HCMC to Siem Reap, Cambodia; Understanding Angkor
May 9, 2011
|Getting Through Airport Check-In
Nhien was smart and ordered two buses to get us to the airport, one just for luggage. We had to assemble in the lobby at 5:45am -- before breakfast was even put out although the staff was hurrying to make some coffee and tea available for our group – in order to get all our massive amounts of luggage packed into the van. I know that I’m already 10 pounds over the 40 pound limit and I’m praying that the overweight charges won’t be too exhorbitant. At the last check-in I thought I’d heard a dollar a pound . . . I certainly wouldn’t mind paying that. As I looked around at our ever-growing pile of luggage I wondered where it was going to end!
The ride of HCMC airport was pretty quick since it was 6:30 in the morning and we’d managed to get away before the traffic got too heavy. Nhien advised me that he’s not normally allowed past the security desk at the door leading into the terminal and I began to panic. All our other guides had been able to see us thru the check-in process, sweet talking the airline officials into letting our overweight bags go thru. Nhien said he’d do his best but that the security guards were pretty adamant about not letting anyone in who didn’t have a ticket.
Once we unloaded everyone and all the luggage curbside, Nhien managed somehow to blend right in with the rest of the group, pushing a cart loaded at high as he was tall of bulging suitcases right past the guard who was busy talking on his cellphone and never noticed the one Asian man amidst all these very touristy looking Americans.
It was to our advantage that he made it in. Many people’s bags were teetering just or way over the weight limit . . . I know I was a good 10 pounds over. But Nhien managed to convince the ever-efficient clerks at the check-in counter to consider the bags of the group as a collective weight hoping that there were at least a few who were under the limit. By the time the two clerks were done with the 15 of us and the 27 checked bags, and all of our hand-luggage . . . including those ever present huge cardboard boxes containing the kites . . . they were more than happy to wave us on!
We bid farewell to Nhien who truly worked for his tip with our group and we passed on into security for the next ordeal.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
Our one-hour flight aboard a small turbo-prop plane from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia was thankfully uneventful. Most everyone was bleary-eyed from their 5am wake-up call but still excitedly anticipating what many viewed as the highlight of the trip – our visit to Angkor Wat. I really didn’t know much about Cambodia, not having had the time to do much research before I left, and certainly knew virtually nothing about its ancient history. Other than a little 20th century history about Pol Pot’s repressive and tyrannical regime, the Killing Fields, the Vietnamese invasion/liberation and a vague awareness of Angkor Wat, I really knew next to nothing.
We will stay in the small city of Siem Reap, which is about 6 km south of what is now the Angkor Archeological Park. The archeological sites exist deep in the jungle and in recent modern time had actually been consumed by the surrounding jungle such that few people outside the local villages even knew these sites existed and certainly were unable to get to them due to the political scene.
I want to make a disclaimer right at the outset that the reader should not take as gospel anything that I will report here about the history of the Khmer civilization and the development of this vast and extensive set of archeological sites. For one thing, I left my best guidebook on the plane ride back to the US so as I sit here in the comfort of my New Haven home I am relying on the internet and a small guidebook I picked up at one of the temples to try to make sense of all this. I listened intently to Le, our quite knowledgeable and very gifted guide, for 3 full days. I photographed more temples and endless bas-reliefs than I ever imagined could exist in one place. I read two guidebooks, some sections several times over, trying to make sense of it all. And it’s still all a mystery to me.
This was a very complicated, highly developed civilization that really began to document itself around the time of Christ. It owes much of its development to influence of the Hindu religion imported from India, and later the Buddhism to which most of the temples evolved. These were huge settlements of 1 million or more people. The main portion of this extraordinary complex covers hundreds of square miles and was essentially unknown to the outside world for many years. And while much research and speculation has occurred since the world has learned of its existence, there is so much to grasp about the thousand years history, that I defy the ordinary individual to be very learned about it after only one brief 3-day visit.
So, that having been said, I will now do my best to provide a brief overview of our time in this most exotic place. I think the best place to start is to plagiarize Wikitravel since that seems to have some relatively short introductory material that will help set the stage:
Angkor Archaeological Park, located in northern Cambodia, is the most important archaeological sites in all of Southeast Asia - an area chock full of important such sites. Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.
Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. At the same time, it was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism. UNESCO has now set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
Angkor itself has no accommodations and few facilities; the nearby town of Siem Reap is the tourist hub for the area.
The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga (phallus), representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.
While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jayavarman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism c. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures. However, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theraveda additions.
One element that continues to mystify archeaologists is the baray, or water reservoir, built in a grand scale around Angkor: for example, the West Baray is a mind-boggling 8 km by 2.3 km in size. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Today, the moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.