Cambodia Trip – November 24

Thanks for the birthday wishes. I celebrated by going to 4 ancient temples in Angkor Wat. Warning: I’m going to use this as a record of my trip, so feel free to skip stuff… I’m traveling with two dear friends, Boby and Gage. They are determined to visit every possible temple site… I’m determined to keep up with them!

Got to Siem Riep Thursday evening after 2 endless flights. Korean Air was great. Back in Dynamic Travel days, flying Korean Air was a punishment, with the worst safety record – kept crashing. Major turnaround, no crashes, service in coach included big blankets, slippers and toothbrush! I asked for the Korean dinner and it came with an instruction card.

Anyway, first day in Siem Reap (translated: Siam defeated, referring to the bitter rivalry between the Khmers and the Siamese) we walked the city, spent a few hours in the covered market, bargaining and snacking. Skipped dinner and turned in early. Took a tuk tuk before dawn to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat across the moat from the main temple. Thousands of people and their cameras recorded the dawn, including me. Our guide for the day was orphaned at 8 months during the Pol Pot Killing Fields genocide. He was taken to one of the 2 monasteries on the grounds of the ancient ruins and raised there. After the sunrise he gave a history lesson, then took us to the monastery. We entered a spacious, but dark one room hut on stilts where we met the woman who raised him, and the master Monk. Our guide’s story quickly reminded us that recent Cambodian history is as violent and votatile as the ancient history.

According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — died under the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge from execution, disease, starvation and overwork. The Khmer Rouge reign ended in 1999, a year after Pol Pot’s death.

Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (113-5BC), took about 30 years to build, and was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It is beautiful and romantic, overwhelmingly impressive and stately. Later, it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. That transition was not a peaceful one…

From Tourism Cambodia:

“Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.”

Here is the description of the most famous relief:

East Gallery – Churning of the Ocean of Milk

This is the most famous panel of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and is from the Indian epic Bagavata-Pourana. The Ocean of Milk is churned by gods and demons to generate Amrta, the elixir of life.

The scene is divided into three tiers. The lowest with various aquatic animals, real and mythical, bordered by a serpent. The middle tier has demons and gods. They work together by holding and churning the serpent. Hanuman, the monkey god, assists. Visnu, in his reincarnation as a tortoise sits on the bottom of the ocean and offers the back of his shell as a base for the mountain Mandara, and as a pivot for the churning. A huge cord in the form of the body of the serpent acts as a stirring instrument to churn the sea.

To begin the motion the gods and demons twist the serpent’s body, pulling it rhythmically back and forth causing it to rotate and churn the water.

The gods and demons are directed by three persons on the top level. Indra is above Visnu. On the extreme right, Hanuman, ally of the gods, tickles the serpent. The churning lasted more than 1,000 years and eventually provoked the serpent to vomit mortal venom, which covers the waves. Afraid the venom may destroy the gods and demons, Brahma intervenes and requests Siva to drink the venom, which will leave an indelible trace on Siva’s throat. He complies and, as a result, the elixer pours forth. The demons rush to capture it. Visnu hurries to the rescue and assumes yet another reincarnation in the form of Maya, a bewitching beauty, and is able to restore much of the coveted liquid.

FYI – This is why Siva is often portrayed as having a blue neck.

We spent the rest of the day at the 4 most visited sites, Angkor Thom, the Banyon Temple (part of Angkor Thom and the site of Tomb Raiders) Ta Prohm Temple, and the main Angkor Wat Temple. The carving of Buddhist and Hindu mythology are amazing and more meaningful thanks to doing my homework in yoga class – hooray. Forgot to mention that the climate here is a living sauna. Rewarded ourselves at Sokkak Spa, first of two trips to this most holy site. And since it was Thanksgiving, give or take a day, we got pumpkin scrubs.