Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Pennto explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.
Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.
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.
At Kbal Spean
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.
One of the saddest realizations of becoming an overseas expats is learning how little Americans know about the rest of the globe. In defense of my countrymen (and women), it’s not entirely our fault since we’re controlled by a mainstream media that’s a “for-profit” élite industry caring only about reporting profits at the next shareholder meeting. With greats like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite long gone, the memories and knowledge of some of history’s greatest tragedies disappeared and with social media replacing networks as the main source of “news”for most Americans, the November election results aren’t really any great surprise. Thankfully, eight million or more Americans live outside the homeland and those of us lucky enough to retire abroad are among the citizens that benefit from the plethora of great educational tools available from little known historical sites to amazing archeological monuments.
Finding small and relatively unknown museums that teach me something ranks high on my list of priorities while living overseas and The Cambodian Landmine Museumfits the bill perfectly. Included on a day trip from Siem Reap along with one of the area’s most fascinating temples (Banteay Srei), we spent two hours or so at this gem of an attraction and came away with a wealth of information barely mentioned in any American history book. Innocently shielding our schoolkids from some of the worst unspeakable acts the nation’s ever participated in, few people even know that America engaged in a relentless five-year bombing campaign that literally destroyed the Cambodian people. Dropping tons of landmines all over the nation, the stated goal of the mission was to destroy the supply chain between the North Vietnamese Communists and Thailand. Victimized by one of America’s most deplorable foreign policy decisions in its history. the result is a nation literally littered with landmines designed exclusively to maim and not kill. Thanks to the efforts of some brave Cambodians, the nation is finally almost free from landmines. Too bad it’s taken almost 45 years to make thinks right.
Given how the future of women’s rights in America probably took an enormous step backwards this month, I thought I’d start this post about our last day trip in the Siem Reap area with an empowering historical fact. Combining three fascinating sights into a complete day, my personal favorite was Banteay Srei, an architectural jewel of Angkorian art and one of the most popular HIndu Temples of the Khmer Empire. Aside from its beautiful layout of three rectangular enclosures separated by a causeway, they built the entire structure from red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. Earning the nickname The Pink Temple, it’s also one of the only temples commissioned by a brahman and not a king.
Constructed in 967 A.D., the foundational stele tells us that its creator was a scholar and philanthropist who helped those suffering from illness, injustice or poverty. Known for its pediments (the triangular space above a rectangular doorway) and lintels (horizontal beams spanning the gap between two posts that can be decorative or structural), you’ll find entire scenes of Hindu mythology depicted. But that’s not the interesting part. Its modern name translates into “Citadel of The Women” and there’s several interpretations. The first refers to the intricate carvings found on the walls. Characters from Indian mythology, Aspiras are divine nymphs or dancing-girls and the widespread use of them as a motif for decorating walls is a unique Khmer feature. Also called Devatas, or minor female deities, they’re usually seen standing around and not dancing. More specifically, the second theory revolves around the intricacy of the carvings themselves. Said to be too fine for the hand of a man, decorative carvings cover every available inch of space which leads me to the third and most interesting theory.
Undeniably beautiful, the Temples of Angkor Wat are easily the main reason to visit Cambodia. As the world’s largest religious monument, it’s every bit as amazing as you’ve heard and all the accolades, reviews and compliments are not exaggerated. Even if temples, culture and history aren’t your thing, you’d be crazy to visit Cambodia without devoting at least a full day to this incredible architectural wonder. With thousands of great informational sources and countless travel blogs devoted to the area, attempting to describe either a complete detailed description of what to see or a travelogue explaining the fascinating historical significance of the area is best left for the experts. Instead, I’ll describe our second day trip of three in Siem Reap. Featuring the “must-see” temples, and mostly mimicking the “short-circuit” that’s a suggested itinerary for those with limited time or minimal patience, it started out before daybreak with a visit to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Having read the entire chapter on Angkor Wat and environs in Lonely Planet, trust me when I say it’s best to find a qualified guide and customize your day trips according to personal interests and time allotted. With a cornucopia of options from walking to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day, the best strategy is visiting places when everyone is somewhere else. Not always the easiest task given the millions of visitors that flock there all year, I’d recommend avoiding peak season (mid November through March) but also not choosing monsoon months unless you enjoy sightseeing in a torrential downpour. Finding a guide is easy but reserving ahead of your stay makes sense given how many of them are dying for your business. Ours came highly recommended from one of our friends in Penang and since he runs his own business, a website made it easy to break down all the options and customize three guided day trips according to our interests. Hotels specialize in take-away breakfasts for sunrise trips to Angkor Wat so you won’t go hungry. Possibly the only time you’ll ever see a picture of Diane awake before the sunrise, our second day began at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM.
Visiting Cambodia for the first time, Diane and I spent some time researching what to do in the immediate area besides touring the overwhelmingly beautiful temples. As one of the most touristy areas in all Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has something for almost everyone and wildlife is no exception. Although a multitude of off the beaten path excursions involving rafting, hiking and wildlife treks permeate much of the remote Northeastern corner of the country, we chose the relative ease and comfort of the main drag this time around. Fortunately, there’s enjoyable, educational and beautiful scenery as well as some great wildlife viewing that’s easily doable as day trips not far from Angkor Wat. Always eager for birding opportunities, we decided to visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and combine it with a day trip through the famous flooded forests of Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake that’s Southeast Asia’s largest.
On the way to the flooded forest
Venturing out at around 8:30 AM our guide picked us up in the comfort of his air-conditioned Honda and we headed out-of-town. With countless options for touring the area, we prefer private personalized guides when possible but living as early retirees on a fixed income makes this a bit harder. In our working days we generally used most of our vacation time on combination trips that offered both amazing wildlife opportunities and a chance to explore the local expat community in some of the world’s most popular retirement zones. Lucky enough to visit places like The Galapagos Islands while staying at beautiful eco-lodges in places like The Ecuadorian Amazon or Borneo’s Danum Valley,we’ve entered a new stage of life where money doesn’t come easily so now we choose less expensive guides.
Getting there is half the fun. Unless you live in Penang which means getting to Cambodia is a pain in the ass. Anyone that’s visited KLIA, Kuala Lumpur’s luxuriously beautiful main airport gets an impressive first glimpse of Malaysia. Quite fond of first impressions, the government liked the airport so much they built a carbon copy. Known as KLIA2, this shiny new and totally unnecessary behemoth is a five-minute shuttle bus away and looks as modern and clean as any other large Asian hub. Unfortunately, many of us non-working retirees live in Penang. Although you’d never know it, the nation’s second biggest population center and main tourist draw is only a short 45 minute flight away but its pathetically dilapidated dinky airport looks more like an airstrip in the rainforest when compared to its big brothers.
Hasn’t changed much since this picture
Sporting a few fast food joints, an ATM or two and a newsstand, Penang International Airportdesperately needs a multi million dollar overhaul, a new terminal or two and about ten more airlines willing to fly there. Offering non stop service to only a few destinations like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and recently Yangon, living in Penang makes getting to Cambodia a long, tedious and expensive proposition but proved worthwhile despite the government’s obvious ploy to woo everyone to its shiny capital city. Unsure why they neglect Southeast Asia’s most popular foodie destination so badly, Diane and I explored every possible option from flying to KL and connecting (impossible on the same day) to a train/bus combination (even worse) and concluded the only practical way was a four and a half hour bus ride from Penang to KL on the brand new KTM Express Train, a 65 kilometer Uber ride to the ridiculously distant airport, an overnight stay at the airport’s one and only lodging option, and an early morning flight to Siem Reap.