A Portal to Southeast Asia

By Justine Hong, News Editor

Siem Reap, Cambodia, the city I vacationed to over Winter Break, was a portal through which I witnessed ancient histories and rich cultures; the Angkor ruins, the village on water Chong Khneas, the genocide memorial, and Pub Street exposed primeval civilizations and fascinating people.

The Angkor Ruins

Angkor Courtyard Pillar

The first destination was Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.

It was a massive stone citadel-like structure, gray and black with pointed tops rising dauntingly in the center. Palm trees speckled around it, and the roofs and towers clashed against the sunny sky. The entire site was surrounded by a moat, so the only way to the monuments was a single bridge.

Only upon crossing that bridge and being surrounded by towers, staircases, courtyards, and corrugated walls did I fully grasp the true size of the monument. Perhaps not even then. I would have been completely lost had it not been for the tour guide.

As he led my tour group around, he told us of Angkor Wat’s history. The structure was built in the twelfth-century by the most prosperous and sophisticated kingdom in the history of Southeast Asia, the Khmer Empire. The empire’s capital had included these temples, which were originally dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu.

Through wall engravings depicting war or daily life, I thought about the lives of people nine centuries past. How had they lived? What would it have been like to walk these temples, once covered with gold, as a monk or an emperor?

The most awe-inspiring aspect was the central tower into which tourists climbed. The temples are structured so that the monument has three levels, and the central tower rose above the highest level. Tourists had to climb steep steps to reach it, but the small hike was beyond worth for the view we were able to enjoy.

In the tower we saw all of Angkor Wat’s second level, its daunting pillars, intricately-designed temple roofs, and open courtyards. I couldn’t believe that such an elaborate structure, as strong and impressive as a modern-day skyscraper, had been built nine centuries ago, without trucks or cranes. The construction must have consumed the labor of thousands.

With Angkor Wat still swarming in my head, I boarded the bus to our next destination Chong Khneas. I was to take more steps into the Cambodian cultural portal.

Chong Khneas, the village on water

Chong Khneas

Chong Khneas is a floating village, located on Lake Tonlé Sap and accessible with a boat tour from the outskirts of Siem Reap. The tour takes you slowly through the lake and floating houses, all colorful but ramshackle.

The secluded buildings, all made of wooden boards, suspend above the water’s surface with poles. Boats are tied to these poles, ladders lead up to the door, and decks for animals are suspended beneath the house but above the water.

This is the simple life of Cambodia’s bohemians. The villagers obtain their food through fishing, keeping livestock, or purchasing via boat. They have a school, church, and even laundromat in their village. What it would be like to live here, free from great responsibilities or ambitions? I realized I might not mind it. I’d be impoverished, but why would that matter if there was no greater society to make me ambitious?

Ambitious or not, I was up for the next stop: Wat Thmey, the genocide memorial.

Wat Thmey, the genocide memorial

Wat Thmey Memorial

Located about three kilometers from Siem Reap, this somber memorial is mainly a small building with glass windows housing skulls and bones of those who perished during Cambodia’s mass genocide. Boards display faded photos of life during the dark period. Although it doesn’t take much time to fully observe the memorial, the site leaves chilling effects. The building of bones underscores human injustice and emphasizes that history should not be repeated.

From 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot committed mass genocide. The regime, intending to politically and economically reorganize, relocated the population from urban centers, held mass executions, and employed forced labor to ‘purify’ the nation. Since then up to 20,000 mass citizen graves, known as Killing Fields, have been discovered in Cambodia. Wat Thmey is one of them.

This is one tourist site deserving great respect; it’s a dismal yet pivotal historical aspect of Cambodia’s cultural portal. The chalky skulls cluttered in the small building were once humans killed in cold blood by a ruthless regime. Wat Thmey leaves a grim impression that lingers long after the trip is over.

Pub Street

Pub Street

Our final destination, reached hours before our plane ride out of  the country, was a great closure to the trip. After the sun goes down, tourists return from the temples and fill the curbside seating of Pub Street, the busiest street in town. Restaurants crank up the music like nightclubs.

Pub street is packed with restaurants, pubs, and shops. All restaurants are reasonably priced, offering both Western and local food. A notable restaurant is the Red Piano at the corner of the street, best known for Angelina Jolie’s visit while filming “Tomb Raider.”

The dazzling night lights made me feel upbeat and excited, and I couldn’t help bobbing my head to the booming music emanating from the restaurants. We passed massage shops, restaurants, convenience stores, and bars. It was a wonderful evening and fulfilling end to my journey through the Cambodian portal.

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