A back note about arrival in Siem Reap
We de-planed from the small aircraft to a waft of fuel exhaust and engine heat. I was the first off the plane and made my way as the line leader to my fellow passengers toward the small terminal building. The building was completely un-signed and it was unclear as to how to get inside the terminal.
To the far left of the building, about 200 yards from where the plane stopped was a long line of people. By all appearances they were going into the terminal. I led my very compliant line of fellow passengers toward the group of people seemingly trailing into the building.
Once I got closer, I saw the entry doors to the terminal and made my way past the crowd already formed there. I realized the people outside of the terminal were queued up for a window just to the left of the entry doors. I visually followed the line to the window, and then to the sign above the window to see why they were standing there instead of moving inside.
“Incoming passengers for Ebola countries” screening
Alrighty then, I thought. I jut busted through a line of Ebola carriers. Nice. On to immigration.
Wah, wah, wah.
Still, I’m pushing the limits. It had to be 100 degrees today. Walking around the many temples was great fun and fascinating, but left me soaking wet by the time I got back to the hotel room at the end of the day. Yes – and a bronze glow whether I want it or not, even with 80% sunblock. And this is winter in Siem Reap (the name meaning “defeat of Siam” what is now Thailand). I can’t imagine summer.
My left ankle is swollen, but has gone down in the last 24 hours even though I am still walking and hiking on it like it’s 1999. The mosquitoes are relentless, but I’m current on my Malaria pills. I did forget the DEET and the inch cream, Ahh! I usually eat breakfast and lunch; I’ve changed that up to eat lunch and dinner related to the 15 hour time change and the need to get up and rolling early in the morning.
My muscles ache. My knees and ankles hurt from all the steps and climbing. I was completely self-involved this morning as I considered just how much everything hurt, until…
It was the first temple of the morning. I was standing at the foot of the temple stairs looking up at the challenge before me. The couple hundred steps to the top were steep and the stair platform (the part on which you step) is no deeper than 5 or 6 inches, varying greatly in condition and integrity, and many are just missing chunks making it necessary to move left or right. There’s no way to stop once you start and the sides of the steps are direct drops. Climbing the stairs is all on your toes if you’re anything above a size 4 shoe.
I glanced to my left and spotted 4 people heading my way, 3 on foot and 1 in a rickety old wheelchair. They pulled up to the stairs within a couple feet of me. The older woman, probably in her 50s (hard to judge the age of Asians) backed up to the younger girl, likely a daughter, probably in her late 20s, and reached for the girls arms over her shoulders. She then, with a single grunt, pulled the girl who was about the mother’s size, on to her back and took a deep breath.
I instinctively raised my arms out as if to spot her, but she had already turned and began slowly up the stairs. I immediately began in lock step behind her and watched as her legs wobbled under the weight with each step. Her breaths grew deeper the higher we rose. The quiver in her legs grew more intense as she began to slow, but continued toward the top.
She finally made it to the top and stood waiting for the wheelchair to catch up. Suddenly nothing hurt. My knees, ankles and sore muscles disappeared and I went on with my day.
I’m averaging 5 miles a day, which isn’t a big difference from my usual routine but the exertion level is different and higher. I usually walk or run 5-a-day, 12-13 miles over the weekend… but it’s a consistent set of muscles. And it’s not in relentless jungle heat.
Even this country’s dirt is red. I just cleaned it off my boots, again.
The name of the town, Siem Reap, is an eternal poke in the eye at Thailand. It was dubbed by King Ang Chan (1516–1566). Cambodians call Siam or Thailand “Siem.” Ang Chan defeated the Siamese in his invasion of Cambodia and received a door prize of 10,000 Siamese hostages (troops).
It went like this: Khmer King Chan (Cambodia) wanted full independence from Siam. The timing was good because the Siamese were battling serious housekeeping issues like an episode of The Kardashians, Ganham-style.
Siam King Chairacha was poisoned by his concubine, Lady Sri Sudachan. The king, like most men, was emotionally unavailable so she goes on match.com because she’s lonely. She quickly hooks up with a commoner with a goofy screen name (Worawongsathirat) while the king was on the battlefield in Chiang Mai. The king returns and she cooks his highness a welcome home chicken dinner complete with a side of poison.
Little Miss Hot Pants then took it upon herself to make her lover, king. Needless to say, no one but the queen likes Worawongsathirat. So the royal entourage lures the faux king and his family to a place outside the city under the guise of seeing a newly-captured “white elephant,” and we’re not talking used household items. That’s where he, Queen Hot Pants and new-born daughter are offed.
The court nobles then ask Prince Thianracha, a monastery monk, to take the throne under the title of King Maha Chakkraphat (1548–1569).
A monk for a king; how hard can that be to subdue? King Chan gets wind of the turmoil and launches an attack on Prachin Buri in 1549 successfully taking its Siamese inhabitants. The Siamese dime off on the monk’s lucky streak and Chan stands at a cross roads: attack the new and inexperienced monk? No. He decides to hold ‘em. Instead of being grateful, the Monk-King Maha was pissed, but got over it because the Burmese were already nipping at his heels having taken 2 of his cities and going for a third.
Everything may have been left at that but the Monk-King who is obviously riding high on his new found king power tells King Chan he wants his white elephant. King Chan says, “yeah-no” and sloppy-seconds-monk-king gets royally pissed and throws a temper tantrum by sending one of his princes to take King Chan and his stinking white elephant down… except Chan is awesome with a bow and kills the prince and the elephant he rode in on. Now the story is over.
So the city of a million-plus people and hundreds of temples called Siem Reap lived happily ever after prospering into the sunset?
Not really. Remember, we’re talking about Southeast Asia where they change borders and corrupt leaders like underwear. While the whole concubine-white elephant story named the town, it was already a tertiary-vassal state in decline and destined to be swallowed by the jungle. We we. No No messier. Enter the French.
From the 1500s to 1800s the in-fighting among the Khmer lords facilitated the intervention and domination from their more powerful neighbors: Vietnam and Siam. Siem Reap, and other major Khmer cities were under Siamese control and known as Inner Cambodia from 1795 through 1907 when the province was ceded to French Indochina.
In 1901 the French cleaned the place up and serendipitously discovered the temples. The same year, the tourists began to flow into the country. That is until the war in the 1950s through 1972 (known as the Vietnam War in the U.S. and known as the American War in Cambodia). The U.S. only became involved in the Vietnam War when France asked us to help with the uprising.
While tourism has begun to open up again, the country is no stronger than it was in the centuries proceeding. With the Vietnam War came the likes of the Khmer Rouge, Poi Pot and his killing fields. Basically same tribal song, different verse.
As evidenced in the story above, the country and it’s neighbors are tribesmen. Like Africa and the Middle East, war is in their blood. (How funny that they think America the war mongers!) They harbor grudges even today and they prefer U.S. dollars to their currency, reil, because they believe war will again break out, and their currency will be worth nothing (as I was told by the locals).
Another fascinating fact, during Poi Pots’ murderous campaign, he targeted certain groups for torture and execution: the educated and intellectuals, the handicapped, anyone who wouldn’t submit to farm work as he expunged the country from all but those in the labor class and those thought to be foreign, non-Khmer lineage. It’s estimated that over 25% of the Cambodian population was executed under his reign of terror (i.e. the killing fields).
What remains are uneducated farmers. Just saying. That is what I have found. People who kneel before golden idols, make wishes on an encyclopedia of gods indexed by every living and non-living thing, and who think Poi Pot was a hero, a Khmer purist who unified the country and didn’t take crap from its neighbors.
And oh yes, these same folks think Kim-Jung Un is a gangster-cowboy who stands up to the bully U.S.
And now it’s time for me to get some shut eye before I head out for another day of hiking tomorrow. So I will have to finish this diatribe at a later time. It’s obviously been an enlightening trip in so many ways. More later.
Thank you for your well wishes, Michael Garner. Happy New Year to you.