Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Angkor Wat by Bicycle

Angkor Wat by Bicycle
by Antonio Graceffo

“Gi gong. Gi gong!” I repeated, switching to Khmer. “I want to ride a bicycle around Angkor Wat.” I insisted.

“But it is more than thirty kilometers.” Protested the clerk at the bicycle shop. “And besides, it is raining.”

Thirty kilometers isn’t a huge distance for a bicycle. But, he did have a point about the rain.

“When do you think it will let up?” I asked, considering postponing.“In a month or two.”
“Give me a bicycle now.” I decided. I paid my two dollars rental, and made the clerk’s day. Now, when he went for lunch with his colleagues, he would
have a great story to tell.

Cambodia is great for adventure tours, but if you are afraid of water, (is that called hydrophobic?) you shouldn’t come in the rainy season. The air temperature is always pretty high, so a cool drizzle feels good. Besides,
twenty minutes into a bike ride I am usually dripping with sweat anyway.

The bicycle, a cheap Chinese copy of a mountain bike, was easily the worst
bicycle I had ever ridden. Neither the gears nor the brakes worked, which
was a lot of fun in the rain. The seat post and wheels were bent, and the
rear axles made a loud klunking noise once each revolution of the wheel. The
chain also went completely slack at times, causing the pedals to spin
independently. They would usually come around and crack me on the shins. It
was a lot like when I was learning Khmer Kickboxing and had to kick tree
trunks with my shins.

“You will be a champion some day.” Said Thavrin, who would be my companion
for the entire Cambodian adventure.

I’ve had better bicycles. But no bicycle ever gave me as much as this one
did, taking me around Angkor Wat. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the
World, and I was there on a bicycle. Not bad for a boy from Brooklyn who
once believed you would fall off the Earth if you went beyond East 78th

Khmers think foreigners are all insane. In Khmer culture, anyone with enough
money to go on vacation could afford a driver, or at least a car. They don’t
quite understand why we would chose to ride a bicycle. For me, aside from a
need to work off all of the free four-star meals I had been eating in this
trip, I feel a bicycle is the best way to tour anything. It is faster than
walking, which can sometimes get tedious. You can barely walk thirty
kilometers in a day, much less stop off and look at interesting temples. A
car is too fast. And there is something both decadent and displeasing about
stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle, snapping a digital photo, and
then driving to the next interesting temple. A bicycle is somehow more

From the town of Siem Reap to the Angkor Wat complex is only about two or
three kilometers. Less than one kilometer out of Siem Reap, the noise level
drops to zero. You follow a beautiful, tree-lined path to the mote. No
matter how many photos you have seen of Angkor Wat, nothing will prepare you
for your first glimpse of the actual temple. It rises up like some beautiful
creation of the gods.

Entrance into the park is free for Khmers. For foreigners, it costs $20 for
a day pass, or $40 for a three-day pass. The park is so incredibly large,
that it cannot be seen in a day, or even three for that matter. If you have
already paid thousands of dollars for a plane ticket to Cambodia, you might
as well stay the extra two or three days and really experience Angkor Wat.
Once again, like all of the temple complexes in Cambodia you are free to
wander and do pretty much whatever you want to inside of the park. But, it
would be recommended to hire a guide. English speaking guides run about $20
per day. Guides for other languages are more expensive. The guides will
explain the intricacies of ancient Khmer architecture, as well as all of the
legends from the Ramayana and elsewhere, which appear on the walls of the
great temple. Without a guide you are just wandering aimlessly about,
snapping photos of interesting stoneworks, which will all look the same to
you when you get the photos developed after you return home.

At the park entrance, the guard told me I had to buy a ticket. Since I had a
krama, a traditional Khmer scarf, wrapped around my head, and I speak Khmer,
I tried to get in for free.

“I am Khmer.” I told him. “I don’t have to pay.”
Many Khmers have never heard a foreigner speak their language, and the guard
was noticeably taken off balance. Finally, he formulated the question that
had been running around his head. “If you are Khmer why is your skin so

“My father is Chinese.” I said.
“But your Khmer doesn’t sound perfect.”
“My mother died in the war.”
This almost convinced him. But then he asked. “Why do you have round eyes?”
“I was adopted by an American family.” I said.

I don’t think he actually believed the story. But there must have been
nothing in his training course to prepare him for a foreigner trying to pass
himself off as a half Chinese war orphan. Finally, we both burst out
laughing, and I felt a little guilty about my clumsy attempt at deception.
Of course, the joke was on me, because now I had to shell out $40 for a
three-day pass.

“Tell your mother she can get in for free.” He told me, as he waved me

Maybe he had believed me after all.

Once through the gates, there is a choice of two routes to take, the Grand
Loop or the Small Loop. I chose the Grand Loop, which measures about thirty
kilometres all the way around the complex. Roughly the first kilometer takes
you past the main Angkor Wat temple, which you are familiar with from
postcards and T-Shirts. And, if you have had the good fortune of living in
Cambodia for a year and a half, as I have, you will have received at least
one gift, a dinner plate, paperweight, or toothbrush, which bears the sacred
image. Angkor Wat is the symbol of Khmer pride; its image even adorns the
Cambodian flag. The time of the Angkor Empire, 1100 AD is also referred to
as The Glorious Age, when Khmer civilization was at its peak, and Cambodia
was more than twice its current size.

According to my guide, Samban, from Phnom Penh Tours, in ancient times,
Cambodia bordered China, Thailand, Lao, and Myanmar. Effectively, there was
no Vietnam at that time. Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, was part of Cambodia.
But, eventually, the Kingdom of Vietnam encroached on Khmer soil, until
Cambodia no longer reached to China. Later, the French ceded the lower half
of Cambodia, called Kampuchea Krom, to Vietnam. Thailand also infringed on
Cambodian territory, even occupying Angkor Wat for some brief periods of

Although Angkor Wat is both a world heritage site and the single most
important, artefact of Cambodian history, the temple is not some isolated
relic. It is a living, breathing part of modern Khmer life. Bamboo huts of
neighbouring villages are built right up to the mote of the ancient temple.
Hawkers earn their living selling products to the visitors, with constant
shouts of “Mr, OK, you come eat drink, ok.” The mote is so large, that
people make a profession of fishing in it. Children ride bicycles along the
great stone walls, but not the whole thirty kilometers, only foreigners were
that dumb, and we saw several others doing the same as us.

One of the nice things about travelling by bicycle is that you are
guaranteed a warm reception wherever you go. I wanted my first day at Angkor
Wat to be about the people who lived along its perimiter or made their
living directly from the temple. On a bicycle it was easy to stop and
converse with people anytime we chose. And of course the Khmer people were
always willing to chat.

The first people we stopped to talk to was a group of small children doing
traditional fishing. They waded into the marshy areas on the fringes of the
mote carrying a scoop-shaped screen made of woven bamboo. They stooped down,
and pushed the screen, like a sledge, through the water. Similar to panning
for gold, when the screen was full, they would pick through the silt and
weeds. After discarding the muck on his screen, a small boy put a handful of
tiny fish in a plastic jug.

“Do you do this for business?” I asked him.
“No, for soup.” He answered.

The children tried to teach me to use the screen but I couldn’t get the hang
of it. The trick was to trawl jut deep enough to collect water, but not so
deep that the screen fowled on the long weeds growing up out of the water.
Even for experienced fishers the job was not very rewarding. After hours of
fishing, the children had collected about thirty fish, each the size of your

We crossed over the bridge at the North Gate of Angkor Tom. The tops of the
railings along the sides of the bridge were seven-headed naga (giant
serpents from Hindu/Buddhist mythology). The thirty-meter long naga were
supported by stone figures, each of which depicted a different character
from Hindu/Buddhist mythology. The figures fighting for good were on the
left side of the bridge. And the evil characters were on the right.

At the end of the bridge we passed beneath a massive stone arch, which
displayed bas-reliefs from the myth, entitled, The Churning Sea of Milk (Go
Samut Duk Dah). Set atop the arch was a Buddhist satva. Samban explained. “A
satva is someone on his way to becoming Buddha. The Dali Lama would be an
example of a Satva.”

We rode on to a lesser-visited attraction, which is not on the itinerary of
the one-day tourists. Samban led me from the road, down a quiet green path.
We climbed up an embankment, and stood atop a stone parapet. In the ground
below us gaped an oval shaped hole reminiscent of an ancient area. The pit
was approximately three meters deep, and the area measured approximately
100m squared.

“It is believed.” Said Samban “That the ancient Khmers would drive wild
elephants into this put and train them for the army.”

At that moment it dawned on me that not only were the ancient Khmers gone,
but the elephants as well. In addition to being home to the most powerful
empire in Indochina, Cambodia had also been home to elephants and tigers.
But, like so many other resources in the country, countless years of civil
war, poverty, and corruption have driven the animals nearly to extinction.

Back on the bicycles we enjoyed the serenity and invasive green of the Khmer
rainy season. It would probably have been better to ride a bike on a sunny
day, but at least the rain kept us cool. In the dry season the heat would
have been oppressive.

Our next stop was at Preah Khan, which was originally built as a Buddhist
temple in 1191 by King Jaya Varaman VII, who instituted Buddhism as the
national religion of Cambodia. But, when he died, King Jaya Varaman VIII
changed the national religion back to Hinduism. The new king ordered the
faces of the Buddhist statues destroyed. Today, the temple is adorned with
15,000 faceless Buddas.

The temple was topped by a tile roof, and constructed of heavy stone blocks
connected with metal joints. Temples were protected by tremendous bas
reliefs of the three mythical animals garuda (half man/half bird), naga, and
lions. These were the symbols of power and were permitted to remain on the
temple after the ascension of Jaya Varaman VIII. All three figures garuda,
naga, and lion have since been accepted by both Buddhist and Hindu kings of

Both the enormity of these temples and the beauty of the detailed
craftsmanship is difficult to take in. That devotion to a god unseen drove
men to create such structures is unfathomable today, when most of us cant be
bothered to go to church. But, one of the most amazing aspects of the
temples is that no one ever lived in them. Even monks and kings were housed
outside, in wooden structures. The temples were strictly the dwelling places
of the gods.

Many of the temples were surrounded by a mote, and enclosed behind
stonewalls, which bore a martial appearance. Reminded of European castles, I
asked Samban if the temples had played any military role, if perhaps in
times of war, they would have been used as fortresses. Any discussion of
Cambodian history always tuns to the unhealed scars left by the Khmer Rouge.
The Angkor Empire had departed from the Earth hundreds of years before
anyone had heard of Pol Pot. But the precious stones of Angkor Wat were
witnesses to genocide.

Samban explained that during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, form
1979 to 1987, the Vietcong turned these temples into garrisons. Siem Reap
was the primary battleground during the war between the Khmer Rouge and Lon
Nol, 1970-1975. So, obviously tourists weren’t able t visit the temples at
that time. During the Khmer Rouge period, 1975-1979, no foreigners were even
allowed to enter Cambodia. The first tourism officially began in 1987, when
the Vietnamese government created a state-run tourist agency. At that time,
there were very few tourists, and mostly from Communist Block countries.
But, the area around the temples had been so heavily mined by Vietnamese
soldiers that you couldn’t visit most of them. Siem Reap remained a Khmer
Rouge stronghold until 19991 when UNTAC arrived (The UN peace keeping

“In the 60s there were tourists here.” Exclaimed Samban. But then, because
of the KR, the temples were neglected or destroyed. “I saw photos of the
temples in 1989, they were completely overgrown, reclaimed by the jungle.”

On the way back to our bicycles we stopped off to interview a band of
musicians, all landmine victims. They were seated on the ground, displaying
their amputations, playing traditional Khmer instruments. One man, Wan Yun,
was only 32 but already blind in one eye and was missing a leg.

“Did this happen to you in the army?” I asked.
“Yes.” Answered Wan Yun. He looked sad, but he was still smiling politely,
which is the Khmer way. One would think that working at Angkor Wat he would
be tired of tourists. But, he seemed genuinely excited to be talking to me.
Maybe it was because most tourists just walked past him, or gave him money,
without taking the time to recognise that he was a human being who needed to

In most countries, asking if someone had been in the army was enough. But in
Cambodia the next question had to be “Which one?” In recent memory, Khmer
men and women have served in the Royal Army, under King Norodom Sihanouk,
the Republican army, under Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge, Under Pol Pot, The
Khmer Serai (free Khmer army) under a number of different leaders, the
Kampuchea army, under the Vietcong, or finally, the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces, under Prime Minister Hun Sen. If you conducted enough interviews, it
was not difficult to find men in their early fifties, who had served in
several, or all of the Cambodian armies.

Wan Yun told me that he had been injured in 1993, while serving in Hun Sen’s
army, fighting the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border. Two years ago, he had
been taken into a government program, and was taught to play music. Now, he
and the rest of the band members lived in a government run shelter, and
supported themselves by performing for tourists.

Two massive, headless guardians protected the entrance to the temple. “I
brought a tourist here in 1999.” Explained Samban. “She was shocked when she
saw the heads were missing from the statues. After she returned to her
country she sent me copies of the photos she had made here in 1969. The
heads were on the statues at that time.”

“Who stole them?” I asked.

“It could have been a number of people.” Answered Samban. “The Vietnamese
took a lot of our historical artefacts with them when they left. It also
could have been Khmer Rouge.”

“Could it have been some poor people who sold them for food?” I suggested.

“Absolutely not!” Samban was emphatic here. “Poor people have no idea the
value of these artefacts. They would also have no idea how to sell them.”

“How are they sold?” I asked, just in case things didn’t work out as a
writer, maybe I could become a temple raider.

“The artefacts have to be transported to Thailand, then smuggled across the
border, and sold on the Thai black market.” The border with Thailand was
still quite pores, but in the Khmer Rouge time, before 1994, it was even
worse, with KR cadres passing back and forth at will. It is also a
well-known secret that Thai border police accept bribes. Some Khmers go as
far as saying that the Thai allow the transport and sale of the Khmer
artefacts out of spite, just to rid the Cambodians of their cultural

Regardless of Thai complicity, to take a massive stone sculpture and
transport it through numerous military blockades and police roadblocks,
before even getting to the Thai border, would require permission and
protection from someone high up. Said another way, the sculptures weren’t
sold by a poor farmer trying to feed his starving family. They were sold by
powerful people, Vietnamese or otherwise, to buy a new Land Cruiser, while
the family of the poor farmer continued to starve.

The sheer mass of the temple construction is impressive enough. But, then
you see the intricate details. Every inch of the lintels is covered in bas
relief depicting the Ramayana, the central myth of Hindu and Buddhism. The
walls inside the temple were rough and pockmarked. Samban explained that
they were once covered in bronze plates, many of which were gilded. In the
entire Angkor complex not a single metallic plate remains. They were all

The rain let up, and we continued on our bicycles, burning off the 18,000
calorie meals we had been eating. At the twenty-kilometre mark the tour
ended. Now, we had about fifteen kilometres to ride back to town, and return
the bikes. On the way, we passed some men throwing fishing nets from an
embankment. We stopped off to get our second fishing lesson of the day.

“Do you sell these fish?” I asked.
“No, we just catch them for our mothers and wives.” Answered one of the men.
“And if we don’t, there is trouble at home.” he joked.
The men explained that they were full time farmers and just enjoyed fishing.
Seeing them standing side by side, laughing and talking I realized that for
these men, throwing their nets out together was a social occasion, the
equivalent of an afternoon in the local pub. They could meet their friends
and discuss the things that mattered to them as well as those that didn’t.
But unlike westerners in a pub, these men were burning calories, not
absorbing them. And they were earning money, not spending it.
Even the rural poor had a lesson to teach the west.

Working a full day they could collect about half a kilo, or about $1 worth
of fish. Many poor Khmers exist on a diet of almost nothing but rice. Even
in Phnom Penh, some of the boxers I train with only get about 100 grams of
meat a day, not enough to build muscle. These fishermen were luckier than
inland farmers because the fish would add much needed protein to their diet.

Clumsily, I took the net from one of the men. They all laughed at how out of
my element I looked.

“You don’t have a wife or mother, do you?” Asked one of the men.
“No.” I answered.
“That’s good.” He said. “Because you would never be able to feed them.”

The net is large, perhaps three meters squared. The edges of the net are
weighted with bits of metal. The secret, apparently, is in the packing. The
fishermen knew exactly how to gather and fold the net, wrapping it over the
left shoulder and left elbow, and then dividing the weighted bottom between
their left and right hands. They would twist at the waist, and launch the
net into the air. The trick here was to throw the net high enough that it
would open completely before hitting the water, but not so high that it
would begin to ball up before submerging. Once thrown, the net would be
retracted using a lanyard attached to the left wrist.

When it came my turn to throw, I was surprised at how much the net weighed.
In fact, I handed my phone and valuables to Thavrin. “Just in case I wind up
following the net into the water.” I said. I could just see me throwing
myself off balance, falling in the lake, getting tangled in the net, and
then drowning in three feet of water. I put my pocket-knife between my teeth
just in case.

“Ang ay dong ut ite?” I asked my teacher.
He jut stared at me, wonderingly.
“Am I doing it right?” I repeated, after temporarily removing the knife from
between my teeth.
“Yes.” He said with a big smile.
We both knew he was lying, but he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
I made a feeble attempt at a throw, and the net became hopelessly tangled.

“How did I do?” I asked Thavrin, hoping he would use Khmer decorum, and find
something positive to say about my failed effort.

“Your gums are bleeding.” He said, pointing at the knife marks on my mouth.

My cell phone rang. It was my sponsor, Long Leng. “I have been trying to
reach you all day.” He began. “Have you been going to look at the
attractions so you can write something?”

“Sorry.” I said, quoting a sign I had once seen on a country store in
Alabama. “Gone fishing.”

Contact the author at: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

You can reach Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at ppenhtourism@camnet.com.kh

SUBMITTED BY: Antonio Graceffo, Email: antonio.....@hotmail.com Sat, 17 Sep 2005

Powered by Blogger

 Home   |   About Us   |   Submit URL or Your Company Address First Launched: 08/15/95 - Copyright © 2010 Cambodian Information Center. All rights reserved.