Last weekend, we took our final trip out of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Wow! Siem Reap is unfortunately touristy, but is so because the temples are legitimately amazing! We spent three days there, and visited the temples on Friday and Sunday. Angkor Wat is the largest temple, and covers more than a square kilometer! (In total about 500 acres.)
The pictures of the temples pretty much speak for themselves, but I will share the small bit of history I now know about them. Today, Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, but historically Buddhism and Hinduism have traded off in popularity largely following the choice of the king. Cambodia was Hindu until King Jayavarman VII attempted to make Buddhism the state religion in 1811. He was largely successful as Buddhism eliminates the social castes inherent to Hinduism until his successor took the throne as a Hindu. Eventually, the country did switch over to Buddhism with increasing percentage, though many signs of mixed Buddhism and Hinduism remain throughout the country and in the temples in particular.
This knowledge of religious history informs us as we look at the temples in Siem Reap. Any temple built before 1180 was a Hindu temple, and most of the ones built after are Buddhist. Hindu temples are generally tall and include areas that can be easily segregated so that the people of high caste could pray separately from the common people. Buddhist temples are low to the ground and are designed to be accessible by everyone. Many of the temples underwent forced conversion between the religions; the Buddhist to Hindu conversion of temples mostly entailed adding Buddha statues and shrines throughout the Hindu temple, but many Buddhist images were scratched out in order to turn Buddhist temples to Hindu.
Our guide on Friday was a Cambodian man named Bopha, and his stories about his own life were (perhaps unintentionally) one of the best insights we’ve had into Cambodian life. Bopha was born in 1980, the year after the Khmer Rouge regime officially lost power, so the country was in particularly bad shape. Although the Khmer Rouge regime was no longer in direct control thanks to the interference of the Vietnamese army, the regime continued fighting a guerrilla war that consumed the country until Pol Pot died in 1998. This means that Bopha spent childhood working a rice field, because no schools were opened in his region until 2000. In 2000, he wished to go to school but told he was too old. Also, he is the oldest of six siblings, and his parents did not want to lose his work in the fields. After some consideration, because of his age and having no money, Bopha decided that the only way to become educated was to join the monks. Bopha was a monk for 15 years and only left about six months ago. Over those years, he graduated high school (2009), got a BA (2012) and then a masters in law (2014). Despite his law degree, Bopha works as a tour guide in Siem Reap because he cannot get a job in Phnom Penh as a lawyer without $1000 to start as bribe money.
He also told us stories of his relatives and their marriages. His brother entered an engagement without ever having seen his bride only to later have the woman decided to marry someone else. He then entered another engagement never having seen his bride, and the two got married about a year ago. Bopha’s mother received upwards of 20 proposals only to have her father turn them down on her behalf. She eventually got so upset with her father that she went to a “magic man” to have him change her father’s mind. However, the magic man was related to the man that would eventually become Bopha’s father, and simply told her “don’t worry, all your troubles will be gone soon.” It worked out.
Bopha was able to explain many of the religious stories depicted in carvings and statues throughout the temples. One Hindu story was a common theme in many of the temples. It tells of demons and angels competing to move a mountain to find a milk that will make humans immortal. After struggling for 1,000 years with no progress, they approach Vishnu and tell him that they cannot succeed. Vishnu convinces the two groups to work together to move the mountain, and after another 1,000 years, the groups succeed. Vishnu then has to intervene again to prevent the demons from obtaining the milk. Many temples had lines of demons and angels tugging a snake (in order to move the mountain) at their entryways.
On Saturday, our day off from temples, we took a Khmer (reminder, this word is said KMAIcooking class at a local restaurant, Le Tigre de Papier. Our chef was hilarious and also knew her food well. We made papaya salad, pumpkin soup, Lok Lak, fried rice, and pumpkin custard. Wow. Everything was incredible.
Le Tigre de Papier is located on a famous Siem Reap attraction called Pub Street. Designed to attract all of the foreign visitors to Siem Reap, Pub Street is unlike anything I’ve seen in Cambodia. During the day all is calm, but at night neon signs and pounding music advertise each restaurant’s signature cocktails, and street vendors sell food, smoothies, and mixed drinks by the bucket. I couldn’t take a picture that could possibly capture the buzzing energy of the street, but it felt like town carnival meets the lights of NYC plus a little grunge. Overall, such a cool place.
Another highlight of our trip was seeing a traditional dance show put on during our dinner on Friday. I don’t know much about the traditional dances, but the dancers were young and quite talented!
HERE’S WHAT’S UP: Corey left last night to start her job at Mastercard, what?! That means we’ve been here a while.
I’m continuing to play Frisbee 3 times a week in Phnom Penh and also have started going to volleyball once a week. The people I meet are so cool and everyone has a different story. It’s also a little weird because the expat community is quite transient and few people are here long-term.
I can count to 10 in Khmer!