Siem Reap and the Angkor Ruins

Hello from Cambodia! The REI group has been based in the town of Siem Reap in Northwest Cambodia for the past couple days, bicycling our way through the ruined temples of the Khmer civilization.Choy is still with us, and we’ve picked up a Cambodian guide named Bun who is also pretty cool.Some facts I have learned about the Khmer:

  • Their civilization lasted roughly 500 years, from the late 800s to the early 1400s.
  • The Khmer emperor was considered a god-king, with divine right rooted in the Hindu and later Mahayana Buddhism.
  • The Khmer had a deep mastery of water management, and used this mostly to grow lots and lots of rice, regularly achieving 4 harvests a year (without intentional water management you get 1 or maybe 2).
  • This incredible agricultural bounty supported the largest city in the world before the industrial era, with a peak population of up to a million people.
  • Their civilization went into decline as a result of pointless and costly wars with their neighbors, coupled with extreme climate instability, decade-long droughts followed by years of intense flooding, followed by more decades of drought.

Somehow we missed taking about them in high school history class. The group put on a podcast on one of our long van rides through Laos, so I was able to brush up.The thing that surprised me about the ruins is the pure number of them. Angkor Wat is the biggest and most visited, but there are literally hundreds of other temples scattered throughout the area. The biggest just barely poke above the tree line, but most are hidden amongst the jungle. A mountain bike is absolutely the right tool for exploring.This part of Cambodia is flat as a pancake, which makes for a strange contrast with the endless rolling hills of northern Laos. Its principle geographic feature is a huge freshwater lake, covering hundreds of square kilometers to an average depth of just one meter. It shrinks and grows substantially with the dry and rainy seasons, and managing this was the secret sauce of the Khmer.I keep having to remind myself that this is all real – it’s not the set of a movie or video game, these are real ruins built by real people hundreds of years ago, and I’m really walking through them right now.Wrapping and coordinating the temple visits, bicycle routes, kayak rentals and the rest has been this REI tour. I have been very impressed so far. We have stayed in excellent hotels, had perfect itineraries, worry-free support for all the activities, and oh, the food! Set menus from delicious restaurants, course after course of incredible, delicious, artfully plated food. I have never been so well- (or over-) fed.It took a little while to get used to it, after living in the dorms for so long. Based on my budget from the 5 weeks I spent in Vietnam, the price of this 12 day segment would be almost enough to get me through the entire 3-month trip on my own.Now I’m coming to the conclusion that it was worth it. This segment is the anchor of the trip. It was the first thing I booked and having this as a backstop made it easier to get my courage up about several months in a strange and distant part of the world. And, it’s nice to have a break from slumming it with the dirtbags for a while (no offense, dirtbags). Soft beds and delicious meals, and not having to organize a single piece of it myself, is a very nice way to live.Still, great as Choy and Bun are, I think I’ll be ready to go back to my own rhythm when the time comes.

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