The Ancient City of Angkor – A Cautionary Tale

2nd in a series on Siem Reap

Previously in this series:

Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

Truth be told, I don’t know anything much about Cambodia before this trip. So are most of the people I talked to. Stories circulating online show others being so clueless they don’t know they are dressing inappropriately – some go shirtless, or worse, naked!

Ok, maybe it’s because of the heat, but still, it underscores the fact how little they know about the place and what these ancient structures mean to the local people. They think Siem Reap is just another exotic Southeast Asian beach town. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia has beaches, but Siem Reap (where the concentration of the ancient temples are) is 280 miles from the nearest seashore. 

I surmise most Filipinos are introduced to Cambodian history some time during middle school. This is where we’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat the first time. However, as is true with most of the things we learn in school, we only remember them by rote (only because we need to pass the subject) but not really getting the import of what was taught (more often than not, I suppose). Not only until later in life and until it fits into one’s scheme of things, does one able to make sense of these things.

Cambodia, for a long time, isn’t really the kind of destination Filipinos are very familiar with. Except recently, it isn’t in the Filipino tourist’s radar. Not even in the OFW’s radar. I mean, I don’t hear OFW’s saying: “Oh, I work in Cambodia very often. In fact, nada.

I think the one time it made an impression on me as an exciting destination was when it came out in the first Tomb Raider movie. A very smart move to break into popular culture, I would say. It has effectively put Cambodia back on the map.

The image of giant trees growing on top of ancient temple walls, with huge roots exposed, left a strong impression. There’s an otherworldly feel to it. It’s become iconic now.

This is a departure from the bad image the country has suffered for years under the Pol Pot regime – one of gruesome violence and genocide. Almost every Cambodian alive today has some loved one or relative, who fell victim to the atrocities. Truly a dark chapter in this country’s history.

Some people may not be too keen on studying history, hence, must have felt on the fence regarding this trip. I get that. But just like anything else in life that is good for us, like a healthy diet and exercise, it’s something we should develop a liking for, for our own good. It takes discipline.

Also, because our modern global civilization is faced with a similar crisis the ancients did, the repercussions of which we haven’t fully realized. We need all the help we can get to overcome it. Any precedence in history that could be of any value would be a good start to even get a bit of a clue on what’s the best way to deal with this problem.

And so, although I don’t know much about Cambodia, I approached it with an open mind. I was an empty cup willing to learn, and boy, did I realize a lot of things. Just the magnificence of it all – the splendor, the scale, the engineering marvel, especially at a time when (complex) machinery was unheard of – took my breath away. Mind you, this vast area dotted with numerous temple sites was once a vibrant metropolis (or whatever the equivalent of it is in ancient times). This, in fact, was once the world’s largest city before the Industrial Age – a world heritage that merits our admiration and appreciation. A gift to humanity.

There are three temple sites we visited that are in relatively close proximity to each other (satellite view below).

First is Ta Prohm, where part of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. I’m sure you’ve become familiar with this image by now, thanks to the movie.

“Founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, it was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found – the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors” – Wikipedia

All this traveling back in time, at the same time being surrounded by magnificent ancient architecture, makes one feel like going on an adventure – Indiana Jones level 🙂 And to kick it off, we were given a group activity – a treasure hunt of sorts. We are to find a bas relief of an apsara head partially hidden behind some huge temple block ruins, overgrown with tree roots. We were just given a picture of how it looks like facing the image and then had to find the actual location for ourselves. Given the huge area we need to scour and the seemingly similar features of a lot of the places in the temple grounds, it seemed like an insurmountable task to accomplish. However, persistence and team work paid off and has won the day. Surely no task is so great with a clear vision and game plan, and a strong team spirit 🙂

Do you see in this photo where the apsara is hiding?

Apsaras seem to be the first ones to greet us upon entering our first temple – Ta Prohm. They serve as good introduction to Cambodian culture and history. In fact, they play a prominent part in the whole Angkorian culture and architectural theme of the day. Below are the apsaras stationed at the wall near the entrance.

Apsara (in Hindu mythology) is a celestial nymph, typically the consort of a gandharva or heavenly musician. In the Cambodian culture, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.” – Wikipedia

Here are some of the other areas inside the temple grounds. As expected, it’s teeming with tourists 🙂

Next stop is the Bayon Temple, also known as Angkor Thom.

“Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences” – Wikipedia

It goes on to say that the JSA, the main conservatory body in charge of the conservation and preservation of the site, describes the temple as “the most striking expression of the baroque style” of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat.

This is where I got lost for a time, having been separated from the group. Was having a hard time finding my pass and so the group went ahead without me. By the time I was allowed to get in, the group is nowhere to be found. So I just made my way to the top and explored Bayon by myself.

Been exploring corridors and galleries on the lower levels and got few surprises here and there. Turned a corner and found “treasures” like this.

I wonder what it’s like being a Buddhist.

Made my way the to the top and found gigantic statues (towers) of Avalokiteshvara faces, a bodhisattva. This is actually a Bayon temple signature. Hence, its other title – ‘the face temple‘.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who are destined to become buddhas but postpone that final state in order to help humanity.

Another striking feature of Bayon is its adornment of 1.2 kms of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.

I wouldn’t be delving much into the details and stories behind these bas-reliefs but I highly suggest you search and read up on their background. It’s full of history and lots of interesting stories to tell. It’s like taking a peek into the soul of a proud kingdom – its glorious past, its people, its kings, its tales and legends; its everyday life; the mundane and the otherworldly; its idiosyncrasies and all.

Lonely Planet was on point when it said : “There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face”.

By this time, I was already able to catch up with the group.

Our final temple to visit is no other than the grandest and most majestic of them all – Angkor Wat. But before that, we first went to a restaurant outside the temple grounds as we all have been wanting to eat and take a break from all the walking and climbing, under a terribly hot weather.

Here are some of the food we devoured. I didn’t get the names of everything but some of them include: chicken with Khmer spice, deep-fried fish, fried egg, sauteed fried pork with eggplant, stir-fried veggies. I may not have gotten all the names correctly but you get the idea, right? No need to be all fussy about it 🙂

And so we entered the Angkor Wat temple grounds. ‘Massive’ is an understatement. We had to cross a body of water which seemed like some natural waterway, a river or something, but in reality is a gigantic man-made moat that surrounds the complex.

We noticed monkeys roaming around freely. There are those who seem to be welcoming us on the other end of the pontoon bridge, seated on stairwells and on railings.

Angkor Wat is “one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum” – Wikipedia

Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, this is a sight to behold. I feel like finding new religion 😀

Though damage is minimal, Angkor Wat has not been spared the effects of modern warfare. In fact, before entering, our guide showed us bullet holes left by a shoot-out between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in the late ’70’s. This photo, in particular, shows bullet still left inside one of the walls of this ancient structure.

Even more destructive than the war itself though, were the rampant looting of the archaeological finds, by art thieves working out of Thailand. One could not help but notice the numerous headless statues and figures, as a consequence of this looting.

“Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation” – Wikipedia

Statue of god Vishnu

Once again, monkeys roam careless and free 😀

Angkor Wat is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

Before entering the temple itself, we gathered in front of, what looked like a depression on the earth with a small lake-like structure at the bottom, to have our group and individual photos taken. This is a popular spot where people can take picture-perfect photos because of the reflection created by the water, for added drama.

Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.

The magnificence, the splendor, the scale of this ancient wonder. I was in awe.

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.

“The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last. Each gallery has a gopura at each of the points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Connecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister called Preah Poan (the “Hall of a Thousand Gods”). The four small courtyards marked out by the cloister may originally have been filled with water. North and south of the cloister are libraries” – Wikipedia

The steep stairway symbolizes the difficulty of reaching heaven

“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome…”

Henri Mouhot, 19th-century French naturalist and explorer

Yes, we romanticize how magnificent the structures are and how ingenious the engineering that was used to build them, but I don’t think people really understand the enormity and scale of this project even if I say it repeatedly and candidly. So, let’s put it in perspective, shall we?

The Khmer Empire ruled over a vast area of Southeast Asia, even larger than what modern Cambodia is today.

Its capital city is Angkor. At the time, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was the world’s largest urban center. And in order to support such huge population, the Khmer built water management systems like huge reservoirs, canals, channels and dikes. They made good use of the resources that are available in season such as the monsoon. Water can be abundant in one season and scarce the next. This ingenious solution of efficiently utilizing a precious resource secured them a regular harvest.

For a long time, it has been a mystery how the society collapsed after about 200-300 years after its peak. There have been lots of theories, of course. Recently, however, a new one surfaced (and this is a real kicker). It states that environmental factors, otherwise known as ‘climate change‘ could have played a huge role in its demise. The ‘freaky’ weather patterns, like floods and droughts, overwhelmed those water management systems. And when I say freaky, I mean those that are not within the parameters of what is considered regular or normal. Basically, weather phenomenon that are off the charts.

We often hear about once in a 100-year type of flooding or drought, or heavy rainfall, right? They do happen as part of the natural cycles of the earth. What’s scary about our time though, is that our brand of climate change is self-inflicted. We create the causes for our own demise. And there’s no precedence of it anywhere in history. The CO2 levels and other pollutants we put in the air are staggering. Nowhere in recorded history has there been this much level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists fear reaching a tipping point where we face the risk of a runaway weather, in which we wouldn’t have any control over nor could we predict with a much better certainty how the weather is going to behave.

Now who says history is not relevant to us today? We may have come a long way as a species but we surely have not learned from the errors of the past, or at least not have been as vigilant as we should have. The ancient ruins of Angkor are a poignant reminder of how even with the best technology and advancements, humans are no match to nature. We could very well suffer the same fate as the ancient Khmer people if we don’t change our ways.

So often we fail to value the natural world because of our greed. We treat it like a commodity, an unlimited resource. We need to realize that it is to our best interest to work with it and not against it.

Here’s to hoping things would work for the better. And soon.

Special thanks to Real World Adventure for arranging our tour of the temples.

To Vox for this video, where screen grabs of the maps of Southeast Asia were taken.

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Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

1st in a series on Siem Reap

It’s a sunny day. Judging by what the previous groups who have been here before have told us, we only expect the weather to get even hotter as the day drags on. That’s actually a better prospect than when it rains, right? So I guess no one’s really complaining.

Immediately I notice how red the soil is (something I’ve noticed to be characteristic of the landscape here).

We were asked to assemble for a briefing to discuss the do’s and don’ts, the basics in biking, which gear is for what, and stuff. It was impressed upon us that this is not an individual race. Hence, we need to help each other out in order for the whole team to finish fast. Any member of the team struggling should be helped out. Now that’s something worthy of emulation in real life, don’t you think?

We are to finish a 12-km stretch of rough/dirt roads, with pit stops along the way for when we need to recharge – drink to quench our thirst, eat, relax, take selfies/groupfies, or just be silly with one another.

Some thirst quencher this Aquarius is

Despite the heat and exhaustion, one can admire the scenic view of the Cambodian countryside, complemented by a soft breeze generated by one’s own motion against the tepid air. I can only appreciate the simplicity of life here. Time suddenly stood still.

Photo courtesy of Rohjean Alberto, with Erene Araojo on the bike.

At the finish line, we were treated to the sight of an elaborately decorated Buddhist structure known as pagoda. Pictured below is the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda. It’s also a functioning monastery for monks so it’s alternatively called the Wat Phreah Dak.

Wat Phreah (Preah) Dak or the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda

I notice a lot of these interesting, colorful structures with spires in the temple grounds. Wonder what these are?

Colorful stupas

As explained by our tour guide Sip, these are known as stupas. They basically are tombstones that houses cremated ashes of deceased Buddhists. The more elaborate and bigger in size the stupas are, the richer the person (or the family of the person) who died who affords it. The deep colors represent peace.

Cambodia is 97% Buddhist, who believes in reincarnation. Death is merely a phase, a doorway to another existence – a rebirth. The remaining percent are Hindus, Muslims and animists, and a sprinkling of some Christian denominations. It’s interesting that in some of the villages we passed by in our route, we notice houses built in the second storey but nothing on the ground. The reason being that people believe spirits occupy the ground level. Humans would do well not to disturb them, I guess. This belief in spirits both benevolent and malevolent are strongly-entrenched in some areas that it’s common to see small, deeply-colored spirit houses (for spirits of dead ancestors) and local version of scarecrows (to repel evil ones) posted in front of homes. (I’m literally having goosebumps writing this, so enough already 😐 )

Let’s move on.

Now all this activity is making us hungry. So, we next headed off for lunch. But wait. As the tradition goes nowadays, it seems, we first had to learn how to cook our own food. Chef Khan Van Chhay demonstrated how to create spring rolls! I’m not sure if Cambodians traditionally would have their spring rolls deep-fried, but we definitely thought of it as a welcome gesture that he had it cooked that way, as an homage to our Filipino culture.

We even had a contest of who finishes cooking first with the most number of rolls passing quality check, to be pitted against the other groups. It was a fun activity and, suffice it to say, we’ve made some pretty bomb spring rolls (holler! 😀 )

Afterwards, we were treated to a parade of Cambodian dishes, plus the spring rolls we just made.

I appreciate the fact that they are big on veggies and salads, although the taste doesn’t always sit well with a lot of my peers. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose. I am definitely sensing some cilantro, star anise, in most dishes. There are some I probably haven’t heard of and have been trying for the first time, or just something we are not used to eating. I’ve been tasting everything because I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

We headed off next to a small house that has some shack where traditional rice noodles are made. It seems like creating rice noodles is as tedious as planting rice itself – from the pounding to the mixing, to the cooking, to the washing. Maybe I will just skip to the eating part, yeah? 🙂

They’ve been using some curious contraptions where the noodle-makers literally had to ride on top in order to function, like when pounding the mixture, wherein someone literally has to step on the lever on the other end (much like how a see-saw would work), doing it repeatedly in a particular rhythm, so that the person on the other end could fold the mixture in sync with the steps. Otherwise, that person could get injured. It takes skill and a great deal of caution especially if you are on the receiving end of the pounding machine. Kung sa atin pa, “buwis-buhay”, “putol a-kamay” 🙂

Or, when pressing the goo out of the perforated container/thingamajig to be dropped on to the huge cauldron below with simmering water, where it has to be done gently but with much weight, such that the person doing it literally had to sit or ride over the lever using his full body weight but careful enough not to crush the precious cargo. The idea is to press slowly and gently in order to create long, continuous strands. It’s literally what you call, a “tough, balancing act” 😀

If anything however, it makes for good exercise since you partly might also need to lift your own body weight in order to strike that “balance”. There’s a bar or beam above which you can hold on to, to lift yourself up in case you need to relieve the pressure on the “soon-to-be” noodles.

Our jolly tour guide Sip, all smiles and looking all proud at the rice noodles 🙂

Remember Chef Khan Van Chhay? Well, he’s here again to demonstrate how to cook a traditional Cambodian rice noodle dish called somlor brorheur (pronounced somlor brahar). And to assist him is Mrs Team Hup. I couldn’t find any reference to her online but I’m guessing she is the owner of the house and maybe one of the few people who is keeping the tradition of rice noodle-making alive.

She was featured in the Cambodia Chefs magazine.


Chef Khan Van Chhay (left) and Mrs Team Hup (middle) at work. And Sip, well, being his usual self 🙂

Presenting, somlor brorheur.

Somlor brorheur is a curry-based rice noodle soup. If I’m not mistaken, I think it has water hyacinth and lotus flowers (?) as ingredients.

Next stop is a traditional Cambodian farming village. But in order to get there, we have quite an unusual ride waiting for us at the jump-off.

Water buffaloes! 🙂

Ain’t no Grab ride, but one can only appreciate their tenacity and subservience. Seeing them at work is a little heartbreaking, actually.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the local kids with a song and were given some neatly rolled cold towels so we could freshen up by wiping it on our face and hands. With the extreme tropical heat, nothing feels better than a nice cold towel! 😀

As you may have guessed, we are in a rice farming village for a reason. There’s a traditional Filipino song that goes: “Magtanim ay di biro. Maghapo’ng nakayuko”. It translates loosely to: “Planting (rice) is not easy. Everyday you are in a stooped position”, which basically signifies backbreaking work. This day wouldn’t go by without us having to experience this as this is pretty much the lifeline of all Asian cultures. Rice is such a ubiquity. One can say that the foundation of Asian civilizations stood on the back of this lowly member of the grass family, feeding millions, serving as catalyst for growth.

And so, plant rice we shall, barefooted and all 🙂 To the rice paddies we go!

My colleagues getting ‘down and dirty’, quite literally 😛

After that one-of-a-kind experience (it’s not everyday you see a city-dweller planting rice, yes?), we were asked to go back to the village since it’s already starting to rain. We washed our feet in the communal wash area where water is still pumped from the ground, just like in the old days. We were then treated to some refreshments (my favorite is the “buko” or coconut juice) and some traditional Cambodian song and dance.

It really was an exhausting day – fun, but exhausting. I think most of us dozed off at the bus on the way back to the hotel. And just when you thought you could finally go to your room and indulge yourself in some nice, warm shower, drop to your bed and sleep to your heart’s content, lo and behold, Sip just had to burst your bubble by announcing another activity. And just like that, your anticipated R&R was thrown out the window 😀

We headed back to the hotel, the La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, to freshen up and change.

We had dinner at the Phare Cafe, where one of the items on the menu is the famous fish amok. As usual, there’s always the salad, and for dessert we had some (I think) caramelized banana with rum and grated coconut. There’s a Filipino dessert which is interestingly similar. We call it minatamis na saging.

We capped the night off with a spectacular performance from the Phare Cambodian Circus. No, not that kind of circus. No animal was harmed or even involved in any of its production. It’s all display of acrobatic skills – part-theater/part-acrobat. And it’s for a good cause, too. It’s helping Cambodian youths stay out of the streets, giving them better opportunity by making better use of their skills and talents. Should you ever go to Siem Reap, do watch their show. It’s amazing! 🙂

I’m leaving you with some of the photos of that night. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on Siem Reap. Enjoy! 😀

Special thanks to Cambodia Cycling and Real World Adventure for arranging our cycling adventures of the countryside and our sampling of the local culture.

To La Residence Blanc D'Angkor for our accommodation. Their friendly, caring and attentive staff made our stay enjoyable.

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