Siam Reap, Cambodia- Kampuchea in Khmer; we're in the heart of southeast Asia. From an around the world journey perspective, I feel like we've reached the cream filling in the middle of the Ho-Ho. Asia is where the excitement really begins. From the moment we arrived we knew we were back in civilization again- only better. Clean modern airports (much cleaner and prettier than the ones back in the states) and they have real restrooms! I can't tell you how depressing its been to get through a long flight, fill out the mountain of paper work and take care of fueling the aircraft, only to go into a dirty run down airport and find that the ladies' room is nothing but a row of nasty, stinky, holes in the floor. Frankly, I would rather go in the woods or in the back of my horse trailer- much more sanitary.
They are such quiet, peaceful folks, it's hard to imagine the terrible history this country has suffered
First Thailand, and now Cambodia, we feel we've gotten our second wind now that we're back in the twenty-first century. Art and I are both feeling healthy and in good spirits. The wonderful Asian cuisine has helped too, we're eating lots of simple local noodle dishes with traditional seasonings and fresh veggies. It's very interesting to experience the subtle yet distinctive differences in each dish as we move from country to country in this region. The Cambodian people are wonderfully polite and friendly. They are such quiet, peaceful folks, it's hard to imagine the terrible history this country has suffered. Recently, however, Cambodia has really bounced back economically. Foreign Investment is pouring in bringing jobs and opportunity, but the Cambodians are still weary. Centuries of disputes with their neighbors, colonization by the French, and the rein of terror during the Pol-Pot regime, they have every right to be cautious. "We have many natural resources here in Kampuchea", explained our guide Mr. Pum-Roth, "We have highly fertile soil for farming, fishing is very big here also, the largest fresh water lake in Asia Tonle Sap Lake is here, we have many natural mines throughout the country, and we are beginning to explore our oil reserves. But our neighbors see our country like a big tasty cake", Mr. Pum continued, "They all want a slice of it.".
Siam Reap, is Cambodia's fastest growing city due to its draw as a tourist destination. The famous ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are here. Construction began on this historic capital city and complex of Hindu, and later Buddhist, temples more than a thousand years ago. Through successive ruling dynasties, over many centuries, it grew into the largest temple complex in the world. The entire Angkor complex covers some four hundred square kilometers and contains more architectural stone than all of the pyramids of Egypt combined. Lost to history, and swallowed up by the jungle, it was re-discovered by the French during the mid nineteenth century. The French spent many years excavating the site, and clearing away the overgrowth. The first tourists to visit the site began to arrive in 1907- all two hundred of them. Tourism continued to grow until the 1960's, but then Cambodia was tragically closed off from the world by the take-over of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia's tourist industry began to recover in the 1990's. Only a few thousand tourists visited Angkor Wat in 1992, but today Siam Reap has over two million visitors a year.
Of all the famous archaeological sites Art and I have visited, and we've seen many, the Angkor complex was certainly the most impressive, accessible, and fun. The area is so large and contains so many fantastic structures that it's impossible to explore them all in any reasonable amount of time but with our faithful Tuk-Tuk driver's assistance, we managed to see quite a bit! The complex is surrounded by rows and rows of tiny shops with vendors hawking all sorts of temple trinkets- they can be very persistent! If you show the least bit of interest in an item you'll be instantly surrounded and overwhelmed. An army of very cute, very young, and very smart little children fallow you endlessly trying to sell things once your outside the main archeological areas- these kids speak better English, and know more about US history and geography than our own kids back home. In addition to the souvenir vendors, there are elephant rides, balloon rides, helicopter tours, pony rides, musicians, and numerous photographers all willing to help you spend money in very creative ways.
To call these buildings "ruins" seems like a bit of an insult as they are mostly in remarkably good condition. Walking the grand causeway to the main temple of Angkor Wat, it takes very little imagination to envision this place in its glory. There are even a few places inside where you can see some of the original coloration. The freedom to explore is one of Angkor's greatest features. No ropes, no barricades, no guards constantly watching, we had a blast pretending we were archeological explorers. Climbing up to the tops of the temples, strolling through the colonnades, and exploring the interiors and court yards, we really had a fantastic day. Everywhere it seemed, down shady wooded paths, there are more temples still tumbled down and over grown with jungle vegetation- these are particularly beautiful and interesting to "re-discover". It's incredible to think of how these buildings stood for centuries, collapsed with age and neglect, only then to see a two-hundred year old tree growing out of the middle- amazing.
Open to the public- even in their hey-day, these temples and buildings were not just for royalty, monks, or only used for certain ceremonies, these temples and the city of Angkor Thom, was a living place. So many of the structures Art and I have visited had a dark purpose such as human sacrifice, or were only seen by the elite of society. It was very nice to visit a place that was a real city, where ordinary people lived and worked and enjoyed the beauty of this place.
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