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Phallic symbols intimidate me on our last day of Siem Reap: Day 30 Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Our last day in Siem Reap is a whirlwind of the best Angkor has to offer, sexy carvings, waterfalls and monsoons.  We begin with the two major sites to see in Angkor and end with two distant ones accessable only by car.

Tonight we leave for Bangkok on our way to Chiang Mai and have to fit it all in before our 7pm flight.

Today is extra busy because we too yesterday afternoon off after the early morning sunrise.  Unscheduled breaks are completely necessary sometimes.

Angkor Thom

For much of the Khmer Empire, this section a mile down the road from the big temple, Angkor Wat, was the capital and center of the civilization. From here all the political dealings, religious changes and sometimes wars would happen.

The gate is impressive. A moat surrounds the main gate, which is now a paved road. But a huge balustrade of Asuras and Devatas carrying a Naga flanks each side. (see below with monkey)

Mythical beasts

As a long time MMO gamer, I have known about the serpent-beasts, Nagas, for a long time. They are used extensively in World of Warcraft.

I did not know, however, that these beasts are originate from the creation and religious mythology of India and South-East Asia. Thai Naga look more like dragon, but the Khmer version is like a cobra with multiple snake-heads on the hood.

The ones here were once gorgeous and everywhere, though most of the sculptures are now in poor shape. We saw an original in excellent at the National museum in Phnom Penh, and this one left at Angkor Thom.

Asuras and Devatas were like demons and nymphs. In the creation story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, they once worked together but split apart around a disagreement as to the rightful owner of an elixir of immortality. Asuras were thereafter ‘sinful and materialistic’ troublemakers.

Funky Monkeys

Inside the gate are monkeys that have been semi-domesticated.  About 20 we can see live here feeding off banannas and lotus that vendors sell. It’s less of a circus than one would expect, considering how many monkeys there are.

One older one is completely obese and doesn’t look very good, although the rest seem okay. We watch them for a while.

Half a mile past the main gate and monkeys is the Bayon, an artistic wonder, that was half temple and half monument to Jayavarman VII, who was the first to make Buddhism the state religion. The Bayon is considered the ‘baroque’ style of Khmer architecture, dense and heavy with orimentation.

Most striking at Bayon is the use of over 200 huge faces, ostensibly some representation of the buddha, but also bearing striking resemblance to Jayavarman VII, who despite being Buddhist, still believed himself to be a god-king. Everywhere you turn there are faces in the stonework. More faces emerge as your mind slowly fills in the gaps of faces decayed with age. (Click above and look for the faces!  This is our interactive game segment of the blog.)

Jayavarman VII didn’t take office until he was almost 60 but lived for 35 years, quite a feat in those days. The Bayon was built in layers, each one designed after the other. Archaeologists presume as he kept living, he kept building. As a result the site feels heavy for it’s size. It lacks the space of other temples. Bayon is probably my favorite at Angkor, except that it’s so popular with other tourists.

You’d think by day 3 of temple wandering the kids would get bored. They certainly were in Jerusalem, Beijing and even Egypt after that many days. But Angkor Wat has kept them pretty interested. There is great diversity here, despite it coming from one civilization.

We move fast however, to keep them stimulated. We can’t afford long 20 minute looks at the gigantic bas-relief walls. Trish finds the pace a little tough. The heat and humidity, although not as bad as China, are still rough on her chemo -ravaged body. We’ve been on the road four weeks now, and she needs an extended rest.

Emma argues again

I like a good argument, in the classic sense. My major at New York University was analytic Philosophy.  And being the son of a Lithuanian Catholic, I’m not afraid to put up a fight (even if it’s not in my own interest).  But I’ve learned (slowly and painfully) to pick my battles.  But I’m I am often more contentious than I need to be.

I’m getting some of that karma back now from my eldest daughter, who fights almost every statement I make. It’s clearly a pre-teen phase, and isn’t mean or angry in the least. But she is definitely challenging and testing boundaries by giving me some of my own medicine.

“This was the center of Cambodia in the 13th century” I mention to Lily as we walk.

“No, it wasn’t, Daddy. There was no Cambodia.” Emma pipes in.
“Uh, okay. But you know what I meant.”
“No, you were wrong. Cambodia is the new name.”
“I wasn’t wrong, I was just simplifying it for Lily.”
“Yeah, but you were still wrong.” she says, without any emotion.
“But I was trivially wrong, and only to help Lily understand.” I defend myself.
“Well, you’re still wrong weren’t you?”

Arrrgh. It goes on like this frequently. Sometimes I play-fight her back and we laugh, but other times it’s genuinely annoying. Trish seems pleased that Emma can get under my skin by arguing.

Foreshadowing elephants

One of our (hopeful) highlights will be the elephants of Patera farm in Chiang Mai. It’s a nursery and rehabilitation center, not a stupid pet tricks kind of place (and you pay for it too.) That’s toward the end of our trip in a few more days.

A great wall of sculpture and bas-relief elephants runs about a half-mile through the center of Angkor Thom. Called, unsurprisingly, the wall of the elephants. It’s beautiful how the artists bring the elephants out in three dimensions at the four or five staircases.

It’s completely exposed in the hot mid-day sun though, although we shouldn’t complain. There are workers here cutting the grass with knives!

Fire Ants attack!

Lily screams and bursts into tears, running around in a circle stamping her shoe and hysterically crying. This is a somewhat common occurrence on the road with Lily. She gets frightened of bugs easeily, and freaks out. Although after the Amazon in peru and this trip, she is doing a lot better and will even point out bugs that she sees with no panic attack.

She claims she was bitten. Typically that’s not the case.  It usually a fly or something.  Her screams are loud enough that all the food vendors have gathered around, mostly to watch. No one offers help, although we aren’t exactly looking alarmed ourselves.

“OW, Fuck!” I mutter and slap at my feet. I get stung or bit again. “What the?” Pulling off my keens, I see little red ants on my feet. Fire Ants! OUCH, I’m stung again. “Muther…” I brush them off but the sting lasts a little while.

Lily was right! (for once) There were stinging insects. I carry her piggy back to the tuk tuk through the hawkers of plastic crap.  On the way out we walk through the terrace of the leper king.  It’s not the original name, but refers to the lichen that grew on a buddha at the top.  Down on the ground is a long wall of intricately carved asuras, devatas, nagas and other beasts.  It makes Lily and I forget our fire ant pain.

The grand temple.

Angkor Wat (‘city temple’) is the largest religious building on the planet, completed 200 years before Notre Dame de Paris.  It is the only temple at Angkor to have been used as a religious site continuously until modern times, first as a Hindu temple, and later as a buddhist one.

In part, it remained in use because massive two mile long moat, which represents the cosmic ocean, protected it from the encroaching jungle.  The most famous feature of Angkor Wat are the five lotus bud shaped spires, the ‘temple mountain’, in the center, considered high classical Khmer arcitecture, and the symbol of modern Cambodia.

Angkor Wat faces West, which is unique among the temples here.  Obviously that has some major significance, but scholars are unsure precisely what it meant.  It may be a funerary temple for Suryavarman II who commissioned the building.

We’ve already been here once for sunset, but this time we pay more attention to the detail.  Another distinguishing feature of Angkor Wat are the incredibly detailed bas-relief outer wall galleries that we walk through quickly.

They can’t look at a lot of it, but Emma is still impressed by the stories from the Ramayana.  And some of the images, like archers riding naga, are undeniably cool, even to an 8 year old.  Unfortunately my camera battery died here.

Really?  Under 12 not admitted?

Inside the temple is the magnificent central structure, which Emma and Lily are not allowed to climb, ostensibly for ‘security and religous’ reasons.  I’m a little annoyed at this because there have been sites of greater significance that they have been allowed into.

And surely they were more in danger climbing among the falling rubble of  Preah Kahn?  But the guards are insistent.  To punish them, we make them babysit Emma and Lily while Trish and I take a quick look around.  The girls have something to look forward to now on their next visit, I guess.

Angkor Wat is easy to underestimate.  The overgrown, empty temples of Preah Kahn and Banteay Kdei are much more dramatic and exciting because they make you feel like you are one of the first to explore them.

Anagkor Wat is packed with people and a great deal of the beauty is the harmony of the whole design, which some art historians have described as ‘perfect.’ For a moment, at the top of Angkor Wat, I can appreciate the symmetry and balance.

But it’s a fleeting moment.  We need to get moving along.  I guess I have a reason to come back too.

We have six hours before our flight leaves for Bangkok on our way to Chiang Mai at 7pm.  Do we get packed slowly and hang out at the pool?  NO!  We have two more amazing activities – a waterfall hike and what some people call the most beautiful temple in Angkor Wat.  Both are about 30 miles away, and the hotel van drives us for about $35 round trip, which is a great deal.

Kbal Spaen

The waterfall hike is a one-hour bolder filled trail uphill through the jungle to a place where the Khmer civilization carved figures and lingams in a river bed.  Lingams are a phallic symbol of Shiva, sometimes worshiped in Hindu practice.  It represents many things, not just the male penis or fertility.

And in this case, it isn’t conventionally phallic either.  Each one is about four inches across and maybe six inches high. There are hundreds of them carved into the bed rock of the stream.

My inner teenage boy is very intimidated.  Sure, I can compete with Shiva in ‘length’.  But he beats me by a wide margin in ‘girth,’ and kicks my ass hard in ‘the number of penises’ category.

Presumably, they thought Shiva’s god-like penises would fertilize the river that delivered the crops to the fields making them more plentiful.  The logic is impeccable.  Cambodia will take any help they can get as they strive to match neighbors Vietnam and Thailand in rice exports.

There are several guards walking around.  One was helpful.  Not long ago people were cutting the carvings off and rock face and to Cambodia’s credit, they have at least three people up here now guarding the ancient art.

As we walk downstream, a Cambodian dude hangs around me an motions me to climb over the barrier and stand on the lingams in the water.  My gut tells me this is going to end up in an expectation of payment for either a) showing me the ‘secret’ way over the rope railing or b) protecting me from the guards as I do it.   Sorry guy, I’m moving on.

What waterfall?

What, you thought this was a waterfall trip?  You think I tricked you into waling for an hour over boulders in the steamy heat just to look at more ancient glyphs?  Funny, that’s exactly what my family just said.

But It’s not a ruse.  The waterfall is just up ahead and it’s beautiful.  The clean water runs into a flat pool.  It’s easy to walk right up and get inside the cool H2O.  The girls need to see me do it first, but once I show them it’s not too strong, they love it.  The waterfall is just the right height.  Any higher and it would hurt.

CRACK!  BOOM!  The rain comes down in torrents with absolutely no notice.  We have been lucky to avoid any monsoon-like weather here in Cambodia, but here it is.  Even though we are in the waterfall our stuff is getting soaked.  A few backpackers scramble up the side of the falls into a small cave for shelter where we stay for a bit until it dies down.  We can handle the rain if we ahve all day, but we have to get back to the car to stay on schedule.

On the way back, Lily sings a made up song at the top of her lungs.  Travelling with Lily is a blast.  She needs a lot of attention, but she also keeps us laughing all the time.  She’s a key ingredient in our family chemistry.  Here’s what it’s like to have breakfast with Lily. (right)

We stop to photograph a lizard who doesn’t seem too bothered with my intrusive camera, although he changes color a bit and slides away from me to the other side of his tiny branch like I might not notice him.  His lazy approach to self-preservation pays off, because we are not predators, just amature photographers.

The best things come in small packages.

Last but definitely not least, is Banteay Srey, a delicate and small temple comissioned not by a king but by a wealthy Brahmin counselor to a king.  But this guy has an eye for beauty.  The pink sandstone is exquisitely carved, deep and intricate design.

Banteay Srey means ‘citadel of the women’.  It was neither a citadel nor for women though.  Citadel refers to any temple with outer walls.  The reference to women refers to the belief that such delicate design could only come from the hands of females.

It is genuinely beautiful, and I’m not sorry we left this for last.  It’s a small be beautiful ending to one of our longest and most rewarding days on the road.  In my opinion, this is another must-see at Angkor, but judging by the few people here, this is not on the regular tourist itinerary.

And with that our days at Siem Reap come to an end.  I say that I love everywhere I go, but the real test if if I would go back soon.  I’d go back to Siem Reap again soon if I had the choice.

Cambodia has so much to offer and is a charming country that you fall in love with.   With all my heart, I hope Cambodia succeeds and prospers.

The van drives us back, we pick up our luggage, and off to the airport for our 15th flight of the trip.  We again stay overnight at the Bangkok airport Novotel. (We actually  enter and exit Thailand four times on this trip.) Tomorrow we get to Chiang Mai early.


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