My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.
Be born. Done, easy, check.
(OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
Show up and go along.
Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).
So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.
But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.
I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.
So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.
Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.
Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.
So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, the hateful sun is making my scalp tingle, and I am sweating in places I didn’t even know you could sweat. Seriously, why would my knees need to sweat? What possible cooling mechanism does one need for one’s knees?
We’ve been assured by our guide Nak that this particular temple—our seventh or eighth one in the last three days—has some of the best examples of guard lion statues in the area.
Three days ago, that little tip would have filled me with unbridled enthusiasm. I would have been agog: “WHAT? Lions? Made out of stone?? To guard the temple? And these ones right here are the BEST remaining examples? I cannot believe our luck! No, I do not need you to lead the way, Nak. I will find them!”
But today, looking up at these ridiculously narrow steps (how small were the Khmer people’s feet?? I practically have to tippy-toe my way up and down the temple stairs here) to the multitude of terraces that make up the Bakong temple, all I can think is, “Yes, that’s nice, but what are the chances that those guard lions are protecting a nice cold beer that’s been waiting just for me?”
I was officially templed out.
We saw, like I said, seven or eight temples in the Angkor complex and we really only scratched the surface. There are literally hundreds of major temples spread out over a 154-square mile area, which, at its’ height in the 9th to 15th centuries, had a population of over 1 million citizens.
We were also getting a crash course in Cambodian history, Hindu and Buddhist religions, ancient architectural practices, and a graduate-level dissertation on obscure symbolism. All in 100 degree heat and humidity. It was enough to make anyone’s head swim.
Nevertheless, learning did occur and there were definitely some standouts who managed to stick in our soggy brains:
Bantreay Srei: I think this was probably our favorite one. It was the farthest away from the main temples (about 20 miles), which means it tends to be a bit less crowded. We went fairly early in the morning, when the sun made the rose-pink sandstone carvings even more beautiful. The temple was originally dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer or transformer) and the name of the temple means “Citadel of the Women,” so not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of beautiful apsara (nymphs). And the bas relief carvings on all the pediments and doorways were amazingly well preserved.
Ta Prohm– This was the first temple we went to and its claim to fame is that it was used as the movie set of Tomb Raider. There are lots of people posing for pictures with the twisted spung tree that sits over the ruins. The whole spung tree thing is pretty crazy. You see them growing up out of the temples, basically consuming them. It’s very easy to imagine the jungle eventually just taking Ta Prohm back. Most of the temples are under UNESCO protection and there are international efforts underway to restore or preserve them, but the groups decided to leave Ta Prohm as is so that people could get an idea of that interrelation between the temple and the jungle.
Bayon — The Bayon temple features a sea of over 200 massive stone faces looking in all direction. You see these smiling faces a lot through Angkor, and their believed to be a combination of Buddha and the King Jayavarman VII. It’s a favorite among the tourist crews, who swarm like little ants all over the three levels. It’s really is beautiful and ornate, even the crumbling bits look ornamental and intentional.
Angkor Wat – The big Kahuna. The granddaddy of them all. So iconic, it’s the symbol on the country’s flag (the only country to have a building on their flag, by the way). The best time to see it is at sunrise, and our morning spent sitting on the edge of the reservoir surrounding it, waiting for the big, red-orange sun to show up is one of my fondest memories of the whole trip. Everyone’s just sitting there patiently, chatting in hushed tones while the tuk tuks putter past in the background and the frogs do their ribbetting frog thing. Once inside, there are bas-reliefs all along the walls on the first level. They depict Hindu stories including the mythical “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a super awesome name for a badass legend where Hindu deities stir vast oceans in order to extract the nectar of immortal life. AND to churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki. I mean, how fantastic is that?? “Heya, Vasuki, what did you do this weekend?” “Oh, I had some of the guys over for tapas. After I ran out of Rioja, we went out and churned an ocean to get some Amrita nectar as a replacement. You know, as you do. So anyway. Crazy night.”
The temples at Angkor are amazing and wondrous. A once in a lifetime experience. And I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see them. I’m especially indebted to our guide, Nak, who helped arrange the temple-hopping schedule so that we avoided most of the crowds. And there were plenty of crowds. It was not at all uncommon for us to be exiting a temple right as a convoy of tour buses was pulling up and offloading hoards of (mostly Asian) tourists (there are approximately 2 million visitors annually).
Here’s a great story on the somewhat negative impact of the massive interest in the temples, including the problem of aggressive vendors and rude tourists.
So, for those who wonder, yes, three days of Angkor temples is sufficient.
We came back to our “favorite temple in Siem Reap” (Nak’s joke) the Le Meridien Angkor each afternoon tired and sweaty, our brains fried by the sun and the unbelievable amounts of information that we’d probably never have reason to call upon again (Was that last temple dedicated to Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Naga?). But we were also stocked with a slew of new memories and shared experiences, tons of pictures and definitely ready for a nice cold beer by the pool.