The city of temples - Siem Reap

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Asia » Cambodia » North » Siem Reap
October 29th 2006
Published: December 17th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

Tired and a little peeved to be dropped off at a guesthouse of the drivers choosing we offloaded our packs and sucumbed to fatigue by checking into a comfortable room. Our American friends moved to another hostel after being accused of starting a fight after Pete caught his leg in a bag strap and face planted from 4 foot mildly brushing the hotelier. We hit the sack and woke hugely dehydrated to breakfast, unwanted hassle by the guesthouse reps and to the news that "the boys" we were asked to trust during the journey had rifled through our bags on the way from Bangkok so decided to move onto the pre-booked Rosy guesthouse. Nicely located on the river bank and owned by a jovial Simon from England we checked into our spacious room and went for a walk down river. The streets flowing with motorbikes and the river a playground for swimming kids we strolled around trying to source a decent price for our tuk tuk ventures to the temples. After a few high prices and pushy sales pitches we spoke to a gentle chap named Pock (pronounced Poyk) who quoted $10 per day and seemed to apprecaite our approach.

Leaving it for the time being we walked down to the Old Market and on the way were approached by Jenny, an 8 year old girl who spoke excellent English, could name virtually everything about England and tried to sell us 10 postcards. Playing along but brushing her off we ate lunch, bought a copied Thai Lonely Planet book from a lovely little kid with a book cart named Pov and encountered our first of many amputees at the hands of a Landmine. Walking back to Rosy's we bumped into Jenny again who this time turned nasty and was spitting at us because we didn't want a stack of postcards. Diving for cover to change some money we felt a little strange creeping out of the shop hiding from an 8 year old. Thankfully, the pshyco was no where to be seen and we returned to Pock to secure his services for the next 3 days. The delighted Pock was visibly grateful we'd chosen him and after explaining to us we could watch the sunset near Angkor Watt that evening for free, we jumped aboard for the first of many journeys. A few kilometres north of Siem Reap we rounded the moat and caught our first teasing glimpse of the awesome Angkor Wat temple complex before bypassing the crowded shore to a steep walk through the jungle. Along with about 300 other people we climbed the steepest of steps to an old ruin where we stumbled upon our American friends from the Pick up ordeal. The sunset wasn't great and the huge numbers of people made it far from special but we did chat with Pete, Dave, Johnna and Janaka and arrange to meet them at their hostel for dinner. Meeting at the Heart of Angkor in their stunning rooftop bar we spent a fantastic evening with the 4 Americans, Pete (who's birthday it was) and Jahnaka who live in North California and Dave and Johnna who live near San Diego just 30 minutes from the Mexican border. When travelling and meeting people from nations who represent mere pinches of their home countries character, it is easy to form opinions and stereotypes. Indeed and surprisingly, many hostels and restaurants on our journey have had in place a complete ban on dealing with Israelis for reasons which we have not ourselves experienced. Our time with our 4 American friends we are
Land mine victimLand mine victimLand mine victim

One of many around the streets of Siem Reap
pleased to say was an absolute pleasure and banished many of these opinions in a flash.

A little fuzzy, we stepped out into the heat of morning and jumped aboard Pock's tuk tuk for the first our three day temple tours. First stop, Angkor Thom and the famous faces of the Bayon. A huge complex announced at its causeway gate by 108 powerful carved figures and an imposing gateway, a gravel road led us through deep jungle to a sprawling structure of crumbling pillars and intricate towers. On the four cardinal sides of each tower the serene and much photographed faces of the seemingly vein King Jayavarman VII. (sure he had a nice face for sculpture but my did he know it!) Before we reached those however, we walked along the Eastern wall to view impressive carvings depicting battles and scenes of everyday Angkor life. Striding through dark corridors and up worn steps to the higher level we came face to face with the numerous faces which number close to 200 and were surprisingly smaller actually than we had supposed. Our state of wonder at being here in person was soon after shattered by a marauding group of Japanese tourists who shouted their way around the complex and compared stupid hats and visors. Moving on to the impressive Elephant Terrace, a 300 metre long sculptered platform of pillars and serpents, elephants and idols and a place where the King used to hold ceremony and presumably ask the crowd how he looked. The whole area which was cleared save for a few towering trees had the bizarre feel of some Country English park like Petworth or Longleat. Behind the terrace and the clearing, the jungle began again and the temple of Bauphon rose from the vegetation. This temple like a huge crumbling mountain was the focus of countless restorations and in the passing of religious owners from Hindu to Buddhist was the locatation for an ambitious if practically invisible reclining Buddha sculpture at its rear.

Farting our way by tuk tuk we emerged from Angkor Thom's northern gate and arrived at Preah Khan, a comparitively peaceful and therefore more enjoyable temple complex where a cool and calming corridor took us through the main building past rooms and courtyards adorned with beautifully carved Asperas. Some which in the conqering of religions had seen the faces amended with hindu beards or chipped from the walls entirely. Here for the first time owing to a lack of restoration the ancient trees towered above the buildings with their roots smothering every crack in the walls. At the rear end we marvelled upon a particularly impressive tree root system and a stunning meeting house which covered in bright moss looked a little like a tiny abandoned church. Although we had wanted to walk down a tight path to the northern gate, a snake and a menacing spider sent us scurrying in the reverse direction and the majestic Library building which adorned with unusual column structures would be more at home at the Parthenon, Athens. Scoffing a banana pancake at a stall by the exit, we moved on again to the temple of Ta Prohm an incredibly atmospheric and overgrown construction and famed for it's extensive use in the Tomb Raider films. Indeed when we arrived to watch a handful of kids climbing high up trees to jump into a small pool we were constantly harrassed by them asking if we had seen Tomb Raider and did we want to be shown where Angelina had stood etc... The temple itself was breathtaking, abandoned and unrestored it gave the most intense feeling of its ancient past and the tree roots which had grown through the structures lent it the feel of a lost city, and we the feeling of its discoverers. In an inner compound we gawked at an incredible tree root thicker than a postbox which had wrapped itself through and along an internal wall quite beautifully. As we admired an podgy American lady sidled up and to our disbelief squarked

My, what a big ugly root

as if it were a shame that nature had enveloped this ancient structure. Entering another cool chamber a Khmer chap shouted "Streinling 3" to us. Thinking he must be talking about another movie shot here we asked him a couple more times before moving on to "Strangled Tree"! The penny dropped of course as we marvelled at the awesome sight of a tiny doorway capped off with a giant snaking tree which twisted hundreds of roots around the entire wall. According to scriptures found there the site contained 12 thousand people and was supported by a further 800 thousand from surrounding villages so it was with a sense of awe that we walked around this ruined and overgrown site imagining just what life would have been like for its inhabitants. After a fantastic day we wearily returned to Pock and travelled back to Seam Reap for a well earned Siesta before walking to "Pub street"! and the Temple restaurant for a splendid Kmer Curry and free traditional show. Over dinner we discussed how surprised we were that Siem Reap offered such a high end eating experience but then I suppose if you consider the monstrous hotels along airport road and the plane loads of Japanese, Korean and any other nation for that matter it is no real surprise that every need is catered for.

The reliable Poch picked us up at 5am the next morning and drove us by headlights to the centrepeice Angkor Watt complex for sunrise. Although an unforgettable experience to finally be here after so many years of dreaming, the literally thousands of people made it frustratingly difficult to grasp the serenity of the moment or to appreciate the splendour of the site. Wanting to leave and return later on we bumped into our American friends again on our way out before driving to the Bayon again for breakfast at a local stall. Whilst eating a young boy was trying to sell us bangles and postcards but it seemed his only words were "you buy". To which our reply was no and so it went

you buy... no you you buy... no

until at last Claire said you buy and the boy said no! Today we decided to visit the far out temples of Banteay Srei and Banteay Semre some 30km north of Siem Reap. The temples which pre-date the more visited ones at Angkor being 10th Century are of a completely different style with miniature fairytale buildings and miniature and far more intricate carvings of guarding divinities and floral walls. Grateful to be able to find a little seclusion in parts we wandered around Banteay Srei admiring the astonishing detail of the carving and sniggered to ourselves at a man who was clearly still smarting from being turned down in a Right Said Fred audition. We assume his plump wife and plumper kid didn't have the guts to point out that a tight Red lycra tank top and shin length chequered shorts made him look like Jimmy Somerville in a chefs outfit. Aside from the beautiful temple and offensive clothing choices it was the drive to these far flung temples which really stood out for us. Passing through hundreds of tiny communities of houses on stilts where families chopped wood in the shade and kids everywhere on bikes and dusty front yards waving at us as we trundled by. Everywhere we had been since arriving in Cambodia was abound with delightful children. Regardless of poverty which was thickly evident the kids all seemed so happy and friendly and always at play. In a strange way it struck us that to be poor in a country of simple pleasures would be preferable to living on the poverty line in the Western World.

Returning through the same villages we stopped at the second of the Banteay temples at Semre and entered a beautifully ornate and enclosed complex with a series of Russian Doll buildings separated by steep stairs. Both this and the temple at Srei possessed a fairytale quality and appeared far better preserved despite their elder lineage. On exit we were familiarly surrounded by teams of kids selling scarfs postcards and bracelets who we jovially declined. A spot of lunch outside a less frequented temple with Elephant statues and we drove back to the East entrance of the majestic Angkor Wat complex. Striding down a tree lined avenue toward the temple we walked briskly to catch up with two Monks whom we talked to for several minutes about the temple. Leaving them to walk on unnacompanied we entered the outside corridor and the incredible scenes carved into the walls. Most famous of all is the Churning of the Sea of Milk which delicately depicts 91 Asuras and 88 Devas who under the guidance of Vishnu churn the sea with a giant serpent. The numbers not coincidentally refer to the days between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, evidence of the deep knowledge of celestial movements. At the southern side a scene depicting a battle between Heaven and Hell (or equivalent) had been touched so frequently by visiting crowds that the carvings were black and shiny as if lacquered. Turning inside we heaved our way up steep steps to the Second level only to be presented by an emormous series of steps at some 75° which we scaled with a probable lack of grace and a stream of sweat. At the top several pairs of Monks in striking orange robes strolled around the inner sanctum and actually it was they who made our visit to Angkor such a memorable experience. For some reason we noticed that the monks walked away from other tourists and sought us out for conversation. In our first encounter we were invited to sit with a pair whilst we were asked questions about us, why we came to Cambodia and how long we intend to stay for and in return we asked them about their studies.

Walking away from what we thought was a special encounter we then drew towards us two more monks who spoke excellent English and who were visibly delighted to get the opportunity to talk to us. What was cruelly apparent however was that the vast majority of other tourists treated the monks as if they were themselves statues carved purely for the purposes of their touristic experience. Now you may be thinking "Oh worthy worthy you" but speaking to the monks gave them visible enjoyment, a priceless opportunity to practice their English (which to be fair was partly the reason some of them were there in the first place) and gave us an experience we will never forget. By way of contrast as we said goodbye to the two friendly monks, a woman ran up to
The churning of the Ocean of MilkThe churning of the Ocean of MilkThe churning of the Ocean of Milk

Famous carving at Angkor Watt said to signify the creation of the Universe.
them to have a photo taken without speaking a single word to them and it was clear they were obliging but unimpressed. Moving on around the internal pool chambers past incredibly well preserved Asperas we again seemed to be monk magnets as we began to talk with two more young monks who were so friendly and keen to talk to us that they even invited us to visit their Pagoda (Buddhist lodgings, monestry and school) in Siem Reap. After happily accepting we said goodbye and just as they turned away an elderly American lady ran past us and litterally hissed at them to gain their attention for a photograph. Quite disgusted we descended down the steep stairs to the first level and discussed how sad it was that so many tourists we have witnessed on this whole trip visit a place like this and show no respect for the people or their culture. Failing to realise that they could gain so much more and give so much to a country's people by simply opening their mouths.

For another hour or so we sat on the grassy lawn watching the late afternoon sun illuminating the sculptered sandstone towers and taking
Changing timesChanging timesChanging times

Roadside billboard in Siem Reap aims to move Cambodia away from its turbulent past.
in the sheer enormity of this magestic construction. Without going into too many facts and figures the temple of Angkor Wat really is an incredible feat of engineering on the grandest of scales. Said to be the largest single religious monument in the world (and fully functioning city) and created for King Suryvarman II, it is surrounded by a 190m wide moat and an outer wall of an astonishing 3.6km which encloses an area of 208,000 square metres. In fact, and in testamant to the stupendous engineering skills the two longer outer walls measuring in at 1025m are said to be a mere few centimetres adrift of creating the perfect rectangle. At any rate the temple complex and others around are without doubt the creation of an emormously gifted civilisation. Feeling quite overwhelmed and completely exhausted we returned to Siem Reap passing several more landmine amputees for another meal at Temple, this time armed with a camera to record the cultural show and enjoy 2 beautiful Khmer curries.

The next morning and our final day in the possesion of a temple pass, we had a later start and returned to Angkor Wat to mop up the bits we missed
Doorway at Ta ProhmDoorway at Ta ProhmDoorway at Ta Prohm

Tomb raider temple
and to experience the lighting at a different time of day. In late morning it was much quieter and their were no monks around so we spend some time revisiting the bas reliefs on the outer walls and were fortunately allowed into the roped off north western corner by a masked worker who was making painstaking restorations of the relief carvings. Up at the top level again we took a closer look at some of the Asperas which adorn every panel and it was even possible to see cuticles on their nails, such was the detail and level of preservation.

As coachloads of tourists in golf attire arrived we decided that we would leave Angkor Wat for the final time and return for a final visit to The Bayon. There we met another Monk by the name of Sokhorn 23, who originates from Siem Reap province and owing to his family being extremely poor has become a monk for the purposes of furthering his education. Spending almost an hour talking to Sokhorn it was fascinating to gain an insight into his daily life and to share ours in return. Of the many interesting customs and sacrifices a monk must make not eating any dinner on account of the need for a monk to never be tired, never touching a woman as it is considered unholy and cannot ride bicycles or play games were among the most startling. Strangely we got the impression that Sokhorn was a little bit of rebel when it came to his customs as he showed a great love of Thai boxing and Worlds Strongest man and showed us his tatoo which represented a coiled spring on the arm as a sign of strength. As a huge group of camera weilding tourists arrived we mentioned that we would be visiting the pagoda tommorow so we may see him then. Just as we left we could tell that Sokhorn did not want to be harrased by the snappers so we invited him to join us on our walk out of the site. Back in the tuk tuk we passed Angkor wat for the final time and returned to Siem Reap having spent 3 incredible days and the various temples.

It being the 6 year anniversary of when Claire and I first met we went for a meal at Kama Sutra Indian restaurant and began to look
Carvings at Angkor WattCarvings at Angkor WattCarvings at Angkor Watt

The reliefs appear like polished marble owing to the thousands of hands that have touched them.
forward to the next few days here in Siem Reap and the climax of the Annual Water Festival...

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Evidence of Religious power strugglesEvidence of Religious power struggles
Evidence of Religious power struggles

The faces of Asperas chisled from the walls

17th December 2006

postcard children
Its funny how the reactions of child postcard sellers transcend countries when you refuse to buy their wares. Spitting is definitely up there along with a boy screaming P*** tu madre (F*** your mother) in Cuzco.

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