The Mainland Trilogy 1: Cambodia

Aine enjoying her paparazzi moment as she gets her visa pictures done

As mentioned previously, in an act of sheer selfish efficiency we deceived our darling children into believing that Christmas was December 20th because we (by this I mean the royal we, since Sarah planned the whole trip) were on our way to mainland Southeast Asia.  This gave them a day to play with their new toys before we ripped them from their clutches early the next morning to head to the airport.  Despite this, the kids were excited about their “next adventure” and handled it well- especially when our once streamlined luggage became behemoths with the new toys that just had to come with us.  Our journey was a daring, some might even say a reckless, undertaking:  3 countries, 9 flights, and an overnight train ride in 20 days with two kids under 6.  Understandably, it was easy to get carried away with the planning- this area of the world has so much to offer.  We trusted that the kids were travel-weathered enough to endure it, and the parents were travel-clever enough to survive.

After a quick layover in Singapore, we flew east to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Even though we hold multiple re-entry visas (i.e. we are allowed to come in and out of Indonesia as many times as we want for a year), the forms and checks at the airport border on silly, especially considering they scan our passports, giving them all the information they need anyway.  I should have kept my mouth shut when I griped to no one in particular about it in the Jakarta airport, because obtaining a visa-on-arrival and entering the Kingdom of Cambodia was mind-numbing.  We walked out of the plane to random groups of dazed tourists milling about in clusters, vacantly filling out forms, paying fees, waiting for the page-sized visa sticker to be glued into their passports before collecting their luggage (and just wait- this is nothing compared to getting into Vietnam).  But it was all worth it, even when Cian started to unravel the nylon belts used to herd the lines of incoming tourists, because we were about to explore Angkor Wat.

Saem Siemreap Hotel

Saem Siemreap Hotel

The Siem Reap area of Cambodia is remarkably flat, surrounded by the Kulen Hills to the north, a low mountain range and Tonlé Sap, a large lake, to the south.  It was the dry season after the rice harvest when we arrived and reddish, dusty soil was everywhere- keeping Cian from purposefully shuffling up clouds of dust wherever we walked was impossible.  Quite a different terrain than volcanic, mountainous Indonesia.  It was also cooler than our more equatorial lifestyle, making the kids insist on sweatshirts when the temperature dropped below 70º.  Young children put on pause those travel adventures when we would fly to our destination and sort out the accommodations later.  Sarah had two requirements when she booked our hotels- a swimming pool and all-you-can-eat breakfast.  I agree, the breakfast idea was brilliant.  We stayed at the Saem Siemreap Hotel, in the northwest corner of town.

Our passes into Angkor

Our passes into Angkor

What is commonly called Angkor Wat, named after the largest construction, is actually a 400 square kilometre region studded with over a thousand shrines, temples, and ruins, officially called the Angkor Archaeological Park (wat in Khmer and Thai means temple).  Mostly built between the 10th and 14th century by the Khmer Empire (not related to the centuries later Khmer Rouge, folks), the structures are Buddhist and/or Hindu, as the two beliefs overlapped and traded turns being the dominant religion depending on the particular reigning monarch of the time.  The state of reconstruction varies enormously between sites- some with foreign aid have been well preserved and rebuilt while others remain mounds of cut stone.  Most sites fall between this range; ruins of ancient temples covered with intricate designs and carvings, surrounded by piles of rubble and penetrated by Cambodian jungle.

You are about to be inundated with pictures of Angkor, and I apologise for any perceived redundancy, but I cannot get myself to leave pictures out of the story.  For you visual people, here’s a map of the area to give you an idea of the layout.  The following are five temple areas we visited:

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat from the outer wall

Angkor Wat from the outer wall

Our first temple complex was the eponymous Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, built in the 12th century and well reconstructed.  You arrive from Siem Reap to the south of the complex and drive around to the gate in the west, where the jaw-dropping wat comes into view.  Unlike most Hindu and Buddhist temples which face east, Angkor Wat faces west, leading some scholars to believe that Angkor was originally built for funeral ceremonies.  As you turn the corner, you see Angkor Wat settled in the background and the impressive bridge over the moat you must cross to enter the complex.  The temples we saw with moats were inevitably guarded by the seven-headed naga, symbolic of the origin of the Cambodian people, who are said to be descended from a race of these creatures.  Once over the moat you enter the complex grounds, the outer wall, and finally the central structure with the characteristic towers.  Like the other Angkor temples, the walls are covered in elaborate motifs and images from Buddhist and Hindu mythology.  The hoards of tourists melted away as we diluted into the massive temple and the ambience of the complex took over.  We wandered the grounds, explored the many smaller shrines and got lost in the central wat.

Ta Prohm

The jungle taking back its own

The jungle taking back its own

After reeling from the effects of visiting Angkor Wat, we travelled a few kilometres farther to another famous Angkor temple, Ta Prohm, which was purposefully left somewhat in ruin while the invading jungle was kept intact.  This is the poster child temple of Angkor, where trees bore through shrines and roots strangle walls and edge doorways.  Ta Prohm was buit in the late 12th century and served as a Buddhist monastery, housing over 12,000 people, giving you an idea of the size of these sites.  Today, it epitomises the strength and power of human ability, and the insignificance of such ability when relinquished to nature.  Its current, more organic state has only enhanced its historical role as sacred space.  Photographs will never capture its strength and beauty.

Angkor Thom

Through the gate

The northern entrance

This huge walled area of jungle covered in many separate ruins once served as the capital of the Khmer Empire.  Today, it is easier to experience with a tuk-tuk, a carriage pulled by a motorcycle found throughout the Siem Reap area and used as public transport.  Angkor Thom was not as accessible to the kids, with much more walking and steep staircases, so Sarah took the kids downtown for some shopping, while I was sent as the family away team here and Preah Khan (everybody wins).  I hailed a tuk-tuk which brought me through the imposing gate walls and into the Angkor Thom grounds.  My driver dropped me off at the ancient state temple Bayon, and I walked through to the Shiva temple Baphuon and past the older Hindu temple Phimeanakas to the Terraces of the Elephant and the Leper King.  The cicadas hummed with a hypnotic, almost deafening buzz in the trees above as I walked forest paths through old stone wall gates between temples.

Preah Khan

Like its sister Ta Prohm, Preah Khan was a large monastery and educational facility about three kilometres away from Angkor Thom.  Along with the usual smaller shrines and structures surrounding and incorporated into the building, Preah Khan is particularly flat and square, with four long corridors at each of the cardinal points leading through a variety of rooms and spaces to the central interior section.  Built in memory of King Jayavarman’s father, I found this particularly impressive, as I have been thinking about convincing my father to be cremated so I can pocket the headstone money.

 Beng Mealea


Aine refused to leave the jeep the entire way to the temple

Our last temple before we were to leave Cambodia was 40km outside of the Angkor area. Considered the “forgotten temple”, away from the dizzying amount of tourists, little is known about the history of this site.  Desiring a more authentic experience, we contacted Sabai Adventure Tours and took a jeep off-roading through the villages to the site.  Our jeep driver and guide, Scott from Toronto, was on his third year running this company and leading dirt bike and jeep tours throughout Western Cambodia.  Riding with Scott was like meeting up with an old buddy to goof around off-road.  We saw beautiful countryside, drove through quaint Cambodian villages, and learned much about the history and culture of the area.

Our guide

Our guide

Beng Mealea would be as close to an Indiana Jones adventure as the tourist presence of Angkor could have allowed.  Since the site is much less established than the sites near Angkor, Sarah and I tag-teamed, one watched the kids outside the temple play in the sand or scamper the main ruins, while the other explored Beng Mealea.  I braved the temple first, and upon entering was immediately steered off the main entrance by a local temple worker, who persuaded me to jump a narrow moat for a concealed side entrance.  Suddenly, I was squeezing between lintels and rubble, creeping along ledges, and traversing gaps with my newfound guide and away from the normal visitor route.  It was the more rarely seen sections of Beng Mealea, worming through the temple remnants rather than sticking to the user-friendly boardwalk.  I even glimpsed (as if choreographed) the end of what looked like an Eastern Russel’s viper between the loose blocks.  It was unforgettable.

Angkor has a powerful, haunting aura that echoes the remains of an impressive, ancient civilisation, yet is equally magnificent in its state of ruin, the backdrop of a mystical, fantasy epic.  During the five nights we stayed in Siem Reap, we barely scratched the surface of Angkor, and every evening I left the temple sites eager for more.  The experience was potent and visceral, and the sensory impressions of exploring Angkor will stay with me for a long time. The town of Siem Reap itself is a terrific respite for the weary adventurer, boasting great restaurants and a variety of activities catering to all age groups.   The Cambodian people are friendly, inviting, and rightfully proud of their ancient heritage.  All around, this is a top notch travel destination and Angkor more than lives up to its reputation.

As we drove to the airport, I reflected on a previous Domestic Departure post, in which I mentioned to you that Cambodia was on my bucket list.  Throw out the bucket, Angkor whispered.  Checking off 1,000 things before you die puts the focus only on what you have completed or even worse, what you haven’t.  Angkor’s lesson was that life (whatever that means to you, for whatever you desire) is not about what things you do, but the experiences you have doing them.  What’s important is that you live fully.  Push yourself to the edge, step off the cliff and worry less about your check collection.  Live not so you can tell yourself you did it, but so you can appreciate the doing.

6 thoughts on “The Mainland Trilogy 1: Cambodia

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