Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, spiritual ruins and temples that amaze

Second in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia

A trip to Cambodia’s Angkor ruins surely is a bucket list event.

Angkor Wat is the best preserved and most famous of the Angkor temples in Cambodia

Angkor Wat is the best preserved and most famous of the Angkor temples in Cambodia

Angkor was home more than 1,000 years ago to a great Hindu empire that left behind some 19 square miles of stone temples and tombs, now in various states of ruin and restoration. The temples at Angkor, built between the 9th and 13th centuries by the Khmer people as interpretations of Indian religious beliefs, are awesome, inspiring and exciting, and draw travelers from all over the world.

Deep into the 1990s, however, only the brave would travel to this part of Cambodia, because it was the heart, the cold heart, of the regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

In the 1970s, his band of murderers destroyed much of his country by killing more than a million of its people — those with any education or a need for eye glasses — and ruining the economy, turning all of Cambodia into a fearful rice patch.

Putting Cambodia back on the travel map

Siem Reap and the Angkor area were off the worldly travel radar for decades, depriving the country of much needed revenue to rebuild cities and build infrastructure. Today, in Siem Reap, you walk streets of a semi-modern city, but the surrounding landscape is largely a scene from 50 years ago. Electricity is scarce, and as the sun sets, suppers completed, the rural countryside goes to bed in the dark.

Angkor Wat honors the Hindu god Vishnu

Angkor Wat honors the Hindu god Vishnu

Because of a lack of highways, the best way to see Cambodia, from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, is by riverboat.

My partner Fran Golden and I booked a 13-night trip with Avalon Waterways, for a week on the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, as well several days on either end at city hotels in Siem Reap, for touring the Angkor ruins, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Guides, all locals or longtime residents, did a terrific job of helping us to understand current life in Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as explaining ruins and temples, cultures and etiquette, market buying, and transportation on tuk-tuks, cyclos (a bike with a forward basket for a human), buses of various sizes, sampans, and ox cart.

Meeting children and families in rural villages

Avalon’s tour director and local guides orchestrated our visits to historic sites and to local villages, where we had opportunities to meet with residents. In each, Avalon made a monetary contribution to the village when we arrived.

Children in the Cambodian village of Kampong Tralach run with ox carts hauling passengers from Avalon Angkor

Children in the Cambodian village of Kampong Tralach run with ox carts hauling passengers from Avalon Angkor

Our days at the ruins began early, at first light, and frequently we were exiting sites as tour buses began to arrive. At small and tight Angkor Banteay Srei, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, we were on our way out as crowds flowed in. As we left, guide Tek pointed out that some of the ground on which we stood formerly was a Khmer Rouge minefield that was not fully cleared until about 15 years ago.

Angkor Banteay Srei temple, built of red sandstone and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

Angkor Banteay Srei temple, built of red sandstone and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

Cambodia still struggles to provide education for children in small village schools, without sufficient teachers or supplies. Our tour group volunteered to make a donation, which we did by shopping at a city market for pencils and pens, paper and books, which we gave to a village teacher. The rural educational system was described by a guide: Those who know nothing learn from those who know a little, who learn from those who know more.

Do not buy from children or give to beggars

“My plea,” said Phiem, our tour director, “is not to buy anything from children, because that encourages them to skip school and continue the life cycle of poverty. Donating to a school is more helpful. And please do not respond to begging, especially from children. That encourages parents to keep their children from school to help with income.

English class in a Cambodian village where Avalon Angkor passengers donated school supplies

English class in a Cambodian village where Avalon Angkor passengers donated school supplies

“We want to be the people who bring books and pencils, things that can improve their lives,” he said. Phiem emphasized that the giving of gifts to schools by passengers is fully up to them and is not part of the Avalon tour program. “It is a passion of mine,” said Phiem.

One of our guides, Tek, said he is the first in his family with an education. His father, a farmer, cannot read or write. And so far, his father has no electricity at his rural home. Tek and his wife met in college. She is a banker.

Next: Cruising on a modern riverboat built for the Mekong

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com.

Photos by David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com

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