Cambodia- Siem Reap
DGC 02 - 17 - 2010

The tour guide Sopanha was telling the group about his experience in the Khmer Rouge era (he's now 43, so was around 12 or 13 when the Khmer Rouge fell after almost four years in power). His father and brother were killed, as well as most of his family. He managed to keep a soft smile on his face while telling us that he usually cries when discussing what happened with others; the hesitation in his voice was enough to make me feel guilty for asking him to explain. His reason for having survived was being more intelligent and clever than those around him, and I don't doubt it. He used to be a teacher, but with a monthly salary of $25 wasn't able to support his extended family of 10 people; son, wife, mother-in-law, and 7 orphaned nieces are living under his roof and his salary as a tour guide. They sleep together on the floor; hopefully he was the beneficiary of a hefty tip. Given all that he has experienced, he doesn't seem to be burdened by impossibilities, history, or prospects of the future, although I suppose it's possibly a face put on for tourists; grumpy tour guides wouldn't make much money. I don't think it's a mask put on just for us, I think his interest and concern for us as a group is very sincere. He seems to be the only tour guide out of his 20's-- many of them look like recent university graduates. All have the exact same uniforms and nametag, including Sopanha- I suppose the tourist industry is heavily regulated by the government because of the necessity for it to remain successful. Siem Reap is probably one of the most comfortable places we've been so far; not the cleanest, but the streets were walkable (with some degree of navigational skills), the people were wonderfully accomodating, and the food was simple and amazing. Most of the tourists are confined to hotels and Angkor so don't spend much time wandering the streets, which makes it feel that much more charming-- real Cambodia and not a place without a place. I tried for the longest time to find some good, unique heavy bracelets, but unfortunately all of the souvenir shops had the exact same jewelry. Most of the stall owners are obviously anxious to unload some of their crap on you, but aren't like hawks, which makes it that much easier to aid in their business venture by purchasing a shirt or whatever it is. The buildings in Angkor-- mainly the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat itself were magnificent, as is to be expected. Angkor Wat must have held have of the population of Japan and China combined-- the causeway across the moat was a sea of people. I suppose it's most effective to compare and contrast Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom instead of analyzing each episode individually, so I'll start out by saying that the perception of space in both of these complexes is entirely different. Angkor Wat, because of its open plan, is very legible and logically organized on several axes. Vertical progression is very apparent through continuation of visual pathways upward, which is one of the most important aspects of the structure's design. Angkor Thom is very similar to ta Promh in that it is an elaborate series of much smaller constructed spaces. Angkor Wat ultimately consists of three concentric square courtyards raised at various distance enclosing one another. Angkor Wat's main temple sanctuary and the top and middle of the complex has only 5 towers, while the complex of Angkor Thom has over 54 towers. Enclosed collonades lead to restricted views, enclose the space, and spaces through hallways and on platforms are very constricted and not spacious. While Angkor Wat is powerful and readable, Angkor Thom conveys much more mystery. Even without roofs on most of the structures, the plan is very difficult to understand. Synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism is also one of the primary components of Thom, while Wat is designed purely as a Hindu temple. There are small children hawking crummy tourist goods here, but some of the will have a good conversation in very manageable English before/after they try to sell you something. One of the older girls began to ask about Obama and another at some point claimed to be his illegitimate daughter (and I subsequently bought her 10 postcards for one dollar). Local food is wonderful of course; stopped at a small streetfront restaurant on the main street of Siem Reap and ate pork stir fried with pineapple-- you can never go anywhere near wrong with pineapple. [caption 001: All levels of Angkor Wat are viewable from the top terrace, the rectangular plan easily recognizable. Forest stretching beyond was once a city of almost 1 million inhabitants in the 11th and 12th centuries.] [Catpion 002: January and February are apparently the most active tourist season, and Angkor becomes a seething mass of humanity. Our visit coincided with Chinese New Year, ensuring even more activity than usual.]

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