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Published: January 9th 2009
Up early yet again - this time for the early bus to Siem Reap. The bus company (Paramount) impressively organised - they actually 'checked in' our luggage as they put it in the luggage compartment and issued us with a ticket. We crawled out of PP crossing the might Mekong and then passed workshops making the heavy furniture so popular here. These gave way to a strange landscape of marshes with elevated areas of sand like mini deserts - whether natural or man made I don't know. This area had numerous brickworks. Then the countryside began for real - the usual stilt houses paddy fields and water buffalo. Every ten or so miles there were dusty market towns. The villages in between had the usual mangy dogs and scratching chickens. Each stilt house has a few hammocks slung underneath where the lack of activity seems to go on. Occasionally there's a child being washed or rice being winnowed or a few cattle being driven slowly from one pasture to another. As there are no fences each cow is individually tethered to a post which much be a bit distressing for an animal with herding instincts. We stopped in a town for a wee stop. Jen bought a copy of the English language Cambodia Times only to discover that it was a month old copy - she took it back and got it swapped for one that was only a day old. It is a surprisingly good read and covers international stories in some depth .The road to Siem Reap is good - we arrived early afternoon. The bus depot is a secure compound so not the usual scrum on getting off. A tuk-tuk driver took us to the Popular Guest house. We plumped for a cheap (6$ a night) fan room but the room is windowless and a bit dingy. The guest house is well located though and has a nice rooftop restaurant. We immediately booked a tuk-tuk to take us to a nearby temple for sunset. (If you buy a 3 day temple pass for 40$ after 5pm the first night is free - so it makes sense to get a temple visit in on your first night as a bonus). We stopped off at the ticket office to buy our 3-day pass. Our first temple was Phnom Bakheng and was very busy with visitors. It is set on a mound with good views over distant Angkor Wat. It is a gentle 15 minute stroll to the top (the more affluent can do it by elephant). With about 200 others we watched the sun set in the distance. It was good because it gave us a good sense of the distances involved in visiting the other temples. We had considered doing the other temples by bicycle but the distances were a bit more than we anticipated and the roads busy and dusty, so we decided to use tuk-tuks for the following day's visits.
Our first full day of temple exploration. After breakfast we set off with our tuk-tuk man with an approximate plan. We're leaving the major attractions of Angkor Wat itself and the city of Angkor Thom as a climax at the end of our 3 days. The camera has packed up completely (in what is perhaps the most photogenic site on the planet) but I'm laid back about it - such is fate. A thing to get in mind is the scale of the temples of Angkor. Each temple on its own would be a major monument in most countries. Some of them are the size of small cities and there must be about 30 of them spread over 40 square miles. We first visited Preah Khan - we were simply stunned by the grandeur of the massive tumbledown structure. It impossible to capture the beauty and magnificence of these jungle clad structures in words. It is something about the scale of the buildings and the power of nature in overcoming them. Preah Neak Pean is more human scale being like a huge ornamental pond. Ta Som is compact and beautiful - one end engulfed by a picturesque huge tree. I think we then visited Eastern Mebon then definitely the towering impressive Pre Rup which is a tough climb in the blistering heat. Highlight for me was then the indescribable Te Prom which followed Banteay Kdai. Te Prom was used for one of the Tomb Raider films. It is a huge, and I mean gigantic structure reclaimed partly by the jungle. I've never seen anything so picturesque. It is busy but who could blame anyone for wanting to see this. The Lonely Planet guide says that inscriptions on this single temple say that it took 80,000 people to maintain it - just imagine the scale of this place. The book says that at its height, the temples at Angkor had 1 million inhabitants when London had 50,000. One can't blame the current Khmers to exploit this wonder of the world. At each temple there are many adults and children selling books, tee shirts etc. Some sell welcome bottles of cooled water which is a necessity in the heat. Within some of the temples are shady corridors. (The roofs of many look in danger of imminent collapse).The day had been exhausting but hungry we headed out to the recommended Khmer Kitchen Restaurant. Siem Reap is a very busy tourist base because of Angkor's attractions. It seems to attract some quite affluent tourists and has several posh hotels. The main streets where the bars and restaurants are located are like a mini Bangkok Koh San road. We were delighted with the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant -subtle Khmer cuisine in a lovely setting good for people watching - Jen had Pumpkin Soup which was delicious and I had fish curry - both served of course with rice (and only $3 each).
We'd arranged a tuk-tuk for 8am but he didn't turn up so we soon arranged another. We decided to visit two remote attractions outside town so as to see a bit of countryside. The road out to the first was mostly tarmacked. The tuk-tuk man first stopped on the outskirts to top up his tank. There are proper petrol stations but mostly people use roadside stalls which sell petrol in spirit bottle. Old Johnny Walker Red Label bottles seem to be a favourite for some reason - perhaps the bottles are particularly robust. We passed through attractive Khmer villages - noticing that many of the clean water wells had signs indicating they had been provided by named American donors. The first temple we arrived at was about 25km out and called Banteay Srei. It is relatively small compared with the major main temples but is made from a lovely pinkish stone and has some of the most elaborate carvings depicting Hindu gods. It was busy with Japanese tour groups who had been zooming past our tuk-tuk in their air-conditioned coaches. Despite this it was possible to find quieter corners to appreciate the loveliness of the buildings and their setting. After a refreshing coffee and fruit juice we headed further out to a series of riverbed engravings at Kbai Spean. The tarmac road soon gave out to be replaced by a dirt track - the open tuk-tuk became a bit of an endurance test as we were bumped around and buffeted by the dust thrown up by passing vehicles. Being in the shade and having the breeze generated by movement at least ameliorated the days heat. We regretted not having face masks or a scarf to fend off the dust as did other more prepared tuk-tuk passengers that we saw. However the tuk-tuks were thin on the ground this far out. The landscape changed with stark bluffs poking through jungle hills. We arrived at Kbai Spean to discover only a few other vehicles. There is a 40 minute trek up the hillside along a lovely well marked jungle path to the riverbed carvings (the walk seems enough to put off the Japanese tourist groups). Unfortunately because of its isolation some of the more carvings have been shacked off and stolen. Those remaining are small scale but impressive. Particularly strange and attractive is where the rock riverbed itself has been carved into an elaborate repetitive pattern. It must have been done in the dry season as it is underwater most of the year. There is a small but attractive waterfall. The stiff walk in the heat meant we'd exhausted our water by the time we returned to the start. At a bridge near there a woman was bathing her infant in the river. It was a long drive back into town. The most fetching site as we returned was the huge queue of locals outside the children's hospital - a sign outside said that there is a Dengue Fever outbreak and appealed for blood of particular groups (not ours as it happens). I don't know if the queue size was related to this outbreak or whether the queue is always this big. Ironically the hospital is right beside a swish hotel.
We were back by mid-afternoon and couldn't resist revisiting the Khmer Kitchen to try other options from their menu ( I also couldn't resist some Angkor beer). We were so exhausted that we both collapsed onto the bed at slept for hours waking only in time for me to nip out for some late night snacks and some water.
We hired a tuk-tuk man for $10 ad headed out to Angkot Wat, the largest religious building in the world (or possibly the universe if they don't have religion on other planets). The buildings are relatively complete compared with others such as Ta Prom and the jungle has been totally cleared from the buildings which perhaps explains why it is less atmospheric than some of the other temples such as Ta Prom. It is undoubtedly impressive but both Jen and myself agreed that it was a little bit of an anticlimax. I think the whole complex is best appreciated from a distance rather than inside except for the impressive feature of the carved freezes. The most famous freeze features 'The Churning of the Ocean of Milk' which is a depiction of gods and demons churning up the sea using a mighty snake to create the world. We were in desperate need of refreshment, as the heat of the direct sun whilst wandering the grounds of the temple complex was particularly intense today. We met up with our tuk-tuk man (each temple is surrounded by refreshment stalls and sleeping tuk-tuk men waiting for their clients). We headed the short distance to the walled fortified city of Angkor Thom whose 6m high and 8m wide walls stretch 12km and are complete. We entered through a narrow gateway which is preceded by an impressive avenue of sculptures (many missing their heads). There are many temples within the walls. We headed for the most impressive (in my opinion) - the massive temple of Bayon. The most startling feature are huge smiling faces on the towers (216 in all). It is maze like with long shady corridors on many levels. There are impressive friezes of bas reliefs depicting scenes of everyday Khmer life from the 12th century. We strolled the short distance in fearsome heat to the bizarre huge temple of Baphuon. It is currently under reconstruction Apparently French archaeologists took the temple apart stone by stone earlier this century for research but the records were lost during the Khmer Rouge period so a gigantic jigsaw has been left. I wonder myself whether they shouldn't just , leave it as it is to be reclaimed by the jungle. I suppose it provides employment. (On this subject - there is a vast army of local workers nearly all women who seem to spend all day in a futile effort of sweeping leaves into piles. Many have babies or toddlers in close attendance. It must be a scheme to pump some of the tourist pass money back to the locals). After Baphuon we walked the 'Terrace of Elephants' to the 'Terrace of the Leper King'. We stopped briefly to find shade and had some deliciously refreshing tangerines. It was wonderful to get back to the shade of the tuk-tuk and feel the air rushing past as we specd back into town. We paid off our tuk-tuk man and headed to back to Siem Reap town to the Khmer Kitchen yet again for a late lunch. After booking our bus ticket to Battambang for the morning.and a well deserved rest in our poky but cool hotel room, we tried a bar called 'Why Not?' for some beer and a nice tuna melt sandwich. An exhausting three days of temple visiting was complete.
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