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Time Traveler

Time Travel: Exploring Cambodia's Ancient Khmer Culture

- By Deb Abraham

Cambodia, the ancient Khmer culture, a lost world, a modern tragedy -- we hardly know what to expect. Bunsak, our Cambodian representative from the Amansara meets us at the Siem Reap airport. He is kind, respectful, welcoming, proud, even joyful in the face of an uncertain future. He whisks us into the comfort of a waiting automobile for the short trip to the hotel. The odyssey begins.

Once the home of King Norodom Sihanauk, the Amansara retains the majesty of its former occupants. The gates swing open and admit us to a life of privilege. As we absorb its exquisite harmony of design, we are seduced by the delicate scent of jasmine. To be treated royally is to find every sense enticed. The televised world is banished. A local musician seated on a woven mat beneath the veranda lures us with the plaintive tones of an unfamiliar instrument. We are led to our suite and find it opens into a private courtyard complete with water garden and pool. My twenty year old daughter announces she will return for her honeymoon. And why not--it's perfect!

We find a suggested itinerary of temple visits. Guides, drivers and remorks (a local form of transportation that attaches a three wheeled buggy to a motor bike) are all provided. We'll visit in the early morning and late afternoon when the temples are least crowded and return to the resort at midday for lunch and perhaps a spa visit. Would we like to rest, refresh and head out that very afternoon? Absolutely! Mr. Chin Piseth, who will guide us throughout our stay, greets us with a smile and a sompiah (a bow with hands in a prayer position).

We climb eagerly into our remork and merge out into a dizzying stream of bicycles and buggies. An occasional pick-up transports an impossible number of workers to labor on hotel construction. Children dressed in school attire are everywhere, two and three to a bike, returning from lessons, descendants of Southeast Asia's greatest empire. A quick lesson in early Khmer history introduces us to long ago kings, Hindu deities, and peaceful Buddhist conversions. We learn of the canals and drainage systems that brought prosperity to an ancient city. Angkor was built to revere the gods...and provide for its people.

Our tour has been designed so the wonders of the complex will slowly unfold. Even so, we are awestruck at the magnificence of the first site. There is much to discuss as we return to the Amansara and dine in a room once used by the King to view Western cinema. The fare is excellent with service to match. A special performance of traditional shadow puppets caps the evening. It is just one of many ways the Amansara management supports the revival of traditional Cambodian culture. Not all who come here share this goal. Outside our hotel are obvious signs of overdevelopment and exploitation. Poor families take their children out of school to sell trinkets for foreign currency.

Our experience at the Amansara takes on new depth. We are pampered. We are surrounded by beauty. But we are allowed to see the people around us and we are given the opportunity to give back. The final morning of our tour we set out for Angkor Wat at 5am. Our guide takes us past the popular tour bus stop, to a rarely used back entrance. We enter the jungle with only a flash light. It is still dark as we reach the temple and begin to climb. The steps are steep, not intended for mere mortals. Finally at the top, we turn to see the first streaks of dawn. It is breath-taking. A forgotten world for the moment at our feet -- as we look down from the abode of the gods.


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