‘Exotic’ is a word with a bad reputation. By the book, by which book I mean the dictionary, it’s supposed to just mean foreign; in regular parlance, however, it’s dished out for anything non-Western, with a side of condescension and a dollop of Gap Yah privilege.
South-east Asia is supposed to be exotic. All that sunshine, lemongrass, poor brown people. So cheap, too.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been much interested in travelling in the region. I’m uneasy with the whole ‘exotic’ thing. As a South-east Asian, I’m not enthralled by hot weather and ceiling fans; as a Singaporean (‘From Third World to First’), I don’t find the poverty picturesque or charming, but depressing in a There-But-For-The-Grace-Of-(insert preferred deity/politician/both) way.
This is all by way of explaining how I got to the age of 32 without ever visiting Angkor Wat, the famous temple complex of the formidable Khmer Empire, despite living a mere two-hour flight away. This past weekend, Husband and I decided to rectify that.
Day One: We arrived on Thursday afternoon, and spent our half day exploring downtown Siem Reap, i.e. the Old Market area. It was an easy 10-minute walk away from our hotel, the very comfortable FCC Angkor (randomly, we’ve long had a mug from FCC Angkor, given by Husband’s friend, so it’s nice to have finally stayed there).
Against all expectations, it was a wonderfully cloudy and cool day, perfect for wandering around.
How to refuse?
As cities in developing countries go, Siem Reap is lovely. Admittedly, we were there during the off (hot) season, when the crowd thins out. But the food was great, the traffic not at all bad, and even the touts were not too persistent.
However, we were not in Cambodia for the urban scene. We headed back to the hotel at a reasonable hour as we had a 4.45am start the next day. We had to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Day Two: We’d booked a two-day tour with Angkor Guide Sam, a locally-run agency which came to me highly recommended by a former colleague. Our guide Sokoeurn and driver Radh picked us up at the crack of dawn, and from the start I knew Sokoeurn was a guide to be trusted when he gently but firmly asked us to walk faster so we wouldn’t miss the sunrise.
During the high season, the field in front of the lake (the best view) is usually packed with tourists, but because it was the low season (and we were punctual), we had the perfect view at the edge of the lake.
After the sun had risen, we explored the temple, and did a spot of people-watching, too. It was a mix of Western and East Asian (mostly Chinese or Japanese) tourists; there were also young monks from other parts of Cambodia.
Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu Temple, and its walls are covered with bas-relief depictions of scenes from Sanskrit epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Sokoeurn showed us several finely-carved action scenes, but what I liked most were the mangroves:
However, as kings died and society changed, the temple was converted from Hindu use to Buddhist. While the switch from one religion to another often sees the newcomers deface the religious iconography of the former (something I saw a lot of in Egypt), in the Angkor complex it seemed that the Buddhists (who still use the temples as religious sites today) were mostly satisfied with leaving things be, beyond some redecorating:
And of course, I could not visit Angkor Wat without paying tribute to In the Mood for Love. Sokoeurn, rather nonplussed, was able to find Tony’s Hole for me, based on a set of photos I’d printed out to show him on the advice of my colleague:
Having satisfied my artistic pretensions, we returned to the car (where Radh gave us cold water and COLD TOWELS SOAKED IN TIGER BALM OIL — BEST INVENTION EVER) and headed to Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Thom’s name might not be as famous as Angkor Wat’s, but its architecture is just as instantly recognisable. You’ve probably already seen those giant faces on the wall of your local day spa; those are better photos than I could ever take, so what I’ll feature here are carvings that I personally found amusing.
At another Angkor Thom temple, Baphuon, we climbed all the way to the top of a ‘temple mountain’ and were unexpectedly met by a nice old lady minding a Buddhist shrine. She tied red strings around our wrists and gave us blessings.
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were of course rather well-touristed (I shudder to think what they’re like in the high season), and though the architecture was indisputably magnificent, it was a little difficult to feel like an intrepid explorer when knocking into a selfie-stick at every turn. Thus, my favourite temple was probably Ta Nei, a small and historically unremarkable temple in the middle of the jungle. We were the only visitors and, finally, we could imagine a little bit of what it must have been like to rediscover these ruins, centuries after the Khmer empire had fallen.
We wandered around the ruins for a while, just us and the mosquitoes.
After lunch at a local restaurant (I was Asian enough to take photos of the food, but not Asian enough to post pictures of it), we headed to Ta Prohm temple, better known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Ta Prohm is notable (besides the whole Hollywood thing) for its lush vegetation, with trees growing out of buildings and roots pushing through the cracks in the stone.
Sokoeurn said that most of the temples were originally in that verdant state when rediscovered; the jungle was cleared and the vegetation removed during restoration work. However, in some cases, removing the vegetation actually weakened the buildings structurally: the roots and vines had helped hold the stones together.
In any case, Ta Prohm is a particularly scenic temple due to all the jungle. There are trees there that look like dinosaurs:
Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist temple, later taken over by Hindus, who modified some images of Buddha to resemble Hindu gods:
Ta Prohm is probably the temple that comes closest to the Romantic conception of the ‘sublime’ (minus the tourists); it’s a pity that not more of the temples were preserved in this organic state.
We finished the day’s touring at around 3pm and spent the evening napping, eating and availing ourselves of the complimentary leg massage at FCC Angkor. Although we wouldn’t have to wake up early the next day, the new dawn would bring a different challenge — a two-hour hike up and down a small mountain.
Day Three: I know I said above that I’m not Asian enough to post photos of food, but the FCC Angkor room service breakfast tray is just such a glorious sight that I have to post it:
Well-fueled for the day, we made our first stop at Pre Rup, a crematorium that is older than Angkor Wat — it was built around 961AD.
Then onwards to Kbal Spean. Kbal Spean is a set of Hindu images and symbols carved into the river bed of the Stung Kbal Spean River, located about a 40-min drive away from Siem Reap, amidst hills. These hills are where the hiking came in.
It was a rather pleasant hike. The slope was gentle and there was a minimum of scrambling. I’d been worried that the sun would be scorching and the insects, biting, but actually the whole way was shaded by trees and there were no insects as long as we kept moving. Overall, I was actually more physically comfortable during the whole climb than I would be after five minutes of wandering around one of the sun-baked temples.
That being said, you probably have to enjoy hiking, or at least be fond of nature, in order to make Kbal Spean worth your while. The actual carvings themselves, while novel given that they’re on a river bed (making the water that flows over them holy), aren’t all that impressive. If you make the trip purely for the carvings, you’ll be disappointed.
But actually, what impressed us more than the carvings was this particular stretch of river that GLOWED in the sunlight:
The orange spots are formed by light shining into the water and illuminating the riverbed… here’s a close-up:
After our descent, we went to the Banteay Srei temple, popularly known as Lady Temple. It’s so-named not because it was built by or for a woman, but because its relatively small scale and intricate, delicate carvings are seen as feminine. The pink colour doesn’t hurt, I guess.
After lunch, we had one more temple on the itinerary, Preah Khan. But on our way there, we made an unscheduled stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a local NGO that deals with a more recent, darker part of Cambodian history.
From the late 1970s to the 1990s, various factions fighting in Cambodia laid landmines as they gained and lost ground. The founder of the museum is Aki Ra, a former child soldier with the Khmer Rouge who used to lay mines for them; as an adult, he’s devoted his life to de-mining efforts. Though the cities and tourists sites are completely de-mined, there are still landmines out there in the countryside, particularly in the north-west.
It’s a well-maintained little museum with good English-language information boards; the US$5 entry fee and any money spent on souvenirs goes towards de-mining efforts, museum maintenance as well as the linked orphanage.
And as a Singaporean, I was intrigued by this exhibit:
Linking the landmines and Angkor, Sokoeurn said that before the temples were officially opened to tourism in (I believe) 1998, tourists were already allowed to visit — but at their own risk. Siem Reap and the Angkor complex were not completely de-mined yet. Apparently, in the early 90s, intrepid (and rich) tourists would hire tanks to take them to the temples!
Our last temple of the trip was Preah Khan, notable to us because of this excellent picture:
And after all those examples of one religion supplanting another, it was nice to see a building built for both to co-exist:
With that, we ended our Angkor adventures. After saying farewell to Sokoeurn and Radh, we refreshed ourselves at the hotel before heading downtown for leg massages. Then we took a tuk-tuk to the Jayavarman VII Children’s Hospital for an unusual cello recital:
Dr Beat Richner performs a free concert at the hospital on Saturday evenings, during which he also talks about the work the hospital does and screens a documentary. His Kantha Bopha foundation has built five hospitals in Cambodia, four in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap, and provides FREE medical care to all children who come through their doors. It is an incredible foundation; Dr Richner asks the audience to donate either money, blood, or both.
We donated some money that night. The blood would come tomorrow.
Day Four: Our last day! Our flight was in the afternoon. After breakfast, we headed back to the hospital so Husband could donate his precious B+ blood.
The donation process was hygenic, efficient and fuss-free:
Afterwards, the technician gave Husband a goodie bag containing a T-shirt and crackers; she also offered him a soda, which he declined.
Then we headed downtown for a foot massage (yes, another massage), lunch, and last-minute touristing, before returning to the hotel to pack and go to the airport.
Of course, our flight ended up being delayed by several hours (typical of Jetstar), but fortunately Husband and I have just discovered the Discworld (RIP Sir Terry), and so were very satisfactorily amused by our Kindles in Siem Reap’s small but modern airport.
Back in Singapore, I’ve been trying to hold on to the Siem Reap feeling by wearing my harem pants everywhere, but it’s a losing battle. I enjoyed Cambodia way more than I’d thought I would, and am now quite curious about Phnom Penh (though I realise it’s much bigger and dustier than Siem Reap). I suspect it’s because I’m a sucker for a good narrative, and Cambodia, for better and for worse, has one of the richer and more dramatic ones in Southeast Asia.
Just don’t call it ‘exotic’.