Siem Reap, 2013: Angkor National Museum

Day 2, 12.26.2013

sofitel angkor breakfastSofitel has the best breakfast buffets. That’s all I have to say. Highlights included amazing butter croissants (consistent with the perfect ones we found at Sofitel Wanda Beijing) and a fantastic assortment of fresh, local fruits. I had never seen fresh jackfruit cut open before! Nor have I ever tasted it. Now I’m in love with the stuff, but it is nigh impossible finding it on the East Coast.

sofitel angkor fruitJackfruit has a fascinating texture–crispy but also chewy at the same time (?). I would’ve unashamedly taken the entire platter had my mom not told me that eating too much will cause me to 上火 [shang huo]. In Chinese medicine, this indicates foods that are “inflammatory”, which personally means poor sleep and lots of acne for me.

Other fruits available were the largest green dates [奶棗 nai zao in Chinese] ever, sweet pineapple, red papaya, dragonfruit, and my favorite, mango. I could write a paragraph for each fruit, but I will refrain. I definitely recommend getting your hands on some fresh, green jujube if you ever come across it! Good ones are crisp like a Granny Smith apple without the tartness (just sweet), and the juice almost has a sort of milkiness to it. Hence the 奶 [nai or “milk”] part of its name in Chinese.

After a lazy breakfast, our tour group gathered and filed onto the bus to visit our first sight of the trip–the Angkor National Museum. Cambodia has over 2000 years of history, making it one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia. The written language of Cambodia originated from West India, Brahmi; it sounds like Sanskrit when spoken, which makes sense given that 95% of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. Even more interestingly, Hindu and Cambodian can’t be read by the opposite party, but when read out loud, both Hindus and Cambodians can understand completely! Furthermore, most of Cambodian history is passed down through oral tradition. Not sure if that resulted from the fact that 60% of text on Cambodia’s history was written by China (and thereby heavily biased).

sofitel dining area

A taste of old-world luxury.

Our tour guide stopped us outside of the museum to point out the palm trees growing by the entrance. Sugar palms are the national tree of Cambodia and provides income to many Khmer. None of the tree is wasted: timber is used for construction and utensils; leaves are used for roofs, baskets, fans; branches can be used for fencing or thongs; and the juice and fruit are harvested for eating, cooking and making palm sugar.

IMG_0801The juices of the tree’s flowers are used for drinking, and any excess is brewed into sugar. Khmer unsurprisingly don’t use white sugar at all. Don’t blame them–palm sugar is much tastier!

Our tour guide, Steven, explained to us how the Khmer Rouge lay waste to the country during their rule. Over 3 million were murdered in the several-years’ reign, 1 million of which were Chinese. (Also interesting is that the name “Ong” comes from the Chinese surname “Wang”). Men and women who had undergone proper brainwashing would be separated into lines and whomever they stood across from was whom they were forced to marry. This was to ensure that brainwashing was passed down to their children.

Educated people were actively executed and institutions were torn down. It was really admirable how bubbly and enthusiastic, Steven was in spite of his family’s history with the Khmer Rouge. His aunt was a teacher and was thus sought out to be eliminated. However, none of her students nor her children were willing to rat her out in school, so the Khmer Rouge raided her home and killed all her children in front of her. One of the babies were thrown and smashed against the trees. Absolutely horrifying to listen to, to think about, to even begin to fathom. I forget how his aunt escaped, but I’m glad she was able to. And unfortunately, that’s the most helpful thing I can do or say.

driving through siem reapWhile it has one of the fastest growing economies today, Cambodians are struggling. The government is riddled with corruption and bribery. The longevity of an average Cambodia peaks around 60-65 years of age, due to the lack of education regarding hygiene and access to proper medical care. In fact, doctors kill more people than they save.  Land mines yet to be uncovered, dangerously pockmark the country. There is at least one land mine for every person in Cambodia, and many civilians die each year from mistakenly stepping on one.

The average Cambodian family has about 7-8 kids, to increase opportunities for income. A typical laborer makes around $60 USD/month. That’s about how much white-collar Americans spend on drinks on a thirsty Thursday night. Ironically, Cambodia used to be a very rich country because a ton of gold mines. This was heavily exploited by nearly every Western nation, as well as India and China, and left nothing for Cambodia. There is a rather dark joke in Chinese, that plays on Cambodia’s name in Chinese, 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai]. Instead of calling it 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai], Cambodia is instead nicknamed to 錢不在 [qian bu zai], or “no money here”, because all the gold was stolen.

siem reap streets

Waiting for the bus.

We began our museum tour with a statue of an Asura, a demon that represents the sinful nature of man. You’ll find as you explore the history and culture of Cambodia that much of it originates from Hinduism and Hindu culture. Many of the same gods such as Naga and Ganesh (to name a few) have a strong presence in the artworks we saw.



It was also empowering to learn that King Jayavarman II–who founded the Khmer Empire–delegated his kingdom to his two wives whenever he was away. Jayarajadevi and Indradevi implemented social systems that provided their people, both men and women alike, the right to education, property ownership, political power, and public healthcare. They distributed property to the poor, focused on developing public infrastructure, and both were actually professors who taught and educated Khmer women. In fact-checking my notes from my trip, I came across this detailed article on the contributions of Jayarajadevi and Indradevi (if you’d like to read more) here.

We also visited an exhibit that follows the journey of Siddhartha and his path to Enlightenment. If you’ve ever looked at a statue of Buddha, you’ll notice that the right hand always sits on top: this represents removal from temptation, as the left hand is considered “dirty” and the right “pure”. I’m not sure if this is why in Indian culture you only eat with your right hand? Anyone care to enlighten me 😛 ?


This beautiful sandstone piece has 1700 faeries carved into it, “cheerleaders of the deities”. Women were believed to have been borne from the sea: from the bursting bubbles of the foam and mist.

There’s also a popular statue of Siddhartha with Naga the serpent protectively wrapped around him. Naga shielded Siddhartha from the rains on his 47th of the 49 days he spend in meditation, out of respect and in return for Siddhartha protecting him from an eagle that was eating Naga’s 6 other heads in the early days of Siddhartha’s journey.

ganeshaThe last story from the day was about Ganesha: the god of fortune and money. There are many different takes on the mythology of Ganesha, but the one following is perhaps a Cambodian take on it. He ran from home as a child and brought demons back with him. His mother took him in, but kept him facing the front of the house to ward off the other demons coming towards them. His father mistook him as a demon and cut his head off. Out of devastation, the parents prayed to another god for help, who told them that Ganesha’s head must be replaced within 25 steps to live. On the 24th step, they found an elephant head. And that is why Ganesha has an elephant head.


4 thoughts on “Siem Reap, 2013: Angkor National Museum

  1. Julia C. says:

    “branches can be used for fencing or thongs” — I initially thought of… a completely different kind of fencing.

    I learned so much in a relatively brief period of time! Dark Chinese jokes! Why Ganesha has an elephant head! So much horror and resilience in one place!

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