Day 6: Monday September 19th: Siem Reap:
Wow, what a day it has been. September 19th is Mike and my wedding anniversary and the tour agency had planned a very special day for us.
We got up at 4:00 a.m. to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, one of the most preserved temples in the world and also the most visited, 10,000 people visit Angkor Wat every day. I was hoping getting up this early would make us one of the few people visting the Angkor grounds watching the sunrise, but there were actually a couple hundred people there to also witness the spectacle. There are two ponds in front of Angkor Wat, the Chinese take the left pond and the Europeans and Aussies the right pond to witness the sunrise. Very strange how that works out. It became very clear to us that the Chinese are not much liked by the Cambodians or the Thai people. From what we learned do the Vietnamese who are backed by the Chinese, exploit Cambodia which adds to the disliking combined with their very loud and obnoxious and disrespectful behavior. 90% of Cambodians are Buddhists and their main principle is to respect yourself, respect others and respect the environment. The “newly rich unexperienced Chinese travelers” don’t seem to adhere to any of those principles.
The temple architecture is beyond amazing, it was built in the 1300 and without any technology, just by reading the stars, sun and moon the architects of this temple figured out how to align the center room perfectly to 0 degree north facing, adjoining corridors were perfectly aligned to south, west and east. Our guide put down a compass and the compass showed perfect 0 degrees north.
Besides learning all about the importance of dancing girls (the king had 1000 concubines) their headdresses and stretchmark’s on the carvings depicting that the “dancing girl” had children, we also learned quite a bit about the not so glory Cambodian history of the Khmer Rouge and their killing fields which cost 3 million Cambodian people their lives.
Here more information about Angkor Wat from Wikipedia:
Angkor Wat (Khmer: អង្គរវត្ត or “Capital Temple”) is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, with the site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century.
It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (Khmer: យសោធរបុរៈ, present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
(This picture shows Mike and I standing in one of 4 pool areas in the temple, all 4 perfectly square and aligned to the 4 directions).
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometers (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the center of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls
After 2,5 hours in Angkor Wat, we went back to the hotel, had breakfast and relaxed a little bit to be all energized for our afternoon Wedding blessing followed by an excursion to the country side of Siem Reap.
Around 1:00 pm. we hear a knock on the door, thinking its housekeeping to clean our room but instead the staff of the Shinta Mani is bringing us a cake and Lotus flowers to celebrate our anniversary. We are blown away by the sheer attentiveness of the staff and the attention to details.
We started the afternoon with a traditional water blessing ceremony in a Buddhist temple, getting a blessing for our 10th year wedding anniversary. This is a very short authentic “ceremony” where you sit in front of the monk and he hums some good blessings for you and spritzes some water on you while he is chanting.
Once the blessing ceremony is over we learn more about the Buddhist culture and that a lot of parents send their children to a Buddhist temple to receive free education. This is not an easy life as these children give up their homes and have to live by 72 rules (for young monk’s -270 or so rules for older monks) and only 2 meals prior to noon and after that no more food.
After letting it sink in that Mike and I are married for 10 years I feel very content and blessed that we found each other and are enjoying traveling around the world, learning about new cultures, history, food and most of all meet amazing people!
Now its time to start our country tour.
The picture to the left below shows a “gas station” – these little bottles work well for all the national transportation vehicle of choice – the scooter!
Cambodian people are very poor and work very very hard to make a living. I have a completely new found respect for one of my favorite Asian desserts – sticky rice! It takes 6 hours to make sticky rice and it’s a family business. The family gets up at 3:00 am. soaks the rice, preps the bamboo tubes, stuff the tubes with coconut, rice, beans, sugar and salt, bake it for 6 hours while constantly rotating the bamboo tubes. Once baked, they shave off the burned outside, stack it all into baskets, take their tuk-tuk and drive it to the market where they sell it until 3:00 p.m. and then they drive home. If they are lucky they make $10 a day. I am known for scarfing down my food, I will not scarf down sticky rice anymore.
We continued our country tour with a short stop to drink some fresh coconut juice and used the local transportation of 2 oxcarts to get to one of the largest water reservoirs/lakes in Siem Reap.
A boat waited for us and we crossed the shallow lake and were greeted by our waiter for the night with 2 ice cold Lychee Martinis.
We hiked a little bit through the jungle, saw some local thatched houses, tasted some sweet rice pudding (with chives…very unexpected taste but absolutely delicious) on the way and reached the final destination – a country “villa” Cambodian style for our anniversary dinner.
Words cannot describe the setting – here we are in the middle of rice fields in Cambodia with our private authentic Cambodian band, 2 chefs, 4 sous chefs and 2 waiters.
We learn a lot about John during our short stay in Siem Reap, not only is he a tour guide and ex monk but he is also a humanitarian and helped built this beautiful villa including organic garden so that the locals can learn from this project and he also is a chef and put together our menu which was just sheer amazing.
The crew cooked food that would have fed 10 – 15 people. We experienced the entire arsenal of Khmer cuisine. Our appetizer plate included 2 types of fresh spring rolls (my favorite), shrimp with noodles and mango salad. The main entrée was a humongous plate of several very traditional Khmer foods like curry, pork, noodles, rice, salad, a variety of satays and pickled vegetables.
Cambodia’s food is often all about the contrasts—sweet and bitter, salty and sour, fresh and cooked. It shares many dishes with its neighbors, and you’ll find noodle soups similar to Vietnamese phở and sandwiches like bánh mì, Thailand’s refreshing salads and sour soups, Indian-inspired curries, and noodles and stir fries handed down from years of Chinese migration. From Cambodia’s days as a French Indochina colony, there’s a national love of coffee, pate, and good bread. And all that was unfolding in front of us for our anniversary dinner – what a special dinner it was!
After such an exciting day we leave very happy and with very full bellies back to our hotel, bracing ourselves to say good bye to Siem Reap and for our new adventure on the Mekong River with prior stop in Phnom Penh.
Day 7 Tuesday September 20th : Siem Reap – Phnom Penh
We leave Siem Reap with a little bit of melancholy, we had an amazing time getting immersed in the Cambodian history and are leaving this not so small town to fly into the big city and capital of Cambodia – Phnom Phen.
From Wikipedia: Phnom Penh is the capital and most populous city of Cambodia. Located on the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonization of Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation’s center of economic and industrial activities, as well as the center of security, politics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy of Cambodia.
Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.
Situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, the Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to about 1.5 million of Cambodia’s population of over 14.8 million.
As “usual” our trusted Jacada travel guide is waiting for us at the airport. We landed pretty early so we first get a short tour of the city and visit one of the temples and the central market.
We learn pretty quickly that Phnom Phen is a really big city with lots of traffic and a LOT of construction. Its loud and dirty and we decided to check into the hotel, have a quick lunch in the adjacent French Bakery prior to taking off for the royal palace tour which at this point of time irks us a little bit, seeing the Cambodian national silver and gold treasures in form of Buddha and elephant statues, knowing the majority of the Cambodian people are really poor. Nevertheless though, the Royal Palace of Cambodia is a fine example of Khmer architecture with a slight French touch featuring its layout of the defensive wall, throne hall , Temple of the Emerald Buddha, stupas, towering spires and mural paintings. The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh covers an area of 174,870 square meters (402m x 435m).
We are finishing off the sightseeing by visiting one of Cambodia’s darkest history moments and take a tour of the Tuol Sing Genocide Museum, which chronicles the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.
Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed. Walking through the remains of the prison, seeing all the photos, holding cells and reading about the history of the Khmer Rouge was extremely sobering and of course immediately brought back memories from visiting the Nazi concentration camp Dachau with Mike some years ago.
But the most sobering moment came when we met one of the only 7 survivors of this camp – his name is Chum Mey – and he can be found at the museum almost every day. When asked why he would spend so much time at a place that inflicted so much inhuman pain he says: “I come every day to tell the world the truth about the Tuol Sleng prison… so that none of these crimes are ever repeated anywhere in the world.” You can read his story here: it’s very sad but gives you a very good summarized overview of the workings of the Khmer Rouge and their regime. After you read what he had to endure, I still can’t comprehend why he would go back to such a horrible place almost on a daily basis.
We return to the hotel (White Mansion) and have an early dinner at Black Bambu around the corner, a European Fusion Bistro (on the way back Mike had a little hissy fit as I run into a bicycle rider because I wasn’t too attentive watching the extremely busy traffic, thank god it was only a bicycle and not a scooter or a car) and as usual drift into a deep sleep as we are looking forward to our Mekong River adventure.
To be continued…..