It was a good coincidence of timing that brought Mandy and I to Cambodia after Singapore. Singapore provides a look into a modern future while Cambodia to me is a window into the past. Our time spent in Siem Reap and the surrounding area brought us to breathtakingly ornate ancient temples, dusty streets full of life and lights and a modern-day circus that not only entertains, but provides to its community.
Siem Reap is in the Northwest of Cambodia and a popular resort town due to its proximity to Angkor Wat. The city is home to both colonial and Chinese architecture in the city center. It boasts a lively nightlife with restaurants, hotels, bars, and attractions packed into a neon dense tourist area near the center of town. Our first stop of the trip was at the famed Angkor Wat, the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat (meaning “Temple City”) is a temple complex and one of the largest religious monuments in the world comprising 402 acres. Originally constructed in the early 12th century as a Hindu monument to the god Vishnu by the Khmer empire, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist complex over the next century. The main temple is a national symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag. Our tour covered both the main temple and a few of the countless secondary temples that occupy the surrounding area. These stone temples feature abundant carvings and statues of Hindu figures and gods arranged ornately on almost every surface.
We woke up early to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat and were able to see the rambling complex in the best light and solitude. The occasional Buddhist monk was visible wandering amongst the tourists or was seated in quiet contemplation. Religious energy was thick in the air. Centuries of battering by nature caused the decay of time to unevenly discolor the stone to various blacks, greys, greens, and splotches of white. This weathering served only to deepen the impression of the façade and leave you with a notion of the strength and permanence of the structures themselves – standing immovable against the unceasing tides of time. The complex felt older than time itself and left no wonder as to why it stands as the most iconic symbol of Cambodia.
The greater Angkor temple complex includes the Bayon Temple which we toured as well that day. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century, it was used as the state temple of the then Buddhist Khmer king. This richly decorated temple contains a myriad of gigantic smiling stone faces on the numerous towers jutting out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. Grass, roots, and moss grow into the temple structure and give the impression of a long lost culture just recently discovered. The gigantic faces and stone carvings drew my imagination to Indiana Jones or a gameshow of my childhood - Legends of The Hidden Temple. The setting and huge stone faces inspire thoughts of the mysticism and religion of a long time passed.
The night before we were set to leave Siem Reap, we were encouraged to go to the local circus. A circus is not typically high on the list for me, but many people had good things to say about it so we decided to give it a try, especially after we heard it was more of an acrobatics show. As we learned on arrival, the circus is a huge contributor to the children of Siem Reap and the organization that runs it, provides schooling and resources to countless kids. The organization that runs the circus, Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSA), was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and civil war. They offered free drawing classes to children which over time grew into a K-12 school specializing in the arts. The school provides education in visual arts, theater, music, dance, and circus. As of 2018, the school sees 1,200 students daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs which are all offered free of charge. The most talented students of the school are selected for the circus which perform almost daily to crowds of over three hundred. They have toured and performed all over the world and garnered international media recognition. All revenue generated from the circus goes back into the school and in effect, the community of Siem Reap. It was an inspiring example of a community providing for itself and its people. It goes beyond a typical charity to provide entertainment and a self-sufficient feedback loop whereby those who benefit from the organization go on to be gainfully employed by it and contribute the profits of their labors back into the organization. This income provides for future generations and aims to be self-funded and growing. On top of all of it, it was a great show. Incredibly talented acrobatics and a great style that wove a story into the performance alongside live music. I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Siem Reap. // Jeff