I’ve finally started to make some headway at Angkor Thom, and for the next five weeks straight I’ll be recording notes, taking as many measurements as I can (that whole jungle thing makes measuring hard sometimes), and georeferencing structures. Today was my fifth day of survey in two weeks, and because I’ll be getting my official permit next week, the number of days per week I do research can begin to increase. Unfortunately, my productivity is being slowed by a rise in the temperature, as late February – early March is the unofficial transition from the cold and dry to the hot and dry season, and Cambodia is no longer pleasant. But this means I’ll be moving from the afternoons to the mornings to survey. As my mom says, only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”…and apparently intrepid Canadians with a deathwish for nettles and spiders the size of your face do too.
The photo above is my stock photo of “scary-ass Cambodian spider”, from the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay excavation last year, but I saw one there in three weeks. If I don’t see one in an hour on any given survey day at Angkor Thom it’s surprising.
I started research in Cambodia officially only two weeks ago, so I’ll do my next post on a day in the field, but I’ve have had to take a brief break over the last four days. Why? Well, my parents are here!
My mom and dad, Stephen and Leslie, have been in Southeast Asia for the past three weeks: three days in Hong Kong, eleven days (?) in Vietnam, four days in Cambodia, and the rest traveling from country to country. My mom celebrated her 60th birthday in Hanoi, and this trip was originally planned to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary last year. So, what better way to cap off some incredible milestones than to see a part of the world that they’d never seen.
They also came to see me, see what I do, and see what everyone they know was raving about after going to Cambodia. I’m biased here, but I know exactly what they were raving about: the most amazing collection of ancient extant temples ANYWHERE ON EARTH THAT AREN’T AT GIZA OR LUXOR!!!
This might actually work as a four-day tour for anyone spending time in Siem Reap, what we did, so follow along and I’ll share my insights after. This entry is also for them, because my mom can’t for the life of her remember every temple we went to and my dad wanted a recap.
Angkor Wat: After meandering over to the new Ticket Office near that North Korean museum, start with the best, but also start with the one that’s going to stir your interest in all the other things you’re about to see. My parents checked into their hotel around 10:30 and we headed off to the temples at noon. Usually, that’s a bad idea because the temperature gets really hot these days from 12:30 – 3:30, but if you’ve only got four days you’re not going to dick around for an afternoon.
Southern Gate, Angkor Thom: This one isn’t labelled on the map with an X because you can usually just drive through it, but we got out to take photos. Note: we skipped Phnom Bahkeng because without the sunset it gets you bored of mountain-temples rather quickly. Do it if you only have time for the Petit Circuit.
Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom: The one my parents found the most ornate. That’s a pretty common reaction. It’s also very claustrophobic.
We skipped the northern area of Angkor Thom because it’s best done if you’ve got two days to do both the Grand and Petit Circuits. If you only have one day, do the north and south areas of Angkor Thom and then head onward out of the ancient capital down the Victory Road.
Thommanon/Chau Sey Tevoda: Two small temples built by the king who constructed Angkor Wat that are a welcome break from the intense crowds at Angkor Wat and the Bayon. They’re really not memorable, but the forest is beautiful and they’re very compact. I think after all the temples my parents saw those and the next one will be the ones they forget entirely.
Ta Keo: The Petit Circuit temple-mountain. Some really pretty galleries of pilasters but otherwise forgettable.
Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple. My dad loved this one despite the crowds, and he probably got his best shots of the trip peering around strangler-fig-wrapped laterite brick walls…although often he’d run right into someone else’s selfie. It’s a crowded place, but I’ve come to re-evaluate it and I will probably go back at some point early in the morning to get some doorway photos before the tour buses charge in behind me.
But my parents, on Day One, were just completely blown away by what they were seeing, which was such an amazing feeling. My mom once called Angkor Wat “ugly” – now she thinks it’s a global icon. My dad got lost in Ta Prohm and couldn’t stop looking at the face-towers on the Bayon. Even Ta Keo they were impressed by! It was such a sensory overload, the only thing we could all do was sit back over dinner and have a few beers to celebrate the day.
We ate down at the Crown and Tiger on Pub Street that night and I fed them Chicken Amok and Lok Lak, which they seemed to really like. That’s the thing with Cambodian food: it’s simple but delicious and is way more nutritious than the food I was subjecting myself to in Rongxian every meal with De Ge; unless you were as poor as I was back in 2012 while I was doing my meagre bit of MA Research, you don’t lose much weight in Cambodia.
My parents are staying at Siem Reap’s own Raffles Hotel, the new high-end owner of Cambodia’s old Grand Hotel d’Angkor once frequented by colonial French officials, high-browed diplomats, and the European elite of 1920s – 1960s tourism. It still is an incredibly swanky place, and the staff still wear traditional costume. It’s also got a very good High Tea, which outsiders like myself can enjoy if we first sell our kidneys.
We started much earlier, 8am sharp, to avoid the Mad Dogs and Englishmen time of day while doing the Grand Circuit. A tuk-tuk ride through the Petit Circuit (Dad, remember to negotiate the price before getting in the tuk-tuk!) should be $15, whereas the Grand Circuit should be anywhere between $18-22. And the Grand Circuit picks up where the other one left off.
Angkor Thom North: Especially in the morning, both of my parents (especially my mom) really enjoyed the silence and solitude of walking around in the woods. Tour buses drive right by most of these temples on their way to Ta Prohm with a brief stop at the Terrace of the Elephants…
…so you’ve pretty much got the place to yourself and others who want to find some reprieve from the awful heat while sitting in the woods. I took them to the Baphuon, Phimeneakas/Royal Palace, the Buddhist Terrace at Tep Pranam, and got them in pure silence at Preah Palilay before absolutely stunning them with the Terrace of the Leper King.
Preah Khan: My second-favourite temple at Angkor (besides for Pre Rup), and also another one my dad found incredibly stunning. What I’ve realized is that my mom likes temple-mountains and my dad likes temple-landscapes, so it was a cool combo of at least one parent being happy everywhere we went. It’s also got this cool building with circular columns that got us all stumped…and has stumped archaeologists for nearly 150 years.
Neak Pean: The Jayatataka Reservoir in which this little pond-shrine is located was empty the last time I came through in 2012, so now it’s open again, the ponds are flooded, and the crowds are enormous. This and Ta Som were probably the most forgettable temples on the Grand Circuit day, despite how pretty the (finally-filled) Jayatataka was.
Ta Som: Cookie-cutter Jayavarman VII monasteries get monotonous after a little while, and while Ta Prohm and Preah Khan were really awesome, Ta Som was both smaller and less ruined. There was the strangler fig to end all strangler figs at the western entrance, but I was ready to move them onto the East Baray temples.
East Baray Temple: In the 10th century two 8.5 x 1.5km reservoirs (or barays) were constructed to aid in the production of rice year-round in the Khmer Empire. The West Baray is still filled with water, but the East Baray is now completely dried up and only visible from space. I was admittedly not as thrilled about that temple as my mom, who again loves temple-mountains, so I think I just enjoyed weathering the hottest part of the day there.
Pre Rup: Unless you keep going to Banteay Kdei, another J-VII cookie-cutter monastery, or Prasat Kravan, a small temple with some cool raised-brick reliefs, Pre Rup is the last temple you usually visit on the Grand Circuit. And it blew us all away (me because it’s my favorite, them because I got really excited about it). It’s by far the biggest of the temples outside of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and the views across the farmland are awesome. My mom is usually petrified of heights, but she has climbed every single ruined set of temple stairs on their trip to Angkor…although I have had to promise her (and lie once or twice) that there are a set of wooden modern stairs on the other side. At Pre Rup, there fortunately were.
I thought they’d be totally templed-out, ready to explode with information, and absolutely dreading our “field trips” out to the Koh Ker temple complex and the jungle-clad Beng Mealea (see below) yesterday, but it was actually the exact opposite! Apparently, having a PhD Candidate take you around Angkor somehow enhances the experience…wonder how that works out…
Well, regardless, it was hot, and both us and our tuk-tuk driver were like horses dashing for the barn to have some lunch, so we were dropped off at the Raffles. The inside of the Raffles is absolutely gorgeous, and while pricey is a really nice place to take a swim or have lunch if you don’t stay there. It’s also got a really fantastic buffet barbecue dinner with live dancing. There are definitely cheaper alternatives in town, but you don’t get your entertainment in acts.
No fire-breathing, though.
I wasn’t going to subject my parents to three consecutive days of temple-hopping. Unless you’ve geared up for it in advance, by the end of the Grand Circuit you’ve seen all the temples you’d ever want to see at Angkor and they all begin to blend together. But, of course, the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a bit of a different beast – see one of my previous posts on the best places to view sunrises and sunsets in and around Angkor.
But after that, I gave them the morning off. The Raffles has an incredible pool and my dad is an avid swimmer, so while I entered some data into my survey spreadsheet they hung out by the pool and on the balcony of their room reading, Skyping my sisters, and chilling out. Remember: they’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly three weeks at this point.
Which is why I took them on a boat ride through Kompong Phluk Village, one of Cambodia’s stilted (and somewhat floating) villages on the Tonle Sap lake. I’ll be doing an entry later on about floating villages (in an earlier entry it says “next week” but I’ve had no time this week), but here’s a sneak preview of what they saw:
That night we went to the Malraux, an affordable French restaurant nestled off Pub Street, with the best Beef Carpaccio in all of Southeast Asia. We’d originally planned to meet up with my advisor, Ed, who’s excavating an ashram in the Angkor Archaeological Park, but with him waking up at 4:30 am every morning and us having woken up at 4:45/5pm and still fighting our way down to Pub Street, it was best we left it for the night after.
This was the day I actually got to see something new alongside my parents, and the 5 hours there and back to check out two remote temple-complexes was completely worth it.
Koh Ker: This remote Khmer capital, which was really only occupied by any kings from 928 – 944 CE, has escaped a lot of the reuse of bricks that came with the religious transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century. The Mahayanists were here, as evidenced by a Jayavarman VII hospital near the main temple complex, but its claim to fame is a line of temples with giant lingams leading to an enormous tiered temple resembling a Mayan pyramid (aptly named Prasat Thom – Big Temple).
There were other cool outlying temples, too, but this was the tallest temple I’d been to besides for Angkor Wat…or at least the one that felt the tallest…so it was obviously what people drove 2 1/2 hours from Siem Reap to see. It seems somehow incomplete, thoughm, with minimal decoration besides for the altar, but my parents didn’t care – my mom said that she no longer felt the need to go to Mexico.
Beng Mealea: Built by Suryavarman II around the same time as Angkor Wat, this was the icing on the cake and the grand finale of their entire trip. The sky was overcast as we walked down the causeway to this overgrown temple complex, and for 90% of the time we had the place to ourselves. It may have been the solitude, it may have been the state it’s been preserved in (absolutely ruined with no attempts beyond a few supports to keep the structures from falling), and it may have been the light, but both of them essentially told me this morning that Beng Mealea is really what they came to see in Cambodia without knowing it. And the BBC agrees!
Of course, no visit to Cambodia would be complete without a post-dinner trip to the Night Market to wrap my mom in an elephant-pant…sarong…? I have no idea what on earth she was putting on here:
There was also arguably a Day Five to all this, but they left Siem Reap for Hong Kong this morning so it doesn’t really count.
Now, some reflection:
Taking my parents around my all-too familiar home-base of Angkor, through parts of modern Siem Reap (urban and rural), and even into parts unknown (Koh Ker, Beng Mealea somewhat) was absolutely incredible and rewarding, and being able to teach an engaged audience about the history and archaeology (not to mention my own work) was so fulfilling. They got to learn more about me, too, and why I plan to spend my entire life researching here. Having the people who’ve supported you from Day One get excited about what you do for a living is incredibly fulfilling, like incredibly, and I can honestly say these have been some of the best days traveling (albeit in less of a “discovery” sense than usual) I’ve ever had.
It also gave me an opportunity to present my research to a popular audience, and while that was definitely not the reason I dragged them here, it helped make me less…esoteric. I have an Asperger’s-like fascination with Angkor, but not everyone does. So in order to make the substructures of Buddhist monasteries lost deep in the jungle (drool…) as exciting to everyone else as it is to me, you have to learn how to talk to people and not completely obliterate their minds with obscure facts, sources, and readings.
Worst case: just go with the Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones references and see if people’s eyes begin to bulge out of their heads.
My advisor, Ed Swenson, who joined us for dinner last night, knows that very well. He seemed on the cusp of jumping into High Theory, EFEO spats in Cambodia, and Andean academic speculations, but he held back and went for the popular explanations of his work: all the dead bodies they find 😛
Digressing, though, I can’t thank my parents enough for coming down to Cambodia to see what I do. I really hope they enjoyed themselves as much as I enjoyed showing them around (I think they did), and I was incredibly impressed with how adventurous they’ve become after three weeks in Southeast Asia. My mom climbed all over cascaded temple bricks, my dad leaned over ridiculous precipices to get the perfect photos…it really makes you realize how much the spirit of adventure can fill you no matter what age. Great work, and love you both!
Now, back to work in the woods! I have to go find out why a Buddhist Terrace faces North instead of East!