Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Siem Reap Ramblings

This post started out as a quick summary of my trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Instead, as i tapped away on the laptop on the flight back to KL, I found the thoughts jostling to the forefront was more about what the country meant to me, just as every other country that I have visited has imbued me with a different feelings and emotions. Laos was peaceful,  it was of sleepy hamlets amid tropical forests where Buddhists monks prayed along the banks of the murky Mekong. Manado was a raw simple beauty and with a restless giant of fire under the earth threatening to boil over in flame and lava.

Cambodia gives me this:

It’s a wonder what you discover when you step out of an airport with no expectations. All I wanted was to wander around the Angkor Archaeological Park and follow in Angelina Jolie’s footsteps. I wanted some peace amid ruins and a forest after the crazy year that I’ve had.

One of the iconic  Buddha heads at Bayon. 

It was when I became more immersed  with Cambodian culture and history that I realized that what fascinated me about Siem Reap and Cambodia was not so much the Angkor Wat or the surrounding ruins but its rich magnificent history blighted by a mad idealist who destroyed a quarter of it’s population.

French conservationists at Bayaen Srey early 1900s. I took this photo of a poster at the Visitor Center near the temple

It was also about the old romantic inspirational explorers, adventurers and historians from the past, Khmer,Chinese and French alike, who documented the history on paper and stone, the incredible French conservationists that over a hundred years have worked tirelessly and selflessly to lovingly restore the grand beauty of a long lost empire that was once the greatest in South East Asia. It is about the ongoing conservation work and the many countries such as China, the United States and India have now joined to French in the preservation of Cambodia's magnificent past.

Cambodia is about the richness in religion, almost coming across as a distant province of India, and the different Buddhist teachings. The walls resonate about the Churning of the Milk Ocean, Krishna, Brahma and Vishnu, Indian gods of old, Champions in my wee years before Spiderman and the Fantastic Four introduced to me spandex heroics. The stories of Garuda and Indra. Indian mythology decorates the walls, encompassing temples of kings. Buddha in his early form as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, gives way to Buddha from more oriental leanings. The serenity remains in his meditative smile from the early Hindu inspired statues from more than a thousand years ago to the more Oriental features that begin around the early 17th century.

It’s about grand wars and battles, it is about military might fueled by the most sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques of its time that created a huge rice bowl in the territory. It is about arch enemies and feudal war lords, stealthy attacks from the rivers under the cloak of a dark night. Battles over mountains and plains. The building of an empire that stretched from Myanmar to Vietnam and down as far as the Malay peninsula to the edge of the borders of China.

King Jayavarman VII the greatest and last of the Khmer Kings

It is about kings of old who deigned themselves god and created monuments that could only be worthy of immortals and rulers of the world.

The French deserve much if not all for the preservation of Angkor which indirectly preserves many parts of the country’s rich past.  We would not see the beautiful museums, the lovingly conserved temples, the architecture in Siem Reap, the huge conservation infrastructure around a area that can be seen from space.. Even walking down the street, fresh baked baguettes greet a hungry stomach on a dusty tropical morning. Little cafes pack up beside one another as tree lined streets give reprieve from the burning noon time sun.

Pol Pot and his twisted vision of communism kills an estimated 2 million, or a quarter of his population of 8 million in the hope of creating a communist Utopia. Every Cambodian will never be the same.

Cambodia now lives on the brink. Besides rice exports, tourism holds a key to their economic sustainability. A post Khmer Rouge nation now needs the monuments of the mighty kings of Khmer of old to feed their children.

A country with no other resources shows its desperation in some of it’s people. Tourists are over charged, hidden charges abound, a culture of fleecing the ignorant runs contrary to every Buddha and praying monk statue seen about the town. ‘Get away with what you can’ seems to be the credo in the tourist industry. To visitors wielding the mighty Euro, pound, dollar and Yen these costs may not seem a lot. But to South East Asian travelers a USD10 mark up are meals for 2 -3 days.

The French have set the standard of preservation of the past with patience, selflessness, and a dogged stubbornness in their beliefs to achieve their goals.

Can the Cambodians do the same for a better future?

* all pictures copyrighted to Chindiana Trails and the grumpy photographer who took them!

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