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Exploring Cambodia

Published:Sunday | April 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM
A late 12-century gate to Ankkor Thom, the great capital.
Laura Tanna

Laura Tanna, Contributor

A tear slid down his cheek as Ly Sarith described the constant battle of wits for survival. If they shout "Attention!", don't stiffen like a soldier. They'll kill you. If they ask you to read something, don't. They'll know you're educated and kill you. His father was executed. He survived.

Too often we think of Cambodia as the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and for us it was a rarely moving experience to speak with such a holocaust survivor, though our purpose for visiting Siem Reap was to view magnificent temples.

The Khmer empire once stretched in the west from the Burmese border with Siam, now Thailand, and north to Laos. Khmer kings traded with the Chinese and adopted the religion of Indian scholars. In their quest to attain benefits from the gods in this world and the next, Khmer royalty created both Hindu and later Buddhist monuments from the 9th through the 15th centuries, the ruins of which remain part of Cambodia's remarkable heritage. Frequently at war with their neighbours, the Siamese and the Viet, the Khmer kings often moved their capitals. Today the best known of these glorious Khmer temples are Angkor Wat, 'the town which is a temple', and Angkor Thom, 'the great town', located near Siem Reap, a name which translates as defeat of the Siamese.

Elegant residences

Both the Grand Raffles Hotel d'Angkor and the boutique Amansara Hotel serve as elegant residences, while more basic hotels and bed and breakfasts also accommodate an increasing number of international visitors who fly into this city to visit these historic sites.

Our Amansara Hotel provided an experienced guide, a two-seater motorcycle rickshaw and morning and afternoon expeditions which started with the wind blowing through our hair as we sped four miles to the various temples. What I wasn't expecting was the immersion into rural Cambodian life. Our first afternoon at 3:00 we headed east of Siem Reap, past a dry countryside resembling Guyana, the wooden houses built high above ground on stilts to protect from floods in the late May to November rainy season. Then the now-parched fields become rice paddies, plowed using white bullocks whose ribs are showing. Occasionally, a brown-water buffalo appears. Rural houses have walls of woven banana fronds, sometimes blue tarps or plastic rice bags hanging side by side to supplement these.

The Peoples' Party of Cambodia enclaves always seem to be better built of proper wood. One yard enclosed in grand wrought-iron fencing with gilt prongs was identified as belonging to someone who had escaped to 'foreign' and sent money back. Poverty speaks of the brutal killing fields where the educated were butchered, over one million and a half people dying during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, where their extreme Communism sought to eliminate all but an agricultural peasantry from which to build a new state.

Many who survived the violence died from starvation, and though the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1978/79, civil war continued until the Viet withdrawal in 1989. After the Paris Peace Accord of 1991, Angkor Wat became a World Heritage site in 1992 and restoration of the magnificent temples slowly began. Today, small farmers have a few bananas, coconuts, maybe corn and mangoes but despite the horror of their suffering over the decades, when we walk the country lanes people wave. Lying in hammocks or gathered beneath the houses, pet dogs and children play in the dirt. Wells are cement gifts from foreign aid. Many foreign organisations  provide assistance for orphanages and schools. Just as today the world is responding to Haiti's need after the devastating earthquake, the world is assisting Cambodia in small ways after ignoring the holocaust that destroyed a generation.

I first heard of Angkor Wat when Jacqueline Kennedy visited in the '60s. You may have seen Ta Prohm, the temple in the jungle where Angelina Jolie was filmed in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Here ancient forest consumes man's efforts to venerate his gods as huge trees with gigantic roots envelope the temples. Already I understand why the actress adopted a Cambodian son. The children are adorable - not demanding, not annoying - just delightfully asking one to buy their postcards or guidebooks, they wait by temple entrances to earn a dollar. Yes, Siem Reap uses US dollars as its main currency.

Temples are built from lava, sandstone and covered in stucco. The higher each platform level, the smaller are the repeated designs, so an illusion of great height is attained, creating temples of rare beauty. Sadly, some lay in complete ruin on the ground. Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, 400,000 blocks of stone are assembled in one area, awaiting restoration by dedicated archaeologists from France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Japan, India, American NGOs and other countries, each restoring different sites. The most famous, the 500-acre rectangular Angkor Wat, built from 1113-50 AD, once a Buddhist then a Hindu temple, has vast walls of bas relief carvings portraying scenes from the Ramayana and other mythological and historic themes, including depictions of King Suryavarman II's army, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian bas relief on the tombs of Pharohs. In fact, experts dispute whether this complex was actually designed as a temple or a tomb.

Favourite site

My favourite site was Bayon, in the exact centre of the last capital, the royal city Angkor Thom, built a mile north and years after Angkor Wat. As the administrative and religious centre of the Khmer empire from the end of the 12th century, with 54 towers and more than 200 huge carved heads depicting the Buddhist concept of the cosmos, Angkor Thom was reputed to outrival any European city of the time. We walk through the forest at dawn, birdsong as beautiful as the music from Buddhist temples to arrive at one site. Another night we walk through the forest under a full moon to watch the sun slowly rise above the ancient temple towers. Nothing prepares you for the awesome understanding of man's mortality, your own fleeting existence, in the presence of glory and power, diminished to ruined grandeur.

If you're going to Siem Reap, a guidebook is an absolute must as each site depicts such a complex religious and political history that even a few hours of reading will enhance one's appreciation of the art and architecture enormously. Visas may be obtained via the Internet and avoid the rainy season when malaria-spreading mosquitoes are more prevalent. The ambiance, food and service of the Amansara were excellent!