There’s nothing better than a little historical religious debate between scholars to liven up a cultural day trip and Kbal Spean is an archaeological site not far from Siem Reap that fits the bill. Looking at the featured image above this paragraph, you might have noticed the little sculpture and thought it looks like a phallic symbol. And you’d be correct. Kind of. Known as a Lingam, the object is an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva which means it’s symbolic or suggestive and not literally representative. In Sanskrit, lingam is loosely defined as phallus and more specifically, “the genital organ of Shiva worshipped in the form of a Phallus”. Often found at the center of Shaivite Hindu Temples (one of the major branches of Hinduism that reveres Shiva as the Supreme Being), it acts as a symbol of generative power.
So what’s up with Hindus revering male genitalia and why is it so misunderstood? Unlike “locker room talk”, there’s symbolism and not sexual innuendo involved and we learned that the lingams seen in temples are usually also associated with a Yoni, a Sanskrit word meaning the female counterpart of the phallic symbol that represents the creative power of nature. Collectively, the symbol represents the creation of life. There’s an interpretation associated with every story, character and symbol in Hinduism because it’s a religion that’s inherently non-literal. Immensely complicated, researching who started the sexual part of the story is dicey but it seems that scholars began trying to debunk the British notion that the lingam represented a human organ that aroused erotic sensations in the early 1800’s.
Either way, lingams are found all over the Khmer Empire and if you’re the curious type, here’s an interesting link with more details. For our purposes, let’s go back to the topic at hand. Besides visiting The Cambodian Landmine Museum and a fascinating place known as The PInk Temple, our last day trip included a hike up the southwest slope of the Kulen Hills commonly known as the “Valley of 1000 Lingas“. About 45 minutes from the main temples of Angkor Wat, we arrived around mid day and began ascending a relatively steep dirt trail. Always inundated with visitors. you’d probably need to arrive early for a peaceful hiking experience but it’s fun watching everyone from entire Indian families draped in traditional clothing to European backpackers make the hot and humid trek. Set in a lush forest, the scenery is nice enough to enjoy the 1.2 mile hike and stop for a few photos but it’s hard to visualize King Suryavarman I climbing up with his high priests over 1,000 years ago. Obviously, this was a fit society.
Hermits living in the surrounding hillsides carved over 1,000 lingas into the riverbed. Additionally, the sandstone has many architectural sculptures representing HIndu mythology and our guide told us nobody could bathe in the river except the king and his high priests which was probably OK because access couldn’t have been easy in the 11th century A.D. Strange looking stone carvings are mainly lingas depicted as neatly arranged bumps cover the surface of the sandstone rocks.
Additionally, there are dozens of Hindu mythological motifs carved into the side of the sandstone bedrock. Depictions of the Hindu Gods Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi and Rama are all found around the river and it’s hard to imagine they were left untouched for almost 1,000 years. Only discovered in 1969, the area remained off-limits for further exploration during the years of the Cambodian Civil War and it opened again in 1989. Part of Phnom Kulen National Park, the hike to the top is well worth the effort.
Only visible after monsoon season when the water level starts dropping, the carvings are seen after about 45 minutes just before approaching a bridge to the waterfall. Designed to create a “power path for the Khmer KIngs“, they’re all fascinating even though the waterfall itself is unspectacular. Naturally, you have to pose for a scenic picture after enduring the heat and humidity but the main attraction is clearly the carvings.
Later that evening we went back to Pub Street looking for something besides Khmer food. Unfortunately, a lot of western food in Southeast Asia just doesn’t taste as good as it should with a few notable exceptions (One example is The Duke’s in Chiang Mai. Owned by an American, the burgers and sandwiches are right out of the homeland). Mostly, Siem Reap’s western restaurants serve pizza, chicken wings and European style dishes. Against our better judgement, we decided on Cambodia’s version of Tex Mex. Sporting an impressive looking menu, our third and last try at Mexican cuisine in Southeast Asia failed as much as Penang and Thailand. Looking mostly like the Swanson’s Mexican Style TV dinners I grew up with, nachos are sorry-looking wet puffy things with a tad of crappy cheese, fajitas were sad tasting beef in a drippy tomato sauce with a smattering of shredded lettuce and nobody west of California understands how to make a burrito.
On the bright side of the gastronomic scene, Siem Reap offers a world of street food and although much of it looks like Myanmar style meats or a watered down version of Penang’s Nasi Kumpur, there are some great fresh fruit juice stands and interesting dessert choices. Enticed by the idea of a freshly made Ice Cream Roll available in a world of tropical flavors, we ordered a mango flavored treat and watched while the vendor sliced open a mango, and threw it on the grill like a crêpe only with fresh ice cream instead of hot fillings. At $2.50, it’s one the town’s tastiest treats and almost made up for the canned tomato sauce and salsa disguised as Mexican food.
Oddly enough, it was Halloween night and we found the streets packed with strange Asian versions of western style spooky celebrations. Using every possible western event to drum up business, tourist towns in Asia crack me up with their attempts to imitate cultural celebrations they didn’t grow up with but the town gets high marks for trying. By 8 PM, the streets were annoyingly packed with 20-somethings mostly drinking alcohol and then a thunderstorm drenched us while we walked quickly back to the hotel although nobody on the streets seemed to care. Although I love people watching while drinking a fifty cent beer somewhere in Thailand, Cambodia’s night life was a bit cheesy for my 50-something taste but if you’re into partying away the night, Pub Street lives up to its name.
Leaving an extra day in Siem Reap to recover and relax after three days of guided touring, we strolled around the town and searched for some inexpensive trinkets or local food items unavailable in Penang like authentic Kampot Pepper. Strolling through the shops we noticed a lot of stores dedicated to getting Cambodians out of poverty. Whether it’s supporting local organizations that help kids or acquiring locally made crafts, Cambodia makes a serious effort at helping its young people and it’s wonderfully uplifting. Completely opposite from America’s angry underemployed blue-collar workers who live a lifestyle 5,000 times higher than developing nations yet always bitch about how their failures are always someone else’s fault, Cambodia’s perseverance makes me root for their future. If you visit, please spend a little money in local shops even if it seems trivial.
Other than tourist shops and eateries, there’s not an awful lot to see in the town of Siem Reap. Cleaner than Myanmar but a bit dingier looking than Chiang Mai, the town is easily walkable and has an old French Quarter on Sivatha Boulevard that wasn’t as interesting as our stroll through Mawlamyine, Myanamar. On the east side of the river you’ll find Wat Bo Road which used to be backpacker haven but like much of Southeast Asia is quickly giving way to boutique hotels, hip bars and stylish restaurants. Forcing many young expats living on “online income” to spend more time in Starbucks doing whatever they do to make money, the trend to lure in wealthy Chinese mainland tourists and westerners with large credit lines is changing the charm of many places in Southeast Asia. Therefore, if an upcoming Trump administration seems like enough to send you packing, the next four years seems like the best time to come before the inevitable globalization that American voters fear so much turns developing nations into G20 hotspots.
One spot worth visiting before hitting the pool in the afternoon is The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. A smaller version of the famous institution that invented the Singapore Sling in 1915, the hotel has a beautiful dress shop with locally made silk dresses that are simply gorgeous, a sculpture exhibit of all Buddhas and a small art gallery worth a look.
Planning five days in Phnom Penh, we traveled by bus the following morning. Smaller than the luxurious Scania buses in Myanamar, Giant Ibis is the nation’s most reliable bus service and has several daily departures from Siem Reap to the capital as well as Sihanoukville, where you’ll find Cambodia’s not so hopping beach towns. Choosing ten days for this trip after discovering that three weeks in Australia, Thailand and Myanmar was extremely tiring, we decided to skip the beaches this time. Usually considering myself a good judge of character, sometimes I’m way off base and if you’re considering traveling solo with a married couple that retired early and lives on a fixed budget, here’s a quick primer on how to conduct yourself, especially if you’re gainfully employed.
* When someone plans your entire trip down to the hotel and flight reservations, try offering them a little something as a gesture of appreciation. Paying for even one meal is nice. Hoarding every dollar when you have a job is uncool.
* If they cook you dinner two nights in a row, offer to either pay for some of the food or cook for them yourself. Food isn’t free. And neither is bottled water. Don’t fill your bottle from their house fifteen times. It’s readily available everywhere.
* Don’t ask them how much local currency to withdraw and then demand they buy back anything you didn’t spend. It’s very rude and that’s what airport exchange counters are for.
Although it all sounds fairly obvious and maybe you’re wondering why I added this, I learned that some people are not as generous as Diane and me and while I’m always glad to help share our knowledge and experiences, I hate being taken advantage of so if this sounds like someone you know, feel free to show them this post. We’re off to Canada for a four-week holiday next weekend with a two-day stop in Hong Kong so we can enjoy some real Cantonese food. It’s been two years since we visited the family in the cold cold North and we still lived in temperate California so after 18 months in Penang, the weather should be fun. The forecast for the next 10 days is a high of -15 or so. That’s only 45 Celsius degrees colder than Malaysia so no big deal. Cheers from dreary and humid Penang.