Published: December 28th 2006December 28th 2006
On the left a carved Apsara dances in the morning light, while behind her a nun tends to Buddha
Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
Sunrise at Angkor Wat; Our moto driver said we had to leave the guest house at 4.30am. It seemed a little early, but he does this almost every day so should know what time the sun comes up. We've seen a few sunrises over the past few months, but I never remember having to set off this early. It's now just before 5am & we've made it to Angkor Wat. We're trying to navigate our way along the long path from the main entrance to a point where we know there will be a perfect view of the temples. It's pitch black. It's not dark, it's really pitch black. You can't see your hand if you put it out in front of you. As we walk along the path we tread carefully, knowing from past experience that there is a big drop on either side that lands in the moat below. We arrive & find a spot on a ledge that will hopefully provide a good view as the sun rises for another day.
It's still pitch black. The best bit of sunrise may well be before it actually emerges, the moments when the sky
turns all kinds of colours that are otherwise only seen in paintings, but perhaps we are still a little early.
There will be no colours today. The air around us slowly begins to light up, revealing nothing more than packs of other tourists. Soon it's daylight. No colours. Not even a sun to speak of just yet. Just us, Angkor Wat ahead of us & tripods, cameras, a few flashes & tourists all around. No one cares that we were first there, that we carefully chose our viewpoint. No one cares about anyone else, we are all here for that perfect sunrise that didn't happen. We all stand in front of other people's photos & add to the disappointment that was sunrise today.
Around 1 million people visit the temples of Angkor each year. I've no idea how many actually make it up absurdly early for sunrise, but there's certainly quite a few. Many like us come alone (save for the moto driver), but most come on tours. That means that at 5am, the place is full of bus load after bus load after bus load of tourists. The funny thing about tour groups & their tourists is
One of many faces
that they really don't mind being herded around together, to the same places at the same times, meaning that everywhere they go, they share the experience with countless others in the same situation. I know it's the same the world over, & I know that it means there's certain places that you just have to expect to have a Japanese person throwing the peace sign or a group of blue rinse perms tucked away in the corner of your photo.
The thing is, we're quite used to going to places that the tour groups don't quite make it to. So sunrise at Angkor was a bit strange. What's more strange, is that being creatures of habit, they all leave the second that the sun is up (or not up as was the case today). Hence, at around 6am we had what seemed to be the entire grounds of Angkor Wat almost entirely to ourselves. The tours all went home for breakfast & we didn't see them again.
Although my third visit to the temples of Angkor, this is the first time I've been after the rainy season, so there was a lot more water & a lot more
With dancing Apsaras in the background. The Bayon
green that I've seen before. After the tours left we ambled on along the now well lit path. To the left was a small pool of water, full of pink water lillies. We walked down for a closer look & found ourselves in the perfect spot to see the sun finally emerge. Angkor Wat, seemingly surrounded by pink lillies was reflected beautifully in the water. A few people were around, but it was so satisfying to know that we had enjoyed a special moment that so many tour groups missed out on.
The next few hours were spent exploring the remains of the magnificent temple almost on our own.
Today Cambodia is a small country, it's landmass is around the same as the UK without Scotland. It's poor & in the whole scheme of things it's pretty insignificant. Hard to believe then, that around a thousand years ago, the city of Angkor was home to one million people - this being at a time when London was home to just 50,000. There weren't just temples, there was a whole empire. At times it stretched well into modern day Vietnam & Thailand, it's influence spreading further still into Laos
& Burma. It was a time of self styled 'God-Kings' with each one wanting to outdo the previous, with their Hindu & later Buddhist influenced cities. Their golden era lasted over 600 years, from 802 -1432. The capital city moved around, hence the masses of ruins found today across what's left of the country. It's suspected that the city of Angkor fell when they had used up all of the resources available. Their building techniques would be hard to match today; their irrigation methods were way ahead of their time. Yet they over used what they had. Perhaps a few parrallels we could learn from today?
The temples largely fell into ruin in the middle of the 20th century, and weren't widely seen again until they were 'rediscovered' under French rule in 1860. Since then many tourists have come & gone & some renovations have taken place.
I've lost track of how many days & how many temples I've seen on my three visits, and don't worry, I'm not going to talk you through every moment of every day. Not quite anyway. Instead I'll add some photos that hopefully go some way to showing just how staggering the
remains are. There's more to Angkor than the classic view of the turret like towers, there's numerous temples from the surreal smiling faces of Bayon to the hidden away & rarely explored jungle covered corner of Preah Khan.
With tourist number growing rapidly in Cambodia it's hard to know what the future holds. We've met locals around Cambodia who are troubled that Angkor is seen by some tourists as the only drawcard here. Many people just go to Angkor & nowhere else in the country. Many just go there to the beach, hardly even stopping in the capital city, Phnom Penh. It's creating a lot of wealth in one or two places & leaving a lot of the rest of the country feeling pretty left out.
There was a time when you could run riot in the temples. Some have deliberately been left almost as they were found - being reclaimed by jungle. With caved in roofs, hidden tunnels & trees growing from out of nowhere, exploring some places feels like a trip into an Indiana Jones movie. In the past, I remember being encouraged to climb up onto precariously positioned rocks & getting lost in decaying corridors.
Pigs in transit
After a similar photo I published from Vietnam, I was asked if they are alive when transported. The answer is absolutely yes.
We knew it was wrong, but at the time it seemed to be an opportunity that couldn't be refused. Today there's plenty of 'danger' & 'no entry' signs. Climbing is definitely out. But you can still explore quite freely & if you really want to you can easily still star in your own adventure movie.
Much work is being done on the temples, with teams from around the world helping out & donating money. But with most of what goes on in Cambodia seemingly decided by who has the most money to shake around it's very much at a crossroads.
Consider this: Angkor Wat is recognised as one of the wonders of the world. It attracts around 1 million visitors a year who pay around US$40 each to visit it. The temple are in constant need of repair & maintenance. Of the US$40,000,000 taken at the gates, 15% goes to the ticketing agent (currently a hotel chain), just 10% goes to Apsara who maintain the temples & a staggering 75% (US$30,000,000) goes to the government.... who aren't known for their honesty.
Something that no one can hide from at Angkor (or for that matter across much of
Asia) is kids. Children are everywhere, trying to sell postcards, souvenirs, coke, just about anything you could ever want (or not). Some may be a little too pushy, but most are very aimiable & when you stop to think about it, pretty talented. How many eight year olds do you know that speak fluent Khmer & English, with a very good amount of French, German, Chinese & Japanese, as well as a bit of basic Korean, Spanish & Italian?
Over the last 10 years, I've taken a lot of photos of locals in Asia - especially kids. It's strange to walk in, take a photo & leave. How many really remember you? From time to time I've printed photos off for people & sent them a copy, although you never really know if they got them. I'd love to be there when they arrive to see their faces light up. Having been back to so many places twice, three times or more, I've often thought that I should perhaps be better prepared & print off copies of photos in the hope that I may run into people again.
There was a young boy near Bayon Temple that I
This side borders the jungle, although few people seem to explore this corner for some reason.
had a particularly favourite photo of from the last visit, two & a half years ago. He was pretty cheeky, a trait that was added to by his goofy front teeth. As we walked past the place we'd seen him before, we didn't really expect to find him still there. We weren't sure if we'd recognise him anyway. But there he was, a bit taller, more teeth, just as cheeky. I didn't have the photo, but I happened to have the image on my ipod, so we pulled it out & showed it around. Family, friends, neighbours, everyone wanted to see. We took more photos & came back a few days later with a copy of 'then' & 'now' He was clearly absolutely thrilled. A magical moment.
It's funny how many people you end up meeting just hanging around & walking about the temples. Another day we stumbled upon a young boy drawing in the sand at the side of a path. The pictures were very impressive, far better than anything we could manage. He wasn't even after money, he was just pleasing himself. The next day we brought back a few coloured pens & a notebook for him.
With the old & new photos
War may be long gone, but there's still plenty of land mines in Cambodia. Almost a thousand people a year are still wounded by them. There's an excellent Land Mines Museum in Siem Reap, run by an ex Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier, Aki Ra. Land mines are still being made & are widely used around the world today. Aki Ra is better at talking about land mines than me. For more details take a look here: Aki Ra Mine Action
I don't know if it's made international news, but the recent APEC summit in Hanoi was big news here (well, on BBC World anyway). One often discussed topic was the street kids that keep Hanoi going. They were all cleared away so that it would like nice for Bush & co. Quite where anyone bought their postcards, books, cigarettes etc while they were hidden away, I really don't know. An expo started here today & in a similar manner, the kids (& beggars) were all tidied away. If they know there's a 'problem' there, it makes you wonder why no long term solution is ever considered.
I remember years ago when it was common to find
policemen around the temples trying to sell you their badges. No one ever seemed to know if they were genuine police or not - it's just that kind of country. Back then I decided to try & see how far the guy would go. We passed the badge, hat & so on until he was willing to sell me his trousers - the actual trousers he was wearing. Corrupt policeman? Entrepreneur? Either way, a fairly desperate way to make a living. Another policeman, a different avenue. This time we met one that wanted to be our guide. Corrupt policeman? Entrepreneur? Who knows.
I wonder what will become of this boy that we stumbled upon a few times - will he grow up to be corrupt or an entrepreneur? you want to buy my books?
no thanks why not?
we have enough books already buy one for your friends
we don't have any friends you don't have any friends because you didn't buy my books
hhhhmmmmmm buy a book & I'll leave you in peace
We later bought something from him.
If I ever become a manager
again & he applied for a job in sales, he would get it. They've decided to make a new Seven Wonders. They will be decided by a public vote. Personally I think a few places chosen are a bit on the dull side. Surely a 'wonder' needs to be something old, with a bit of history & a bit of mystery?? Apparently Angkor Wat isn't anywhere near the Top 7 at the moment. You can vote for your top 7 here:New Seven Wonders
Wellington - Sydney - Bangkok - Khao Lak - Chaweng (Koh Samui) - Lamai (Koh Samui) - Bangkok - Macau - Guangzhou - Yangshuo - Guangzhou - Zhengzhou - Guangzhou - Shanghai - Huang Shan - Shao Lin - Beijing - Xi'an - Chengdu - Leshan - Kanding - Tagong - Litang - Xiang Cheng - Zhongdian - Lijiang - Kunming - Hekou/Lao Cai - Hanoi - Cat Ba Island - Ninh Binh - Hanoi - Hue - Hoi An - Hue - Hanoi - Sapa - La Chau - Son La - Mai Chau -Hanoi - China Beach - Hoi An - China Beach - Quy Nhon - Kon Tum - Saigon - Phnom Penh - Pursat - Battambang - Siem Reap - Anlong Veng - Siem Reap
There are more photos below