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Phnom Penh | Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

We took a four-hour boat ride to Siem Reap in order to visit Angkor Wat. This was yet another unsettling experience in Cambodia, as we boarded the boat and military men shouted at us to move from our rooftop seats ("YOU! MOVE!!") to seats down below (which we were warned were a death-trap if the boat should roll over or sink.)

We eventually managed to get a spot back on top of the boat by faking seasickness and had a peaceful ride up the river, passing rolling green rice fields; Vietnamese floating villages; shanty towns with dilapidated shacks for homes and ornate temples for worshiping; women standing on the tips of fishing boats, propelling the boat forwards by pressing long wooden sticks into the river bed below; men pulling up fish in nets; and little boys peeing into the brown river while their neighbors washed their dishes in the same water from the porch of their shack next door.

The scene on arrival in Siem Reap was shockingly unreal: the boat pulled up to the dock amidst hundreds of waving, shouting, sign-touting men... some of whom tried boarding our boat to take people's luggage and then charge them for carrying it, nearly tipping the boat over under the weight of all the bodies in the ensuing pandemonium. Our senses were stunned in the oppressive heat, the extreme sights of poverty, and the smells that accompany such destitution.

We were lucky to have an amazing young Cambodian man name Sai waiting for us at the dock. Sai was so informative, well-spoken, and genuinely friendly that we stuck with him for our entire time in Siem Reap, piling onto the back of his motorbike for our 2-day tour of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was one of the most amazing parts of our entire around- the-world trip, and is the reason why most people trek up through Cambodia. There are whole cities of ancient temple/palace ruins... abandoned and left to let the surrounding jungle start to consume them before they were re-discovered in 1861. We watched sunrise over Angkor Wat, and then found ourselves scampering all alone through the myriad nooks and crannies of the ancient temple, whose stone stairs are so high and steep that you need to climb them with hands as well as feet. We saw monkeys running along the pathways, hundred-foot-tall stone Buddhas, and intricate bas reliefs that were carved over over 1500 years ago. We found ourselves wondering: "Did they carve all the blocks of stone first, and then put them together in their precise designs, or pile the stones first, and the start carving?" We soon found the answer when we came upon a series of bas-reliefs that were abandoned before they were finished being carved, so that the effect is of ghost-like half-figures eerily emerging from the stone. We found it quite telling that the majority of the bas reliefs told stories of war, and came full-circle around the walls of a building so that as soon as one war started, another began. We thought it an accurate depiction of mankind that its history is carved in stone by war upon war, as we anxiously awaited news of the impending war in Iraq.

It would take weeks to see Angkor Wat fully, but we piled as much as we could into an exhausting sunrise-to-sunset couple days before heading back to Phnom Penh. The truck-ride back to the boat was a typical Cambodian adventure: we were picked up in the dark and loaded onto the back of a pickup truck. We stopped to pick up a few more folks...and then a few more... and a few more... until the situation became so absurd that all we could do was laugh. By the time we got to the boat, we must have had 20 people and 20 people's luggage piled into a pickup truck. On the boatride back to Phnom Penh, we had the pleasure of talking with a couple of Aussie psychologists who are working with Cambodian men to educate them about domestic violence. Domestic violence is a major problem in Cambodia, since dozens of people live together in one-room shacks and many of the men feel emasculated and unempowered (and are also repressing intense emotions from years of oppression), and therefore try to prove their masculinity by beating their women.

We left Cambodia grateful for the experience, vowing to try to make some difference in these peoples' lives by joining or contributing to relevant organizations back home.

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