It was a quick, but necessary trip for me to experience Siem Reap, a city rife with crumbling, centuries-old temples. Danica was here two years ago, but was excited to watch me experience it for the first time, and was able to tour two new temples this time around. Always the perfect travel companion, Danica had arranged for two full days of temple tours with Sunny, a guide she used previously who had also been recommended to her, and whom I would highly recommend should you find yourself in Cambodia. Siem Reap literally means Siam Defeated (or, the defeat of Siam), and while the actual origin of the name is unknown, oral tradition relates it back to an invasion involving King Ang Chan in 1549.
I wish I could say that I had a spiritual awakening while visiting temple after temple, including watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat (albeit on a cloudy day that was hardly worth the 4:45am pickup), but the only thing I truly felt was the constant sweat dripping down my body in the 95 degree, 95% humidity weather, and the aggravation of the disrespectful and obnoxious tourists who will practically push you into a pond to get a photo or better yet, a selfie with those damn selfie sticks. I wish I was traveling with bolt cutters, but alas, I am only carrying a backpack. Ok, rant over!
The temples in Siem Reap are nothing less than astonishing. Built so many centuries ago, scarred by endless battles and civil war in which jewels were stolen, statues were beheaded, and millions of Cambodians were killed, and having undergone alterations from one Buddhist King to his Hindu succession and back again (Buddha carvings were changed to depict Shiva), these temples are somehow able to withstand the millions of tourists who trample on them each year (over 2.1 million reported in 2015). For the most part, you are walking on the original foundation, climbing the steep and narrow steps to each level and can touch the gallery walls lined with carved stones that depict daily life, battles, lovers quarrels and victory marches.
What impressed me the most was the symbiotic nature of the spung trees (Khmer vernacular for Tetrameles) and the temple structures themselves. The result of cutting down one spung tree, deeply woven into the stones over centuries of growth, is a temple crumbling to the ground. While these spung trees are disastrous and detrimental to the physical structure of the temples, the beauty created by them is undeniable. Many of these temples have been restored over the years in some shape or form with funding from other countries, but the few that haven’t were the most breathtaking for me.
Located about 70km from Siem Reap is privately-owned temple Beng Mealea, an early 12th century Hindu temple unaltered by restoration, only by time and war. It is truly a sight to behold, and a reprieve from the overcrowded main area of temples in the city. It’s history is generally unknown, but based on the architecture, it is widely believed that Beng Mealea predates Angkor Wat and was built as its prototype under the same King, Suryavarman II, just on a much smaller scale. The temple was swallowed by the jungle for centuries, was not easily accessible by road until recently, and was a minefield as a result of the 1970s Khmer Rouge rule. However, the land mines were finally cleared in 2003 and it was opened to the public. What remains is a shell of a temple, overrun with spung trees and no possible means of restoration. The wooden steps and bridges (added in 2004 for the filming of Two Brothers), gives tourists the ability to safely walk through, and what’s left is breathtaking.
In a way, spung trees are like tourists in that they take over with their unwieldy roots, grasping at what’s left of the structure, much like tourists do by trampling on centuries old stones to get their perfect selfie. Yet tourism is a beautiful thing, because without it, I wouldn’t be here and the places that thrive on income from tourism would suffer financially. It’s ugly and it’s necessary and it’s beautiful. It’s my Siam Defeated. Here’s a better analogy, a quote that Danica found in her email exchanges with Bridge to Bhutan: “Tourism is like fire. You can cook your dinner on it; or it can burn your house down. It is like seasoning on food. Some can make an improvement, a little more can make it perfect, a lot ruins it and makes a good thing disgusting.” – Anonymous