In order to renew our 90-day VISAs to Malaysia, we had to leave the country by mid-April for at least 72-hours. Although it is really expensive to get to Southeast Asia, it is very inexpensive to fly between countries in the region. After much debate, we decided to make a brief trip to Cambodia. Although we could have gone to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, or Laos, we opted for Cambodia because of its political stability and its unique ecosystems. While much of Indochina used to be covered in grasslands and savannas, very little of this habitat remains intact because of agriculture and development. The Northern Plains of Cambodia are one of the only areas in the region that are still home to these ecosystems and the unique flora and fauna that reside there.
We flew into Siem Reap, a city in the Northwest of the country that is famous for the ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are ruins from the Khmer Civilization, which dates from around 8th Century A.D. to the 13th Century A.D. Having lived in Peru, I have spent a lot of time visiting Incan ruins and I can truly say that the Khmer architecture blows Machhu Picchu out of the water.
We spent two full days visiting the temples, including the temple of Ta Prohm, which was made famous by Angelina Jolie and the movie Tomb Raider. Of the temples we visited, Ta Prohm was my favorite because the jungle has tried to reclaim it. Giant trees grow over the ruins, hugging the stones. In all of the temples, now World Heritage Sites, you can wander freely, exploring the small hallways and crevices. In the early morning, before there were other tourists, I could almost imagine what it would have been like to stumble upon the ruins in the jungle and to explore them for the first time.
I will make a separate post on the natural history of the area, but it is also worth sharing some photos from the other cultural sites we visited. Cambodia is primarily a buddhist country in the present day, but Hinduism predominated in previous centuries (In fact, the kings of Cambodia alternated between Buddhism and Hinduism and the people had to follow suit). This blend of religions is reflected in the architecture of the country – where you can find Buddha and Shiva in the same temple. Near the town of Kratie, a city along the Mekong River, we visited two Buddhist pagodas. Although the houses in Cambodia are very simple, the pagodas, which pop up every few miles, are incredibly ornate. We visited the 100 Pillar Pagoda and learned the history of how and why it was built. Long story short, the queen was eaten by a crocodile, the king killed the crocodile, and then built the temple to protect the bones of the queen. Our guide also informed us that a young virgin was buried under each of the temple’s 100 pillars – but, don’t worry, they all “volunteered” and sacrificed themselves in order to protect the queen. That detail sure made me feel better.
We also visited a lovely pagoda set on a hill in the countryside. There were small religious shrines around the hill, but the small temple at the very top was painted to tell the story of the Buddha’s life. Both pagodas were active, and we saw monks going about their daily lives as we toured the buildings. I
will write more about this later, but I think it is important to note that Buddhism and all religions were banned during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the buddhist monks were massacred as the Khmer Rouge attempted to eliminate all intellectuals, all ties to Cambodian culture and all familial bonds. For me, the trip to Cambodia was both incredible and emotionally difficult. Behind the great beauty of the country is a terrible tragedy and it is so recent that reminders of the war and the genocide are ever present. If you are interested in learning more about this period, I would highly recommend two books: “When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution” and “In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree” by Vaddey Ratner.