Siem Reap, Cambodia

December, 2008
Hi everyone:   The name of this town literally means "Siam Defeated", to commemorate a 17th century victory over the Thai people.  But you probably know it better as the home to Angkor Wat.  As you may remember from our earlier email, "wat"means "temple", so Angkor Wat translates as "the city which is a temple". It is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century. In the middle are 5 towers with lotus-shaped tops. The outer walls represent the edge of the world and the surrounding moat represents the ocean (a common architectural theme in the temples in this area).  I believe our guide said the outer walls are each a mile long. The structure is made of sandstone, which is harder than our sandstone, over a substructure of tufa (volcanic rock). They would build a layer, then pile dirt up around it so that the elephants could pull the stones up the incline to build the next layer. When it was all done (after about 30 years), they had to dig out the whole thing!!  And all of the walls are covered with exquisite carvings showing battles, ceremonies, etc. There are over 2,000 bas relief carvings of asparas (celestial dancing girls). This temple is unusual in that all other temples face east (toward the rising sun) while this one faces west, since it was partly built as a shrine to the king for when he died. We walked around for about 2 hours and got a good sense of the scale, history, effort and beauty.  Also, for those of you who watch The Amazing Race we were in the room where you pound your chest and it makes an echo, and we did and it does!!! The reason is that it is a small room with a high valted arch ceiling so the sound reflects. Many of the halls and rooms had this type of ceiling and you can see how the huge blocks of stone are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle (no cement or mortar here!).

The next day we visited the temple of Ta Prohm (means Ancestor of Buddha).  This is the temple you always see (and featured in "Lara Croft - Tomb Raider") with the huge kapok and banyan trees growing on, around and through the walls. Some of these trees are over 300 years old. Here, like at Angkor Wat and the other large temples, much restoration is going on. But again, there are many magnificent carvings. This temple is made of laterite.

Next, Angkor Thom (which means "Great City"). It was built around 30 years after Angkor Wat was finished. Leading up to this temple is a wall with several hundred carvings of elephants showing how they were used. Some are carrying warriors into battle, others showing hunting scenes. The detail is incredible as you can see feathers on the birds, individual leaves on the trees, etc. Then you get to the inner temple, called Bayon (which means "amulet"; the Cambodians believed that wearing a sacred amulet on a rope around your neck was more protection than armor. Not sure how that turned out). The remarkable thing about this temple is that there are 49 huge pillars and each one has a face carved on each side (pointing north, south, east, west). Truly amazing. Then there is a long wall showing scenes from a military procession preparing to battle the Cham (remember them from the sculpture museum outside Danang??). In front are the Chinese mercenaries (on foot) followed by Cambodian generals on elephants then followed by people supplying the food, etc.  Again the detail is incredible. In one scene a woman is holding a turtle who is apparently biting the butt of the man in front of her and his head is turned back in a scowl. Our guide said either she was being playful or trying to get him to walk faster. In another, there is a sea battle and you can see the oars in the water and the fish and even alligators eating the soldiers who have fallen or been thrown overboard.

Our last activity was a boat ride through an estuary into Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southern Asia (our guide said 35 miles to the other side). What is amazing here is the 1,000,000 people (many Vietnamese left over from the 1979 - 89 campaign against Pol Pot) who live along the shore in houseboats. But they move around as the estuary dries up in the summer and then expands greatly in the rainy season. The lifestyle is abysmal and very primitive (from our point of view), but the guide said they have a steady supply of food (they trade the fish they catch for fruits, veggies and other necessities), and some even have electric lights and tv's (that they power via car batteries!). 

That ended our fabulous tour of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. We are now getting some R&R (OK....just trying to avoid coming back to the nasty winter weather) by spending a few days in Phuket, Thailand. As elsewhere, the tourists have stayed away in droves due to the economic and political conditions. But we are loving it.

PS:  Several times during the trip Wayne wore his "Obama '08" shirt and all of the locals who saw it smiled and gave a thumbs up and shouted "O-ba-ma...yes we can", so, yes, the world (at least this part of it) is very happy and excited for our new prez. And they are even more interested in his success as, through no fault of their own, the bad economy has decimated the tourism industry here.  So, along with all of the wonderful people we met on our journey, we wish all of you and the whole world a much happier 2009.

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