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Published: January 20th 2013
Angkor Wat At Sunrise
I fought hard to get this photo...
"Pleeeeeaaaaaaase!" screamed the Canadian girl in the bunk below.
The alarm of the guy in the bunk next to mine went off which woke everyone up apart from him. After ten long minutes, he finally got up, none the wiser that he had just pissed a whole dorm full of people off.
It was 6.30am and I needed to be at Phnom Penh's bus station at 7.30am. Might as well get up then, godammit...
Talking to the tuk-tuk driver outside the hostel, I instructed him to take me to the bus station near the Central Market. In my experience so far, Cambodians have found it difficult to understand me, and I to understand them - so I was a bit worried whether he was actually taking me to the right place.
Thankfully he dropped me off in the right place - and right on time to boot.
The quality of the bus taking us up to Siem Reap was actually pretty nice. I have heard some horror stories about buses in South East Asia, but there was nothing to worry about on this one. Large, new , clean, free snacks and water - they even had movies, even if
The "Tomb Raider" temple and my favourite temple of the lot.
they weren't great (Transformers: Dark Side Of The Moon and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in case you were wondering).
According to Michael we weren't following the main highway so it was a bumpy ride. I've never seen so many potholes. Although if Michael hadn't told me we weren't on the main highway then I would've thought that the all the main roads were like this.
This was because you could see the poverty that exists in this country just by looking out the window. Tin shacks made of corrugated iron house the locals out in the countryside, with only one or two concrete buildings per village that I assume are schools or buildings for congregation like a town hall.
The most striking thing about the rural landscape however, was the water. Houses are built on stilts and most of them have small jetties that connect the houses to the road. Beyond the houses is just still water stretching as far as the eye can see, with the odd shoot of grass protruding the water's surface. It's monsoon season and what I assume are usually rice fields have turned into a massive lake - probably part of the Tonle Sap, the
Asuras (Demon Gods)
Outside the south gate of Angkor Thom.
river cum lake that swells up to five times its normal size during the wet season.
We stop at Kampong Thom for lunch where I order the local lok lak
which is a nice stir-fried beef dish, and after six hours on the road, we finally arrive in Siem Reap where it is positively pissing
down with rain. Wading through roads cum rivers, we notice that an indoor central market here is flooded in about of foot of water as we drive past.
When we get to the hotel, the entire front of it is flooded in ankle deep water and the tuk-tuk has to drive us right into the water to drop us on dry land - it might be a while before we would be able to get out of the hotel without getting our feet wet.
The Frangipani Hotel is pretty nice for US$40 a night - my own room with ensuite is spotless, there is a bar out the front, a spacious lobby, friendly service, a breakfast buffet, and a pool. Our stay is going to be quite comfortable.
After a short rest waiting for the flood waters to subside we eventually go for
I was particularly impressed by the scale of this temple - the long, raised walkway leading up to it gave it gravitas.
a walk into town and visit Wat Preah Prom Rath, a Buddhist monastery. It's really atmospheric inside, as monks stroll around and a congregation of people are gathered inside one of the temples receiving a sermon of sorts. The buildings are built in the unique Khmer architectural style, the same used for the Royal Palace down in Phnom Penh. It all felt rather new and exotic, the 'wow, this is cool' feeling that you often get when travelling and seeing things for the first time. This wouldn't be the last time I would be getting that feeling over the next few days.
After visiting the monastery we stroll through the old market where they are selling everything from handbags to dried vegetables, and shoes to whole skinned chickens with the feet still attached.
On the way out, we bought some fried leek dumplings from a street stall which were delicious.
We then come to the famous and aptly named Pub Street, where most of the city's nightlife is. The place is just wall-to-wall pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants and is where all the action is. We pick one place for a beer before meeting up with Andy
for dinner at
Where all the nightlife is in Siem Reap.
a restaurant that was surprisingly swanky. I have been impressed with how well decorated restaurants are in Cambodia - I do like how a lot of them are essentially al fresco
but with a modern yet local character to them, with ponds and other water features especially common.
After dinner, Mike, Fi, Andy and I went to have one more drink on Pub Street where we manage to spy on a local dance performance at the bar over the road, and where the music from the bar below was so unnecessarily loud that it interfered with our conversations. It was only about 10pm but the music was going off as if it was 2am. There was no-one in there either.
The fact that we were complaining about the noise was probably a good cue for us to head back to the hotel.
The main reason that we were up in Siem Reap of course, was to visit the famous temples of Angkor.
Known as the "Holy City", Angkor was believed to have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world that spread over 1,000 square kilometres. There are over 1,000 temples in the area which served as the seat
On the bush walk to Kbal Spean.
of the Khmer Empire which thrived between the 9th and 15th centuries and the temples were built in worship of the state religion, which switched between Hinduism and Buddhism depending on the ruler at the time.
Our strategy to seeing the temples was to build up to the main event - Angkor Wat - by visiting the smaller temples first.
The first site we visit however, isn't even a temple.
It is Kbal Spean, or as we called it, "Phallic River".
We called it so because there are many lingas
carved into the riverbed - rounded bumps/columns that symbolise the Hindu god Shiva's phallus. Apparently there are penises sticking out all over the place at this river so of course we were naturally all curious.
As we arrive at the site, a group of young local girls flock over to our minivan and literally wait right outside the minivan door for us to emerge, goods for sale in hand. We are mobbed as they follow us to the entrance to the site and are persistent, but polite. Some of the girls tell us their names and ask us to "think about" a purchase while we are sightseeing, and to find
Carving in the riverbed of "Phallic River".
them when we get back.
We actually have to do a short hike through the jungle to get to the river which in the heat and humidity was pretty taxing. It is slightly challenging and there are some rock-climbing parts so in the end it is quite fun and satisfying although I have sweated through all my clothes by the end of it.
Unfortunately, the actual river itself is a little disappointing - there are some pretty cool carvings in the rocks and in the river itself but the penises aren't really penises but more like cobblestones. Not sure what I was expecting but there weren't exactly penises sticking out all over the place.
We weren't the only ones who had come to see penises - there were loads of mainly Chinese tourists about the place too. A local man then just starts guiding us - knowing that he would probably ask us for money at the end of it we kind of try to shake him off although he knew of some hidden carvings that he managed to show us. Surprisingly, he didn't ask for anything in the end - unlike similar types in Morocco
On our return
Spotted on the walk to Kbal Spean. You wouldn't want those in your pants.
to the minivan, sure enough the local girls were back again.
"Hey, I remember you!" shouts one of them while pointing at me.
"You say you will think about it and come back! You want scarf? For your mother? Girlfriend?"
I rebuff their advances, annoyed at the hassle yet sad that this is their livelihood - but I just really didn't want a scarf.
Our next stop is our first temple visit - Banteay Srei.
The sun in the morning had now been replaced by an overcast sky and our driver made sure that we had umbrellas on us and just as well, as halfway through our visit, the heavens opened and down came some proper heavy monsoon rain. The rain was so heavy that continuing our visit actually wasn't even an option. Taking photos while trying to keep yourself and your camera dry was mission impossible.
Luckily when the rain came down we had pretty much seen the temple which rather surprised and disappointed me at the time. Banteay Srei is one of Fi's favourite temples but it is one of the smaller ones and is known more for the intricacy of its carvings rather than its size.
Not the largest temple but perhaps the most intricate.
My most striking memory of Banteay Srei however was a hunched and hideously deformed woman women pleading and wailing for money. It looked as though she was a burn victim and her face was severely scarred. There was a similarly burned man outside S21 when I was in Phnom Penh. It was the most distressing thing that I had seen for a long time and has stayed with me ever since. Michael tells me that she was more likely the victim of an acid attack, which is perhaps the most spiteful thing one can do to a fellow human being and is perhaps worse than murder, given the trauma suffered by the victim and the permanent maiming inflicted upon the victim who must live with it for the rest of their life. I suspect that it is likely this woman has probably been shunned by society and left for dead, no longer able to have any semblance of a normal life.
On a more positive note, the next temple we saw was Bakong, the first ancient, large-scale, Asian sight I have seen. Seeing this massive temple reveal itself in front of me was awe-inspiring. Surrounded by a massive baray
The first big temple I saw. This is the view as you walk down the path towards it.
(reservoir) that effectively acted as a giant moat, and with local percussionists and musicians providing a soundtrack as we entered the site, it was another of those moments that you travel for, a reminder that you really are experiencing something truly exotic.
Clambering about the temple, I felt like Indiana Jones - again
A long, tiring day involving a lot of walking and time on the road was capped off by dinner on Pub Street.
Mike had decided that he needed a break from the local food and so we enjoyed an Italian meal where we were joined by Andy again, and Sandrine, a colleague of Fi's who was up in Siem Reap for the week, who was bubbly, enthusiastic, French, and a good chat.
A couple of cocktails were had after dinner and the noise, music and energy of Pub Street was starting to draw us in - but in the end we decided to leave it for another night as we all had an early start the next morning and were well and truly knackered.
We had decided to hire a guide for our temple-seeing the next day where we would be upping the ante and
Built in the late 12th century, Bayon's most distinctive feature is its huge stone faces. It is arguably the most significant temple after Angkor Wat in the area.
seeing some of the bigger and more popular temples. First up was the city inside a city - Angkor Thom.
The last capital of the Khmer Empire, there are several temples inside Angkor Thom including the most famous one, Bayon, which we visited first.
Bigger and more intricately sculpted than Bakong, Bayon was pretty cool to walk around and would have been even more enjoyable without the scores of Chinese tourists that lurked at every turn. The most famous feature of Bayon are the massive stone faces carved into its many towers. The guide also pointed out bas-reliefs that depicted various mythological and historic scenes. At one point the guide took my camera and told me to stand in a very specific spot - he then took a profile picture of me which is included on this blog. The result was surprising and very cool.
Just a short walk from Bayon is Baphuon which I found more impressive because of its size and symmetry. There was a long, raised, stone walkway that led up to the temple's entrance which was very cool. Getting up and down the temple involved negotiating some very steep staircases.
The last temple we see in
The coolest thing about Ta Prohm were the giant trees strangling the temple.
Angkor Thom is the smaller Phimeanakas.
The final temple for the day and my personal favourite was Ta Phrom or the "Tomb Raider one" having been made famous by its appearance in Angelina Jolie's famous film.
And I can see why they picked this one to put in the movie. Trees are growing through the temple itself, wrapping and constricting themselves around the stone; the whole temple is covered in green moss; the temple itself is large and maze-like; parts of the temple have crumbled and rubble is strewn across the site.
All of this give Ta Phrom a unique atmosphere and special character, as if the temple is one with nature. Very cool.
Our guide was was very informative - if it wasn't for him I would have had no idea that the towers of Bayon were gold-plated at one stage, that the massive trees growing inside Ta Phrom are actually destroying it, just how big the barays actually are, that many of the missing statue heads around were actually looted, and that Angkor Thom sometimes floods during the monsoon but Angkor Wat never does.
He also revealed his own views and insights on the way his
"Tomb Raider" Spot
This had the tourists scrambling all over each other for a picture - apparently this particular spot featured significantly in the film.
country is being run.
Despite the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, Cambodia's prime minister is in fact an ex-Khmer Rouge commander and has been in charge since 1985. Oppression and violence are still two tactics used by Hun Sen, and his government is rife with corruption.
Our guide reveals to us that rebellion against such tyranny is unlikely because the Cambodian people always "respect their elders" and don't speak up. I find this sad as I have grown to like the Cambodian people who are always happy and friendly regardless of - and perhaps in spite of - their circumstances. And after what happened here in the late seventies, you would think that they deserve a break.
We did nothing more but lounge around the pool in the hotel for the rest of the day and we ate at Viroth's a restaurant just 100m down the road from the hotel for dinner. Again, it was very well set up, giving you the impression you were eating at a swanky al fresco restaurant without the swanky prices. Oh yeah, and the food was delicious.
The night out in Siem Reap didn't end up happening - not with a
Deva (Guardian God)
A statue of a "guardian god" outside the south gate of Angkor Thom, on a bridge built over Angkor Thom's moat.
dawn visit to Angkor Wat planned for the following morning. Instead, the night was memorable for the second power cut we had experienced in two nights in Siem Reap, something that just doesn't happen in the UK but is a regular occurrence in Cambodia.
And so the main event had finally arrived - watching the sun rise over one of the world's most famous temples.
Having not got a lot of sleep on the trip so far, I was really struggling as I got up before dawn. Even the wind in my face on the tuk-tuk ride struggled to keep me awake.
There is something about going somewhere for sunrise that gives you the feeling that you are about to witness something truly special, whether it is watching it rise on Mt. Sinai
, or getting on a hot-air balloon
. Once you join the crowd of people doing the same thing as you, it feels like a pilgrimage. Given that Angkor Wat is primarily a religious site, scale of the place, and the spectacular entrance over the baray
into the complex, it certainly did feel like a pilgrimage.
Angkor Wat is built on an artificially created island and is surrounded by a wall, within which lies
Bridge Into Angkor Wat
Crosses over the complex's massive moat and into the complex itself.
acres (203 to be exact) of space. You enter via a causeway that crosses the 190m wide moat which once under the gate, turns into a walkway leading right up into the temple itself.
There are scores of tourists arriving for the sunset and we settle ourselves on the bank of the large ponds that lie in front of the temple for the perfect view of the sun rising above the temple's five towers. Our spot seems to be the
spot to take a photographs and it is a bit of a battle to claim space among all the tripods that were out.
Waiting for the sun to rise, it becomes clear that the overcast conditions are not conducive to a good photo so soon everybody starts deserting the photo spot, including Mike and his parents who decide to make a head start on the temple itself while the Chinese tour groups all go back to their hotel for breakfast. Given the sleep sacrifice I had made for this, I wasn't giving up on this quite so easily and waited for that sunrise. I'll let you be the judge as to whether the photo(s) I took was worth it...
Central Tower, Angkor Wat
The central tower within the inner gallery in the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Wat is certainly impressive.
Two concentric squares surround the main temple and the walls of the outer gallery are plastered with bas-reliefs that depict epic scenes and battles from Hindu mythology.
On the inside of the outer gallery is some nicely kept grass and the inner gallery which has four access points, each up a steep flight of stairs.
On the inside of the inner gallery is the main temple itself, up another even steeper flight of stairs. Since it was so early in the morning we had to wait about twenty minutes before they started letting people into the main temple. Unfortunately for Lesley, she did not have anything to cover her shoulder or knees - this is still a holy place - so she was turned away. She took it quite well considering - having come all this way at that time of the morning I would have been livid.
Anyway, there are four naves in the main temple, but the central tower has been filled up with sandstone and you actually can't get inside it. Nevertheless, due to the main temple's elevation, you get some great views across the complex.
So Angkor Wat did not disappoint -
All along the outer gallery of the Angkor Wat temple are reliefs depicting ancient Hindu stories and myths.
it was certainly the most grandiose and magnificent of all the temples and its sheer scale and decoration ensures that it is deserving of the hype. In saying that, having seen the other temples beforehand perhaps reduced the wow-factor for me, as if the other temples were sneak-peeks that spoiled the surprise a little.
We decided to see one more temple although being exhausted and hot, I was really struggling and would have been happy to go out on a high with Angkor Wat. But I thought I might as well see another temple while I am here so we head to Banteay Kdai.
Banteay Kdai is similar to Ta Phrom except not as big, gloomy and atmospheric. It also has people actually selling you things inside the temple with stalls set up and everything. It was a bit surreal and somewhat cheapened the place - but I also realised that these people need to make a living somehow. There was one girl who followed Richard and I for an eternity - apparently she wouldn't be able to go to school if we didn't buy something off her. It seemed the rest of her family was there with her,
The last of the temples we visited, which was quite similar to Ta Prohm, but not as big or as good, although we were all well templed out by this stage.
selling what they could to the incoming tourists. Having promised to get a magnet for my cousin, I did my bit and bought one off this girl. Lesley got into some friendly conversation with a lady selling scarves about her and her family but was unwilling to buy one in the end. On the way out, we decided to take the outside route to avoid the gauntlet of souvenir sellers inside the temple.
I was definitely all templed-out by the end of it.
Before catching my flight out of Siem Reap, I had one last Cambodian-style coffee - I think I will always my coffee with condensed mile from now on - and one last swim in the hotel pool before saying my goodbyes.
It's been great catching up and hanging out with Mike and Fi - they have also provided an inside perspective into Cambodia and its people that I would not have got otherwise. It was a little sad to leave them - who knows where I will see them next?
I'd like to give a mention to Andy as well whose company we all definitely enjoyed during our time here in Siem Reap, as well as
While inside Bayon, the guide asked for my camera and told to stand in a specific spot while he took a photo. I had no idea what he was doing at the time - this is the result.
in Phnom Penh.
I really enjoyed Cambodia as a whole - I found the country very different to anywhere I have been before, the sights amazing, the people warm.
I'll definitely be back as there is definitely more left to see.
As for now, this show moves onto its final leg in Singapore - catch ya soon.
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