Seeing 'em weep in Siem Reap

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Sunday November 23rd

Who was weeping in Siem Reap? Why, it was the Aussies of course! As everyone outside the US knows, England won the rugby World Cup last night in a thrilling final, and if you want to read my match report, click here: ENGLAND WIN!.
It was a late night of much merriment, and not the best thing to do before an early rise. I decided to get to Siem Reap by taking the express boat up the Tonle Sap lake. Five hours of sitting on the roof of the boat getting roasted like a pig on a spit doesn't seem like fun, but it certainly beats the bus.
When the boat got to the dock at Siem Reap we were met by the usual throng of taxi drivers pushing and shouting to get our attention. In the mass I saw a sign that said 'Welcome Barren Hawking' and my double-take gave the game away: the guy had me and wasn't going to let me leave. Apparently, the owner of my guesthouse in Phnom Penh had phoned his mate to tell him that I was on the boat and so he met me to take me to his hotel. I hopped on his motorbike and set off to town, past the shanty towns and the naked kids playing in the dirt (obviously none of them have heard about the latest craze sweeping the country - flipping coins - but give them time.)
I met up with John, Jo and Rich from England who I had bumped into in various parts of Vietnam and watched the rugby with last night. Decided to meet up again in the morning and share a couple of tuk-tuks in order to explore the legendary temples of Angkor. Nice.

Monday November 24th

Before planning this trip the only time I'd ever heard of the temples of Angkor was on the BBC show 50 Places to See Before You Die (how Angkor got voted 29th and Florida 3 I'll never know; maybe Disney slipped the Beeb a few quid).
You can Google for more details, but basically Angkor was the capital of the Khmer civilization from 802 to 1431, reaching into China and down to Vietnam. During this time they built about 100 monuments and temples in an area of 250 sq km around Angkor, as well as sophisticated reservoirs and canals to irrigate the paddy fields. Archaeologists and historians believe it was probably the biggest city in the world at its peak in the 12 century, home to perhaps as many as one million people. When the Thais forced them out in 1431 their temples were forgotten and were claimed by the jungle until being rediscovered in the late 1800s.
The main attraction at the heart of the complex is the temple of Angkor Wat. Built between 1113 and 1150 it is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. Crossing the humongous moat and seeing the five towers for the first time really was a spine-tingling moment (even more tingling than watching England beat the Aussies on Saturday). It is absolutely stunning, with every inch of the walls covered with intricate carvings and bas-reliefs telling stories of Khmer battles.
Other temples included Ta Prohm famous for being left to be swallowed by the jungle. Giant trees cover the walls and buildings as the massive root systems slowly destroy the temple. It's an amazing place, almost like a movie set (and probably why Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed here). At this point, however, I nearly lost it. Ok, I did lose it. My camera didn't work. Un-friggin-believable! Then I saw the most famous man in Cambodia: the stooping old man pictured on the cover of Lonely Planet. Mr LP was right there in front of me and I couldn't take his picture, but thankfully I did manage to get one photo, which you can see above. I decided that I needed new batteries (even they were only a few days old) and ran the risk of buying something from one of the countless vendors and children selling postcards. They really are a nuisance and will not take no for an answer: tell them you already have postcards and they reply that you need to buy two sets. Tell them you want to buy nothing and they say that that will cost $2. It really did grate on me after a while, but seeing as I was around sacred sites I refrained from violence for once and just started talking about cricket and they soon left me alone. After a few minutes of annoying haggling ("No, I don't want any musical instruments, just give me the sodding batteries!") I managed to fix my camera, with much relief.
I found that a one day pass ($20) was more than sufficient to see the most impressive sights (including the Bayon with it's 216 giant carved faces). Climbing the 70 metre Phnom Bakheng we got to see a rather nice sunset, along with 500 or so other tourists who made the climb (and a few Japanese who rode an elephant up, plus a rather large German lady who looked like the elephant could have ridden her). Like most of the temples here, Phnom Bakheng was designed to keep lesser people out as it was a gift to their god, so the steps are very steep and narrow, and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, some are downright dangerous so it is only a matter of time before they are closed to the public because some lard-arsed westerner twists an ankle and sues.
Despite being long and hot it was a very rewarding day, and like pictures of the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal and of the Shish Kebab (large with chilli sauce) on the menu at Kebabies, my pictures of Angkor Wat really don't do the actual thing justice. Just make sure you see it before you die.
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