Travel back in time at Siem Reap, Cambodia - Part 4 - Siem Reap, a mystical Kingdom of Wonder with land of rich history
Here goes the Part 4 as well as the last of the 4-blog series on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia - A mystical kingdom of wonder with land of rich history.
Before memory fades in the face of everyday chaos, beautiful nostalgia is usurped by demands of the present and future and before the tide of emotions stirring within me gets tamed with the passing of time, i am writing this last of a series of entries in reverent awe of the temples of Angkor, and the people of Siem Reap. It was a privilege to behold the extravagance of the Kingdom of Angkor and to be at the receiving end of the extreme warmth and sincerity of Cambodians. I feel it is an obligation to share my experience concluded in a series of entries on Siem Reap.
I would be lying if i said i knew all about the Angkor's heydays and its tragic demise and my visit was to bear witness to the architecture and engineering glory of Angkor's resplendent past. In fact after this trip, i don't think i can even begin to understand and appreciate the full significance of all that was, and is, Angkor. But i am a very fortunate girl, to be able to sit here in a comfort zone and have the pleasure to record, bit by bit, chunk by chunk, the flashbacks of Siem Reap which moved me and which meant the most to me.
Siem Reap romanticised me in a way which i thought was forever lost to me. Its subtle charms awakened the poet in me, the poet who has laid dormant for many years, buried under layers and layers of gunk that is growing up and adulthood. The shoe-less kids in the countryside, riding on bicycles too big even for me - they made me want to stop right there and then observe them and write about them, to capture the innocence and purity that are representative of most Cambodians. This is how i see the country children of Siem Reap - beautiful and pure amidst the mire of great poverty and corruption.
Siem Reap exudes this unexplainable charm that makes almost every traveler stay. Siem Reap is full of cinematic angles that will definitely touch your heart.
The Cambodian language, otherwise known as Khmer, is a Mon-Khmer lanaguage (the indigenous language family of Southeast Asia) spoken by most people in Cambodia. It belongs to the Austro-Asiatic group of languages, a group widely spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia. Khmer is a difficult language to learn, although the lack of tones makes it easier for Westerners than, say Vietnamese of Thai. It is comparatively easy to pick up some basic vocabulary, however, and such such effort will be greatly appreciated by the Cambodians themselves. English is spoken as a second language by many, especially in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
One of the sheer joys of Cambodia and the reason for its enduring popularity among travellers is the simplicity of the way of life and the population's tolerance of others.
Today Cambodia resembles many of the striving, corrupt, developing nations trying to make up for time lost behind the iron curtain. The nation that bore the horrors of the Khmer Rouge seemed ready for a kinder if not a more prosperous transformation. Cambodia is an idyllic, antique land unsullied by the brutalities of the modern world. Paddy farmers laboured in their ricefields, mystical ruins lay hidden in the jungle, the capital had the charm of a French provincial town and pagodas dotted the landscapes. It was such an illusion of bucolic plenty, Buddhist serenity, neutralist peace. This was an illusion because for centuries Cambodia had been in a state of continuous social and political upheaval. The country has been at the mercy of its much larger neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, and of various forign powers - China, France, the US and the former Soviet Union. In the 1970s, Cambodians suffered one of the worst human tragedies to afflict any country since the second World War - as we have seen, over a period during America's involvment in Indochina, is also taken into account, it is possible that around a fifth of Cambodia's population was killed. The relics and reminders of those days are now firmly on the tourist's sightseeing agenda.
An enormnous and elaborately detailed complex, the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat has remained the heart and soul of Cambodia for almost two millennia. And, despite its popularity with ever-growing throngs of visitors, this is still a historical site that exceeds expectation. Included in the gargantuan complex lie legions of magical temples which attest to the ability of bygone artisans, from the intricate Angkor, with its detailed cravings to the beaming faces of the Bayon.
The town of Siem Reap has graduated from Angkor's service centre to an international tourist hub, teeming with modern restaurants and upmarket hotels. Fortunately, the settlement still retains much of its original charm, with old colonial shopfronts, misty lamp-lit streets and a bustling market area. This is cetainly a place for the more independent-minded traveller who will put up with tough roads and sparse public transportation in order to be rewarded with amazing temples, beautiful jungle scenery and some of the friendliest small villages in the country.
Siem Reap means 'Siam Defeated', reflecting the many centuries of warfare between the Cambodians and their near neighbours, the Thais.
My accomodation was arranged at this The Villa Siem Reap Guesthouse. Its homely service in intimate surrounds make it a popular place. The rooms are immaculately clean, nicely decorated and furnished.
From the outside, The Villa Siem Reap looks like a funky little guesthouse.
Siem Reap is also a relaxing and welcoming town, pleasantly shaded in the vicinity of the river, still unaffected by heavy traffic and with a very friendly population, many of whom speak reasonable English. Most visitors initially enter Siem Reap from the west, having landed at the nearby international airport. The road passes through paddy fields and past clumps of sugar palms.
It's a sad fact that not only people suffered during the long years of destructive warfare that plagued Cambodia for much of almost six decades. Wildlife was bombed and blown up by mines, killed for food - or, by young Khmer Rouge soldiers, even for fun and deforestation was (and remains) widespread. But things are improving, not least as locals realise that rare and endangered species are worth more alive as tourist attractions, than dead as food or aphrodisiacs.
Cambodia is actually a fortunate and fertile land, where - were it not for the foolishness of man - there should never be a famine. The source and origin of this amazing fertility, enabling the growth of as many as three rice crops a year and an apparently endless supply of fish, are the many rivers and, more especially, the great central lake. Tonle Sap is like nothing else in this world, a freshwater lake that shrinks and expands by up to three times according to season. It is home to an amazing variety of wildlife, as well as local fisherfolk who live in stilt houses and floating villages. I must say again that a boat journey through the flooded forests of Tonle Sap can be a magical experience.
Every day at Siem Reap flickered between lightness and darkness, a sort of dual consciousness. Constant juxtapositions of a historic past and a destitute present, a destitute present yet a sense of optimism, the hope that tourism brings. Cambodia bears the markings of somewhere that has been completely and throughly devastated by war, but is trying to pull together its pieces. Confronted with a modern world of progress, development and tourism, it has a window to try to move forward but it may be still haunted by the past. It's hard to forget a war when members of the offending regime are still serving in your government. It's also hard to forget a war when its mines are still taking your limbs. It felt like a place that was stretching and straining through its chrysalis, but with crackling bones and growing pains. I am not sure where Cambodia is headed, but i know it's going somewhere. I have a feeling that when i return, it won't even be the same place anymore. That makes me feel a bit wistful.
For now, goodbye Cambodia - you have taught me so much in the short span of a few days and you have given me food for thought hopefully for the rest of my life. You have led me to the purity, good and treasured innocence of your people. I will not forget about you and i will return when i am a better person and have more to offer, in humble gratitude, for all that you have inspired in me.
A freelance Singapore-based travel photographer / photojournalist. I seek the extraordinary, but finds beauty in the everyday. Life is interesting, capture it.
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