First impressions of Angkor Wat are overwhelming: a crush of people selling and buying; tuk-tuks, motos, tour buses; cries of ‘one dollar, one dollar.’ Separated from the masses by a wide moat is the structure itself – towering, wide and massive. Except, once you cross the bridge and pass through the building’s threshold you realize that the towering building isn’t the actual temple. It’s just a gateway. Then you truly understand why this is the world’s largest religious monument. Nothing compares.
In total, I visited 14 different temples. I hardly know where to begin writing about them. Each was different and the whole complex entralled me for three days. To write about only a few seems to stip the other temples of their beauty and worth – just trust me that each was magnificent, and unique.
But back to Angkor Wat. The Grand Master. Built in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu and the centre of what was once a massive and thriving city. The walls are covered with bas-relief depictions of Hindu legend and three-dimensional carved asparas (like dancing nymphs). It is complex and awesome – in the true meaning of the word. I was lost in there for hours.
Ta Prohm was the most unique temple, strangled by the thick roots of silk-cotton trees. It is romantic and otherworldly; it seems to belong to nature as much as nature has taken over it. The Bayon was the creepiest, with literally hundreds of carved faces looking down at you from every angle. The most beautiful was Banteay Srei, with its minature sandstone carvings and layers of intricate detail.
Although most of the time it didn’t feel like it, I was visiting the temples in the low season. That meant heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also that I sometimes found myself completely alone in the temple grounds. This wasn’t really an issue – in fact, it added to the feeling of sanctity of the place – that is, until the grounds of Pre Rup. It was while walking around this temple – quite alone – that I encountered a snake. Or rather, it encountered me as I must have shocked it; it darted across my feet and disappeared under a rock. I didn’t scream but I was frozen in shock. All I could think of was all the poisonous snakes that must be lurking in Cambodia. I recovered my composure and found the snake so I could take its picture. I was thoroughly spooked though. And I wasn’t really keen on spending any more time alone. But, strangely enough, after the snake incident, I met people in every other temple I visited, evn though I had been temple-gazing for hours before without speaking to anyone. Someone out there is listening to me, I can tell you that!
Siem Reap is a remarkable city and incredibly tourist-friendly. It is difficult to see the “Cambodia in Crisis” while walking the streets lined with 5* hotel, cafes and fashion stores. But I got a small glimpse after attending a showing of “Dr. Beat and the passive genocide of children,” a documentary on the state of health care in Cambodia. Dr. Beat (pronounced bee-at) is famous in Cambodia and in his home country of Switzerland for operating six privately-funded hospitals for children in Cambodia. He is very anti-WHO – whose quest for sustainable development often leaves behind sick children in need of real cures - and his message was a strong reminder of the struggle beneath the calm surface.
Coming to Cambodia after the relatively care-free Thailand is a shock to the system, especially my traveller’s conscience. What am I doing here? What am I contributing other than a very un-green amount of greenhouse gases as I jetset in planes around the globe? Cambodia pulls on the heartstrings. The children – it sounds so cliche but its true – are so special. They are constantly hawking their goods but not without sharing their school knowledge. They find out I am from Canada and immediately launch into their spiel: “Canada, capital Ottawa, it has two official languages French and English, bonjour, comment ca va, comment appellez-vous?” It’s adorable and impossible to ignore or push aside.
If only I knew how much worse it was going to get in Phnom Penh!