We glanced glumly upwards, watching the heavy rain beat mercilessly against the large tarp covering the guesthouse breakfast area. My friend and I had gotten up extra early on our first morning in Siem Reap, excitedly anticipating a visit to the ancient temple ruins of Angkor.
In the end, the rain didn’t phase us one bit. It was monsoon season, so it wasn’t unexpected. What was unexpected was the discovery that it’s actually better to visit the Angkor temples when it rains. Downpours never last long, and the searing heat drops to a comfortable temperature in the after-drizzle. The temples are also less swamped as the busloads of tourists tend to avoid them in the rainy season.
Although the Angkor region contains a vast collection of over one thousand temples, three are the most well known: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon. We spent the whole day wandering around the former religious mecca, gaping in awe at the infusion of massive tree roots with chiseled stone structures and soaking in the ancient tranquility of it all.
The Quirky Treasures of Angkor
The quirky stories our local guide Nivat told us about the temples stood out the most for me. For instance, the ‘bum tree’: as its name implies, stand at a particular angle and you’ll see a tree in the shape of a human bum. There was also a special hollow stone tower that stretched narrowly upwards and opened out at the top. The ancients would stand inside and pound on their chest with one fist, the powerful reverberations sending their worries up towards the heavens and relieving them of their burdens.
Carved into the walls were images of graceful apsara, or heavenly dancers, famed for their seduction of both men and gods. Nivat informed us that the blackened shiny parts are where the carvings have been touched the most. It took just one look at the apsara to understand why he had a huge mischievous grin on his face when he said that.
And then there were the 216 huge smiling stone faces at the Bayon temple, exuding the essence of peace and serenity.
The Plagues of Cambodia
Angkor also revealed grave reminders of the problems that continue to plague Cambodia. Bullets were embedded in several stone walls, left behind by the Khmer Rouge (the Communist rulers of the country in the 1970s who annihilated almost a quarter of the population) when they bizarrely used the ancient architecture as target practice.
Just as disturbing was learning of the many mistakes a number of foreign countries carrying out restoration projects had made, such as dousing the sandstone with acid, which instead of ‘cleaning’ the temple surfaces had the effect of blackening and irreparably damaging them.
Barefoot kids who should’ve been in school that were hard at work selling souvenirs were the most visible sign of widespread poverty. It’s a tricky dilemma: if the kids don’t make money, their parents (often uneducated and poor) may get angry and abusive. On the other hand, if they do make money, parents have no incentive to send them to school. We were told by Nivat not to buy anything from kids for this reason. But the intractable problem still hangs ominously in the air: Why do most Cambodians remain poor despite the flurry of aid and development activity?
What’s clear is that serious government corruption is partly to blame. Despite the recent flood of tourist dollars flowing into the country, much of it disappears into a black hole. Had I known the extent of the problem, maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that the Angkor temples are actually co-owned by the Cambodian government and a private Vietnamese company. Amidst persistent claims that the massive profits from temple tourism (do the maths: 2o USD for a day pass, and almost 2 million people visitors each year) line the pockets of corrupt businessmen and politicians, it hardly seems a promising situation for the locals.
Nivat told us that the average Cambodian hasn’t seen the benefits of a supposedly rapidly growing economy. A quick look at the latest UNDP Human Development Report on Cambodia seems to back him up. He pointed towards some cleaners as an example. They get paid 35 USD per month in a country where beef can cost up to 8 USD per kilo and chicken 5 USD per kilo. And they’re the lucky ones. From a local’s point of view, wages are being outstripped by rising costs of living, and ‘development’ has come at the price of inequality.
One day at the Angkor temples revealed the breathtaking treasures of an ancient bygone era, but at the same time caused real pause for thought by spotlighting the many plagues still haunting Cambodia today.
The problems are huge – but I did come across some inspiring solutions as well. Watch out for these in Part II.
Angkor region, Siem Reap, Cambodia
View Angkor Wat in a larger map