Siem Reap, Cambodia
The first full day of our exploration of the wonders of the Angkor Empire began with a 45-minute bus trip over newly paved roads to the lovely 10th century “women’s citadel” of Banteay Srei. This pink sandstone Hindu temple, uncovered in the modern era only in 1914, is set apart from the main Angkor complex. Its rich, uniquely deep carvings, dedicated mainly to the god Shiva, depict events from the Ramayana legends. Central as one enters is Indra, perched high above the clouds, bringing life giving rain to a land in which water is survival. This beautiful little temple, reconstructed by the French colonial administration in the 1930s, is a highlight for visitors.
In the afternoon, the guests had the opportunity to visit a highly successful project, funded earlier by France and the EC, but now largely self-sustaining. Artisans d’Angkor trains young Khmer villagers in traditional Cambodian arts, among them stone and wood carving, lacquer work and painting on wood and silk. Some of the larger stoneworks go to the Angkor ruins to replace pieces that have been destroyed or looted over the years. Others find a home in the growing tourist industry, decorating upscale hotels and restaurants. And there is an opportunity for the visitors to shop in the excellent gift shop, which features handicrafts from the workshops, but also other local items – superb silk garments and even some neatly packaged agricultural products such as Cambodia’s famous pepper and palm sugar.
Later, we were introduced to one of the marvels of the great builder king, Jayavarman VII (“J-7), Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple he dedicated to his mother. The French left this monument much as they found it, with kapok trees and strangler fig rising out of it, and supporting, laterite walls and limestone upperworks. There has been extensive remediation in recent years, mainly for the sake of safety, with wooden boardwalks and steps facilitating the passage of large numbers of tourists from all over the world. Our guides were quick to point out that this is the ruin made famous in the West by Angelina Jolie in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
After a brief rest, we attended a welcoming reception by the pool of the splendid Résidence d’Angkor, followed by an erudite introduction to the ancient Khmer Empire by John Freedman, reminding us of the glories of the great civilization that climaxed in the 12th century. John highlighted the achievements of four Khmer god-kings, who spanned six centuries of Khmer domination in Southeast Asia. He went on to describe the equally dramatic fall of Angkor and Cambodia’s reduction to its current modest proportions.
Our evening concluded with an excellent dinner and we retired early in anticipation of a very early start to the following day.