Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Angkor Wat and Rural Cambodia

Walking across the Cambodian border, I first thought, well, I’m back in the developing world, and two hours in a shared taxi later only confirmed my initial feelings—trash everywhere, miles of land set aside for agriculture, and every so often the occasional small town of buildings constructed of sheet metal and crumbling concrete.

Siem Reap, however, is such a tourist hub that is seems to break the mold. Here, there were a number of fancy hotels, western-style restaurants, smoothly paved clean roads, and wireless internet everywhere. Our guesthouse, in particular, was run by a couple of ex-pats, and it felt just as nice if not nicer than places I have paid 20 dollars for, not 4. It just goes to show how much tourism can really change the trajectory of a town; Angkor Wat, a temple complex just outside of Siem Reap, has at times been and may still be the largest tourist destination in southeast Asia. And while, these sites will always been around to generate money, it doesn’t seem like any of this capital will extend outwards into other parts of Cambodia. 

These two photos are from Angkor Wat. It was built in the 12th century first as a Hindu Temple, but later converted to a Buddhist temple. Really interesting tidbit of history that I think speaks to Cambodia's relationship with India: the myth of how the country was created basically centers on an Indian prince marrying a Cambodian princess, and her father drinking up all the water over Cambodia to give the Indian prince a dowry. 

I took these at the Temple Bayon, where there are literally 40 engraved faces of Buddha. 

These are from what I like to call the Jungle Temple, and I even asked a fellow traveler if he knew where the "jungle one was." Really, though, it's called Ta Prohm, and it seemed to be even more popular than Angkor Wat. I wish that we had done this first, because we decided to bike from our hotel to the temples and, once inside the complex, we took the long route. In total, I think we did about 15+ miles and, so by Ta Prohm, I was sweating buckets/ready for a cold shower.

Anyways. After two days and three nights in Siem Reap, Katie and I took a bus to Phnom Penh, where we will stay for another three days before leaving to Ho Chi Minh City. The ride totaled about six hours and, while listening to some jams, I got to really observe the rural countryside. In comparison to Rwanda and Uganda, there are a lot more towns, which are closer together and, although the houses seem just as dilapidated, they are bigger and look more solid. Trash, though, is everywhere, and the worst is that much of it is so close to water. But I won’t get started on my water tangent now.

One thing I did notice is that the only nice buildings in these townships are temples. Now, maybe these buildings reflect a united effort of each community to build something lasting a beautiful, and to have ownership over something, what’s the word, nice. I completely understand that. But another part of me wondered if having such an ornate place to meditate or focus on religion somewhat contradicts the principles of Buddhism. Now, I’m no expert. This is all just thinking aloud. But doesn’t a big tenet of Buddhism focus on letting go of both material and emotional attachments as a way of reaching enlightenment. Why, then, would it be important to have such a beautiful temple with such (expensive?) detail when it seemed that some members of the community were begging? Just something to think on.

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