Cambodia: Part 15 Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap and saying goodbye

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Our schedule called for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and we were excited that the big day had finally arrived. Unfortunately, no one told the weatherman about our excitement. We awoke at 4:30 AM to a driving rain, complete with thunder and lightning. We had no idea what our guide would do so we continued getting dressed so that we could be ready to depart by 5:00 AM. Ten minutes before five, Borin called and told us to go back to bed. It was a frog-strangler, and there was no point in getting out in it. The sunrise would not be visible, and it was lightning. We made a new plan. He told us we would reconvene after breakfast at 8:00 AM and head straight over. We were disappointed not to see the iconic sunrise at Angkor Wat, but we knew we had come to Cambodia in the monsoon season. This is not the high season for tourists in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s when we could come. With Genene in school, we have to take our vacations in the summer. The off season does have its charms. Crowds are not as large. The afternoon rain cools things down. Everything is very green. Anyway, we weren’t going out in monsoon rains, so we shucked off our clothes and went back to bed. Genene was happy to do so. When she was younger, she popped out of bed every morning with the sun. She’s not quite a teenager now, but she seems to require sleep like one.

After breakfast at the hotel, Borin and the driver picked us up on the dot at 8. The rain had stopped, so our fortunes were improving. On the way out of town, we passed by the Royal Gardens in the heart of Siem Reap. Borin had the driver stop so that he could show us the thousands of fruit bats hanging from the trees. The trees looked alive with the squirming creatures, and you could hear the squealing, squeaking noise quite clearly from the ground. This photo is not great because my camera lens was completely fogged up from the humid morning. Most days started this way. The camera stayed in nice air conditioned comfort all night (as did we), and when I took the lens camp off each morning, I had to wait about 5-7 minutes for the condensation to dissipate.

It took only a few minutes to get to Angkor Wat, and we already had our three-day pass to the monuments so we drove right up to the entrance. We were in the thick of things with the Saturday tourists, but Angkor Wat is so large it can accomodate a crowd. In fact, by some measures, it is the largest religious complex in the world. The temple complex is rectangular, and the dimensions are 0.9 miles by 0.8 miles. The central sandstone monument occupies only 5% of that area. The rest of the area within the moat and wall is today largely forested. Archeologists are using LIDAR data in Cambodia and have determined that the inner city area was once covered by wooden galleries and pavilions, long since reclaimed by the jungle.

The moat is 620 feet wide, and the excavated soil was used to make the imposing mountain temple. Unlike other Khmer wats, Angkor Wat faces west into the setting sun. There are several theories about why this was done: one theory holds that it was faced toward the former capital city. Another theory holds that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, who is sometimes associated with the west. The most commonly accepted theory is that King Suryavarman II, who commissioned the temple, built it as his tomb or funerary. Thus it would face west toward the setting sun, symbolizing his death. Its western orientation is what makes the sunrise visit so attractive to photographers.

We approached from the west, climbing the steps of the cross-shaped naga terrace and onto the causeway.

Angkor Wat represents the height of Angkor civilization. King Suryavarman II ruled from 1112 to 1152, and the elaborate temple was built during his reign. According to Borin, the Angkor Wat complex took only 37 years to build. It is a source of great pride to the Cambodian people, and an image of Angkor Wat appears on their national flag.

The building survived the country’s civil strife with a few bullet holes.

Meet the 8-armed standing Vishnu, to whom the temple is dedicated. He is an object of veneration for Cambodians even today. He is locally known as Ta Reach.
Again, I was amazed at the stone work. Note that there is no room to slip in even a credit card. Also note that some ding-dongs have carved their names and initials into the soft stone. Morons are everywhere.
Some early efforts at restoration using concrete are clearly visible.
A library on the grounds:
The light was hazy, which frustrated me as a photographer because it sometimes made capturing the colors challenging. I turned this image into a black and white to try to compensate.
Family photo:
The galleries and their bas-relief carvings are stunning in scope and intricacy.
Another battlefield scene:
It’s never a good day when you get your face bitten off by a monkey (I hate it when that happens!):
This beautiful devata is carved into the wall panel. Can you see that she is baring her teeth? That is apparently rather unusual.
Another battle scene:
Detail upon detail upon detail, carved into the soft stone. How many hours of labor must have gone into these galleries? Who were the artists? Only their work remains.
As we toured the galleries, the sun came out and the tourists prowled the terraces.
We can tell that this is a king for several reasons: the parasols over his head indicate royalty. He is carved larger than the surrounding people. And he’s getting fanned. An ordinary guy never gets fanned.
Owls hidden in the leaves of the trees:
Birds and deer:
What happens when the sculptor makes an error? The chunk is removed, and a new carving is made and popped into place.
Unfortunately, as Borin explained, for many years Angkor Wat was “unsupervised.” Peasants sometimes believed that these replaced areas were a hiding place for jewels, and they would pop them out. Holes like this are visible in several places throughout the galleries.
In this photo, you can see some damage from water intrusion. Maintaining Angkor Wat and preventing its deterioration is an ongoing, large-scale project that requires the cooperation of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the governments of several other countries.
Borin explains a scene from the gallery:
The next set of bas-relief will stay in my memory forever because of how Borin related them to Cambodia today. The so-called Judgment of Yama depicts the three levels of human existence: on the top are the 37 heavens, filled with palaces, princes, princesses, and good times. In the middle is earth, where we all live. At the bottom are 32 hells, filled with starving people being tormented by devils.
This is Yama, judge of the dead. He sends the souls to various stops between reincarnations. This version of hell was much scarier and more graphic than the scene we saw on the mural in Thailand.
Borin then made the story real. “We had our own hell here in Cambodia,” he said. He told us about the Khmer Rouge genocide and the years of hell that his country endured. When the United States declared victory, fired up the heicopters and left Vietnam in 1975, they left a power vacuum in the entire region, and Cambodia was already in turmoil. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were ready and waiting. Pol Pot was educated in Paris and there met radical Marxist revolutionists. His version of communism was more than radical: it was maniacal and brutal. Pol Pot imagined that Cambodia could be transformed into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The entire population of Phnom Penh and other provincial towns was marched into the countryside to work as slaves. Even the sick, old and children were not spared. Educated people in particular were feared and mistrusted and were often executed on the spot. Disobedience meant instant death. Pol Pot declared Year Zero, abolished the currency and closed the post offices. The country cut itself off from the world, and for three years, eight months, and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge conducted its bloody genocide in the so-called “killing fields” of Cambodia. Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese invaded, toppling Pol Pot’s regime, though he lived for many years in the countryside. When it was over, 3 million people were dead. Borin told us that every family in Cambodia was touched. His father had five brothers and sisters but was the only sibling in his family who survived. His mother lost her uncle and his entire family. He explained that you don’t see many old people in the country, because so many of them were killed. The country is at peace now, though many younger people think the current prime minister has been in power too long. Over 40% of the current population is under 16. More changes are coming to the country. I hope they will be peaceful.
The ancient scenes of torture in the gallery walls now seem contemporary.
Hand and feet bound together:
Spikes driven into stretched bodies:
Bodies beaten and tortured:
Well, that was depressing. We sat down for a few minutes in one of the shaded galleries, drank some water and gathered our thoughts. There was still a lot more to see.

Though highly skilled, the Khmer architects did not discover the self-supporting arch that the Romans used. They used corbelling to span the spaces, placing successive blocks 1/4 to 1/3 of their length projecting inward until the two sides met. Consequently, arches are narrow, and the roof is heavy.

We saw several renditions of this next mural throughout the Angkor complex, and even in Thailand. It’s called “Churning the Ocean of Milk.” The gods lined up on one side and the demons on the other. Vishnu riding on a tortoise occupied the center spot and acted as the referee. They pulled on the snake named Vasuki, who was coiled around Mount Mahendra. Their goal was to churn the ocean until the amrita, the nectar of life, came up. Those who drink it would have immortal life. (Is that you, Indiana Jones?) A ton of other creatures, good and bad, came up from the ocean’s depths during the churning. In the end, Vishnu abandoned his neutrality and helped out the gods. I think a couple of the demons stole a drink or two.
Steady, boys!
The haze burned off and the sky turned blue.
I think these are apsaras, the dancers. To me, it is difficult to tell them from devatas. The devata is a temple guardian, while the apsaras are dancers. If she looks like she’s gonna bust a move, she’s an apsara.
We waited in line to climb to the very top tower. Only a certain number of people can be at the top at once, so the guides do not typically accompany their charges. Borin had prepared us well, because only those who are dressed appropriately are allowed to go. We saw the guards walking the line and telling many ladies in shorts, “Not permitted.” One lady tried to tie a shawl around her waist to make a skirt, and the guide said, “Not possible.” Our knees and shoulders were respectfully hidden, and the guards didn’t give us a second look. Children under 12 were not permitted, but Borin told us to say nothing about Genene. He figured she could make it through. I am happy to say that while her height cost us $2 and some heartache at immigration when we entered the country, we got karmic repayment today. The officials didn’t ask a question or bat an eye. They gave her a badge and sent her along with us up the steep stairs.
The views from the top:
Nearly all the people you can see seated below in this photo are the tour guides waiting for their charges to come back down from the top:
I think she’s a devata. You can see clearly that once upon a time, these walls had color.
Devata or apsara? Not sure, but I do know that men the world around like big, bare boobs.
We descended the steep stairs and found Borin waiting for us, just where he said he would be.
Hey, ladies!
This was once known as the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, though few remain today.
We finished our tour, exhausted, after about four hours. We barely scratched the surface. We could have spent days just wandering around marveling at the sculpture, the structure, the grounds.
Family photo:
We watched these four monkeys playing on the ballustrades.
This guy obviously stole somebody’s lunch and was enjoying himself.
I had no desire to pet him. Look at those nasty, sharp teeth!
We took a couple of last long looks and put Angkor Wat in our rearview mirror.
Throughout this vacation, it has been hot and sticky, and today was no exception. Genene often wallows me. She leans on me; she hugs my neck; she holds my hand. I confess that sometimes I am annoyed, mostly because it is so very hot. Each time I think of snapping at her and telling her to stand up straight, I remind myself that soon enough, she will reach for me no more. She will be grown and gone. I try to be the good mom and let her wallow!

Borin took us back into Siem Reap for lunch at a local restaurant. Our waiter loved practicing his English with us. In fact, he stood at our table for much of the meal, asking us questions and talking to us. One time, another waitress came and shooed him away but he found his way back. He told us that he has used Google to teach himself enough French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and English so that he could communicate with all the tourist customers. I admired his industry. He also wanted us to know that he does not like Cambodia’s prime minister and all the young people want change. Their prime minister has been in power since 1998, and elections are held, though they are not free and fair. Change is coming to Cambodia. I am not sure what variety.

I’ll just have one beer with lunch:

I ordered the whole catfish. It looks a little different from the Fish Bowl version in Ashdown, Arkansas.
Genene ordered a whole quail with her fried rice.


After lunch, we went for an afternoon tour of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. The freshwater lake is innundated every year by the Mekong River. The Tonle Sap River is 75 miles long and connects the lake to the Mekong. During the monsoon season, the Mekong River grows larger and feeds water down the Tonle Sap River and into the lake. During the dry season, the Tonle Sap River reverses course and drains the lake. The lake is 1,000 square miles during the dry season and swells to 6,200 square miles. The rich sediment pouring in with the river provided opportunities for farming to the Angkor people 1,000 years ago and still does so today. The river brings fish as well.

There are floating villages along the banks of the Tonle Sap, and the villages must move as the lake moves.

We caught one of these boats and headed out onto the water.

We could see the rain coming in.
People fished everywhere. We also saw people bathing in the water and swimming. Borin said that if he or we jumped into the water, we would be sick within a matter of days because these people use it for everything, including their toilet.
Homes were modest. All of them had generators and TV antennas.
I’m glad we are getting this cleared up!
Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.
Hey, little guy!
I found this to be interesting. Someone in this house obviously likes to garden. Amid the floating shacks-some might even say squalor–the flowers bloom.
We could not see the far shore, and the monsoon season is just beginning. Tonle Sap will get a lot bigger.
He is happy any time we are on water.
We stopped at a floating market of sorts. You can buy a catfish from this container….
…and toss it into this one!
It ends badly for the crocodiles.
Before we made it back to the dock, the skies opened up with a drenching rain. The locals kept right on fishing. When you stay wet all day, I guess a little rain does not slow you down.
When we boarded the boat, someone had snapped our pictures. When we got off, they were waiting for us with a cheesy Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom plate with our photos stuck on it. I was not tempted, but Genene’s picture actually looked cute so we bought it. Borin thought we overpaid scandalously and should have gotten all three plates for the $10 we paid for the one.

Borin returned us to our hotel in the late afternoon. Our flight will leave at 11:25 PM (ugh!) so he will be back to pick us at 9:00 PM. The hotel staff welcomed us “home” for the last time with the cold, moist towels. The manager came forward, called us all by name, and asked us what we had seen and done. I guess he couldn’t really cope with Genene’s first name, so he called her by her middle name: “Katherine, how was your day? Did you see Angkor Wat?” At first, Genene was looking around because she wasn’t sure he was talking to her. I loved the staff there. They were so attentive and friendly.

As we walked up our stairs, the little souvenir plate slipped out of Genene’s hands and crashed to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. In that moment, I saw my little baby girl again. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and mine did too. It was just a piece of junk, but she really liked it. I hugged her in the stairway and told her I was sorry…and then, just like that, the little baby was gone. Her face cleared, and she began to pick up the pieces. “Maybe Dad can glue it together.” I remember wishing for her to be more grown up. Now sometimes, I wish she were my baby again.

We got most of our packing done. It had been a long day, starting with the aborted sunrise wakeup. We were tired and decided to take dinner in the hotel. We had not dined with them except for breakfast. Dinner was delightful, and we even ordered desserts.

Borin and the driver arrived right on time at 9:00 PM, and we were off to the airport. My last memory of the Shinta Mani was of the manager and all footmen lined up at the entry, their heads bowed and hands clasped respectfully in the Sampeah until we pulled away and were out of sight.

Borin told us he had no gift for us except for our memories. That will be enough. He asked if we would remember him and I assured him that we certainly would. He wanted to know when we would be back. I told him honestly that I didn’t know but I hoped it would be sooner rather than later. He said, “I would love to visit you in America, but it is not possible. I will be here when you return. Perhaps a little older. Perhaps I will have a home of my own by then.” I hope that he does.

We got to the airport within a half hour, and Borin took us as far as he could and we said our goodbyes and handed him his tip. We started inside, and it just didn’t feel right. We turned back around and went back to hug him. (Greg settled for the manly handshake, but Genene and I hugged him long and hard.) I cried when we left the elephants. I cried when we left Borin. He is a special young man. I hope his dreams of being a lawyer and having a place of his own do come true.

We are taking the red-eye to Seoul, where we have one more day and night of exploration before we must return to Houston. South Korea, here we come!

2 thoughts on “Cambodia: Part 15 Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap and saying goodbye

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