Include Cambodia and temple of Angkor Wat on trip to Asia

Photo by Ben G. Frank
Photo by Ben G. Frank

Some consider Angkor Wat in Cambodia the eighth wonder of the world.

And some call it “the mother of all temples.”

Others believe it to be the world’s largest religious monument.

No matter what description you conjure up, Angkor Wat is not to be missed during a trip to Asia. This temple stands as the heart and soul of Cambodia, the center of Khmer civilization, the national symbol and the source of the country’s national pride. Angkor Wat is so famous that its picture is front and center on the Cambodian flag.

Just walk down the long causeway, as I did, and view the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat and you will be reminded of that “ah” moment — the same inner joy and excitement a traveler feels when viewing for the first time the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu , the Great Wall of China, Petra and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

But like many sites, it is advisable to visit this vast complex in the early morning, especially in the beginning of the year. We didn’t listen and arrived at noon when the crowds were sparse and it was very hot.

We returned to our hotel in nearby Siem Reap, a tourist town bursting at the seams, and returned before sunset. We easily sauntered through the ruins, pausing on the paths where we observed monkeys scampering up and down stone terraces. These playful animals tease and pose for pictures, although we were warned not to get too close because they are wild.

The children trying to sell souvenirs didn’t bother us. They were wonderful and practiced their English on us.

Angkor Wat, a rectangular area of about 500 acres, is surrounded by a moat. The site remains in a remarkable state of preservation; archeology buffs may want to spend a full day or two exploring the walls. Be ready to almost crawl up worn, aged stone steps. This mother of all temples was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It holds the temple mausoleum of King Suryavarman II (1113-1150), its builder.

From the ninth century through much of the 15th century, Cambodia was home to one of the world’s most impressive civilizations. By the 15th century, however, Khmer civilization collapsed; its people dispersed. The city itself lay forgotten until the 19th century when it was rediscovered. With this in mind, we gazed at the 12th century Khmer temple, adorned with elaborate bas-reliefs and its edifice containing the longest continuous relief ever carved.

Although Cambodia was taken over and made a protectorate by the French in 1863, a nationalist movement did not arise until the 1930s. In 1953, Cambodia became independent. And then came decades of civil war, brutality, bombings and invasions by what seemed like nearly everyone, followed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

More than 1.5 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge; the “most radical revolution the world had ever seen.” They initiated “killing fields.” During the Khmer Rouge terror, all civilians in cities were evacuated to form rural cooperatives. Phnom Penh became a ghost town.

Our guide told us that he was tortured during the brutal years of Khmer Rouge rule. As they did with thousands of others, they tied him up and attacked him with hot irons. Nobody knows why he was freed.

“I have a second life,” he told me, which features a wife and young son whom he worships.

He joked that when he was young, “they taught me how to harvest rice. Now they teach students how to harvest U.S. dollars” from tourists who come to bike, trek and to take part in adventure tourism and experience this ancient Angkorian civilization.

Today, Cambodia is undergoing a rebirth. Gone are the Khmer Rouge.

Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat.

In Siem Reap, my wife and I took elephant rides, rode in motorbike taxis and visited the famous night market of Siem Reap.

Here, shopping meets the tight-budget expectations of many visitors: T-shirts, jewelry and crafts. After walking and standing in the market, we re-energized our feet in relaxation pools.

The capital of Cambodia, Phonm Penh, is a six-hour drive from Siem Reap. Chabad is located at No. 32, Street 228. At the front gate is a sign that says, “The Jewish Center” followed by the words, “No Jew will be left behind.”

According to Rabbi Bentzion Butman the center serves not only the more than 150 Jews living in Phnom Penh, but another 100 Jews living in the countryside, as well as the thousands of tourists who pass through Cambodia each year.

Cambodian tourism, which has reached nearly 5 million visitors a year, continues to grow.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published, Klara’s Journey (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); and other Jewish travel guides.

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