After a solid 8 hour flight from Australia we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was a three lecture flight, so I had no trouble dozing. These Nat Geo folks can be hit or miss as far as public speaking skills.
The focus of our visit was to explore the ancient Khmer Empire city of Angkor and to learn more about its main temple, Angkor Wat, as well as visit two other significant temples. From the lectures I knew this was going to be a complicated experience given the fact that Cambodia is only 39 years removed from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and remains to this day a extraordinarily corrupt country with extreme poverty.
Teresa Wolande
Some quick background: Cambodia is believed to have been populated as early as 3000 B.C. Of interest to us is the emergence of the Khmer Empire, which occurred around 802 A.D. Khmer is used to this day to refer to the indigenous people as well as their language. At the peak of its territorial expansion in the 11th to early 13th century, the Khmer Empire controlled much of mainland Southeast Asia including parts of modern Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and peninsular Malaysia. At its height 1 million people lived in Angkor itself. On the basis of satellite imagery and other data the city was 390 square miles in size making it the worlds largest pre-industrial city. ( For those that are interested, the technique used is called lidar radar, which has the ability to strip vegetation out of the imaging from space.)
The takeaway here for me is if you were in charge back in the 11th to 14th centuries, you liked things big and did not hesitate to keep a lot of people busy making things even bigger (temples, moia, buddhas) This was an excellent way to keep people so busy that they were too exhausted to do anything else…like revolt.
The central temple, Angkor Wat (which literally means city temple) was remarkably built over 25 years in the early to mid 12th century.  The difference maker in building for the Khmer was the utilization of elephants which based on the drawings on the walls of the temple were EVERYWHERE. They even had their own gate in which  to enter the temple grounds-which I guess means they were practicing Hindu elephants as only Hindu’s were allowed in.
Angkor Wat was the largest temple at Angkor and is in fact said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. The Khmer built their temples as a model of the universe in microcosm. This means there are four concentric quadrangular enclosures surrounded by a moat; the center is a three tiered tower surrounded by four towers- one at each corner. The temple is positioned to coincide with celestial phenomenon- much like Easter Island and Machu Picchu-and again points to the excellent astronomy skills of those times.

Another astonishing aspect of this temple is that almost every square inch of the sandstone utilized to build the place has etchings or patterns. There are also walls of figural relief carvings of dancers, Hindu priests or Buddha,  and war scenes. Several of these are massive in that one is 49 meters long and depicts the Hindu myth of cosmic renewal, which our guide tried to explain to us but gave up after we were surrounded by throngs of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks.

The Khmer were a fighting people as evidenced by what is known of the size of their military and their ability to quickly expand their empire. The religion of the time would vacillate between Hinduism and Buddhism depending on who was king, and what his leanings were. One thing all kings were in agreement on was the number of concubines they had-LOTS. Which made for large, dysfunctional royal families resulting in plenty of opportunities for temple building, since temples were built for royalty, by royalty and about royalty.

Armed with our in-flight lectures and handouts, we were ready to tour. In addition to advance preparation, we also each carry a Tour Guide system so we are wired up at all times and connected to the local guide or Nat Geo expedition expert. Which means you also get an idea as to how in shape they are based on the amount of heavy breathing you hear, which can be distracting.
Teresa Wolande
Our first tour, unfortunately for our night owl Chuck, was sunrise at Angkor Wat followed by a monastery visit and monk blessing. We met at 5:15 AM and headed out. Our local guide, Phtang, gave us an overview on the bus. We were asked to not give money or candy to the local children as it only encourages them to beg as opposed to attend school.  More than 50 percent of the Cambodian people cannot afford to visit Angkor National Park-it has a five dollar entrance fee. Like many third world countries the primary mode of transportation is motorcycle or bicycle as cars and especially gas are simply not affordable. Tourism is its second largest industry second only to rice farming.

I referred earlier to the impact of the Khmer Rouge. This is a good time to briefly discuss this.

To set the timeline, the Khmer Empire fell in the 15th century due to a combination of regional conflict with what was then Siam and unfortunate changes in weather patterns. This led to drought/ flood conditions which disrupted rice production.  The capital was relocated to Phnom Penh, and Angkor fell into oblivion with the jungle quickly taking over its once grand terraces and temples. The Khmer existed then as loosely organized communities under the direction of the king with the cultural focus on the practice of Buddhism. They were colonized by the French in 1867 and re-gained their independence in 1953.  During this time a French arcAt this point the monarchy was re-established. A North Vietnamese sponsored coup in 1970 threw the country into civil war. This eventually was won by the Khmer Rouge which, under the leadership of Pol Pot, over three years conducted genocide on such a scale that one third of its population was wiped out.

There is an eerie aspect to visiting Siem Reap. One rarely sees anyone in their late forties early fifties. It is as if a generation had disappeared.

Our guide shared with us that he was 5 when the Khmer Rouge took over. They immediately separated everyone into what they called mobile units based on sex and age, and sent them to the fields. All teachers, priests, doctors, literate artists were tracked down and killed. I believed a few of you have seen the movie The Killing Fields. To hear it from someone who lived it, especially as he described the torture methods used on the young boys…this will never leave me.

The impact is everywhere, as every family has their own story of harrowing loss and physical as well as emotional pain. And it did not end with the ouster of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1978. The people, decimated of intellectual capital and in poor physical condition continued to starve until international efforts assisted in re-establishing Cambodia as a multi-party democracy. Today, it is a corrupt country with lots of issues to be sure- but the people are by and large happy. Because  of where they have been.

As Phtang, pictured above with us said-“I am happy to be alive and to know my children”. Talk about perspective. There are large doses of it here in Cambodia.

Our first stop was to view the sunrise over Angkor Wat, which was about 2000 other people’s idea as  well. We were rewarded for our early morning efforts. As we heard the chanting of monks that live in the many working monasteries, the sun slowly rose to reveal the spectacular restoration of this most holy of sites.

After this display, we hustled over to the largest Buddhist temple on the grounds for a morning blessing of our group by the monks. The ceremony was simple and elegant. They tied a red string around each of our wrists for good luck and good life.

As we toured this massive and awe-inspiring site, Phtang gave us wonderful visuals as he described in great detail daily life in 13th century Angkor. The ornate and large ceremonial processions complete with elephants and dancers. The focus on respect and care of the elderly and reverence to ones’ ancestors. The rhythm of the wet and dry seasons, and it’s importance to the ecological and agricultural aspects of their livelihood. And the core religious beliefs, which vacillated between Hinduism and Buddhism with its emphasis on how one lived their life.
Teresa Wolande
We then visited two other temple sites within the Angkor site. Of note was how big an archaeological effort this must have been to bring this back from the jungle.

That evening we gathered for dinner and for a demonstration of Cambodian dance. Each dance had a fairly complicated story line that was expressed primarily by the dancers hands. It was gorgeous and very well done. Completely different from what we saw in Polynesia.

Cambodia, like every stop thus far, gave us deeper understanding and perspective on many levels. The obvious is the cultural and historical. The most moving is the that of the people and their day to day lives- the emotional.  We are so very blessed, every one of us, in so many ways.

This trip is reinforcing to me that we must never forget history. And to continue to learn about it as long as we are able, so that we can understand, appreciate and emphasize with our fellow inhabitants.

On to Nepal.

Teresa Wolande

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