On December 9th,
Aoife and I arrived in Siem Reap. The main reason for visiting this city is the nearby Angkor area located in Siem Reap province, the historic remains of a great Khmer civilisation. The Angkor era existed from 802 AD until 1431 AD when the empire fell and a dark period ensued as the population abandoned the area. “In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq. mi) to the well-known temples at its core”. The temples remained hidden away in the forest until they were rediscovered by the French in the mid-19th
The Angkor temples exceeded our high expectations, an amazing experience! We bought a three day pass to see the temples. We made the trip each day by tuk tuk which ranged from around $15-30. We spent our first day at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm which are located around half an hour from Siem Reap. We spent our second day at the Kbal Spean waterfall and the Banteay
Srei temple, almost 2 hours from Siem Reap. On our last day, we went around the Angkor Wat area again to catch the sunset.
Angkor Wat, the principle temple of the Angkor region, was built between 1113 AD and 1150 AD for King Suriyavarman II as his state temple and his capital city. Henri Mouhot, a French explorer wrote of Angkor Watt in the mid-19th
century "One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.” Angkor Wat was the only temple never completely abandoned and as such, is the best-preserved. Protected from the jungle by its moat, it later served as a Buddhist sanctuary. Despite this, many Cambodians believed the buildings were constructed by supernatural creatures rather than by their Khmer ancestors. David Chandler writes in his political biography of Pol Pot, “French scholarship gave the Cambodians a prestigious history that as a colonised people they were not prepared to handle”. The contrast between their
powerful past and the subjugation by their French colonisers fuelled Cambodian nationalism. Pol Pott said in 1977, “if our people were capable of building Angkor, we can do anything.” The Angkor Wat temple has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the national flag.
Angkor Thom was established in the late 12th
century by King Jayavarman VII. It covers an area of 9 km2 and was “the most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire”. One inscription found in the city refers to King Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride. The city was one of the largest at that time with an estimated population of 1 million. Paris and London had populations of 30,000 during this period. The Bayon temple is at Angkor Thom with massive stone faces on the towers. Ta Prohm was also constructed by King Jayavarman VII, established in 1186 AD. The area was left in much the same condition as it was found. Located in the heart of the jungle and with silk cotton trees merging with the temple ruins, you can almost imagine what the French explorers must have felt when they rediscovered this temple. Little did they know that
Tomb Raider would be filmed there! After a long day, I was as they say “templed out” and I somehow managed to fall asleep in the back of the tuk tuk, much to Aoife’s amusement!
On our second day, we went to Kbal Spean, 42km north of Angkor Wat. It was a 2 hour each way journey in the tuk tuk on a very slow and bumpy ride but we saw some great scenery. At Kbal Spean we did a 1500 metre trek. Aoife described me as a “mountain goat just let loose” with the speed and excitement trekking up to the top of the rough terrain. At the top there was a stream and a small waterfall that had various submerged stone carvings, pointed out to us by an old man who gave us a small tour. On the way back we stopped off at the nearby Banteay Srei temple, offering another array of impressive temples. It was founded in 967 AD and constructed with pink sandstone, the material of preference during this period.
On our last day, we went to the countryside to a place called Happy Ranch where they take great care of horses. Aoife
loves horses and she did some horse riding in the past. I on the other hand love to just look at the horses, not ride them! The only other time I tried it was in Sligo which was a great laugh... for Aoife watching me!We were given our horses and were warned that they apparently did not like each other, and so my horse had to stay in front. Not ideal. Anyway, we followed our guide through the trail in the countryside. We went through villages and fields and past many water buffalo chilling in the mud. After a brief scuffle with my horse, Aoife’s horse just got lazy and wouldn’t follow us. So the guide switched horses with her. I was out in front at this stage and the guide asked Aoife to take the lead. As she tried to trot past me my horse started to trot. Then as she went to canter past me my horse did the same!! So there we were on the open stretch of dirt road cantering along, our horses basically racing each other to be in front. Aoife was having fun while I held on for my life!!! Eventually Aoife slowed her
horse down and let my horse take the lead as it was the only way to get my horse to stop. Of course my temperamental horse was finished there. Near the end of the trail as the horses once again got a bit close, he starting bucking!! I thought I was going to go over the top of him but I held on. I finally broke him! Later that evening, we went to watch the sunset on a hill near Angkor Wat. It was beautiful.
As for the city of Siem Reap, it is tourist central, with western style bars and restaurants everywhere. At times it can feel like you are in a western colony. There is a street there called pub street full of bars either side. We drank there the first night but the sad part is that while we're sitting off drinking, many young kids as young as 4-5 years, are begging or trying to sell little souvenirs to survive. Late into the night these young kids are navigating the bars and the westerners. Later that night as we walked back from the bars one little girl came up to us and asked us to buy
her little sister some baby milk. (Her grandmother had a little baby on the side of the street, apparently her parents had died) So we went and bought her some SMA type baby milk. It cost $5 so I don't know how they could ever afford it. We also bought some for another young woman the next day. It is common place but I can’t see how it’s a scam because you are actually buying them food.
Also, at the temples there are hundreds of young kids selling souvenirs. The kids are unbelievably charming with very good English. I can see why Angelina Jolie adopted some of them when she came to Siem Reap to film Tomb Raider! We chatted with some of the kids to hear more about their life. One little girl who I bought a couple of things from shared her story with us. She gets up at 3am, walks an hour to the temples and works from 4-6am selling $1 souvenirs. Then she walks to school for classes at 7am till 11am. After that, she returns to the temples to work till 5pm, when she returns home knowing the same fate is in store for
her the following day with little escape in sight. And she was still smiling....
After a really enjoyable time in Cambodia, we left the next morning to make our way to Bangkok. Cambodia is definitely a country worth visiting. We found the Khmer people very friendly. You also get to witness the best and worst of mankind. In Phnom Penh, the killing fields and the genocide museum remind us of the brutality inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s, their actions resulting in almost a quarter of the population being wiped out. While in Siem Reap province, the array of magnificent temples remind us of the skill and ingenuity mankind possesses.
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