitterness of Khmers, who are unable to stop the traffic apparently conducted by their neighbors in Thailand. Our nameless guide also taught Ed how to sit in a particular spot inside the buddha alcoves and tap his chest in order to generate an organic, cavernous sound – troubling to me, but very entertaining to Ed…

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you've never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you’ve never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

  • The game of 1-2-3-fiiivee!! (a sort of khmer rock-paper-scissors) with a group of little girls who were taking a play-break from peddling souvenirs at the temples. The children’s sheer joy and the genuine connection we felt with them was a very welcome refresher from the very transactional nature of our interactions with locals around the temples up to that point (i.e.: “You buy banana from me!” “Eat here, cheap food”  or “One dollar, ten cards: one, two, three, four, etc”) We then all shared bananas and first names and enjoyed a joyful moment in the golden afternoon.

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

  • The moments spent inside the Bayon on the first day of the new year, worshipping quietly next to locals and other folks who sought both the respite from heat and also to partake in the spiritual atmosphere. We both lit incense and wai-ed to the Buddha, who was majestically clad in golden cloth and covered in marigolds, and received the red thread of the blessing upon our wrists – we still keep them and probably will until the day saltwater eats them through.

When all was said and done, seen and photographed, at the end of three days of temple-ing, collapsed in the coolness of our hotel room, Ed and I conferred about our experience and realized that we were left with two very different impressions: one one hand, Ed, the perennial optimist, was in love with the smiles, the jokes, the easy banter of the locals and deeply appreciated the feeling of humility that the temples had inspired in him. For him, Cambodia was a place of promise, growth, opportunity and hope, but also a place where you were reminded of your own insignificance in comparison with the achievements of the Khmer kingdom – a welcome wake-up call from our Western self-centeredness.

Ed approves of temples.

Ed approves of temples.

In my eyes, however, Cambodia and Angkor, in particular, emerged shrouded in a veil of sadness. Everywhere I turned I perceived ghosts and a sense of loss: the empty scars where once rested beautiful carvings at the bottom of columns in Angkor, decapitated buddhas lying sideways in the dust, slowly relinquishing to the forces of gravity, the sadness in the voice of our impromptu guide when he was speaking about the treasures pried from the walls of the temples and sold abroad… The atrocity of the Pol Pot regime, in addition to killing over a third of this country’s citizens, is the permanent vacuous spaces left from its cultural patrimony being looted and extracted from the country – all this knowledge hung over my experience and weighed it down into a darker plane of consciousness.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

After talking it through, Ed and I suddenly realized that our two experiences only made sense taken together (much like the two of us…) Cambodia, of course, is not just in the eye of the beholder: it is both sad and happy, rich and poor, tormented and serene. The weight of the past pulls on it, keeping it rooted in darkness, but, without trying to be cheesy, like a lotus, this country breaks through the surface to offer us, emerging out of mud, a thing of beauty.

So, there it is. Needless to say, the country fascinated us and puzzled us and challenged us and delighted us and we were not ready to leave it yet. But our next flight was booked and another mysterious place awaited us.

Cambodia Part I: All You Need Is Kampot

Before I tell you that we spent one full day in Phnom Penh and it was one too many, let me defend this city a bit: Cambodia’s capital used to be a very lovely place, very happening and cosmopolitan, the ‘Paris of the East’ up until the beginning of 1975 when the war between the infamous Khmer Rouge and the then U.S.-backed government pushed about 2 million desperate refugees into the city. Later in the year, the city fell to the Khmer Rouge, who completely emptied it of civilians (they were forced into agricultural labor in the Cambodian countryside) and let Phnom Penh crumble, a strange parallel to the fate of many of Cambodia’s great temple ruins. Today’s Phnom Penh is dusty and pedestrian-unfriendly. Parking lots and market stalls catering to the tourists and ex-pats have taken over the wide streets and leafy boulevards of yonder.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

Case in point: one of the most architecturally lauded buildings is the newly renovated art deco Psar Thmei – the Central Market… But Phnom Penh was our launchpad into a verdant kingdom of pristine villages, milk-white beaches and majestic temples.

After a three hour bus ride, we hit Cambodia’s south. We arrived at Kampot, a town like no other, not quite a beach town, since it has no direct access to the sea, but with that indelible vibe of a vacation spot minus the hordes of flip-flopped tourists clamoring for cheap beer.

It's hard to describe Kampot's chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it's old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it's lovely especially in the evening

It’s hard to describe Kampot’s chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it’s old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it’s lovely especially in the evening

Kampot will forever have a special place in our hearts for a few different reasons: it was our first respite from the incessant go-go-go of Vietnam, it was highly pedestrian, it was the first place where we managed to get back on our running schedule and offered us some incredibly good coffee and food.

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible - in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You're welcome!

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible – in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You’re welcome!

How to describe its vibe? Here’s one possible way: imagine San Francisco about 150 years ago, in a warmer climate and landlocked. The same love of funky fusion cuisine, gourmet coffee at every corner, a sense of humor that pervades every menu and poster, an inclination towards the ‘green and healthy’ and some awesome entrepreneurial and non-profit shops and restaurants where you can truly feel good about eating well… If that doesn’t do it for you, then simply imagine a small town in Mediterranean Europe, scratch out public transportation and cobblestone streets, add exotic fruits and spicy dishes, sprinkle dust over it liberally – and there you have it, DOLCE VITA, a tiny paradise on a river. Speaking of exotic fruit, Kampot has a love-hate relationship with durian, whom they dub “King of Fruit” and raise it a statue in centerville only to plaster walls and windows with posters like the one below:

It's not just the enormous statue - and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion - this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

It’s not just the enormous statue – and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion – this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

... but when it comes to Durian's social mobility, this is the sad reality: there's a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian!

… but when it comes to Durian’s social mobility, this is the sad reality: there’s a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian! No fruit equality here.

Kampot also stands out thanks to a crowd of enthusiastic ex-pats who publish The Kampot Survival Guide, a leaflet brimming with humor and mostly useful information, from which I extracted a few pearls for your enjoyment:

“What most people miss is [when visiting the caves] is that the approaches to the caves are dotted with round American-type ponds dropped in from above by B52’s in 1973;”

and

“Potholes were invented in Kampot and are still Kampot’s greatest export – initially devised for traffic control it’s popularity recently soared with Cambodia’s adoption of free range golf; a game where you hit golf ball in any direction with the intent to end its travel in a pot hole”

The Legend of Kampot Terms reads:

  • Pot-pat=xpat living in Kampot
  • Snook = Sihanoukville or where pot-pats go to die
  • Snail = backpacker;
  • Pregnant snail = backpacker with a n additional front backpack
  • Repeat offender = expat that keeps returning to Kampot;

The guide also offers a hit-list of sorts, a soundtrack of the town experience, performed by the Kampot Pepperettes. Among them:

  • I left my heart in Kampot
  • You’ve lost that Kampot feeling
  • All you need is Kampot
  • What’s Kep got to do with it

What DOES Kep got to do with it, you may wonder. Well, Kep is a nearby sea resort that was built during the French colonial period, which, with its quiet little beach, lack of social scene and expensive accommodations has somehow become the butt of pot-pat jokes whenever they tire of taking potshots at ‘the Snook’… One more thing must be said about Kampot: its atmosphere and the camaraderie among its ex-pat denizens (many French and hilarious to boot) has inspired a fierce loyalty that we didn’t encounter anywhere else on Cambodia’s seaside. However, in poor old Kep’ s defense, it does boast an amazing little crab market where Ed and I stopped on our way to the beach and feasted on some local specialties…

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we've ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia...

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we’ve ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia…

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

While in Kampot, we took a few day trips, including one to the abandoned Bokor Hill station, formerly one of the world’s most beautiful abandoned places – Atlas Obscura has a pretty good article about it.

Sadly, the beautifully decayed casino from their photos had been taken over by the Sokha chain of resorts by the time we visited and scrubbed of moss and mystery, bare gray cement bones showing, a blank canvas that will sadly soon become an overly-lit sterile resort for insipid business team-building exercises… Money trumps beauty sadly and the locals need every bit of the former, so I really hope this turns out well for them.

Cambodia’s countryside charmed us and broke our hearts with its beauty and the obvious poverty of its denizens, but lest we forget, this is a country of contrasts: just because they were poor, the villagers did not look unhappy and their children were the most beautiful, friendly and carefree we’ve ever met.

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia's south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia’s south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Cows in Cambodia - and I beg you, bear with this city girl's ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one - they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and  beautiful.

Cows in Cambodia – and I beg you, bear with this city girl’s ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one – they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and beautiful.

We experienced golden storybook sunsets suspended outside of time, we wandered among reflecting pools dotting the landscape like windows into other realms, we watched children playing hide-and-seek among haystacks. We felt love, awe and fear; fear that this garden of Eden might someday vanish to make way for high-rise hotels and 7-elevens…

We eventually moved on to “the Snook,” or “Russianville,” occasionally also referred to as Sihanoukville, the ultimate seaside resort for those thirsting, in equal measure, for cheap cocktails and people-watching. On the beach we watched in amazement heavy-set middle aged men the color of boiled leather strutting their stuff in tiny speedos and getting their chests threaded. We also pondered the seemingly infinite range of services offered on the beach: peeling and artfully cutting every fruit known to man into bite-sized pieces, mani-pedis, full body threading and massages, juicing, frying, grilling, scooping, shelling, slathering and rolling food, and, of course, brutal hacking of young coconuts for the purpose of juicy hydration.