On Wednesday, November 23rd (one week into our trip), we checked out of our hotel in Siem Reap in order to return to Phnom Penh. On the way back, we stopped at Beng Mealea (about 40 km northeast of Siem Reap).
A trip to Beng Mealea, which in itself demands an entire day, can be combined with a hunting party, since the region is rich in both small and large game and wild animals; tigers, panthers and elephants, herds of oxen and wild buffalo inhabit the forest as far as Prah Khan of Kompong Svay in the east.
Happily, we did not encounter tigers, panthers, or any other dangerous wild animals. We did encounter a relatively little-visited treasure of the ancient Angkor empire.
Beng Mealea (meaning ‘lotus pond’) cannot be dated by any known inscriptions on the temple. However, based on its architectural style, which is the same as Angkor Wat, it is assumed that it was built during the reign of Suryavarman II. In fact, the layout of the two temples is sufficiently similar that some scholars believe that Beng Mealea was constructed first as a scaled-down model of how Angkor Wat was supposed to look.
(Note that the temples face in different directions. Other than that, they are very similar.)
However, there is one significant difference that the layouts above are not able to reveal: Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the whims of nature, while Beng Mealea was overgrown until relatively recently. For whatever reason, I just love the atmosphere at these temples where things are overgrown. My emotional reaction here was very similar to my initial response when I first encountered Ta Prohm. The air is full of secrets and history. It would be easy to believe that the place was haunted.
Really, I don’t have much more to say about this place, but I do have lots of photos to share. I just couldn’t stop taking them…
After exploring for a couple of hours, we were ready for some lunch, which we enjoyed locally.
If I recall correctly, this is the place where our table top was simply a cross-section from a very large tree – large enough to fit nine chairs with ease.
After lunch was done, it was time to get home to Phnom Penh. We got in after dark…
Well – I realize that it’s been two months since my family began our trip to Cambodia and that I haven’t written much of anything else on my blog since then. For those of you who are tired of these stories, I apologize. You may just want to check back in about another month or so. I’m only about half way through our trip…
Artisans d’Angkor is an organization that trains Cambodians in the artistic tradition of Khmer empire:
When the Angkor Empire with its regal builders was at its glorious zenith, thousands of craftsmen erected what is now considered one of the wonders of the world — the Angkor temple complex.
In more recent times, years of war and genocide decimated a great number of the heirs of this artistic tradition…
The Chantiers-Écoles de Formation Professionnelle, a professional training school, was founded to help young Cambodians rediscover traditional handicrafts and give them the opportunity to take part in the rebuilding process their country had undertaken.
Artisans d’Angkor was established as a natural offshoot of the Chantiers-Écoles project as a school-to-work transition for the young craftsmen that had been trained. The skilled artisans could thus be organized into a self-sustaining handicraft network.
The tour at the silk farm was free – unless you happened to purchase any of the nice things in their store at the end of the tour. Not all of our family escaped unscathed…
The tour presented the entire process of producing silk, beginning with the life cycle of the silk moth…
Silk moth eggs
Silk moth caterpillars feasting on mulberry leaves. If I recall correctly, our guide said that the best mulberry leaves come from a plant variety that was originally cultivated in Thailand.
Hungry, hungry, hungry.
Middle Daughter with one of the worms. A few years ago, this blog featured interviews with Worm Woman. Evidently, my family still has an affinity for them.
A worker transfers the caterpillars from a consumed tray of mulberry leaves. Eventually, they are given a place to spin a cocoon…
Of the worms that spin cocoons, 20% are allowed to reach adulthood in order to reproduce and provide caterpillars for the next generation. The rest of the cocoons get baked in the sun…
These cocoons are heated in water to loosen the silk. Then they are carefully unwound…
If you look closely, you can see the individual strands. Forty strands are combined together to form one silk thread. Eventually, a piece of fabric that is one meter wide will have 5000 threads side-by-side…
Here, our tour guide introduces us to the natural dyes that are used for the silk.
And this is a display of some of those dyes…
This lovely red color comes from shellac – an excretion from the lac bug.
These silks display the variety of colors…
One of the things that I find amazing is that the all of the dyeing is performed before the silk is woven. If the fabric is to have a pattern, it is dyed onto the weft – again, before the weaving is done. Here, a woman prepares the weft for dyeing by knotting small strips of plastic (from grocery bags) around the thread.
And this is the weft after all the plastic has been knotted on, but before the dyeing:
This thread has been dyed and is drying:
Finally, the fabric is woven. Note the patterns in the cloth.
At the end of the tour, there is a small museum. The exhibits include tools, silk painting, and stunning examples of what can be done in the weaving process.
After the tour, I was not tempted by the extensive gift shop (FABRIC!!!) – although some of our family (who shall remain nameless) were. I was tempted by the iced coffee…
Despite my goofy look, it was good iced coffee brewed by The Blue Pumpkin, a place that I figure is something like a Cambodian Starbucks. (In other words, consistently good coffee, but never quite great. You give up the possibility of ‘great’ to make sure that you at least achieve ‘good’.) I also decided to taste some durian ice cream. Part of the reason for tasting the ice cream was that durian fruit is supposed to taste wonderful, but smell awful (according to the Guests Complacent, I think). Alas, I don’t think that the ice cream provides the full effect. It tasted good enough, but I didn’t get any nasty smell. Oh, well – my loss.
That evening (after another enjoyable afternoon cooling off in the hotel pool), we had supper at a buffet restaurant with the woman who was our tour guide ten years ago when we first visited Siem Reap. It was neat to see her again, as well as to meet a number of people in her family. The buffet had both Khmer dishes and plenty of food that my daughters recognized, so there were no problems getting them to eat.
Youngest Daughter has fun with the napkins.
Oldest daughter has an interesting mix of foods, including two fruits that she hadn’t tried before. She’s holding rambutan and the white fruit with black seeds and a pink peel is dragon fruit.
The buffet also had traditional Khmer dancing. However, unlike the previous night, the whole family was able to stay awake to watch this time. The girls loved it.
That concluded our time in Siem Reap. The next morning we departed for the return trip to Phnom Penh, although we stopped at one last outlying temple on the way home.
Tuesday, November 22nd, was my family’s second full day in Siem Reap. In the morning, we hopped in our van and took the bumpy ride from Siem Reap toward Lake Tonlé Sap and the village of Chong Khneas…
Ok – technically that video was probably recorded on the return trip. The point is the bumpiness. The flooding that occurred in the weeks before we visited had softened the clay in the road bed, leading to potholes that had been repaired with varying degrees of success.
While on the road (and also on the water – as the pictures below show), we could see a large outcropping of land: Phnom Krom.
The top of Phnom Krom is the location of one of three Angkorian temples built during the reign of King Yasovarman at the end of the ninth century. (Phnom Bakheng, which we had visited two days earlier is one of the other two.) We didn’t take time to stop at this location, but continued on toward Chong Khneas.
Chong Khneas is the floating village on Lake Tonlé Sap that lies closest to Siem Reap. At the end of the road from Siem Reap, there is a brand new boat terminal where one can pay $15 per adult for a ride out to the village.
Unfortunately, most of that money is probably going to the company that built the fancy boat terminal, rather than the boat drivers. Nevertheless, off we went…
It wasn’t long before we were approached by some opportunistic vendors…
The man in the blurry photo (above) maneuvered their boat right beside ours, and the kid jumped right on over to sell us water, coke, and possibly a few other soft drink selections. Unfortunately for him, we were all packing water, as we did anywhere we went. Soon thereafter, a boat carrying a mother and two children also came alongside. One of the children was carrying a python with her, and offered some photo opportunities in exchange for a little money. Unfortunately for them, our girls were frightened of the snake.
One of the odd things about this little excursion was finding that there is a cell phone tower built in the middle of the lake. It’s powered by solar panels.
Indeed, cell phones are one of the big changes in Cambodia since Ordinary Spouse and I visited ten years ago. Anyone who can afford one has one. In fact, the country was so eager to enter the wireless age that they skipped right over the wired age in many places. Mr. Guest Complacent told us that two different government agencies thought that they had the authority to sell the available wireless frequencies, meaning that there is now overlap in usage. Apparently, that’s still being sorted out.
A few kilometers out – two? five? – we started encountering floating houses. The village would have been even further out in the lake, but the water was so high this year. The boats were generally anchored down around water plants.
Apparently, there are about 3000 people living in this dispersed community. They are a mixture of Khmer, Vietnamese, and Cham (an ethnic group now associated with the Muslim populations in Vietnam and Cambodia). Everything needed for a village (plus some extras) could be found somewhere: stores, schools, a Catholic mission, even karaoke bars!
Visiting this village made me a bit uncomfortable. It is interesting to see how people are able to live in unusual locations. At the same time, the villagers have become (at least in some sense) the tourist attraction. Given the open nature of the house boats and the close proximity at which we passed as we floated through some of the channels, we could have stared right into some of their homes. I certainly wouldn’t be pleased if you drove slowly through my neighborhood and peered in through my front window.
And it is clear that this particular village has been changed by all of the visitors that it gets, as is evidenced by the visitor center – the floating visitor center…
The center had a number of attractions. Outside there were catfish and crocodiles to be seen:
Inside, there were some educational exhibits about the lake and the people who live there. There were also souvenirs, clothing, trinkets, and fabric for sale. Unfortunately, the souvenirs related mostly to Angkor and not to the lake. I was really hoping to be able to purchase the informational map that they had in the educational section of the center, but it wasn’t for sale.
On top of the visitor center, there was an observation deck:
I also created a 360° panorama from the observation deck. But be warned before you open it: it’s a very large file. (Nor is it high quality, but hey – the software was free.)
After the visitor center, we made our way back to the boat terminal and to land. We gave our driver (an 18-year-old who lived in the village) a tip since we figured he wasn’t getting much from the fares that we paid. From there, we returned by bumpy road to Siem Reap. Lunch in Siem Reap was the “Guest Complacent special” – a mixture of whatever my in-laws thought would be tasty. On this particular day, we enjoyed two separate dishes featuring prahok.
This is the sixth and final part of the story of our visit to the Angkor area, although there will be a similar post on our visit to Beng Mealea. (More on that when we get to it.) The first Angkor-related post had maps of the places we visited and references for additional information.
Our final stop in the Angkor area was Ta Prohm – “Ancestor Brahma”. This temple/monastery/university was built during the reign Jayavarman VII in honor of his family. After the fall of the Khmer empire, the temple was neglected until the 20th century. During that time, nature encroached on the temple, but didn’t completely engulf it. When restoration began, a decision was made to stabilize the temple, but not to actively remove the large trees that were present.
Ten years ago when our family visited Angkor, there were very few people at Ta Prohm. We could thoroughly explore it. Since then, the temple has been featured in a movie and is much more popular as a result. Certain paths are now delineated in order to minimize the wear of traffic.
The charm of Ta Prohm – at least as I’ve experienced it – is the struggle of nature and temple…
Middle and Youngest Daughters
The Adventurous In-Laws
Before we left for Cambodia, my daughters had read Mysteries of Angkor Wat, a children’s book by photographer Richard Sobol. On his website, he describes the process of writing the book…
Although I read many tour books and hired my own local guide to take me through the 1000 year old city of the vanished Khmer Empire, it was the local children who showed me the best surprise of all. The ancient temples are their playgrounds, dance studios, and history classroom so they were my best guides of all. I photographed for three weeks and on my very last day I got to see their most special secret place.
My girls really loved this book and wanted to find the “secret place”, which was…
This is part 5 in my story about our family’s visit to Angkor with my brother- and sister-in-law. Part 1 has the maps and references.
On November 20th and 21st, my family visited the Angkor area north of Siem Reap. On the second day, we started out at Angkor Thom and then returned to Angkor Wat in the second half of the morning.
Now that I’ve visited Angkor and some of the outlying ruins twice, I have some that I consider to be favorites. However, none of the others can match Angkor Wat for sheer “Oh, wow…” factor. I might regard some temples as more beautiful or intricate or compelling or mysterious or romantic – however you want to define all of those terms in relation to stone ruins. But that initial emotion of amazement and anticipation when the towers of Angkor Wat come into sight is pretty much incomparable.
Angkor Wat means ‘the city that is a temple’; it is likely the largest religious structure in world. Unlike the other temples at Angkor, the main approach is from the west – the direction of the setting sun, which is associated with death. In addition, the bas-reliefs are viewed from left to right – a layout that in Hinduism is used for tombs. For these reasons, Angkor Wat is believed to have been used as both a temple and a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II. It was constructed during his reign in the first half of the twelfth century (between 1113 and 1150 C.E.).
There is a fairly long walk as one approaches the main part of the temple – time to take in the magnitude of this structure, but also time to feel the heat from the tropical sun. One crosses the causeway (that can be see on the left in the pictures above) and then passes through an entry gate on the main wall. After that there is another long walkway before reaching the main part of the temple…
The walkway to the towers of Angkor Wat. The towers are shaped like buds of lotus blossoms. Note the restoration work in progress.
As we approached the central towers, Mr. Guest Complacent took us on a slight detour to see one of the libraries. These are intriguing little structures to the sides of the walkway and also found at other temples. (That they provide some shade and a photo opportunity is also a plus!)
My father-in-law and I looking at the architectural intricacies of the southwest library. Ordinary Spouse looking at us.
After our visit to the library, the fun really started. We entered to the right and enjoyed the south and east galleries.
Oldest and Middle Daughters are glad for a respite from the heat in the Angkor Wat galleries.
In the south gallery, the bas-reliefs depict the army of King Suryavarman II:
These are some of the important people in the army (including the king). The more umbrellas you have, the more important you are.
Then we went further in and up into the central part of the temple:
Ten years ago, we climbed these stairs to the top of the temple:
This particular approach is now closed in the interest of conservation. Visitors can still ascend to the top, but there is now a new wooden staircase that has been built for that purpose.
During this visit, we didn’t go all the way to the top of the temple, since there were tired feet among us. Instead, we did some trekking around the inner courtyard…
We teased the Daughters that they had been carved in stone…
Listened to the acoustics in the Hall of Echoes…
And marveled at things in general…
By this time, we had explored both Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Looking back, I’m not sure how we managed to do both in one morning. Youngest Daughter was reminding us that we needed to stop for lunch. So we made our way back to the van…
The view from the central portion of Angkor Wat as we made our exit. The entry gate is the taller structure to the left in the background. From there, the walkway approaches (moving out of the photo on the left edge). In the center of the photo, one can see one of the two “libraries”.
For lunch, we visited a place that The Guests Complacent had been before. The last time they were there, they told the owner that they’d return, and the owner was thrilled when we pulled up.
We enjoyed one of our typical meals where we shared a number of dishes among our whole group…
Finally, we were ready for our final stop of the day: Ta Prohm. This temple received a lot of attention after the movie Tomb Raider came out. If you didn’t know that, just as well.
Husband; dad; cat cohabitator; Christ-follower; Goshen College alum; theological Anabaptist (mostly); cultural Mennonite (umm... suburban Mennonite); once a scientist, now a seminarian; mediocre guitarist and even more mediocre dulcimerist (huh?); devotee of dark chocolate, tapioca pudding, bubble tea, mince meat pie, Lizano salsa, and Starbucks mocha; geocacher; genealogist; piecer of denim blankets; fan of the mountains of western Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, and the lakes of Onekama; enjoyer of music by U2, Bon Iver, Carrie Newcomer, and the Indigo Girls (among others); run-of-the-mill blogger.