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January 28, 2010

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Wandering into the heart of Khmer cosmos and kingdom

TO some, it's heaven; to others, it's hell. In Cambodia, Angkor is the heart and soul. It's anything and everything: on the flag, the national beer, hotels and guest houses, cigarettes. It's a symbol of nationhood and pride.

But Cambodians, whose ancestors established the magnificent Angkor empire, experience mixed feelings.

"It's sweet, but it's bitter too," says my driver/guide Rady. "We have the world's eighth wonder, but we've also experienced the cruelest part of human history and still suffer from poverty and political instability."

Yes. The good, the bad and the ugly is the way to sum up this small Southeast Asian country. Look at Siem Reap, a tourist city 15 minutes' ride to the grand Angkor kingdom where travelers recharge and replenish. Life is full of contradictions: light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate.

"You know, there's a famous saying here, 'No money, no honey'," Rady jokes, bitterly.

"On the surface, we play, we laugh and we enjoy what we have; but behind all these things we work harder while living poorer," he says. "We rely almost totally on tourism, without which we would have nothing."

To all Khmers now struggling to rebuild their lives after the days of the Khmer Rouge killing fields (1975-79), the temples of Angkor are a source of inspiration, a point of pilgrimage and more important, a way for living.

It's a mind-blowing experience with which few sights compare. You would never know the greatness of human wisdom and would never feel the pulse and pain of the country and its people until you arrive here, right in the center of this ancient civilization.

See the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat, a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry and spirituality; Bayon, weirdness in stone; and Ta Prohm, where nature triumphs over stone - before venturing further afield to the feminine Banteay Srei and the jungle-clad Beng Mealea.

Mother of temples

Angkor Wat, the largest and undoubtedly the most breathtaking of the monuments at Angkor, is widely believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It is a perfect and enduring example of man's devotion to his gods.

Many scholars believe it was built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II to honor Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom the king identified, because the temple is oriented toward the west, symbolically the direction of death.

I was totally overwhelmed the moment I passed the entrance, struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs), its fascinating decorations and extensive bas-reliefs. Before then I didn't grasp how tiny and insignificant we humans are in the sweep of history and civilization.

Pious men at the time of Angkor must have been ecstatic in these multiple layers of meaning in stone, in much the same way a scholar might be enraptured in James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (serpent deity) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods.

Mysterious faces

Unlike Angkor Wat, which looks impressive from all angles, Bayon looks rather like a pile of rubble from the distance. It's only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent.

Shrouded in dense jungle and standing in the exact center of the Angkor Thom, Bayon is a place of narrow corridors, steep stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 gothic-like towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara that resemble the great king Jayavarman VII himself.

These huge heads either look into the distance or glare down from every angle, showing power and control with a hint of humanity. As I walked around, a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time - full-face or in profile, almost level with your eyes or staring down from above.

Power of jungle

Several kilometers west of the Bayon, Ta Prohm is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments, it used to be swallowed by the jungle.

But now the jungle is cleared and only the largest trees are left in place, making it manicured rather than raw like Beng Mealea, which is 80 kilometers away.

If it were not for the famous Angelina Jolie film ("Tomb Raider," 2001), I would most likely not have picked this temple. But still, a visit to Ta Prohm is a special experience. It is covered in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast roots.

If Angkor Wat, the Bayon and other temples are testimony to the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds me equally of the overwhelming power of the jungle.

Originally known as Monastery of the King, it is a temple of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors, many of which are impassable, blocked with piles of delicately carved stones covered by the roots of decayed trees.

Trees, hundreds of years old - some supported by flying buttresses - tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene.

The most popular root formation is that on the inside of the easternmost gopura (entrance pavilion) of the central enclosure, nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. It used to be possible to climb onto the damaged galleries, but this is now prohibited to protect both the temple and visitors.

Real treasure

To wind up a day's trip, go to Angkor Wat for sunset when the whole temple compound changes from the black and white in the dawn into golden color in the dusk - a magic show that nature performs for us.

"People in Cambodia are so lucky; you can enjoy such beautiful sunrise and sunset every day," I sigh in admiration.

"People in your country are also very lucky, because you can travel around; here in Cambodia most of us can never afford to go out of our city, not to mention the country," my guide Rady says.

But they never feel unworthy; instead, Cambodian people are confident and sanguine.

Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia's greatest treasure is actually its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of poverty and social instability. But thanks to their unbreakable spirit and optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact; no visitor comes away from the nation without admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.

They smile, always smile, over the hardships and pain they've ever suffered.

Kids in Angkor, many say, are angels when they sit still, but demons when they move. I didn't catch the real meaning until I reached Bakong where I met three "angel-ish demons."

The moment I arrived at the entrance, a smiling girl approached me and put a little white flower on my palm. I was so touched and was just about to say "thank you" when the second one quickly put a grass-woven ring around my little finger. Before I detected something, the last girl reached out her hand and asked for US$1.

It's the price of the lesson: when there's no "target," Angkor kids sit quietly aside, eyes pure and peaceful, like angels; but once a "target" is detected, their faces liven up, with a scheme and trick ready - in just a minute they become "demons."

It's daunting and frustrating, but in a country that is among the world's poorest and depends almost totally on tourism, it is understandable. But instead of giving the money, I took out candies, chocolate and comic books.

Such is the yin and yang of Cambodia, a nation that inspires and also confounds. Like an onion, the more layers you peel, the more it makes you want to cry, but these are spontaneous tears, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of joy.

Next time, I will bring more candies and books, I promise to the kids, and also to myself. How to get there

There's no direct flight from Shanghai to Siem Reap. You can either make transit in China's Guangzhou, Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur or Cambodia's Phnom Penh.

Check Ctrip, China Southern Airlines or AirAsia for budget flights.

When to go

Cambodia can be visited at any time of year. The ideal months are from November to February, the so-called "dry season," when humidity levels are relatively low and there is little rainfall, but this is also peak travel season.

The "rainy season," actually, is not a bad time to visit, as Angkor is surrounded by lush foliage. If you are planning to visit isolated areas, however, the wet season makes for tough travel.


Although backpacking in Siem Reap is quite easy and comfortable with many resources available, it's still recommended to get a local driver/tour guide who will share your experience and take you to the places most guidebooks don't mention.

My tuk tuk driver, Rady Soeun, is a very good travel companion. His English is quite good and he is highly reliable, friendly and resourceful. If you e-mail to him ( beforehand, he will pick you up at the Siem Reap airport. He can also be reached at 855 (0) 1245-0511.

Other suggestions

If you have only one or two days, don't even bother, as the Angkor temples deserve at least three days to explore. Five to seven days are recommended. Three kinds of tickets are available: US$20 for one day, US$40 for three days (valid within a week) and US$60 for seven days (valid within a month).

Take along as many candies and chocolate as possible. At most Angkor temples, candies work out well when kids come up asking for money.

Take enough water, if possible, when starting out. At most tourist spots, water is relatively expensive.

Wear a scarf which is extremely helpful to protect you from both the scorching sunlight and the heavy wind-blown sand and dust.


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