Cambodia - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Visa process in Cambodia was quick and easy, made even more straightforward by the distinct lack of any customs officials! A hotel car was at the airport and took us straight to our hotel on the outskirts of the town centre. The approach road from the airport to the town was lined with impressive looking hotels and resorts, something we weren't expecting to see - it looked a bit like Las Vegas, just without the neon!
Our room was on the top floor of the hotel and had a balcony that gave a good view over the surrounding area and the many white buildings with red roofs that are so typical of Siem Reap (PICS).
Siem Reap is on the tourist map for one reason, and one reason only...Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is actually only one of over 50 monuments that were built by Khmer kings between the 9th and 14th centuries and are spread over 230 km­2. It is the most famous and well preserved of all the monuments and thus the entire region takes the name of the 12th century monument.
To access any of the monuments in the Siem Reap district you need a pass. These are purchased on entering the Angkor Wat area and can be in the form of a 1-day, 3-day or 1-week pass. Most people opt for a 3-day, one is nowhere near enough time to see the main sites and two one day passes cost the same as a 3-day (FYI - you need a passport photo for the 3-day and 1-week pass). There are a few monuments further a-field which require an additional payment but they also require significantly more in the way of taxi / tour guide fees so we gave them a miss and stuck to our core selection of 6 monuments.
Our first foray into the land of these ancient buildings was the massive Angkor Thom complex. The day began hot and continued to get hotter as we trawled around the complex from building to building. The Bayon Temple, a major part of Angkor Thom, has an eerie quality with its giant carved faces on each side of each tower, as if we were being watched as we wandered around (PICS).
The enormous stone carvings are evident throughout the temples, palaces and terraces of Angkor Thom. It is unimaginable how the Khmer people managed to produce these carvings so many hundreds of years ago, without the tools and vehicles we have today.
Two key attractions of Angkor Thom are the terraces, both of the Leper King and Elephants. From a distance the Leper King terrace is a mass of carvings and it is not until you get up close that you can make out the intricately chiselled figures (PICS). The Terrace of the Elephants is the complete opposite - up close it is hard to see what the carvings represent, whereas if you take a few steps back you can see the complete picture of many elephants working, fighting and playing (PICS). We spent a good while staring at these terraces and marvelling at the artistry displayed before us.
Ta Prohm is another monument close to Angkor Thom. Smaller than Thom it is also in a greater state of disrepair. It had been left untouched by the Cambodian restoration teams as a testament to the forces of nature and as such it is overrun by trees, roots and vegetation. This was until a massive tree was felled in a lightning storm and destroyed a section of the monument, calling for a clearing and restoration project to begin.
Nevertheless this monument remains far less beautified than many others and as such is gifted with a clandestine feel and more charm than anywhere else. This monument was actually used for some of the scenes in the Tombraider film and many of the decrepit, root-covered ruins are reminiscent of the movie (PICS). We really warmed to this monument and enjoyed getting lost in the many nooks and cranny's, feeling completely secluded from other tourists as we were transported to an ancient time.
The final monument of our first day was the daddy of them all; Angkor Wat. The monument is in fantastic condition after much restoration work and virulent attempts to keep it from the hands of looters - something from which most of the other monuments have suffered greatly.
As soon as you reach the car park and walk the giant bridge across the moat you become spellbound by the magnificence and grandeur of the architecture (PICS). Strolling around the complex it has an almost medieval castle-like ambience and you expect to see men in full armour marching throughout the courtyards, what we actually saw was dozens of monks clad in their bright orange robes (PICS), immediately bringing us back to a place far from King Arthur and Camelot!
We gingerly took the almost vertical stairway up to the third level of the inner monument, passed by old locals who seemingly sprinted up and down the steps with no need to use the handrails. Standing at the top and looking back down we wondered how they didn't fall head first down them. We sat amongst the stone passageways and rested in the shade of the magnificently carved stonework as a cool breeze drifted through the building. A group of locals sang their prayers to a nearby idol as we relaxed and let the majesty of such an inspiring creation wash over us.
As we completed our exploration of Angkor Wat, and marvelled at the intricate and endless bas-relief stonework (PICS), we made our way to the lake at the edge of the monument to wait for sunset. We were occasionally harassed by a team of hawker kids who couldn't have been more than about 4 years old - they soon got the idea we weren't interested when we kept hiding the postcards they insisted on putting in our laps. Luckily there were enough tourists around that they spent most of their time hassling Japanese tour groups, even going as far as standing in their path and jumping in the firing line of their photographs - were they brave or just stupid?
After spending about an hour and a half on the banks of the lake, watching the hawker kids irritate more and more tourists, the sun finally decided to sink below the horizon. The buildings took on an unearthly colour as they faded into the dusky half-light (PIC), we soon knew the views were worth the wait.
That night, in homage to the Tombraider film, we ate at the Red Piano restaurant in the centre of Siem Reap. This restaurant was apparently a favourite of Angelina Jolie and the rest of the cast and crew of the movie - you can even order a cocktail that Angelina designed for them - allegedly!
On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at a stunningly sleek and modern hotel for an ice cream. The hotel was called the 'Hotel De La Paix' and looked like an amazing place to stay, not least because the 'Café De La Paix' served gorgeous food and superb ice cream. We later searched for the hotel on the Internet and found that the rooms, at around $250/night were slightly out of our price range! We would have to settle for eating at their café!
The following morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am to catch a glimpse of the sun peeking its head over the same buildings as we had seen it disappear 11 hours earlier. By the time we reached Angkor Wat we were already sweating, it was over 30 degrees even before the sun had made an appearance! The morning view was perhaps even more stunning than the sunset (PICS), with the sky changing from pastel pinks and blues to a vivid burnt orange, until the sun reached the top of the monument and the skies turned their usual crystal clear blue.
The small, crumbling monument of Banteay Srey, the Citadel of Women, is a finely sculpted temple constructed by two different kings (PICS). It is a bit further from Siem Reap and therefore is a fair bit quieter than most other monuments, especially if you head there early and beat the inevitable 'tour bus rush' that descends on the place after breakfast. We were lucky enough to capture a few snaps of a group of monks who had just finished worshipping in the temple (PICS).
We managed to squeeze in another monument before heading back to town to get out of the searing midday heat; Preah Khan, which is also known as "The Labyrinth" and was created by King Jayavarman, a busy bloke who built most of the monuments in the area. Preah Khan was dedicated to the king's father (his mother got Ta Prohm) and has been extensively renovated and restored since the early 90's.
The monument has vast grounds, including two long driveways leading up to the main cruciform-shaped building. These pathways are much more secluded and attractive than the open, crowded spaces in many of the monuments and the small houses off to the side of the main building have a peaceful cottage-like feel (PIC). We took our time strolling up through the grounds to the main building, appreciating the quiet and cool of the shade. In contrast to the styles of other monuments, there is a unique section of the architecture that was influenced by the Greeks; with pillars and multi-levelled accommodation (PIC).
Back in town we grabbed a late breakfast at Café De La Paix (again) before gaining some respite from the sun back at our hotel. There was one more monument on our shortlist and the guidebooks suggested it was best seen at dusk - we had a few hours to kill and could do with an afternoon nap after our early start.  Sadly, we actually spent the afternoon hand washing our laundry in the shower! The hotel laundry was ridiculously priced - it would have cost us $38, over half our daily budget, to do a small load, so we did it all in the bathtub!
As planned, we headed out to Pre Rup for sunset. The monument is a simple pyramid structure surrounded by perimeter walls and was one of the earliest constructions of the Angkor era. It has a subtle charm that takes time to explore. We climbed the central pyramid to watch the sunset but soon after making the climb the weather started to turn (PIC).
We had read in the guidebooks that this particular monument is prone to lightning strikes and watched as the lightning began to build in the distance. At first it was great just to watch the bolts raining down across the thick jungle around us, then suddenly the weather shifted and the wind picked up very strongly. To avoid being blown off the top of the pyramid or hit by lightning we scarpered down to our car and got back to our hotel just as the heavens opened.
We spent our final day in Siem Reap relaxing and planning our time in Phnom Penh, it took us 6 hours to find a half-decent hotel in the city but eventually we booked one and spent what was left of the day wandering around the old market in Siem Reap before preparing for our journey to the Cambodian capital.
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