My Wat is Bigger Than Your Wat

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 21, 2010
Posted by Aron Flasher
Star Tribune Staff Blog (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA)

Siem Reap is the stagging ground for most forays into Angkor Wat. It used to be a sleepy little river town that in the last five years or so has received the brunt of foreign investment. On my way in, I passed at least a good mile of 5 star hotels and was shocked to find a bustling city center. Still, the wooden bridges running over the lazy river give the casual observer some impression of what life must have been like when Siem Reap was still an isolated village.

After collapsing for a night in town, I set out for Angkor Wat early the next morning (but not early enough. I would recommend trying to get in at dawn as there are less tourists and you kind of have the run of the place.). Angkor Wat is more than just a city, but rather the heart of the former Khmer empire. About a thousand years ago, Angkor Wat boasted over a million inhabitants while London possessed a mere 50,000. The empire stretched from parts of Vietnam to Myanmar to Northern Indonesia and actively traded with China and the Middle East. Today, Angkor is the symbol of Khmer identity (Cambodians refer to themselves as Khmer and it is also the name of their language.) and appears on the Cambodian Flag as well as the national beer. To truly see everything would take more than a week, but honestly after a day you kind of get it. Massive stone structures covered with hand-carved etchings and statues showcase what was an extremely advanced culture. Unfortunately, since I am ignorant of most history of this time period as well as a bit behind in my studies of Buddhist and Hindu Mythology, the names of the kings and battles meant little to me. What was fascinating was the level of access; I was able to walk right into the temples and structures and stand on the ramparts (on delineated paths).

The other interesting occurrence in Siem Reap was the Cambodian new year (Chaul Chnam Thmey in Khmer). I met a Cambodian waitress who spoke descent English and she offered to take me to a party. Generally, locals work almost every day of the year except holidays. Thus when they have a holiday, they taker full advantage of it. In the case of new years, they can stay up the whole 3 days of the festival, spending time with their relatives and neighbors. The party turned out to be in the woods just outside of Angkor Wat (I could actually see the turrets of some of the towers from the party.). It looked like a carnival, complete with food stands, games and strangely enough, a dance area cordoned off by chicken wire (so I guess more like a carnival in Wisconsin). Again, I was one of the only westerners at this event so I elicited many stares and frightened more than a few children (I have got to remember to shave more often.), but again everyone was very welcoming (I also won a giant bag of candy which turned out to be the greatest icebreaker ever. Kids like candy more than they feared me and word got around fast that the white guy was passing out sweets. For about twenty minutes, I was the Pied-Piper.)

I made one mistake which was to sample a soup I had never heard of (As a personal rule, this doesn't work because I have never heard of most anything on the menus here. I was one of those suburban kids who grew up calling anything remotely Asian Chinese food). It turned out to be a collection of what had not been used earlier: blood cubes, chicken joints and cartilage and... well I stopped asking after I found out about those three. Cambodian cuisine is known for its lack of boundaries. Anything can be eaten: frogs, spiders, snake heads, fish bladders etc. After making a go of it with the soup so as not to offend my host or the chef who stood over me and watched, I made my way to the dance circle which had formed inside the chicken wire.

Cambodian dance is usually preformed in a moving circle with the men and women standing separate. The majority of work is done with one's hands and looks incredible tame by our standards of dance (A test of one's patience are the redundant Cambodian dance videos shown on most bus rides. I'll summarize the plots. Boy meets girl. Girl is sad. Boy impresses girl through song and circle dancing. Girl is happy). It was fun to watch all the young boys and girls strut about, trying to catch each other's attention... until I realized that most of the young girls were actually boys as well (Ladyboys are well known throughout Southeast Asia. Often I cannot tell a difference unless I hear them speak.)


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