“Five for one dollahr”
A plaintive little voice called out to me as we strolled across the road after visiting a lake near Siem Reap.
She was barely knee-high. Long black hair, tangled and dirty with dust, and big, soft eyes in a miniscule brown face.
She was selling bracelets made from brightly coloured wooden beads. Five for a dollar.
A few minutes later, I was the owner of five beaded bracelets which I did not need. And the little girl danced away, proudly holding a dollar bill, victorious over her companions who were selling the same thing.
As I watched her strut along the road, I was struck – once again – how the children of Cambodia are some of the most precious treasures of this country.
In this region of the country which is known for its ancient treasures, it’s easy to overlook everything else around Siem Reap.
Our weekend visit revealed to us a town that is not only steeped in the beauty of the past but also in the vitality of the present.
As for Angkor Wat, it’s hard to find words for something that renders you speechless.
Awe-inspiring. Majestic. Humbling. Breathtaking.
All these words and more are in my internal guide-book of descriptions for this incredible place.
We crept up on it from behind. Our guide, Narin, who spoke perfect English and added a rich fabric to the experience, took us through the back gate so the first glimpse we got was of the towering walls at the back of the temple complex.
On the hot, steamy morning, we stood with Narin, gazing up at the temple as he told us about its history.
The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat, located amid dense jungle, was built in the early 12th century and is one of a series of stunning palaces and temples that were built over a 400-year period by the Khmer Kingdom.
It took about 50,000 people and almost 40 years to construct – all using hand tools, pulleys, elephants and bamboo scaffolding. The outer wall encloses a space of 203 acres, which makes it the largest single religious building in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today, the temples attract about half a million tourists a year, but for many years the remarkable buildings were unknown to the West, which only “rediscovered” them in the 19th century. During the 1970s and 1980s they were off-limits as a result of the presence of the Khmer Rouge, and Narin pointed out several places where you could see bullet holes in the thick stone walls where soldiers shot their guns during warfare – or for target practice when they were bored, living under the roof of this majestic domicile.
Angkor Wat itself was built for King Suryavarman II as his state temple and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu until it was later converted to a Buddhist temple.
This came about in the late 13th century when King Jayavarman VIII, who was Hindu, was deposed by his son-in-law, Srindravarman, who had spent the previous 10 years in Sri Lanka becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk. Hence, the new King decided to convert the official religion of the empire from Hindu to Buddhist, which continues to the present day.
One of the things I found most remarkable was the perfection in the bas relief designs carved onto the walls. Even after hundreds of years, the inscriptions and pictures were so perfect so that you could even make out intricate designs on the costumes of the deities and expressions on the faces of the warriors.
And, with the typical contrast between old and new, the Cambodian gas company, Sokimex apparently pays the Cambodian government $10 million a year for the right to operate and manage Angkor Wat.
After a morning exploring the temple, Narin whisked us off to Angkor Thom to visit the Bayon, a smaller and more intimate temple which is now mostly in a state of ruin.
It was the last state temple to be built at Angkor and features 216 gigantic serene face sculptures on the temple’s towers, many of which are now chipped away by the elements and time.
Clambering across the boulders and gazing down on the lush countryside, Skip and I agreed that we preferred the intimacy of Thom (which, ironically, means “large” in Khmer) and I found myself wishing for better photographic equipment to capture the amazing sights all around.
As with most of our journeys, we found the weekend to be a multitude of deliciously textured and sumptuous cultural enrichment.
In town, we experienced excellent restaurants (and I indulged in a Black Forest gateau), lively night markets and had two massages in two days.
On the outskirts, we took a boat trip on the lake to see the floating villages which made us feel exploitive and privileged.
In the country, we visited the Silk Farm, which was a fascinating experience of seeing every aspect of making silk, right from the feeding and cocooning of the silkworms.
And on Saturday night we discovered a piece of Cambodia that could make a permanent impact on our lives (more about that later from Skip)
Everywhere we went we saw treasures. Large and small; old and new; young and old.
And most of them cost no more than five for one dollahr.