11.03.2009 - 11.07.2009 90 °F
How much did we know about Cambodia? Not much. Nixon’s secret bombings. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The killing fields. 1-3 million dead. Piles of skulls. Genocide of the educated. Urbanites forced to work the fields. Mass starvation. And an inkling of mysterious, ancient temples in the jungle.
Would you believe the people we met in Cambodia were the gentlest we’ve met anywhere? They seemed to personify kindness and equanimity. Our 3-day guide for touring the temples of Angkor, Khet, joked about his resemblance to the massive sculpted Buddha faces, but the resemblance was surely there—both physical and temperamental.
It was my turn to be trip leader, helping to steer our group of 32 students and faculty and family members, including Caroline and the boys, from ship to the Saigon airport and onto our hour-long flight to Siem Reap, a city of 1 million that neighbors the magnificent temples of Angkor. Tropical plants and bright sunshine greeted us at the airport. The view from our hotel room balcony was of brown-tiled rooftops and lush fronds. After lunch, our group made its way by bus to the first of two main temple complexes we’d see. The 12th century Buddhist temple known as Ta Prohm is the one that archaeologists, “rediscovering” Angkor in the 19th century, decided to leave in its jungle-draped state. Roots of jungle trees, sometimes literally strangled by parasitic plants, crept like octopus legs down towers and walls.
The most magnificent of the sprawling temples in this area is Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple built in honor of the preserver god, Vishnu. He has lived up to his name, despite centuries of looting and vandalism of the world’s largest religious monument.
We crossed the massive rectangular moat, symbolic of the oceans, by a stone bridge lined with guardian serpents, or nagas. Once in the inner courtyard, we approached the five towers at the center, meant to evoke the five peaks of Hinduism’s (and Buddhism’s) heavenly Mount Meru. To me, they seemed like gigantic beehives. The reflection of the towers in the lake made these cones seem to float. The microcosm of the Hindu universe is perfectly proportioned.
Inside the surrounding galleries were series after series of bas reliefs, some with intricately interlocking war scenes, others with mythical scenes from the Mahabarata or other Hindu texts. For me, the reliefs brought to mind the carvings on the stairs of Persepolis.
We paused to admire the wonderful carving of Shiva mounted on Geruda.
Next time we go to Angkor Wat, I want to spend at least a day studying the reliefs. Alas, we only had a couple of hours—maybe just as well, given the oppressive humidity that had sweat oozing out of every pore and our boys losing focus.
They came back to life when Caroline involved them in an impromptu conversation with a saffron-robed monk.
As we made our way through the corridors, we reenacted the fifty-year transition from Hinduism to Buddhism, as the whole temple complex was converted from one set of religious purposes to another. The monks are enigmatic.
That night, after a dinner that included fantastic noodles of different kinds, battered and deep-fried shrimp and bananas, and much more, we saw Angkor Wat’s sculptural forms come to life in the stylized poses of the dancers. Some of the women reminded us of the apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, who decorate the walls of these temples by the hundreds.
Like the apsaras, the dancers could bend back their fingers at a 90 degree angle as part of a movement meant to evoke the stem, leaf, and blossoming of the lotus. They could stand with perfect balance while lifting their legs sideways or behind.
The next morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m. to take half of the group to watch Angkor Wat before sunrise, leaving the rest of the family to sleep in. Every tiny shift in the light between 5:00 a.m. and the breaking of dawn at 6:15 seemed worth another picture.
We rejoined the rest of the group for breakfast at the hotel before setting off again at 8:15 for a whirlwind tour of numbers of temples. We approached our first through a temple gate, Angkor Thom, with massive Buddha heads.
Bayon (12-13th centuries), was maybe the most impressive temple of the day, with its dozens of massive four-faced Buddha towers.
Here, we bought tickets for the boys to take a twenty-minute elephant ride around the circumference of the complex. They loved being jostled by the bumpy ride.
Elephants remained a theme in other temples, such as those we visited next, at the site of a once grand circus park for the king.
Speaking of kings, the one who emerged as our hero was Jayavarman VII, builder of Ta Prohm, Bayon, and many other temples in the area. Like Cyrus of Persia and Akbar of India, he saw the wisdom of not straightjacketing the people of his kingdom in a single religious dogma. Though a Buddhist himself, he realized that, at this transitional moment between Hinduism and Buddhism, it was wise and pragmatic to build both kinds of temples.
During our lunch break, we enjoyed maybe our best meal yet in Cambodia—though a bit less appealing to the kids for its intense flavors—at another open-air restaurant, this one at the heart of Siem Reap. We had about an hour in the market, where I made futile attempts to explain why buying $2 pirated copies of their favorite computer games wasn’t the most ethical choice.
Our bus took us from temple to temple during the afternoon. Some were a couple of hundred years older than those we’d been looking at, dating to the 900s. Some had spectacular views from their ruins of the surrounding countryside.
One of these temples, Neak Pean, was surrounded by four symbolic ponds, each with a healing fountain meant to correct one’s elemental imbalances—if you had insufficiencies of earth, air, fire, or water—as explained by our guide, Khet.
Upbeat if “templed out,” we dined at a fancy restaurant, where the kids opted mostly for plain white rice. Given my dire post-departure case of traveler's tummy (my second in two weeks!), I almost wish I’d done the same.
Up the next day for a 6 a.m. breakfast, we made a final excursion to see houses on stilts that line the roadways near the port. Once at the port, we hopped on a boat and sped out to see some of the 1.5 million people living in floating homes in Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap Lake.
They fish there. They swing in hammocks there. They go swimming and they dump their waste there. They even go to school there. Some even cannily ride up to tourist boats with their snake-charming shows, charming some cash out of us startled voyeurs.
After an early lunch, we left Cambodia. It begins to seem ridiculous that we’ve fallen in love with more than one country. But it’s true, we loved the places and people of Cambodia. And Caroline and I devotedly want to come back. The intercultural and interreligious fusions from centuries of Indian and Chinese melding created something monumental and distinctive. The blandly familiar term Indo-China suddenly struck me as freshly meaningful. The Hindu and Buddhist temples left behind by the flourishing Khmer kingdoms between the 8th and 13th centuries are places of wonder. At a million people, the population at that time was many times that of London and other European cities. To judge by the intelligence etched in their stone carvings and architecture, this was indeed a sophisticated and brilliant civilization.
Add to that the kindness and smarts of the living people we met, which completely endeared them to us. Development has been rapid but hasn’t ruined the natural or built landscape. There is a great deal of poverty, and it will take quite some time for the political mess to be cleaned up. But there’s great promise here.
Here's what the kids had to say as we boated past the floating homes.
Sandwiching our trip to Cambodia were our first and last days in Southeast Asia, two and a half days that we spent in Vietnam. On the M.V. Explorer we sailed up the Mekong Delta, following it many twists and bends.
Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was lovely—much cleaner, more prosperous, less old world than we’d expected. But here, alas, so much of what we encountered was, at least initially, ourselves—the grotesque damage inflicted by our inane war. The deformed children of the victims of Agent Orange, as well as the victims themselves, were in the streets. On the SAS city tour the first day, we took the kids to see war remnants from the Vietnamese perspective. All along, we kept asking ourselves of this country--officially “communist” but thrivingly market-oriented--so this is what 58,000 U.S. soldiers died to prevent? We killed a million Viet Cong soldiers and more millions of civilians to prevent Ho Chi Minh’s victory? The folly and the arrogance boggle the mind. From all we’ve learned of him, Uncle Ho, as he’s known here, was hardly the red demon we often imagined, but a fighter for decolonization who initially sought U.S. support.
Needless to say, the main challenge we faced as Americans in Uncle Ho's city was crossing the street. Hundreds of motorcycles wove their way around us as as we tightly gripped Cy's hand and warily made our way across.
Speaking of Cyrus, his main thrill in Vietnam was at the National Museum, where we were treated to water puppet show, including fire-breathing and water-squirting dragons.
The humid heat was unbearably intense in the central market, but we survived in there long enough to pick up a few trinkets.
On our first day, we saw a wonderful temple built by the Chinese community, the Thien Hau Pagoda.
On our last day, we took a cab to a fantastic Buddhist temple that's about a hundred years old and still very actively in use, the Emperor Jade Pagoda. Cyrus was so fascinated by the incense-burning rituals that he joined in.
Vietnam: we know we’ve barely scratched your surface. We hope to be back to do you more justice some day.