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Published: October 9th 2007
Holiday in Cambodia
Early the next Monday morning after finishing work, we met our friend James (who we did the TEFL with) at Bangkok's northern bus station. We jumped onto a bus to the Thai-Cambodian border town of Aranaprathet , ready to start our holiday in Cambodia. We went to Cambodia in January to meet Paul and Sonia on their honeymoon, but only visited the beach resort of Sihanoukville and the coastal border town of Ko Kong. We hadn't yet seen the Temples of Angkor. We had to go out of Thailand to renew our visa anyway, so we thought it was a good opportunity to see them.
The temples are near the town of Siem Reap. The road from the Thai-Cambodian border of Siem Reap is not quite finished, less of a road and more of a sandy, pot-holled track. We took a taxi along the road, more comfortable, quicker, better suspention and better air- con than the bus. We traveled past miles and miles of flat, flooded paddy fields, and through some towns and villages. Cambodia is markedly poorer than Thailand. As well as the lack of proper road surface, there is
also no proper surface to the towns, and the wooden houses stand in mud. In the more rural villages it was all bamboo huts. There are just stalls along the road selling suplies, no 7-11 (ubiquitous in Thailand), no Tesco-Lotus, no big shopping centres, cinemas, hotels or hospitals. Four hours later, however, we arrived into Siem Reap, and suddenly the road was paved and at either side were some enormous hotels. It was a big contrast to the journey.
We had booked the Ancient Angkor Guesthouse over the internet. For $10 a night we had a en-suite fan room with 80 channel cable tv and maid service every day. The best thing about it was the swimming pool. Perfect for relaxing after a tiring days sightseeing. The staff were really helpful and arranged all our transport for us, and the restaurant sold bacon bagettes in the mornings!
Blatant plug for our tuk-tuk driver
We bought a 3 day pass for the temples and hired a tuk tuk driver to drive us around. On the first day we hired a guide to show us around the major temples and give us some historical background, for the next
Need a guide to the temples...?
This is Suwan, our guide for 3 days at Angkor. He was excellent and we recommend him to anyone visiting the temples. You can arrange his services in advance by e-mailing him at Leng_Suwan2005@yahoo.com
two days we made do with our guidebook. Our tuk tuk driver, however, was excellent, spoke great English and also knew loads of history of the temples. The tuk tuks in Siem Reap are not like the ones in Thailand, they are basically a moped pulling a trailer behind with two seats in. Ours seated 4 people. So this moped was pulling a trailer with 4 people in it. Pretty impressive. The tuk tuk was a lovely way to travel around because it has no sides and so you get the wind to cool you down and you get a better view of the scenery.
The temples at Angkor were built during a 400 year period between the 9th and the 12th centuries. During this time the Khymer empire was very powerful and grew to cover the area from Burma in the West to Vietnam in the east, including the Malay penninsular in the South and up to the border with China. The Khymer Kings built their temples around their capitals, as tributes to Hindu gods, their ansestors and their deity (where they were cremated and with whome they believed they would join when they died).
According to our guide there are about 1000 Kymer temples, although some of them are now in present day Thailand. The greatest concentration is around Siem Reap. There are towering mountain temples, that you can climb up to have a great view from the top (although the steps are abit hairy!), rambling monestries that are being taken over by the jungle and have trees growing from the buildings, and large man-made lakes. Its pretty amazing to see as you drive around along the roads, but it must have been even more impressive when it was all covered in jungle.
Small Circuit - Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
On the first day we did the small circuit around some of the most famous temples. We started with Ta Prohm, which was made famous by the Tombraider film. It has huge trees holding up the temple buildings. After Ta Prohm we saw Ta Keo before entering the gate of the Angkor Thom complex. Angkor Thom was a great city surrounded by a 8m high wall and a wide moat. You approach the gate along a causeway with huge statues either side, with 54 gods at one side and 54
the guide tells you where to get the arty pictures!!
demons at the other, both sides holding onto long 9 headed snakes. The gate itself has giant heads at the top. Inside Angkor Thom we saw the Terrace of Elephants, a 300m terrace covered in carvings of near-life size elephants. We climbed up the temple of Baphuon and then went onto see the Bayon temple. This temple is made up of huge towers which each hold giant heads, staring in different directions, over 200 heads in total. They are amazing.
After Angkor Thom the guide took us to a restaurant for lunch, before we went to see Angkor Wat. That is the most famous temple at Angkor, its the one you will recognise, its even on the Cambodian flag. It is also surrounded by a moat, and you approach it over a bridge, with the five towers reflecting in the water. The temple itself has some amazing carvings, depicting scenes from the Hindu religion and local history, such as 'the churning of the milk' and 'the Ramayana' (these took so long for the guide to explain that I'm not even going to try and tell you the story, look it up in a book if you are interested).
Preah Khan temple
this one was very Indiana Jones...
The 2nd day we went to see the temples on the Grand circuit. These are less famous temples than Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but some of them were all the more impressive because they were no so busy. It was great exploring some of the temples on our own, with noone else around. It gave it a very Indiana Jones-y feel. We saw the man made lake at Srah Srang and the temple at Banteay Kdei. We climbed up the brick towers at Pre Rup, where you can see Angkor Wat from the top. We explored East Mebon, and saw another impressive tree holding up the gate at Ta Som. Neak Pean was built as a temple in the middle of some artificial pools, complete with statue fountains, although there wasn't any water in it when we saw it. We completed the second day with Preah Khan, which was a huge monestic complex and a university.
Out into the countryside - temples, landmines and lakes
On the last day we went out to Bantaey Srei, which is about 35 km from Siem Reap and took about an hour by tuk-tuk.
pink sandstone temple
It was well worth the extra journey. The temple is made of sandstone that is almost pink in colour and it has some increadible carvings. In alot of the other temples the carvings were worn and broken in places, but Bantaey Srei is almost complete. It wasnt discovered until the early 20th century, so it may just have been touched by less hands. It is surrounded by a moat, which was full of waterlilies and really pretty. The journey out to the temple took us through many rural villages, which was lovely to see. There was huge green expanses of paddy fields, with small children playing in the flooded ditches. We passed loads of buffalo grazing by the sides of the roads. The villages either side of the road were made up of wooden houses and bamboo huts, and they had lots of handicrafts on display outside. There were also local market stalls selling fruits and strange looking meat products. In some of the villages the houses and/or families seemed to have been sponsored by families from the west, because they had their names on boards outside. It was a better experience than it would be from a car or
a bus in the tuk tuk because you were outside and closer to it.
On the last day we also went to visit the Landmine museum, which is near Banteay Srei. Its run by a guy who was a child soldier in the Kymer Rouge, but now dedicates his life to deactivating landmines. This is great work for a country that is still affected by landmines lain during the civil war, the Kymer Rouge era and the Vietnamese occupation. There are loads all around the countryside and local villagers are often getting blown up by them. Many of the mines are designed to maim rather than kill so people are left without legs or without arms. The landmine museum was really interesting and gave lots of information about recent Cambodian history. It also has displays and information about types of landmines. The guy who runs the museum looks after some child victims of landmines, giving them a home and sending them to school. It was a very sobering visit.
After the landmine museum we saw our final temple, Bantaey Samre. We then went back through Siem Reap to see Tonle Sap lake. During the wet season this lake
is the largest in South East Asia (I don't know what is during the dry season). We took a boat trip on the lake and it really is huge, you can't see either side. It's like sea. There are villages that float on the lake, with all the buildings including schools, a church, shops, even a basketball court, floating. All the villages travel around in boats. It was interesting to see, even if many of the villages were surrounding our boat trying to hard sell us bananas. One little girl was so enthusiastic in trying to make us buy a can of pop that she fell in the water. Luckily she came up laughing. We stopped at a floating restaurant and drank a beer and fed some fish at the floating fish farm.
Being cultured in Siem Reap
Siem Reap is a lovely town, it has lots of colonial style architecture and boulevards. There are many little craft shops, selling all kinds of products, baskets, wood carving, stone work. Its all very important since during the Khymer Rouge era these sort of skills were lost, and there are now organisations that work to bring them back
and train people how to use them. We went to see a display one night of Apsara dancing. This is traditional Cambodian dancing, another skills which was almost lost during the Khymer Rouge era, and that has recently been brought back. The dancing depicts folk stories and scenes from traditional stories. The dancers wear amazing brightly coloured costumes. It was all rather mesmorising.
You buy for 1 dollar! Kris
All around the outside of the temples of Angkor Wat there are loads of people selling all sorts of stuff - bamboo flutes, scarfs, t-shirts, etc. At one temple a Cambodian policeman even offered to sell us his badge. We declined. Anyway, the vendors can be pretty persistent and it's normal for little girls selling scarfs to follow you all the way to a temple entrance trying to sell postcards to you - often their opener being to ask you where you're from and then tell you a plethora of facts about England. It was quite impressive really. A lot of them are actually quite funny. On our 2nd day of tours James had run out of clean shirts and while they were being cleaned he had the same
one on 2 days running - not great in this climate - plus it seemed to have picked up an odd green stain from some plant or other. I joked in the morning that they'd all try and sell him a new shirt. Sure to form we heard cries of - "mister, you have a dirty shirt - buy clean one from me". Shaming James into a purchase he finally succumbed to the cries of "new shirt for dollar". A good price - until he found they were shouting "new shirt - four dollar". CLever trickery. But when he complained and said he thought she said it was for one dollar the savvy saleswoman replied that it was a minute ago when he didn't want to buy one. Now he showed interest she'd upped the price. SHe broke out laughing. He didn't buy a new shirt in the end.
Another little lad we bumped into wasn't even selling anything. He cycled past us in his pristinely washed school uniform and slowed down to say "hello" and smile. After a moments hesitation he tried his luck - "give me one dollar". We refused and he persistently rode along beside us repeating
his demand for the next 5 minutes or so. He never did get the cash...
Another girl in a restaurant tried to get James to buy a ring for his girlfriend. He replied that he didn't have a girlfriend to which she berated him by saying she imagined he'd never had a girlfriend. This got worse as she offered him postcards to send to his friends. In a desperate attempt to get rid of her, James said he didn't have any friends. Again she mocked him for this statement, combined with the girlfriend declaration. It was rather funny. In the end she challenged us to a game of noughts and crosses - if we win we get free stuff, if we lose we have to buy something. We asked if she ever lost. She explained that she did sometimes but then the tourists that play against her can't bring themselves to take something from a little girl for free although she insists that they won it and must take it...and so they pay anyway. It's a win-win situation. I swear that these young Cambodian sales people could become the head of multinational corporations if they ever get the opportunity!
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