by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
Siem Reap is probably the second largest city in Cambodia at this time or will be very soon. It is the modern city next to Angkor Wat. Guest houses and hotels are everywhere and more are being built daily. Large resorts line the road from the airport and money exchange shops fill in any empty space. There are two large market places in town, one for locals and one for the tourists. The smell of fish permeates markets and streets. The majority of vehicles are bicycles and motorcycles, interspersed with mototuks and minivans, carrying tourists back and forth.Finally we made it to the hotel, a very lovely place run by an English couple that specializes in tours for photographers.
When Angkor Wat was discovered by a French explorer, Henri Mouhot in 1830, it was thought to have been the largest city in the world when it was built and used. At that time, London and Paris each housed about 30,000. With the help of laser probes, it is known to have covered an area over 1000 sq km and was inhabited by several million people and contained vast temples, highways and elaborate waterways connected by numerous canals.
Each ruler built his own temple with his own history carved on the walls. The city had libraries and hospitals, smaller temples, monasteries and other governmental buildings. Private homes, including the palaces were constructed of local wood and thatch which dissolved away into the jungle, leaving only the temples built of stone. They built large water reservoirs (the largest being 8×2.2 km) in the 11th century, which probably served as both drinking and irrigation water. Temples were constructed in the center of each reservoir, called Baray.
Since the water table is so close to the surface, private homes might have had private wells. Today each village in the area has their own well, many donated by the children of Europe and England and each has a sign thanking the village that sent the funds. By the end of the 1300’s, fighting with the Thailand rulers had weakened the army, and drought affected the area. While the original religion was Hindu, eventually Buddhism became the dominant one. By the 16th century, the Khmer empire was exhausted, Angkor was largely abandoned, and the city fell into ruin, gradually overrun by the hungry jungle.
Henri Mouhot was looking for insects when he found the first ruins. His book, Discovery of Angkor Wat brought tourism to Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge period land mines were planted all over Cambodia and today the only money the country spends is locating and destroying them. According to The Lonely Planet, one person is injured by explosions every week. The hotel owner said that it is really more like six per week. Everywhere we went, we saw legless people and hundreds of blinded persons. Also heart breaking is the injuring of elephants that step on the mines. During the rainy season the mines tend to float around so that areas must be repeatedly cleared. While we stayed with our guides on the scrambles through the unrestored sites, the red flags and paint on the boundaries marking the edge of the safe zones were only a few feet from the perimeters and our paths.
Our first day we joined a small tour (four people) to visit Bang Melea, a sprawling jungle temple covering over one square km. It is still overrun by vegetation. Building rocks have tumbled down and are about 3 x 4 x 4 feet. We clambered up and over the rocks, through clogged doors and windows. Giant trees grow from half-standing doors and walls, giving the whole place a “just discovered” atmosphere. The temple was recently cleared of land mines and now opened to the public. Located about 40 miles from Angkor Wat, we traveled there on a dirt road, stopping and visiting local villages. At one village we watched three girls using a bamboo seesaw machine to pound a lump of rice mush into rice powder.
At another village we saw a sugar palm setup. The palms look like fan palms and are about as tall as coconut palms. A crude ladder build of a single bamboo pole with three in. spikes for footsteps, gives access up into the tree. There, the small coconut type fruit is cut and the juice is drained into cut bamboo sections or buckets. The juice is cooked down until finally a thick sugar is formed and is wrapped into bamboo leaves. It tastes like fine pecan candy.
Since the site is so large, we hired a mototuk the next day to visit all the spectacular temples, the numerous giant faces, the five spires towering into the heavens, the lakes and all the incredible carvings. An impressive wall, over a mile long, is carved with elephants. Everywhere, the bas relief carvings are incredible. Female dancers with bare bosoms at some sites, have had their bosoms rubbed so often, they shine like fine jewels.
Cambodia is certainly one of the poorest countries that we have visited. Except for the presence of television antennas, life seems to exist in a time warp. There are schools in the three cities of Cambodia but are absent in the villages. Some of the monasteries have schools that do teach the young boys but girls are needed to haul water, fish, carry younger babies and then begin to produce babies of their own. Cambodia is certainly interesting and the poorest Southeastern Asian country that we had seen so far.