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Better late than never . . .
Dispatch #12

All the rest

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On our third day, we went to Banteay Srei, a tiny temple complex on the edge of Angkor proper, delicately constructed and intricately carved from reddish sandstone.  It's the most obviously Indian-influenced temple in Angkor, and it features bas-relief scenes drawn from Hindu mythology and densely decorated with carvings of leaves, vines, flowers, and animals.  The religion of Cambodia is an intriguing mix of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Historians point to Cambodia as the one country in Southeast Asia to draw its influences more strongly from India than China.  This leads to interesting juxtapositions, like the eight-armed Buddha at Angkor Wat, which was originally a statue of Shiva.  The head of the statue was replaced with a Buddha's head during the reign of a king who was Buddhist.  This mix is not just a matter of history.  In the main temple at Wat Bo in Siem Reap, a massive golden Buddha sits at the center of the temple, surrounded dozens of other Buddhas.  The walls around them are adorned with a long, intricate series of painting depicting scenes from the Hindu epic poem, The Ramayana.

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A bas relief panel from Banteay Srei

After touring Banteay Srei, we dropped off F&S at the airport.  M. and I decided we were templed out, and our driver suggested a trip to the reservoir near Siem Reap where the local people go to swim and picnic.  It was a chaotic, colorful scene, with weathered umbrella stands covered by a patchwork of frayed and faded cloths lining the narrow strip of sand along the water.  Vendors hawked sticky rice, lychees (a native fruit), fried bugs (BIG bugs), and tourist trinkets at the top of the stairs leading to the beach.  Rickety red and blue boats could be hired for trips to a small island in the reservoir, which houses a Buddhist shrine, and the remnants of the wall of some old structure, as M. and discovered after a bone-rattling trip in a boat with a loud engine and an inch of water sloshing around under the foot rests. 

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On my last day, M. and I went to visit the branch office of the Cambodia microfinance program.  We traveled about 45 minutes by motorbike with 2 credit agents and the branch manager to tiny little villages where the arrival of two pale foreigners became a major event for the local children.  I gained new respect for the work credit agents do - my legs and hips ached after about 5 minutes of bumping along the deeply rutted dirt roads that led to the villages. 
 
I fell a little more in love with Cambodia on this trip.  I don't quite know what it is about the country that intrigues me so much.  Something about the mix of colonial French architecture with classic Khmer buildings in Phnom Penh, the rush of traffic in its streets and the press of people going about their business.  Something about the lush beauty of the countryside, and the polite friendliness and curiosity of the people.  And something about the tragedy of the country - the violence of the civil war, the oppression under the Khmer Rouge, the daily struggle for survival and recovery.  The decades of de-mining the country will have to go through, the rising threat of an AIDS explosion due to the trafficking of women and children and Cambodia's growing inclusion in the Southeast Asian sex industry. 
 
I don't know when I'll go back, but I'm sure I will.

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Recommended Reading: 
Gecko Tales: A Journey Through Cambodia by Carol Livingston