Temples, temples and yet more temples in Siam Reap


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Asia » Cambodia » North » Siem Reap
December 6th 2009
Published: January 10th 2010
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A five and half hour bus trip through flat uninteresting rural scenery bought us to Siam Reap. On first impressions it seemed a dusty place, much smaller then we were expecting. A small river wound through the city, there were many old shabby French buildings and a large undercover market area near the guest house we had booked into. We ended up moving the following day - the mattress was too soft - an unusual complaint to make after months of hard beds - but my back preferred hard! The hotel we moved to (Hotel 89) was a lovely hotel - you were welcomed with cold water and wet cloths every time you entered the doors, had a bed time story (Cambodian folk tale and the TV movie channel schedule) left on your pillow each night. Constant clean towels, wifi, breakfast etc - all for $20 a night!
Upon exploring the city further we found a very upbeat tourist area full of cafes offering cheap draught beer and great food and music. In the evenings there wasn't a Cambodian (except staff0 in sight. Still it did have a great vibe and we ate there most evenings. There was also a great
preparing the raw silk threads for dying into pattern shades before weavingpreparing the raw silk threads for dying into pattern shades before weavingpreparing the raw silk threads for dying into pattern shades before weaving

Each colour is dyed separately - each thread is being covered with plastic, each colour is cut off and dyed colour by colour, then the threads are woven onto bobbins for weaving
bakery in town which also sold NZ icecream!
Our first day in Siam Rep we visited Artisans d' Angkor, an area specialising in teaching young Cambodians traditional cultural arts. It was a fascinating area - we saw them stone carving, wood carving, making beautiful lacquer products using gold leaf, stenciling and dipping copper boxes with silver. You could wander at will around the workshops - later that day they took us out to the Government silk farm where we saw the production of silk from the worms through to the dyeing and all the different styles of weaving. I thoroughly enjoyed our few hours there and can highly recommend it! Their shop was crammed with beautifully displayed products - I couldn't resist buying a few things! The production of silk is intensely time consuming and to watch the women (always women) weave the the multi coloured pre prepared silk thread into intricate designs was wonderful. The uncoloured threads are all stretched onto a frame, the design is developed colour by colour using plastic twisted around the threads, each piece of coloured plastic is removed, dyed, next colour removed and dyed. When it is finished they are left with dozens of spools of multi coloured silk which is then woven - and somehow the design works out. They would lose the design totally if the spools of thread were mixed. Village women will earn US$150 each after six months of training - considerably more then they would earn farming, but much less then what their products sell for in the shops. I often wander what they think when they see the price tags on the goods they have labored over.
Next morning we had booked a tour to the Rolous Temples, some of the earliest temples constructed in the area, and about 13 klms from Siam Reap. After a stop to purchase our passes - US$40 for 3 days - we headed out of the city in a mini bus. We visited a series of temples over the next few hours - my favourite was Banteay Srei - a Hindu temple delicately carved from pink stone. It was only a small temple, but very beautiful to look at - the carvings were very detailed and most were three dimensional. These temples were quiet to wander around as the majority of tourists don't travel too far from the main temples of Angkor,
Weaving the traditional pattern from pre dyed threadsWeaving the traditional pattern from pre dyed threadsWeaving the traditional pattern from pre dyed threads

Each of these threads has already been dyed - the pattern develops as long as the bobbins do not get mixed.
all of which are very close to the city proper. From there we drove another 20 kilometres to a truly amazing site - Jerry and I had seen it on a documentary in Phnom Penh and were determined to visit it. Kbal Spean is a carved riverbed, surrounded by jungle, though this has opened up considerably with the advent of tourism. It is commonly referred to as the 'River of a Thousand Lingas'. Lingas are phallic symbols which are widely seen in all Hindu temples. We had a lovely walk along the river bank and a bit of as climb to reach the site but it completely blew me away when I saw it. The river bed is covered with carvings (and water-so they must have dammed it originally before carving ) and the rocks along the riverbank are also heavily carved with figures and animal images. It was spectacular! We immediately decided to spread some of David's ashes at the wonderful spot.... He would have loved it!
Lunch followed - a picnic with egg and lettuce sandwiches and yummy raspberry cake (the tour was operated by a hotel with an Aussie owner) we headed off to another afternoon of temple climbing. There are just so many temples here - around every bend in the road you can see another. We finished the afternoon with a crowd of people atop Pre Rup where we watched the sun set over the fields. We had another photo stop soon after when we saw a group of boys swimming in a lake - the water was glowing red and pink from the sunset. Beautiful! A top day which finished in style with a Aussie BBQ and a Strongbow cider at the Aussie owned hotel. What could be a better way to finish a great day. Next day we hired a tuktuk for the day and headed off to visit some of the Angkor temples. I closed my eyes as we went passed Angkor Wat as we had decided to leave that as our last temple visit. Another great, though long day followed. We crossed the immense gates into Angkor Thom (a fortified city). There are four gates in the 12 klm long wall so it's a large area. Inside are many temple sites. My favourite was the magnificent Bayon Temple with it's 54 Gothic towers, decorated with a total of 216 faces. No matter where you were within the temple there was a face watching you. Sometimes they were above you, around the next corner you came face to face with one. I loved it! Jerry's favourite was Ta Prohm which was pretty special as there were many massive tree roots growing out of the temple ruins. Another favourite with us both was the Terrace of Elephants, which was edged with a 350 metre bas relief of elephants. It is beyond comprehension as to how these temples were constructed originally - there are just so many, they are so large and the detail is intricate in most of the carvings. The stone used didn't even come from the region.
Around all the temples, but only outside the main gates, we were swamped with women and children selling scarfs (pure silk of course !!! for a couple of dollars) which got a little trying. At least they weren't allowed into the main areas of the sites. Most of the sites also had groups of land mine victims playing traditional music at the gates. Our passes were rigorously checked at every venue which I was pleased to see - you certainly couldn't get in without paying! That night we feasted on another favourite - Cambodian curry (amok) - we both love it and can't get enough. Next day we had a day off from temples but still hired a tuktuk to take us to a small village nearby where we spent some time wandering and an hour in a local classroom. The classroom had just been built with aid money out of palm leaves - the kids were all ages and enthusiastic pupils. All the kids work as well but have an hour of English lessons a day - there parents know the English language is a passport to a better future. The majority of the population in Siam Reap are earning an income from tourism in some way.
Next morning we were up at 4am and off to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We paid a dollar for a couple of plastic chairs and a front row seat. The colours of the sky were spectacular -I took way too many photos! It took an hour and half for the sun to rise properly and by then there were hundreds of people snapping photos. Thankfully most of them left to go back to hotels for breakfast but Jerry and I enjoyed Angkor Wat in relative peace for the next couple of hours. I will admit Angkor Wat was not my favourite temple - the stone relief work was truly amazing and the temple is very large - the biggest of them all. The temple is known for it's many carvings of 'asparas' or bare breasted heavenly nymphs. There were hundreds of them and all within touch had well polished breasts. Many hands had fondled them! The walls around the main temple are 800 metres long and are richly carved with battle scenes with quite incredible detail. Check some of my photos out and imagine walls 800 metres long and well above head height totally covered in them. I've always wanted to see them and was not disappointed. We left the complex as everybody else returned from breakfast - we had heard that the crowds through that temple are horrendous by the middle of the day.
The tuktuk then took us away from the crowds for another few hours driving through the countryside. We wanted to visit the Land mine Museum and it was 25 klms from the city. It is run by a man who as a boy soldier for the Khmer Rouge, then the Vietnamese Army after they invaded the country, followed by the Cambodian Army, all who forced him to lay land mines. Having laid land mines for all sides he now spends his life clearing the countryside of them. Alone he has rendered harmless over 50,000 mines! The museum is full of the mines he has collected and has stories of all the children that he and his wife now care for. All are victims or orphans from mine explosions. A sad place...
We left Siam Reap the next day. It had been an interesting city to visit as it still seemed quite poor once you left the vibrant tourist centre - there were many roads leading off main roads which were still dirt. The main roads out to the temple complex were lined with ugly 5 star hotels - they all looked empty but presumably weren't as it was in the middle of the main tourist season months. There were too many shops selling too much of the same thing - how many 'silk' scarves can one person buy? I'm sure most of them weren't making too much money. The temple areas were well looked after - though they needed more toilets. They all seemed to be hidden away somewhere as I'm sure they must have been there. Nothing can prepare you for the temple sites - they are so much larger than anybody could expect. Certainly a wonderful legacy fore the Cambodian people and one which can only continue to make them increasing amounts of money over future years. Cambodia has only been officially open to tourism since 1991 so it is a relatively new country for tourists and has only recently just started to modernize. Eight year ago we debated about visiting the temples and the only way you could get there overland from Thailand was squashed into mini vans for a long rough trip over bad roads. I don't feel that we've missed too much by leaving it to now - certainly I feel that the temple sites would be in better shape now. They are all having millions of dollars spent on the currently for renovation and maintenance.
We left next day by bus to to the city of Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia. Most people go by boat - eight hours - via Tonle Sap Lake and a large wetlands area. We decided to the bus after being advised by a couple of the hotels in Siam Reap. They told us that the boats go too fast and damage all the fishing nets along the waterways. This then causes the fishermen to lose their incomes for the day. We've been told (by other tourists) that the boats break down regularly - the breakdowns are actually when the nets get caught up in the boats' propellers...



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