Wednesday, November 9, 2011


We left Saigon and flew directly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our itinerary allowed for only two full days... not nearly enough for our only stop in the country. I knew before we even landed that I wanted to come back and explore so much more. That said, no extended trip in Southeast Asia should skip the temples of Angkor, located just a few miles from Siem Reap, so we made the most of our two days. After nearly two weeks in Vietnam ending in cosmopolitan Saigon, the pace, language, food and climate of Cambodia felt really exotic.

Most of Cambodia is pancake-flat former shallow seabed that now forms a surface for the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers to meander slowly along towards the delta in Vietnam. During the wet season, so much water makes its way down the Mekong that the broad, flat delta backs up, actually reversing the flow of the Tonle Sap River and filling Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. Above you can see the lake at its fullest, flooding surrounding rice fields, with Siem Reap in the background.

The lake is home to hundreds of species of birds, turtles, and fish. The flow of all this water also makes the plains of Cambodia highly productive farming land. Residents of floating villages on the edges of Tonle Sap ride out the floods every year. We could see some of the villages as we landed.

All this fertile land led to the rise of one of the world's most accomplished and glorious civilizations, the Khmer Empire. While the Viet overthrew Chinese rule in northern Vietnam and the Cham Empire flourished in central Vietnam, the Cambodian plain as well as the lower Mekong, southern Laos and eastern Thailand were held by the mighty Khmer Empire from 802-1432. The Khmers are ethnically distinct from their neighbors but were also influenced by India and Java. They practiced Hindu and later Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism (often mixing and overlapping all three) and took religious architecture to staggering new heights with construction of their temples, irrigation systems and cities. Above, Prasat Kravan, a smaller Hindu temple built from brick in 921 by priests on what was then the outskirts of central Angkor. The simpler 5-tower configuration shows an earlier Angkor style, as does the brick building material. The relief sculptures inside were really beautiful.

The first king of a united Khmer Empire was Jayavarman II who proclaimed himself god-king and built several temples at various capitals around the area starting in 802. His successors, via inheritance or usurpation, built their own temples in an ever-evolving style in different locations near Angkor, which was quickly becoming a sprawling epicenter of empire. Above, Pre Rup, a temple built by King Rajendravarman II in the late 10th century. You can see the linear set up of towers has given way to the square configuration, with the largest tower in the center representing Mt. Meru, the Hindu home of the gods.

The material of choice became sandstone hauled from afar, and carving advanced with each successive build. Each king sought to legitimize his rule with a yet grander project. Older temples were renovated or altered by later kings. Pre Rup actually became the royal crematorium after new rulers came to power. The Khmer also built absolutely massive reservoirs with complex irrigation networks, and the surrounding towns continued to grow.

An example of an early temple that was rebuilt by later kings is Banteay Srei, located a few miles from central Angkor. This was perhaps the most beautiful temple we saw, delicately carved from pink sandstone and well restored by the French. The temple was originally built in the 10th century, then altered in the 13th or 14th century. You can see the much more elaborate carving work.

Bantrey Srei was not built by a king, but by a wealthy brahmin, a testament to the growing wealth around Angkor by the 10th century.

We took a break from temple hopping to explore the Landmine Museum near Banteay Srei. Fast forward in Cambodia's history from the 10th to the 20th century. The then long-decayed Khmer Empire, torn by war with powerful neighbors (Thailand actually took control over the area around Angkor for several years) and weakened by environmental degradation of the surrounding land, had moved the capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh. French colonizers stepped in and made Cambodia a protectorate as they took control of much of Southeast Asia. After World War II Cambodia was granted nominal independence but was drawn into the First Indochina War as Viet Minh forces trained Khmer fighters as part of the larger struggle against colonialism. As the First Indochina War gave way to the second and the US became involved in the region, things really came undone. Cambodia was destabilized and torn by civil war between the US-backed Lon Nol government and the Khmer Rouge, a mix of communist fighters and those loyal to the deposed king. The eastern part of the country was heavily bombed and US and South Vietnamese forces invaded, at one point occupying Angkor. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975 after nearly a decade of war, the victorious Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh nearly unopposed.

The Khmer Rouge victory was, quite literally, merely the beginning of the suffering Cambodia would face. Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, ordered complete evacuation of cities, abolished currency, executed intellectuals, opponents and rivals, and declared a new world order. 1975 became "Year 0" as everything from the past was swept away and hundreds of thousands were murdered. While here, I read Francois Bizot's The Gate, a terrifying firsthand account of the moments after Phnom Penh fell. It is chilling to see into the brutal motivations of such a terrifying social revolution. After five years of horror, during which millions died of disease and famine, the Vietnamese invaded and deposed the Khmer Rouge. Bloody fighting continued for a decade and millions more starved in the aftermath. The Vietnamese, in an attempt to seal out escaped Khmer Rouge fighters that fled to the Thai border, planted millions of land mines in border provinces, which continue to kill and mame to this day. Even the international aid mounted by the rest of the world in the 1980's became a part of the broader Cold War struggle, with the Thai government convincing aid agencies and the UN to use supply lines originating on Thai soil rather than through the Vietnamese-backed communist interim government in Phnom Penh. This effectively rearmed the Khmer Rouge and prolonged the fighting for years. Peace finally came with the withdrawal of the Vietnamese and UN sponsored elections in the 1990's that actually brought several Khmer Rouge to trial (and folded others into the government). Needless to say, there are few places on earth that have been dragged through the mud quite like Cambodia. Even in touristy Siem Reap, this reality can be felt.

Rewinding back to the 12th century and continuing our temple tour, we stopped at Angkor's most atmospheric ruin, Ta Prohm. This temple, built by Jayavarman VII in 1186 towards the beginning of Angkor's decline, was not completely cleared of the encroaching jungle when it was restored, and the air of shaded mystery remains despite the crushing crowds of tourists.

The sheer number of temples and ruins is mind boggling, and is even more impressive when you remember that they were all surrounded by a bustling city instead of lush jungle.

We ended our day at the most impressive of all: Angkor Wat. This was one of the few temples that was never fully abandoned after the move of the capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh. Built by King Suryvarman II in the early and mid 12th century, this temple and mausoleum was literally a city within the city, housing thousands of priests and attendants.

Angkor Wat sits within a moat that measures nearly a mile square. The outer corridors of the first level of the structure itself are over 2600 feet long and covered with intricate bass relief carvings depicting Hindu legends and historical events.

The reliefs were once painted in bright plasterwork and gold leaf. Can you imagine how impressive this would have felt to your average 12th century peasant?

Theravada Buddhism has taken up shop in this once Hindu temple.

On the second level, huge pools were built to store holy water used for ceremonial purposes.

Again, imagine the entire massive complex painted in bright colors and encrusted with gold. You can see paint remnants, above.

The sheer size of Angkor Wat (thought to be the largest religious complex on earth) and the fact that the sandstone for its construction was quaried from miles away means it is no surprise that it is considered the high water mark in terms of Angkorian architecture. By the time it was nearly complete, the Khmer Empire was showing signs of strain. In fact, the construction of the temple complex likely contributed to it's downfall, stretching resources and labor to a breaking point and making the empire vulnerable to conquest.

Our second day in Cambodia we drove out to a mountain top Buddhist temple near Tonle Sap Lake to give alms to the monks and watch the sun rise. Just another day in Cambodia.

After breakfast on the hilltop, we hiked down and explored the nearby floating village.

Then it was back to the temple complex for one last ruin-hurrah. The last major temple structure built at Angkor is the Bayon and Angkor Thom. Towards the end of the Khmer Empire, Mahayana Buddhism had made inroads and King Jayavarman VII was himself a convert. The weakened kingdom fell under attack from the neighboring Cham Empire in 1177. The Cham sacked the capital city but were later driven out by Jayavarman VII, who built Angkor Thom as the new capital complex adjacent to Angkor Wat. The many carved faces of the Bayon bear resemblance to the king and represent perhaps the last gasp to consolidate and reharnass the power of the empire.

Eventually the Khmer Empire came apart, state religion lurched back and forth between Hindu and Buddhist dogma, territory was stripped away by the ascendant Siamese (Thai) to the west and the Vietnamese to the east, and Angkor was largely abandoned.

Abandoned it is no longer, as you can see by the crowds I painstakingly managed to eliminate from all earlier shots. It was a long, hot, exhausting but rewarding two days in Cambodia. It is on the top of my list to go back and explore more of its complex, grand and sometimes horrendous history and meet more of its people.


  1. Your descriptions are wonderful! I can't believe you've managed to see and understand so much in so little time! I feel I'm along on the trip. Thank you!

  2. Very impressive - wonderful photos and great getting so much history. Thanks for taking the time to write out so much for us.

  3. Fantastic post and impressive photographs. I love all the history/context, sounds like such an amazing time!!! xoxox

  4. LOVE this glimpse into Cambodia. Are those TREE TRUNKS grown into ruins?! Amazing seeing and reading this after Vietnam. Quite the juxtaposition... More than ever it's like I'm RIGHT THERE WITH YOU. If only!

  5. Thanks again for letting me live vicariously through you!

  6. Absolutely spectacular. Really great recounting Chad. Honestly. Wowowowowowowow. This is a DREAM. Beyond words.