The Khmer Empire Today

There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with open eyes. -Jawaharal Nehru

Joom reap sua! That’s formal Khmer for hello. Informal: Sua s’dei.

Last week, to fill our four day weekend and to celebrate the end of Ben and Hannah’s time in Thailand (as they left for America yesterday), we took a trip to the country’s next door neighbor, Cambodia!


Angkor Wat seen from the Western Causeway


Joining us on the trip was Chan, our Cambodian friend who teaches Conversation at our school. It was his first time going home in over two years. The last time he went home was to spend nine days as a monk—a duty every man in a Theravada Buddhist country ought to go through at one point in his life.

We left just after school last Wednesday and the adventure blasted off from the word ‘go.’ We were scheduled to take a bus from Pakthongchai to nearby Korat, and from there catch another bus to Sakeaow on the Cambodian border. But we missed our second bus—by only 6 minutes. The next bus wasn’t for two hours. By our original plan, we wouldn’t arrive in Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat) until 12:30 AM. Missing the bus, we wouldn’t arrive until 2:30 or 3:00.

So instead of waiting, we hopped in a couple of tuk-tuks (motorcycle rickshaws) and went on a high-speed chase through Korat, the 3rd largest city in Thailand! The tuk-tuk drivers luckily knew where the bus was going to stop next, and 20 minutes later we caught up with it. What a whirl!

One five-hour bus ride, a beard-related holdup at Immigration (the Thai exit official didn’t believe I belonged to my passport, as the photo was taken four years BB: Before the Beard), and a two-hour taxi drive later, we arrived at our hostel in Siem Reap and, exhausted, went straight to bed.

Less than four hours later we awoke for our first activity: sunrise at Angkor Wat. Here I should mention: when you say Angkor Wat, you’re actually referring to every temple in a massive complex containing dozens of temples. The most famous temple in the complex is also called Angkor Wat. It’s like how the most famous track on Simeon & Garfunkel’s album “The Sound of Silence” is also called “The Sound of Silence.”


Before the sunrise.



The sun begins to rise.

Even at 4:30 AM the ticket booth was jammed with a long line of farangs. After purchasing a day pass we went in. The famous temple is situated on a squarish piece of land surrounded by a vast moat, with a bridge on the East and West sides. We approached from the West. Across the bridge you go under a gateway, and from there you enter the courtyard. There are green fields on either side, and palm trees line the path. Before you’re anywhere near the temple you pass two small buildings that were once libraries. And then you reach the pools. When they’re not surrounded by tourists (as they were that morning), the pools are situated in just the right position as to get a mirrored view of Angkor Wat.


It was dark when we arrived. I had been told a few days before that my grandfather, the man for whom I just finished reading Don Quixote last week, visited Angkor Wat on a business trip some 50 or 60 years ago. As the sky brightened, I tried to picture him standing there with me. How did he look back then? He would have been a decade or two older than I am now, but having just read his favorite book, and now visiting a beautiful place where he once visited too, I felt more strongly connected to him than I have felt since he passed away.

Once the sun was up, we returned to our hostel for breakfast and to rent some bicycles. Then we took the bikes out and went back to Angkor Wat complex. We spent the day cycling under the blistering sun, visiting temple after ancient temple.


Ben bikes toward Angkor Thom



The statues which lime this bridge are lifting the tail of a huge guardian (naga) statue.

Chan, our Cambodia friend, was a wonderful (unofficial) guide. He is undoubtedly the funniest person I know, which made learning about the history of Angkor Wat from his perspective wonderfully fun. He took us to Preah Kahn, Angkor Thom (a complex-within-a-complex), and Ta Prohm, a temple with trees that have grown through the rocks. Chan told us stories about some of the carvings and statues, especially the naga (serpent) statues that guard the entrances to many temples.


Angkor Thom



According to Chan, Cambodians rub the breasts of this bas-relief for good luck. Take that with a grain of salt…



One of many trees that grow through Ta Phrom

The Angkor Wat complex was once the jewel and capital of the Khmer empire, whose first dynasty was Hindu and ruled over lands in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand in the 9th century. At its height, several different kings tried to introduce Buddhism, and eventually the conversion stuck, so that when the Khmer empire faded in the 13th century, the kingdoms that arose afterward were Buddhist, and the modern nations maintain the tradition. Cambodia clings to the old heritage the most. The language in Cambodia is called Khmer, the food is Khmer, the dance is Khmer, the literature is Khmer, and all other aspects of the culture are Khmer.


This swamp surrounds one of the more remote temples.



The green you see isn’t grass, it’s algae. This temple is underwater.


As the sun began to set we returned to the famous Angkor Wat temple and walked through its halls. These were decorated with incredible bas-reliefs, or stone-carved murals, depicting Khmer history and scenes from the empire’s old mythology.


Angkor Wat at sunset.




Bas-relief from Angkor Thom.

Seven hours after we set out, we lethargically pedaled the bikes back to the hostel and took much-needed showers. That night we ate at a Khmer buffet where we watched traditional Khmer dance, which is a lot like traditional Thai dance.


The next day was little to write home about (literally). We had a relaxing morning featuring a pleasant American breakfast and took a bus from Siem Reap to Battambang, the province where Chan’s family lives. There we met up with his sister Amy (short for Channreaksmey, just as Chan is short for Channrith), who lives in Pakthongchai as well but arrived at home a day or two before us. We also met some of their neighbors, a young girl and her older brother who study at Battambang’s international school and wanted to practice their English by hanging out with us.

Besides visiting Chan’s lovely parents, who we’d met a few weeks before when they came to Pakthongchai, we had a purpose in Battambang: to attend his cousin’s wedding. We arrived in the province on the second day of the three-day long celebration. There are many events involved in a Khmer wedding, most of them involving Buddhist tradition. The night we arrived was the fun part: the dance party! We had a wonderful dinner at the bride’s house and spend hours dancing in a circle around a table laden with flowers. Chan even taught me some traditional Khmer dance moves!

In Cambodia, weddings are extravagant, but courtship is very conservation. An engagement begins went a man visits the woman’s family and asks about her living habits. The woman visits the man’s family and asks the same. This is to ensure that they would be decent partners.


Once the man, woman, and their respective families agree, they are engaged. At this point, the man and woman are allowed to have physical contact. They get to…hold hands!! Consummation does not occur until the wedding night. Unlike most modern Americans, Cambodians are still very strict about this rule.

The next step is to visit a fortune teller. The fortune teller will assess various astrological things about the bridge and groom and calculate a date on which they are to be married that would offer their marriage the best luck. After this, the groom pays for the bride. Yes. He asks the bride’s family how much money they spent in raising her and taking care of her, and he will pay them all or a portion of that sum. The way Chan explained it: the groom pays for the bride’s mother’s breastmilk. We were rather confused. We thought, if anything, he meant that the groom pays for the breastmilk the bride will make for their future children. It took a while to figure out what was really happening.


Happy couple!


On the fortunate date (get it?) the marriage begins! On the final day of celebrations the actual wedding occurs. This is what we attending the morning after the dancing.

In a small room in the bride’s house, family members from both sides gathered on the floor in a crowded circle. The bridge and groom sat together on one side. Before them was a platter featuring many flowers, a sword, and a pig’s head. A man in sparkling robes offered prayers and instructions for the wedding party, and lit a significant amount of incense.

One-by-one, the members of the families who were already married approached the couple, placed envelopes full of money in their hands, and then tied pieces of red string around their wrists. Soon several inches’ worth of their arms were tied up. Then the unmarried people (including myself and Hannah—Ben had stepped out for some cooler air) approached and delivered our envelopes, but we did not tie strings.


Hannah and I present the newlyweds with envelopes.


After that ceremony we ate a big breakfast, walked around the nearby temple, and then Chan took us for a tour of Battambang.


Gateway to a temple in Battambang. The eight-spoked wheel above the lintel symbolizes Buddhism’s eightfold path.



Temple in Battambang.


Beneath the temple roof are painted scenes from the life of the Buddha.


That day we saw the farm where Chan’s father grows mangoes, papaya, bananas, guava, and rice. We saw the farm where his friend Saorith, only 23, leads the family business of growing decorative trees. Saorith recently got a government contract to plant along some new highway in Battambang city.


We also visited a dam that held back a reservoir that stretched into the horizon. It was beautiful. But also sad. Why sad? Because during the reign of Polpot in the 1970’s, his regime forced local people to construct this dam. The workers were underfed and the working conditions were terrible. Hundreds of people died. This was just on the forced labor projects during Polpot’s regime that contributed to the deaths of millions of Cambodians.

That night we went to a Khmer pop concert, a free event in Battambang city, and indulged in our last Khmer dinner. Because Cambodia was once occupied by France, many meals there involve bread. This was a godsend. Good bread is difficult to come by in Thailand. In fact, the closest provider of fresh bread is in Korat, a 45-minute bus ride from Pakthongchai.

Anyways, the next morning we made the long return journey. It was a fun journey, and all-too short. Just like India, I hope to one day return to Cambodia.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.


5 thoughts on “The Khmer Empire Today

  1. Lovely Paul … Thanks for the tour. Hoping that your work/stay/visiting in Thailand and nearby continues to be as wonderful and enlightening as it seems to have been up to now.

    Lots of love from Aunt Polly and me. We send our very best wishes to you for the Holidays and coming year,

    Uncle Sam

  2. WOW! What a lot of great stories and photos. This sounds like an amazing journey! You saw and experienced so much in those few days. I think the best part is that you guys got to attend part of the wedding celebration ~ a special family event to take part in, and a window into any culture. The pictures from that are beautiful, as are many of the photos of the temples in Angkor Wat and in Battambang. The detailed bas relief carvings at Angkor Thom are incredible. It’s hard to imagine how much time went into all of those. Thanks, as with many other blog posts, for the wonderful “tour”. Love and many hugs, Mom

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