Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:

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The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.

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You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.

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One of Angkor Wat’s towers.

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Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.

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Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.

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Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?

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Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.

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Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.

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Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.

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Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.

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Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.

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It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…

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Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

How things are made

Hi! We’re in Cambodia! Adjusting to southeast Asia’s extreme temperatures (currently 96°F with 43% humidity) after New Zealand’s temperate climate has been a bit of a shock, but we’re adapting. The key? Drinking plenty of water and a hotel with a pool. Plus, no heavy-duty touring activities (like dusty temples) between the intense hours of noon and 5PM. One must take good care of oneself when traveling.

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$29 a night gets you quite a bit of luxury in Siem Reap.

One of the benefits of traveling in less developed countries like Cambodia is often the opportunity to see things being made by hand that are almost always created by machine elsewhere. We participated in a tour that took us through small villages outside of Siem Reap where we had the chance to see incense, rice noodles, and tofu, among other things, all crafted by hand.

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This incredible woman has been making incense sticks since she was 15. She’s now 76.

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Scented bark, used as the base for the incense sticks.

Bark and other raw materials for the incense are collected from the surrounding area, then sifted and made into a paste with water. The paste is rolled around bamboo sticks, dusted and dried in the sun.

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61 years of making incense by hand might be the embodiment of mastering one’s craft.

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Dusting the incense sticks before they’re left to dry in the sun.

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The finished incense sticks are collected into bundles and sold at the market for ceremonial use at altars such as the one below.

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An altar at a village pagoda.

We stopped at a home in a village outside of Siem Reap where fresh rice noodles are made. As with most of the homes we visited, this business is a family affair, with everyone participating in the household’s livelihood.

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The dough for these noodles is simply finely ground rice and water.

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This contraption uses the well-known engineering theory of “playground seesaw” to knead and pound the dough in shallow pans.

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The noodle dough is placed in the cylindrical press and tamped down with a wooden plunger.

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The boy wasn’t heavy enough to weigh down the press, so another family member joined in.

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Noodles gently dropping into their hot bath.

The family’s press is a simple yet ingenious human-weighted device that forces the thick, dense dough through a metal sheet pricked with tiny holes, creating the thin noodles. The noodles are quickly cooked in boiling water, then removed and drained.

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Bundles are carefully weighed, although these women are so skilled and accurate that the scale probably isn’t even necessary.

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The noodle bundles are packed in bamboo-lined rattan baskets for transport to the market and local restaurants.

Another stop was a house near Siem Reap’s wholesale market where a local family makes fresh tofu. Batches and batches are made every day and sold at the market or to a multitude of small restaurants. The “production kitchen” is of course also the family’s home.

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The wood-fired stove used for heating the soymilk.

Tofu is made in a manner very similar to cheese: fresh soy milk is heated, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk, and the mixture is pressed to remove liquid.

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The hot soymilk curdles immediately after the coagulant is added. 

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The curd is drained through fabric before being placed in the press.

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The drained curd is placed in a tray and pressed to remove liquid. Note the clever use of a bottle jack!

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Finished tofu.

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Tofu cubes, ready for sale. Tofu is always stored in liquid (usually filtered water) to keep it fresh and moist. 

If you’re interested in making your own homemade tofu, start here!