From what we’ve seen of Thailand so far it is a fairly well developed country as far as infrastructure and services. The road out of Bangkok to the Cambodian border was first an eight lane freeway, then a four lane expressway. Then nearer the border it became a two lane road with shoulders and marked lanes. The drivers stay in their lane! It’s not like the daredevil near misses of vehicles all over the road trying to pass in Bangladesh. We saw lots of industrial development all along the highway. But as good as things look, it’s clear not all is well. There are many people trying to get your money in whatever way they can. Scams are prevalent. In spite of being warned, we even fell victim to one. As we approached a site, a young man looking very official with an insignia on his shirt told us it was closed until 2 p.m. because the monks were eating. But he was so eager to help –he showed us on a map where we should go, a tuk-tuk appeared, the young man told the tuk-tuk driver where to take us, and before we knew it, off we went. We went to the first temple on the list and it was interesting, but then we stopped at one of the places the young man had “suggested” – a trade center. It turned out to be a place that sold sapphire jewelry, which was not something we wanted to see at all. So, we were only in the shop for about three minutes. The tuk-tuk driver was upset because we were supposed to stay there for ten minutes so he could get a credit for four liters of gas. He said he’d have to take us to another place and we’d have to stay the required ten minutes. It was a store that sold fabric and tailoring and some nice tourist items. There were enough things of interest to look at that we filled up the ten minutes, but when we got back to the tuk-tuk, the driver said we had to go one more place because he still needed to get more gas credits. We were very angry and said no way – he needed to take us to the next place as planned and no more of these stupid shopping stops. He did so very grudgingly. But when we came out of the temple, we couldn’t find him. We got another tuk-tuk and went back to where we started, which had not been closed for lunch at all, of course. Oh well, the driver didn’t get paid, and we saw a couple of interesting temples we probably would not have seen otherwise. But it left a bad taste.
Cambodia is less developed than Thailand. There are vendors at every tourist stop all selling about the same thing and appearing to be pretty desperate to make a sale. Everything is either a dollar or five dollars. At 4,000 Cambodian rials to the dollar the main currency is dollars. Rials are used only for small change. The ATMs dispense dollars since the largest rial bill is worth only $1.25. You’d need a tuk-tuk to carry around your money if you changed many dollars into rials. Siem Reap is a tourist town with fancy hotels, Pub Street, Art Market Street, huge numbers of restaurants, and numerous massage businesses. The Japanese are ubiquitous. They travel in groups with a leader holding a sign up high. They are extremely pushy and are rather obnoxious when they decide it’s time to take pictures of each individual in the group standing in front of some interesting feature. There are also many French. That’s understandable since Cambodia was at one time a French colony. Our guest house is French and very nice with comfortable rooms, a pool, and a good restaurant. But a minor problem with staying at a guesthouse full of French people is that everyone smokes! It’s very annoying to be sitting by the pool relaxing when someone lights up and smoke wafts over the area. Not nice at all.
We spent two days exploring ancient Khmer temples that date from the 900s to the late 1100s. Angkor Wat is the largest single temple – it’s absolutely huge. Angkor Thom is the largest temple complex with five gates and about ten individual temples, each of them unique. Then in the surrounding area there are many other temples, some famous such as Na Prohm and other lesser known ones. There are outer walls, elaborate gates, and moats around many of the temples. Long causeways lead toward the central part of each complex, which is always a multi-layer pyramid with a stone figure in the topmost chamber. Around this central tall chamber are other chambers and covered walkways. The pyramid-like structure represents Mt. Meru, which is the center of the earth in Hindu and Buddhist doctrine. Some of the earliest temples started out as temples to Vishnu, a Hindu god. Some of the later temples started out Buddhist and then were converted to Hindu gods. Now they all have a Buddha placed in the place of honor since Cambodia is now a Buddhist country. But in the days when the temples were built and in heavy use, the Khmer and the Champa each had control at different times. By far the most impressive temple is of course Angkor Wat. It’s huge, much bigger than either of us had imagined. A distinctive feature of Angkor Wat is the long walls with bas relief depictions of the Mahabharata. This is the main earlier Hindu history of the wars of the gods and their victories. At the time of some of the later temples the Ramayana was the ascendant story of the gods. Do keep in mind these temples are a thousand or more years old. On some of the other temples there are processions of elephants, apsaras (maidens), and throughout there are nagas (snakes) and guardian lions. I studied some of the iconography while in graduate school. It’s interesting to now see it for real.
Na Phrom is quite interesting and beautiful because of the huge trees that have grown up over some of the walls and chambers. Removing these trees and roots would cause some areas to collapse. Here and there at all of the temples wooden props are keeping leaning walls and threatened chambers from collapsing. There are stones littering the whole temple area of many square miles. Some temples such as Angkor Wat have been heavily repaired. Some are in propped up mode, and others haven’t been touched much yet except to clear out the smaller vegetation. There are many collapsed areas in some of the temples. But the grandeur is there in all of them. The only exceptions are the earliest ones that were made of brick and plastered rather than being made of the sandstone that was hauled from 30 miles away to the complexes. There is little of the plaster remaining on the brick temples, so most of the decoration is gone except for the heavy stone door lintels. The Khmer had not adopted the true arch – they used a built up arch called a corbelled arch. The problem with the corbelled arch is that the roof must be at nearly a 60 degree angle or steeper. So the chambers are very small with lots of stone posts. We didn’t see any clear space larger across than a modest bedroom in an American home. There must have been other less permanent structures in the area. It’s been estimated that one million people lived in the Angkor Thom complex area. This was a very sophisticated society with huge numbers of artisans and stone masons as well as priests being supported by the general populace.
We had the same tuk-tuk driver both days. He did an excellent job, making sure he took us exactly where we wanted to go and watching carefully to be sure he picked us up the minute we reappeared from whatever temple we were exploring. The second day he even brought a little cooler with ice and bottled water because he thought the day would be very hot, and he wanted to be sure we had enough water to drink. And he was right – it was very hot, and we really appreciated the cold, fresh water.
The second evening we went to the pub street and the night market area for dinner and a little shopping. Our suitcases are already so stuffed with things we got in Bangladesh we don’t have room to take much else. Deni purchased a shadow puppet earlier in the day and found a mask she liked. One more small item or two at that was it. No more room! Buy another thing to bring home and something has to be pitched out to make room.
Deni was not going to put up with a 24 hour bus extravaganza to get us to Vientiane, Laos so we sprang for airplane tickets to take a flight to Vientiane from Siem Reap. The flight this morning was smooth. There was one stop at the entry point into Laos. Getting a visa and immigration were easy and quick since the small airport wasn’t mobbed. We’re now in Laos and ready to start exploring. We’ll do a heavy day of museum and temple hopping tomorrow. Then we’ll head further north to explore Vienviang and the Plain of Jars. Here in Vientiane there are a lot of tourists. But it’s not a large city. It’s noticeably more quiet than where we’ve been so far. We’ll let you know what we find after we’ve had a chance to explore Laos some more.