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Published: June 21st 2015
: So, here we are in Siem Reap. Whilst Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city, far more people flock here, being as it is the gateway to the world-famous Angkor Wat – ‘Angkor’ being the place, and ‘Wat’ being the word for temple, as I understand it. On arrival at our hostel, having already made plans with our latest tuk tuk driving friend for the following day, we were immediately greeted with deliciously sweet and cold ice-tea, served up in a coconut shell and drunk through a hollow lemongrass ‘straw’ – alongside a bowl of banana crisps, I can think of worse ways to start in a new city....It went down an absolute treat after the morning’s travel.
As per usual we were keen to get out straight away and explore our new surroundings, not least because we too early to check into our room. On leaving the cool and calm confines of our hostel, the difference between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was immediately obvious. We had elected to stay in Psar Chaa, the part of the city where most of the tourists find themselves and hence where most of the bars and restaurants are located. Consequently, there was
also a good deal of shops and stalls selling paintings, souvenirs, trinkets and other such tourist tat, and a plethora of tuk tuk drivers on every street, vying for custom. Still, it was good to have a choice of places to eat and drink and explore the streets to get a feel for the place, and more importantly in search of a decent lunch.
We settled on a quiet-looking café called ‘The New Leaf Book Café’ which turned out to be an oasis of peace and quiet. The walls were lined with books (in English) which could be read or purchased, and we spent a good hour or two reading. Somewhere in the middle, we ordered what turned out to be a superb lunch; we shared a small bowl of very spicy fried calamari, a wonderfully refreshing mango salad and a fried rice dish with chicken. Before leaving, I bought the book that I had started reading, ‘The Damned United’ by David Pearce (currently halfway through, and having already seen the film, it is the story of Brian Clough’s times at Leeds and, previously, Derby – highly recommended! But I digress).
After lunch we returned to our hostel
to check in properly and sort our room out. Our afternoon was spent reading some more and doing those general sort of jobs and that don’t lend themselves well to an interesting and engaging travel blog. As had been the case for most late-afternoons, the rain was coming down in earnest. Come evening time, however, the rain had thankfully stopped and we made our way back out, finding an upstairs bar overlooking the ‘Pub Street’ for a drink and yet more reading. As the evening set in, more and more white faces poured into the street, slowly walking up and down to scout out suitable places for dinner, whilst restaurant staff stood out the front, hawking their wares. We joined the throng, briefly scanned around a few of the many restaurants before having a punt on one that we’d seen in our ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook; predictably, it was chocka with Europeans and Aussies, and the menu leant heavily in favour of Western food. That said, we had been pretty good up until now with choosing local food over the more familiar options (ahem, excluding the previous evening’s burger/burrito…). Well, as I have said more than once, “when in Rome”, and
this particular Rome had more than its fair share of pizza and pasta dishes, so in the end I scoffed a pepperoni pizza, which was a winner, whilst Sarah gambled on something called ‘Khmer Lasagna'…and lost.
Walking along the street near the restaurant after dinner, a piercing shriek alerted us to some goings-on nearby. Thankfully it was nothing more sinister than a young American boy plus Mum and Dad with their feet immersed in a tank of water, being nibbled by hordes of fish - he was shrieking with laughter at his feet being tickled! Thinking it looked like a bit of fun, and in the spirit of trying new things, we paid the local lady who owned the tanks five dollars, clambered up onto a raised wooden bench and plonked our feet into the adjacent fish tank. Immediately, the many fish inside went straight for our feet, their little mouths munching away, looking for a delicious meal of dead skin (how's your lunch, by the way?). It was absolutely hilarious, tickled like hell and we were falling about laughing, just like the American family behind us; soon enough we had a small crowd of fellow tourists gathered around
- this was all happening on the street in front of everyone - who were intrigued as to what was going on. For some reason, the vast majority of the fish were swarming around my feet and not Sarah's...she very generously announced that this was probably because she couldn't keep her feet still like me, owing to the tickling. Maybe, or perhaps I have gourmet feet, from the fish's point of view! Not sure that's a good thing, though. We stuck it out for six or seven minutes before we agreed that both we and the fish had probably had enough.
Feet dried off and on our way back to the hotel, we were accosted by a very young local lad who spoke excellent English and fell in stride next to us, begging for not money but milk, “for his baby sister”. I vaguely recalled having seen something about a scam involving baby milk, so declined repeatedly, feeling like something of an arsehole (which is exactly the response that is being played upon, I suppose). Eventually the kid realized we weren’t buying into it and gave me a volley of abuse, showing just how adept his English skills were
– he certainly knew a four letter word! Back at the hotel we did a bit of research and found plenty of reports of young kids in the area begging tourists to buy them milk – many of them toting babies, reportedly sometimes drugged although I couldn’t vouch for that – and directing them to a particular shop to do so. Once the canned milk has been bought, paid for and given away, the kid will bring it back to the shop (who are in cahoots) later on so that it can resold to the next good Samaritan. Being such a touristy area, there appears to be way more of this type of activity than we’d run into in Phnom Penh; there is clearly such a lot of hardship in this country and who can blame those with so little for looking for ways to cream a dollar or two out of rich western tourists like ourselves…what is such a shame is that these young kids get (presumably) coerced into the ploy, and even young babies, out late at night running scams and presumably not spending their days in school. And the emotional blackmail part of it is never great
fun either. Thankfully, we’ve seen countless not-for-profit organizations (such as the New Leaf Book Cafe) and NGOs doing such wonderful work helping disadvantaged children get some sort of start in life that I think there should be some cautious optimism about the future here, and that is heartening to see.
Well, back onto more positive things: the following morning we were up bright and early, again, to get dressed and breakfasted (a weird attempt at a cooked brekkie that included hot dogs and wasn’t as bad as it sounds) before our new buddie – ‘Ramet’, a man of few words – picked us up in his tuk tuk at 08:00 for our first trip to see the Angkor temples. Now, before getting here, I had heard of Angkor Wat and had assumed that it was a standalone temple, in and of itself. Well, in fact, it is, but there are a huge number of accompanying temples in the surrounding area, such that the whole affair covers a whopping territory. Our guidebook had advised that a single day was far too short to take in even just the highlights, and so when our tuk tuk puttered up to the ticket
office building, we bought ourselves the three-day pass rather than the single day entry. With so many sites to see, we would probably have had to do some a fair bit of research to work out which ones to get to and in what order to see them; happily, our driver – who was no doubt well used to carrying out these visits – had a map with a suggested itinerary that would take us two days to complete,and would finish on the Big One, Angkor Wat. Ideal.
Right – so here’s the thing: I’m not much cop with the history of these sort of things, and I’ll tell you now that we opted not to hire a guide or buy a guidebook to accompany our two days visiting the temples. So what follows here will tell you very little in the way of historical background, although I suspect it will provide strong evidence of my status as Career-Level Philistine; my interest in these things tends to be limited to the aesthetics and that’s about it, and I doubt Sarah will disagree if I label her similarly ! As such I’ll just try to give a
bit of a run-down of what we saw, but don’t expect anything too insightful…what I do know is that the buildings are incredibly old, having been built by the Khmer Empire a good thousand (or so) years ago. We arrived at the South Gate (which, obviously, we promptly named ‘Gareth’), an impressive stone gateway across the access road into the site. It had been a good fifteen minute drive or so from our hotel in Siem Reap to get this far, and the city buildings had by now given way to pleasant forest and lakes to either side of the road. Before reaching the (Gareth) South Gate, we’d already passed the iconic Angkor Wat, and the sheer number of visitors milling about gave us an idea of just how many people came to this site every day: LOTS. A brief stop amongst the throng to take our first snaps of many that day, and then we were through the South Gate and a short tuk tuk ride later we were at our first proper stop, the Bayon temple. We spent a good thirty of forty minutes exploring the large site and admiring the workmanship. Much effort has evidently gone into
preserving and restoring these temples, with support from various archeological interests around the world; as a result, the buildings are largely in very good shape, and we were able to explore many of the little chambers, climb up the steps to various levels, and generally have a good old roam around. The most impressive features were the intricate carvings that covered the stone walls; detailed reliefs, painstakingly crafted into the rock, they have survived the passage of many centuries remarkably intact. Faces peer out at you from all angles and elevations. I think in this sort of case, a picture speaks a thousand words, and there are plenty attached to this blog, so I’ll leave it at that.
Bayon temple was located within a wider area called ‘Angkor Thom’, and there were a few other places in this complex that we were to visit before reuniting with our driver. Next up was Baphuon, another grand temple, again with plenty of steep steps and staircases to negotiate (perilous, in size 12 flip-flops, I can assure you). Having plenty of shady alcoves was a blessing – the sun had burned away the protective clouds and approaching mid-morning the temperature was rising,
rising, rising…Once we’d explored the site sufficiently, it was past the ‘Terrace of Elephants’, the remains of a wall with a series of a carvings of…you guessed it. Last port of call in the Angkor Thom area was the ‘Terrace of the Leper King’, which wasn’t really a patch on the grandiose Bayon and Baphuon sites, in my humble opinion (sound the Philistine Klaxon). These latter wanderings had been mercilessly devoid of shade, and so we were very pleased to be reunited with our driver and flop into the back seat under the protection of the vehicle’s roof.
Mid-morning, and we still had a couple of other sites to visit before lunch. Next up was ‘Thommanom’ temple, and after that ‘Ta Keo’, which was just over the road. I’m afraid to say that the main thing I remember about these two sites was buying us both ice lollies from a local lady at the front; we were beginning to struggle with the heat by now, and as a result of our early breakfast there was a rumbling in the stomachs too. We had a wander about both sites, but were flagging a little and probably didn’t do them much
justice. With our morning’s exploration done, we were grateful indeed for our lunch, some rest and some shade. Our drive took us to a restaurant in the area and we plonked ourselves down into the plastic chairs, ordering in iced tea and coffee as a matter of urgency! Food-wise, we ended up with a decent mix of local grub: another mango salad with bits of fried fish, stir-fried Morning Glory with beef and lemongrass, both served up with plenty of rice. The food was lovely, the staff were really friendly, and forty-five minutes later we felt refreshed, recharged and ready to take on our next temple!
The next stop, another short tuk tuk stint away, was Ta Prohm temple. Unlike any that had gone before, this site required a walk along a long track under the shade of surrounding trees before reaching the temple proper. Unfortunately, another new
aspect of this site was the multitude of hawkers flogging scarves, paintings, postcards, etc. with some tenacity. That probably sounds supercilious and grumpy, but there are only so many times you can say ‘no thanks’ to the same person before the eager offer of a wooden flute becomes tiresome! Arriving at the ruins, however, and it all became worthwhile; Ta Prohm is one of the iconic signature sites of the Angkor temples. Amongst the old courtyards, reticulated hallways and collapsed piles of huge stone blocks, the surrounding jungle has started to reclaim the ruins; enormous trees tower over the buildings, and huge creeping roots drape down from the roofs. It has to be seen to be believed, and hopefully some of the attached photos will do it at least some justice - it was spectacular, and whilst everything that had gone before it had been worthwhile seeing in its own right, it felt like this particular visit had really made the day complete.
Leaving Ta Prohm temple behind, we made our way back through the surrounding parkland to the other side of the complex and having negotiate the latest scrum of people selling souvenirs we reconvened with Ramet, our
driver. There was one more visit on the cards, Banteay Kdei. Suffice to say it was yet another very impressive site, but after the splendor of Ta Prohm– and by now feeling a bit ‘templed out’ we were glad to call it a day for now. Back at our hostel, a shower and fresh clothes had never felt so good, and we spent an hour or so reading and catching up on blog-writing before heading out for the evening. Again, we made our way to ‘pub street’ spent some time reading over a drink or two before seeking out a place to eat. This time we were back on the local grub once again, finding ourselves in a Khmer restaurant and putting away some chilli beef and fried noodles between us. Making the short walk back to the hostel, we were accosted once again, this time by a young girl toting a suspiciously docile-looking baby (perhaps it was the time of night…). The script read almost word for word as that of the previous evening, until I told her I was well aware of how the game played out, and she rapidly let it drop. Another depressing footnote to what
had been an otherwise good day.
Saturday morning, the same drill: up early, breakfasted and dressed for 08:00 pick-up for another day of ‘templing’. Well, if you’ve borne with me this far, you probably don’t deserve another thousand words about temples (and frankly writing about them has its own limits of joy) so I’ll treat you to the summary version so we can all focus on the main event: as for the previous day, the weather started cool (a very relative term) before heating up to the standard 35 degrees with accompanying fierce sunshine. During the morning we visited five temples before lunch. The first three – Preah Kahn, Neak Poan and Ta Som – were all relatively small affairs, as compared to some of the massive sites we’d explored the previous day, and were in very much the same style (to my untrained eye, anyway – sound the Philistine Klaxon). The latter two – East Mebon and Pre Rup - were, however, quite different styles and both big and complex buildings. Despite once again melting in the furnace heat, we enjoyed our wanderings around these. The only downside was that these two were what we christened Shadeless Wonders,
with none of the corridors and chambers of the previous sites, and nowhere to hide from the sun. Lunchtime came around once again, and a chance for recovery before our last temple of all, and the main event: Angkor Wat. We ended up at the same place as the previous day (I suspect our driver has a friend or family member involved there somewhere, but we didn’t mind as it was a great place). Iced coffees and water all round, followed by a shared meal of vermicelli noodle salad and chicken with cashew nuts (loooovely), accompanied with, of course, the ubiquitous serving of white rice.
Once again recharged, we drove down to the entrance of Angkor Wat. Having seen the front a few times already didn’t stop it from remaining just as impressive when we saw it this time: it is a Whopper. We approached the front entrance along the broad paved road, dodging the various guides offering their services. Passing through the front entrance, taking a less obvious door to the far side of the compound so as to avoid the hordes of fellow visitors, we found ourselves in a calm, shady path that ran underneath overhanging trees
and alongside the huge open area that is within the long walls of the compound, and in front of the main building itself. It’s beautiful, and easy to see why this temple is the one that everyone has heard of: it’s massive, and dwarfs all of the others by some distance. It’s The Daddy. Within the main building, we spent the best part of an hour and a half wandering around the cloistered passageways, looking at the incredibly carved reliefs that run for hundreds of metres inside the temple walls, and savoured the views from the elevated viewpoints high up in the central area. Perhaps two hours after we’d entered, we were leaving, having taken in most (but certainly not all) of the site. I imagine that keener individuals than us could lose hour upon hour in there…as has surely become clear, we are less patient types and without taking anything away from the sheer spectacle of it all, two hours was enough for us!
After two days of many of the Angkor temples, I think it is fair to say that we are done. There are plenty of other sites that remain unseen, including a number located a
bit further afield, but for now we have had our fill of temples! As I write this, sat in our hostel, the evening is approaching and we’ll shortly get ourselves back out for the usual read, drink, dinner. We have one further day in Siem Reap, a chance to get a few little jobs done and perhaps another wander around the city; the day after that, we’ll be on a plane to Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, so this probably wraps up our flying visit to Cambodia. We’ve both loved this country, it’s up there with the very best we’ve visited on our travels so far. At the risk of sounding mawkish, the country has exemplified what incredible things that people can achieve – such as the awesome Angkor Wat – whilst the trip to the Killing Fields was a horrifying reminder of what terrible things people are also capable of. Despite the fact that so many individuals here have very little money, relative to the affluence that we are used to back at home, almost all of the people we’ve encountered have been incredibly friendly, and I would recommend a visit here to anyone. Okay, that about wraps up
the latest waffle-fest, courtesy of yours truly, so thanks for bearing with me – I promise that Sarah will write the next one!
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