Angkor Two: In the footsteps of tomb raiders

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November 1st 2006
Published: November 1st 2006
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After the vague disappointment of Angkor Wat, did Ta Phrom live up to my high expectations? It did and more - absolutely magnificent!... The temple itself was impressive enough; mighty stone structures covered in delicate carvings of flowers and seductive 'apsaras' (heavenly nymphs), carved balustrade window frames (designed to look like wood), arched passageways, and so on. But what makes this temple such a special place is that the whole mighty construction is being slowly but inevitably reclaimed by even mightier Nature. Deceptively fragile tendrils caress the walls & buildings, slowly wrapping around them and gently fingering at the crevices, opening up the cracked stone with infinite patience. Maybe the heat got to me a little, but after an afternoon spent exploring this amazing temple, I started to get the vague impression of a moss-green hand, ancient but still devastatingly powerful. It was almost as if Nature herself was slowly reaching out, grasping at this glorious example of man's hubris and literally pulling it back down to earth. But there is no sense of malice or violence, (or even of destruction), in this gradual reclamation. Rather it's as if Nature is fondly restoring the right order, overseeing the jungle's inevitable return, to flourish amidst the ruins of an ancient empire. I couldn't help wondering which modern landmarks, (which currently seem so invincible), would one day lie in ruins, amongst which tourists would wander in the same way, thinking similar thoughts... Yes, the heat was definitely getting to me. =P

Throughout that first day, I'd noticed that the vast majority of my fellow temple explorers were from Japan, in regimental & impressively-disciplined tour groups, (pouring in and out of their air-conditioned buses in a near-constant flow, everyone smartly dressed, most carrying umbrellas against the hot sun, almost tripping over each other in their haste to follow the guide - easily identified as the one with the brightest umbrella). There were a few Europeans around as well, and (as always) a few fellow Aussies. In an uncanny coincidence, just as I was thinking that I hadn't seen a single American around the temples, I heard a couple of young guys from that region of the world approaching from behind me. And this is the conversation I overheard, literally word for word...

"Hey, you know what I was just thinking?... I so should have farted in the echo chamber back there!" It's hard to describe the sense of urgency, excitement, and missed purpose in his voice at this point.

"No way, dude!! That is exactly what I was just thinking! That would have been awesome!!" Suddenly their footsteps slowed and then stopped. There was a long pause, pregnant with portentous possibility. "Should we go back?!"

"Yeah!!" And their excited voices grew fainter, as they returned to the 'echo chamber', an accoustically-enhanced temple ruin most visitors just clap loudly in. =P

Walking around any of the main Angkor temples, one is constantly accosted by little Cambodian kids selling all sorts of things - woven bracelets, t-shirts, cold drinks, paintings, the list goes on and on. These kids - who can be as young as five or six - are always very sweet, (if persistent, which is understandable), but invariably in possession of a sharply-honed business sense and a very polished sales routine. This routine always seemed to go something like this...

"Hello mister, where you from?!" Australia. "G'day mate, how you going?" (In a pretty decent ocker accent.) Good thanks... Before you can say anything else, this is quickly followed by a long litany of facts - "Australia. Capital: Canberra. Population: 20 million. Prime Minister: John Howard..." - which goes on and on until you smile, or stop, or laugh, or show any sort of appreciation or surprise whatsoever. I spent a lot of time sitting and chatting with these kids, (many of them spoke good English, as well as some Japanese, Spanish, and the basics of a number of other languages), and drawing pictures in the dirt with them. One doesn't have to travel to observe just how quickly the salesman's veneer of exuberant friendliness will vanish once he realises you're not interested in buying. But these kids were different - accepting my gentle refusals (after a few repetitions of course) with philosophical grace, and then just sitting and chatting away happily to me instead. Some of the best moments of the day were spent like this; there's nothing like the cheerful company of children to make you laugh when you're tired, and restore your sense of wonder & curiosity when you feel jaded.

Unfortunately, later that afternoon I finally succumbed to the cold that had been threatening for a week or so and felt pretty miserable. Heading back into town for a quick meal, I stocked up on a few litres of bottled water, asked Map to meet me at 4pm the next day, then had a shower and got an early night.

Day Three
I woke up feeling a little better, so spent the morning and early afternoon exploring a bit more of Siem Reap, bartering for gifts in the Psar Chaa markets, buying postcards and so on. Later that afternoon, I met up with Map again, and we set off for Phnom Bakheng - definitely the most popular Angkor spot to watch the sunset from. It's a hilltop temple not too far from Angkor Wat, although the temple is really just a distant smudge of dark stone from there. Despite the crowds of tourists that swarmed noisily all over the temple, (I challenge you to get a decent sunset shot at Phnom Bakheng that doesn't contain a grinning Japanese girl making the V-sign!), it was a peaceful and pleasant place to watch the sunset, write a few postcards, and chat to others about the temples.

Day Four
I felt better yet the next day, meeting Map early in the morning and heading out to some of the more far-flung temples on the back of his bike. First up was Beng Mealea, about an hour and a half away, down fairly good roads. Beng Mealea makes Ta Phrom (the other 'overgrown' temple) look like the gardener just forgot to do the weeding for a couple of days - it has been totally reclaimed by the jungle. So far the tourism authorities haven't made much of an effort to clean it up for visitors, (except for removing all the land-mines - much appreciated!), so you really do get to explore it for yourself. As usual, I waved aside offers of a guided tour, (a decision I'd come to question a few times over the next three hours), and struck out into the temple grounds on my own. Moving all around Beng Mealea involves clambering over heaps of moss-green and sometimes unstable rubble, slipping along pitch-black and muddy passageways, squeezing through broken balustrades, vaulting walls, climbing up the twisted roots of banyan trees, wading through waist-high snake-friendly grass, and so on... I loved it! It was hot that day though, (42 degrees Celsius, I was told later), and incredibly humid, and I had to call it a morning after a few hours. I don't think
A different perspectiveA different perspectiveA different perspective

Fellow travellers enjoying the last rays of the sun on Phnom Bakheng.
I've ever sweated so much in my life, (or drunk so much water).

It was in Beng Mealea that the impact of the real life 'tomb raiders' was most evident. (This is not to imply that the Angkor temples were used as tombs or burial areas, it's just a fitting term for those who desecrated the temples to sell the statues, bas-reliefs and parts of carvings.) The most obvious aspects of this desecration were the many faceless apsaras, their entire heads crudely hacked away from the stone walls. I read a little about the people who did this and saw some photos of them - dirt-poor villagers just trying to find a way to feed their hungry children. The real culprits were (and perhaps still are today) the foreign arts & antiquities dealers, who would openly publish catalogues offering Angkor treasures in situ! On receipt of payment, they would then arrange for the illegal 'removal' (read: rape of the temples) and transport of these priceless artifacts. I wondered what the temples would have looked like before this wanton violation began. Interestingly, the Khmer Rouge impact is far less obvious - just the occasional bullet-mark scratched in the rough stone.

Leaving Beng Mealea behind after some more fried noodles, we bumped & skidded along rutted dirt roads to Banteay Srei, (child-sized pink-sandstone temple with incredible carving), and then on to Preah Khan, (which means 'sacred sword' and is a little like Ta Phrom). Both were amazing and I'll put up photos of them but, on top of my cold, I was beginning to suffer from a well-documented condition that often afflicts travellers in these sorts of areas - I was a little 'templed out'. And I have a sneaking suspicion you may be too, so I won't write any more about the temples. Just visit them for yourselves one day!

For my last night in Siem Reap, I decided to attend a charity concert I'd heard about during the week. This was held at the Jayavarman VII children's hospital, a first-class medical facility run by an amazing group called Kantha Bopha. Between works by Bach, the charismatic Dr Beat Richner gave the mostly backpacker crowd an idea of some of the myriad health problems facing Cambodians kids today, (which can be mostly traced back to the various wars & uprisings this beautiful country has suffered through). He also revealed what a huge problem government corruption in Cambodia is and roundly condemned the First World attitude toward Third World healthcare. (For example, the drugs supplied by the WHO to Cambodia are often banned in Western countries due to unacceptable side effects... apparently not unacceptable when Third World kids are in question though?!). It was a sobering and depressing evening, but with a faint flicker of hope when you consider the work Kantha Bopha are doing there and elsewhere in Cambodia, (Beat was working with Cambodian kids even before the Khmer Rouge took over and shows no sign of giving up any time soon).

Day Five
The ride home was long, bumpy, uncomfortable, sweaty, dangerous and exhausting. Apart from that, it was great. =) We were lucky to pass unscathed through quite a bad accident though, along the dirt road from Siem Reap to the border. A black sedan, trying to overtake us, pulled out right into the path of an oncoming truck. Hearing the sedan's wheels lock up as its driver braked, I looked up from my book (I'm getting good at reading on even the bumpiest of public transport now!) and out the window to see the head-on collision just a couple of metres away. Our driver didn't even slow, which was probably a good thing, as the entangled sedan-and-truck mess swerved wildly into our dust-trail just as we passed. It was a surreal feeling, peering out the back window, to watch the accident unfold: the truck plowed right through the sedan, crumpling the bonnet like tissue paper and pushing the car back for quite a distance, before suddenly spinning it onto the shoulder of the road. Totally out of control now, the truck swerved off the road and down into the huge pool of water that lined it. The water reached above the cab windows but, as the truck faded into the dust-blurred distance, I could make out people climbing frantically to safety and think everybody made it out. I hope so at least.

It was a sobering reminder that these uncomfortable roads can also be very dangerous. But then again, these kind of accidents can happen anywhere. And it was entirely thanks to the miserable condition of the road that it hadn't taken place at a much higher speed. At any rate, it was good to reach the Thai border, get a delicious bowl of som tam (spicy papaya salad - I'm hopelessly addicted), and then board a comfortable Thai government bus back to Rangsit. The time away had been good for me and it felt good to be home...

(By the way, you may have noticed some changes in the way photos are displayed on Travelblog lately. As far as I can tell, if I put up 27 photos or less, all of them will be displayed on the one main page for each entry. Any more photos, and you'll have to click a 'Next >>' button to see the rest of them. Anybody have a preference - a maximum of 27 photos up but with the convenience of having them all on one page? Or as many photos as I like, but the inconvenience of having to click for new pages to see them all? Let me know.)

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


What was that noise?... =PWhat was that noise?... =P
What was that noise?... =P

I'm such an idiot sometimes.
Crossing the 'naga bridge' to Preah KhanCrossing the 'naga bridge' to Preah Khan
Crossing the 'naga bridge' to Preah Khan

Lined by nagas (multi-headed serpents), these bridges were traditionally seen as linking the worlds of men and the gods.

1st November 2006

Great writing mate, wish I was there.
1st November 2006

Great blog Michael!
I really enjoyed the second installment of your incredible journeys. Some amazing photos of Nature reclaiming her territory and I loved your descriptions and musings as well. What a privilege to visit these exotic places! Thank you for the great write-ups so that we can get a real 'feel' for the places you visit! Barbara
1st November 2006

I love the photos of the trees engulfing the temple, must be awe inspiring in real life. your and Joel's blogs are a wonderful contrast this week! Cheers Penny
1st November 2006

Makes me want to see it for myself. As to the photos, do you even have to ask? As many as you like, duh. We want to see them all.
1st November 2006

Papaya and Farting
I am also hopelessly addicted to papaya salad and as an American will do the patriotic thing and continue the traditon of farting in the echo chamber.
1st November 2006

Top drawer reporting!
Great photos and text again, Michael! Map sounded to be an interesting guy. So too the kids... loved the photos! Dad
6th November 2006

Another Great Blog !
Love the pix....but what really amazes me is your open-mindedness, your passion and sensitivity to other cultures....your parents raised you well :> Cheers !
13th November 2006

Your best work...
Your words have again moved me to provide a comment - the first paragraph in this blog is probably the best piece of writing I've seen on this site. Whatever you do in life Michael, just ensure that you keep writing in some form - even if it is only a hobby - otherwise a great literary talent will be wasted. Shane :-)
2nd December 2006

Hi stranger! Question...
I will be trekking to Siem Reap/Angkor in March and was just planning on taking the 1 day pass but after looking at your pics I seem to have changed my mind. Which pass do I get for the full Angkor experience? Thanks!
3rd December 2006

Definitely get the 3-day pass!
Hey Antoniele, as far as I know there're just two passes available - 1-day and 3-day. I'd definitely recommend the 3-day one; there's just so much to see, you'll barely scratch the surface in one day! (Even if you do get a bit 'templed out' by the end of your visit.) Have a great time!
3rd April 2007

Dude, we should do it
Ha ha ha, your account of the Americans took me back home! You can't tell where a person is from until they open their mouth.... I'll be here in a few weeks now! I'll try to keep my time in the chambers a little less old school...
29th April 2009

there's nothing like the cheerful company of children to make you laugh when you're tired (or sad) - True ... true - although i'm scared of bratty ones who usually look like they're ready to punch your face anytime!lols

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