Monday, January 19, 2009

More temples (Jan. 17/09 - Siem Reap, Cambodia)

The game plan for today was to visit all of the more remote temples, starting at a sane hour and ending at sunset. We savoured a sleep-in and delicious home made french toast for breakfast, then met Mr. Khen outside and hit the road. Our first stop was the sprawling complex of Preah Khan, which was once a monastery and university for over 1000 monks. It was a complex maze of passageways and corridors, with hidden rooms, detailed carvings, and even a strange separate building on one side that had huge round columns that resembled Grecian architecture rather than southeast Asian! Just down the road, Neak Pean was a small island temple built in the center of a large square pond that was surrounded by four symmetrical smaller ponds. It was thought to contain healing waters and served an absolution function. Next on our temple trail was Ta Som, which was similiar to Ta Prohm yesterday in design and in the fact that trees have engulfed some of the structures. Some of the towers had the large faces we saw yesterday at Bayon, and we noticed that some of the carvings were much more intricate and individual than those we've seen elsewhere.

Banteay Srey is a special temple located about 30km north of Angkor Wat, and we had read that it is a must see. It was a pleasant drive, as we passed farmers tending grazing cows and water buffalo, kids playing in their yards, and ladies selling everything from bottles of gasoline to woven baskets to dragonfruit. We got a kick out of seeing what these people would load up their motorbikes with - enormous bunches of coconuts, huge trays of freshwater clams, rattan cages full of piglets, mountains of fire wood, three queen sized matresses, and even four people at a time! We knew the temple was close when the virtual strip mall of cafes and souvenir stalls came into view. Banteay Srey was unique as we were told - pink sandstone was used for construction instead of the brown stuff used everywhere else, which gave it a rosy glow in the late afternoon sun. More importantly, the carvings here are significantly more ornate and detailed than anywhere else. Painstaking details are included everywhere you look, and the relief was up to 3 or 4 inches in places. It made us wonder how many people it took to carve it all - every surface was amazing!

On our way toward Siem Reap, we stopped for a visit to the Cambodia Land Mine Museum to learn a bit about the darker side of Cambodia's not-so-distant past. It is estimated that at least 3 to 6 million mines still exist in the country, making Cambodia one of the most heavily mined places in the world. Not a great title to have, but such is the truth. Hundreds of bombs, grenades, mortars, shells, and mines were on display (devoid of explosives now, of course) as were lots of photos and stories from one Khmer man who has taken demining in Cambodia into his own hands. Photos on the wall showed the injuries and amputations that have resulted from innocent people stepping on decades old weapons that are just as dangerous now as the day they were laid. It was interesting that there was a strong Canadian presence in the initiative to de-mine all the world's countries, but it was sad too to see so many of the unearthed weapons to belong to our neighbours to the south. We left with a lump in our throats, sickened by the cruelty that people are capable of, and saddened by its reality. Every day here we are seeing people without an arm or a leg or an eye, and most of them probably lost it while tending to cattle or simply walking in the forest.

We intended to climb the tower at the Pre Rup temple to watch the sun set over the landscape below, but by the time we got to the top and took in the view for a while, we decided we were too tired to hang around for an hour waiting for the sun to go down. So we picked our way back down and headed back to town.

Our plan for tomorrow is to take a boat up the river to the town of Battambang to the west, so we got our tickets all lined up and packed up our gear, happy to have had several great days in Siem Reap but equally ready to move on.

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