Published on February 9th, 2011 | by Simon

The Churning of the Sea of Milk

You do get to judge the general cost of living in a country based on its currency. $100 just bought me nearly half a million Cambodian riels. When you consider that the smallest note I received was newly printed and worth about 12cents, you do begin to get the picture.


What on earth were these guys on when they thought up the legends that link Hinduism and Buddhism?? They’ve ended up in monumental (literally) wall carvings at Angkor Wat. I mean, I can understand why you might want to get hold of immortal elixir – whatever that may be – but to have it produced by two teams comprising thousands of demons and angels having a tug of war over a snake which squeezes out a mountain which floats on a sea of milk out of which comes the vaunted elixir. Is that magic mushrooms at work or what?

 And monumental those carvings are on what is said to be the largest religious building in the world. In fact large enough for me to find a quiet corner away from the thousands of tourists and especially the noise created by Chinese tour groups who have definitely supplanted the Japanese as the most ridiculous tourists on the planet – and by large measure the loudest (oh for an American tour group!!).

The well-publicised posters of the world’s great ‘must sees’ can be misleading. Just as Petra turned out to be a city rather than a clutch of temples – so too Angkor. There are literally thousands of temples spread over a huge area. About a thousand years ago when London was a city of 50,000 souls, Angkor had a population of a million. And now it’s back to being just tourists and a few guardians and the odd restorer, engaged in what seems to be a series of the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzles. The saddest of these has to be one of the temples at Angkor Thom which was dismantled stone by stone ready to be restored and then along came the Khmer Rouge and a nasty civil war which put everything on hold for 20 years. And they lost the plans that went with the dismantled bits.. Oops.
Most of the monks disappeared at the same time and now this is a country of temples and amazing history, but not much religion.

In truth, it’s a wonder the Cambodians smile so much. About 100 years ago, the French were invited in by a king who wanted to be protected from the Thais (one forgets that this whole region we call Southeast Asia was as riven as Europe was with wars and strife between neighbours). The French overstayed their welcome (both here and in Vietnam), got roundly defeated by the Vietnamese and left the door open for the Americans to take part in the Vietnam War, during which Cambodia was neutral. But that didn’t stop the B52’s dropping more tonnage of bombs on this little neutral country than was dropped on all of Germany in WWII.

As if that wasn’t enough, the resulting turn to Communism resulted in the rise of Pol Pot who must have come close to Hitler for downright crazy nastiness. And millions died in the killing fields. They finally got rid of him but the legacy was a country sewn throughout with landmines – there are estimated to be 6 million still unlocated – and Cambodia has the unenviable record of the highest number of civilian amputees in the world (one in every 250 of the population).
And just to cap it all and go full circle, the Thais are getting feisty again – some say for internal political point-scoring – and there is was shelling just yesterday across a temple situated on disputed land straddling the border.

When the guesthouse said they would send a free airport pickup, I was delighted. Airport transfers are one of the more egregious travel ripoffs out there. I wasn’t expecting a tuk-tuk – the Cambodian version being a two-wheeled upholstered cart with roof, attached to the back seat of a 100cc motorbike. Actually it was incredibly pleasant in the morning haze with the temp hovering around 21C (70F). And my driver was such a delight that Arun has been my faithful transport to all the sights over the past two days. Unerringly right there when I exit a temple, I asked how he knew I was coming. I could just see him thinking ‘big elephant’ – rolling gait, bigger than most other living things around him, big ears, big nose, a few whispy tufts of hair on top…

The temples themselves are about as varied as can be given the construction is of stone. But there is everything from the giant towers of Angkor Wat, looking like sandcastles that have melted a bit with the action of the ocean, to the Lara Croft Tomb Raider temples with the most huge rainforest trees growing out of them and with their roots strangling the walls.

Please view more images of Cambodia here.




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