We arrived the night before to the Soffitel Angkor Phokeethra Resort. This is a beautiful hotel with great service and an excellent restaurant (complete with local music and dance demonstrations). Not only that but there’s a great pool, lush gardens and a tranquil setting throughout.
The plan for tomorrow (Saturday) is to arrive at Angkor Wat Temple before sunrise to see the sun rise over the East – West facing temple. This means we leave the hotel by 5 am! So it’s an early to bed night.
What’s Angkor Wat?
Unfortunately there was rain in the morning so no sunrise. After getting our Temple Pass (government issued passes to allow access to any number of temples) we arrive at Angkor Wat. Our local guide, Finn, tells us the background of the temple, the origins and history. We learn about the ancient caste systems (Royals, Monks, Nobles and slaves) and how the temple complex was built in 30 – 40 years using slave labor.
The temple is 12th century and is a remarkable sandstone structure. (Built around the same time as Notre Dame in Paris). One of the most remarkable features is the foundation design – basically the very heavy temple is built on spongy soil with very high water table that changes every rainy season / dry season cycle. How did they keep it from subsiding all these centuries?
Originally built as a Hindu temple it was later converted to a Buddhist temple. We were impressed with the massive size, the intricate and comprehensive carvings, the overall design (symmetrical) and engineering needed as well as the sheer beauty. It was fascinating hearing the history of the Khymer civilization.
It’s only 9 AM
We get back to the hotel and realize that it’s only 9 AM. We scramble off to breakfast and regroup. Despite the early wake up time, going to Ankor Wat so early is very helpful to staying out of the heat of the day – important this time of year (April).
We have a leisurely breakfast and we’re off to our room to catch up on emails and maybe on some sleep.
In the afternoon we’re off to see an even older temple than Angkor Wat – Bantey Srei. This temple was built 200 years earlier than Angkor Wat (in the 10th century) and is completely different in design. Much smaller and with even more intricate carvings. The sandstone used on this temple was much denser and stronger and therefore it is more resilient to weathering.
This is a beautiful temple which can be best described in pictures. But if you want more information, try this site.
Some Cambodian fun facts
Our guide Finn tells us about many local facts. Here’s a smattering:
- In Cambodia, you greet people with your hands in a prayer position (fingers up, palms together) with a slight bow. Depending on the person you are greeting, you change the position of your hands (below the chin for friends, eye level for nobles or high priests) and up over your head if you are in trouble with your wife.
- Most houses are built with at least two floors. Why? There’s frequent floods and the living quarters are generally on the second floor to keep dry. And since there’s all manner of snakes and insects on the surrounding fields, elevating living quarters off the ground just makes sense. Also the ground floor provides shade during the hot summer months which affords some relief.
- Cambodians refer to the holocaust as what happened during the late 1970’s with the Khymer Rouge (and not what happened in Germany in the 1940’s). 25% of the country was killed and many more left as refugees. To learn more see this article from the US Holocaust museum.
- Cambodians regularly use the US dollar for transactions. In fact ATMs even distribute US dollars directly.
Next, we visited a small school which helps poor or orphaned children. Approx 70% of the teachers were killed by the Khymer Rouge so there’s a glaring lack of educators in Cambodia. Combine this with the fact that this is a very poor country and so many children drop out of school for economic reasons – they need to work. One big-hearted man, Mr. Lynn, started a school to help children years ago; this has turned into an NGO helping 1000 kids per year.
We visited the school, which AmaWaterways helps sponsor. The children performed a quick dance for us and then individually toured us through the small facility. They were practicing their English with us. As the schools’ founder said – no English, no education.
As this was an art based school, the kids produced some incredible paintings which nearly all of us purchased (as a donation). For more information on the school, go to their website.
If seeing these kids doesn’t put a smile on your face, I’m not sure what will. They were given an opportunity of a lifetime (to get an education) and they all knew it and fully appreciated it.
Dance the night away
Our day ended back at the Sofitel. We watched a 30 minute Apsara Dance show – basically local dance routines. These are highly influenced from Indian culture. Fascinating to watch the slow controlled movements. Fingers are bent backwards and toes are curled up – some very unnatural looking poses.
By 7 pm we are ready for the included buffet meal featuring many local dishes. The variety and quality were excellent.
Tomorrow: Two more temples in the morning and a free afternoon to explore. Can’t wait. Click Khmer Temples to continue the series.