Published: November 6th 2009November 6th 2009
November 2nd to November 6th 2009 - Siem Reap, Bangkok
I cannot quite bring myself to believe that this is the very final day of this trip. The final day of actual trip-ness I mean, I don't count tomorrow, which will be a very long bus trip to Bangkok and my third and final night sleeping in the airport, nor the day after, which will consist of an even longer plane trip home. As always, the whole things seems to have gone in an instant, yet despite this Japan feels like so long ago that it appears to be a (remarkably pleasant) dream. And what a last day it is too. Beautiful sunshine, no hassle, total relaxation. In about half an hour I'm going to cycle the 10km to get my last fill of the Temples of Angkor in the late afternoon light, then dinner and a final couple of mugs of Angkor beer before retreating to my dorm bed. It feels almost kind of wrong that I should be so comfortable, for how am I going to appreciate a hot shower and my own bed at home if I am not depriving myself here sufficiently? I must admit,
I haven't roughed it this time round in quite the same way as I had done in India. Most of the time it's been hot showers and linen on the beds, even air con in the majority of my hotels. This hasn't really been by choice, more that the cheap and nasty dives are far less easy to be found in Indo-China and of course Japan as one might expect! Setting myself the same budget of 100 pounds a week in SE Asia to match what I had lived on in India was certainly an overestimation of the cost of travel here. Nevertheless, I can't really begrudge it, I don't think 'normal' people judge the success of their trip by how happy they are to get back home again. Equally, I am sure the immense amount of travelling I will have to do in the next couple of days, complete with border crossings by bus and extremely hard Bangkok airport benches to sleep on tomorrow night will make me feel sufficiently sorry for myself by the time I touch down in London.
In the meantime, I have spent my final three days in Cambodia 'going out with a bang'
by visiting Siem Reap, base for the much-lauded wonder of the world, the Temples of Angkor. Built over 600 years from between 802 - 1432, the Temples were the means by which the great Khmer Kings displayed their magnificence, held sway over their vast territories, worshipped their gods and ensured their own status as devarajas (god-kings). I had always imagined Angkor to be an Indiana-Jones type ruin accessed by hacking through dense jungle, but in fact there are masses of temples in different states of repair, spread over a wide area - some huge, imposing and fully restored, some tumbledown and held together only by the immense roots of ancient trees which have snaked amongst the stones. Angkor Thom, a huge walled city enclosure 10 square km large, of which the walls, temples and remains of the royal palaces and terraces remain, may have supported a population of 1 million in the surrounding region. An inscription from Ta Prohm, not even one of the largest temples, states that it alone required 80,000 people to maintain the temple, including over 600 dancers. Unsurprisingly, they are Cambodia's biggest drawcard and its largest source of tourist revenue.
As the gateway to Angkor,
I had expected Siem Reap to be a commercial hellhole full of touts and hastily-built ugliness. However, on the contrary it is lovely here, small, but one of the nicest towns in Indo-China, full of alleys in the French style full of cheap and delicious restaurants with their tables spilling out into the streets. My hostel as well was not only one of the nicest places I had stayed, but cost only 1$ a night! Given that I had caught a night bus here from Sihanoukville on Sunday/Monday and didn't arrive until the morning, suffering from severe lack of sleep, I spent my first day just pottering around the town rather than using up one of my three days on my Angkor Pass, visiting the market, chilling in the cafes and indulging myself with finally watching 'Slumdog Millionaire' on the hostel communal DVD player in the company of a worringly highly-strung young man who seemed to be on the verge of tears no matter what the subject, who had experienced a *deep steadying breath* "difficult time" *voice cracks* "in India" and who kept pausing the film to say things like "if you need to take a minute here, to go
up to the terrace and take in some sunshine and feel better, then feel free to pause the film" whilst there's me thinking, "dude, you see worse stuff than this on Jerry Springer". Anyway, I digress.
Part of my justification for chilling out on Monday was the fact that I intended to get up for sunrise the following day. Of course, on Tuesday I drag myself up at 5 only to discover that it is tipping it down with rain and that there won't be any sunrise that morning. I gave myself a precious extra 30 mins of snooze and then, undaunted, donned hat and waterproof and caught a moto at 6am to Angkor Thom. Deciding to leave the big hitters (the famous Angkor Wat and the Bayon) til the following day, I tackled the temples by foot, and spent a nice, if rainy, day trekking between them. The advantage of the rain was that I basically had most of the temples almost entirely to myself, especially earlier in the morning. About 85% of travellers seeing Angkor independently (namely, not on a tour bus) hire a tuk tuk driver to take them between temples, and as it is often
A tree takes over the entrance to Ta Som
I like the contrast of the yellow umbrellas!
about 2 to 3 km between each one, often I had the wide roads to myself. Most people who asked where my driver was thought I was crazy to walk that far (including a cute deaf-mute little Cambodian girl who passed me on a bicycle and nevertheless managed to convey exactly what she thought of my intended route) but actually I think there were a lot of advantages in walking. Simply by racing from temple to temple I can imagine it was very easy to get surfeited with them, but a half an hour or so walk in between each one gave you the chance to have a 'break' between them, as it were. The roads were wide and well paved (the hacking through the jungles thing I had imagined *really* doesn't apply), and I could see each temple at whatever pace I wanted, without feeling that there was someone waiting impatiently for me outside. Additionally, (I know you'll roll your eyes at this), but the surroundings were just as beautiful, if not more so, than the temples, and only by walking could you really appreciate this. In the century since Angkor has become a major destination, the jungle has
Gateway to the ancient city of Angkor Thom
The face of the compassionate Buddha looks down from above whilst the bridge is lined with demons and heroes pulling on a tug-of-war snake to churn the milk of immortality
been tamed back and the roads are lined with beautiful 'Chhueteal' trees which grow as tall and as straight as any parkland beech. Angkor Thom in parts looks like the grounds of a beautiful English manor house.
Of course, another factor is that once you start walking then you can't find a free moto driver even if you wanted one, simply because no-one else seems to do it my way and all the drivers waiting around have customers and have been hired by the day. However, I didn't mention that when people asked me why I was walking! The rain lasted pretty much all day, but I kept up my trekking til about 3.30pm, when I completed my loop and headed back to the hostel for a brief nap, only to do my usual and entire pass out fully clothed until 5 the next morning.
Luckily, this was perfect timing to catch a moto to Angkor Wat for sunrise, the apparently unmissable thing to do whilst here. I arrived in plenty of time to join everyone else and see the sun burst over the famous triple beehive-shaped towers (carved in the form of lotus flowers), then had breakfast
in the grounds with a chap from California whilst we waited for the tour bus crowds to depart to their next destination. He was completely bowled over by the Temples and their age, saying that in California buildings from the 1950s seem old - it must be so strange to come from a land where (recorded) 'history' is so recent! Like at Hampi in Southern India, what I found weird to wrap my mind around was that the temples were built after Westminster Abbey, and only a couple of centuries before Merton College, yet looked so ancient. Admittedly Westminster Abbey has been rebuilt since 1062 however, whereas Angkor Wat was still in a complete state of repair since 1150. 900 years *is* a damn long time. In any case, I couldn't believe my luck, but by about 7.30am the Wat was almost completely deserted, giving me a chance to explore it almost entirely undistracted and irritated by crowds. I was gutted to find that the very central towers and highest point of the temple was being restored and was unaccessable to visitors, but I was fascinated by the incredible bas-reliefs that covered the lower walls, and have survived in a
miraculous state of repair. From Angkor Wat I walked the 3km up into the ancient city of Angkor Thom and explored the Bayon, covered in countless identical stone faces of the Buddha that bear a convenient similarity to the king to built it, and which stare down at you with rather intimidating glares from every angle. I really liked this but it was sadly crawling with people when I went, so I am hoping to head back there this afternoon to catch it less crowded. From there I wandered through the much more fragmentary towers and terraces of the royal palaces in the heat, stopping often on the beautiful lawns for shade and slices of pineapple. Angkor Thom must have been absolutely spectacular in the height of its power, filled with hundreds of thousands of people - slaves, merchants, soldiers, courtiers and priests all going about their lives in the shadow of these magnificent structures, the king at the sumptuous centre of it all. By about 2pm I was both hungry and extremely hot however, so headed back to the city for a dinner of fried snake(!) and traditional dancing.
It's now a day later since I wrote the
above, and I'm back all the way where I began, on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, the final final night of my trip. As planned, yesterday evening I cycled back to the temples for the final time to say goodbye to the Bayon and Angkor Wat, which luckily were both near empty, although it had clouded over so I wasn't able to get the right light for the photos I wanted. Oh well. Managed to catch the end of the sunset from atop Phnom Bakheng however, along with about a thousand other people, which gave the whole scene a nicely Druidic atmosphere. Then cycled back in the dark racing the tuk tuk drivers on my no-gears, no-lights bike, which was great fun. Even got some cheers from tourists in tuk tuks' whose ass I was kicking! Get in. Having showered and packed ready for my early departure this morning, I headed out on the town for cheap beer and Khmer whiskey, which tastes like sweeties and is served with Fanta. My kinda drink. It was at this point, already tipsy and chatting with various globetrotters in one of the Siem Reap bars, that I felt the tingle of destiny
on the back of my neck and turned around to find the Scousers. I'm probably gonna end up marrying one of them now, there's such a thing as too much co-incidence! In any case, an epic night of drinking and dancing ensued, the perfect end to the final day of my trip. I love those guys. Think I may have even promised to come live with Chris in Liverpool at one point in the evening.... Fell into bed at about 4.30am this morning, only to wake up miraculously about 10 mins before my bus was due to leave at 7. God knows what I would have done if I hadn't woken up, because I certainly hadn't managed to set myself an alarm. Fate must be smiling kindly on me. On the other hand, you will be pleased to hear that I am no longer worrying about not sufficiently appreciating home comforts since my 2 hours sleep, an 11 hour bus journey, a hell of a hangover and a mild shouting match with my bus company at the Thai border after they lost my ticket and then tried to claim that I'd only paid to get to the border.
that's it folks. Trip over. I'm kinda sad to go home - if someone offered me an air ticket to New Zealand leaving tomorrow I'd jump on it like a shot - and I'm really not looking forward to beginning the long and torturous process of getting myself back into shape in preparation for the horror that will be Sandhurst. However, I must admit I'm secretly looking forward to having a bit of permenance in my life. It's been 17 months now since I graduated, and the thought of going back to try and find another 6 month temp job in order to save up to go away again really doesn't appeal. Apart from anything else, I'm so so fed up of being continually broke! So, salary, pension, council tax... I guess I'm finally going to have to face you.
Christ, this means I'm getting old, doesn't it?
The Usual Round-Up Trip Highlights:
- Our perfect deserted tropical beach at Halong Bay, and the many beverages that accompanied it.
- Cycling Around the Tono Valley, Japan
- Motorbiking along the sea road back from Kep at sunset, Cambodia
- My perfect day in Akan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan
- My first all night manga kissa, Hakata, Japan
- Shinjuko and the Metropolitan Tower at Night, Tokyo, Japan
- Early morning jogs around Hoam Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
- Trekking up to Bokor Hill Station, Kampot, Cambodia
- Hiking and rotemboro in Daisetzan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan
- Wandering through the old streets of Kyoto at dusk, Japan
- In search of bears in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido, Japan
- Cable car and Tuyen Lam Lake, Dalat, Vietnam
- The madness of Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan
- Rain and rice paddies in tourist-free Mai Chau, Vietnam
- And finally, but not least, the Scousers. Just because. Books Read:
This seemed to be quite popular *cough*provided much amusement*cough* last time, so I shall list the books I read during the trip again. However, the list is more modest this time round, as books were more rare and definitely more expensive. Had to nab whatever was lying around (so don't judge on some of them!) and was forced to read lots of them multiple times. Anyways, here it is:
Atwood - The Blind Assassin
Iain Banks - Transition **
Bill Bryson - Down Under (x2) **
Bill Bryson - Neither Here Nor There (x2)
Daphne du Maurier - Jamacia Inn (x2)
Charles Frazier - Cold Mountain
Elizabeth Gaskell - The Cranford Chronicles
Charlaine Harris - Dead Until Dark (x2)
Charlaine Harris - From Dead to Worse (x2)
Victor Hugo - Les Miserables
John Irving - A Prayer for Owen Meary
Daniel Keyes - Flowers for Algernon **
Norman Lewis - A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam **
Michelle Magorian - Goodnight Mister Tom (x2)
Stephanie Meyer - Breaking Dawn (errr..... *cough x4 cough*)
LM Montgomery - Anne of Green Gables
Christopher Paolini - Eragon
J.D. Salinger - The Catcher In The Rye
Wilber Smith - A Sparrow Falls
Zadie Smith - On Beauty
Zadie Smith - White Teeth
Anthony Swofford - Jarhead
Alan Titchmarch - Rosie (Seriously. ANYTHING that was lying around.)
Mark Twain - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Voltaire - Candide
Kurt Vonnegurt - Slaughterhouse 5
Oscar Wilde - Complete Short Fiction
Virginia Woolf - Orlando
Virginia Woolf - The Voyage Out
The stars indicate
the ones I recommend most highly.
There are more photos below