Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Trip Start May 16, 2005
Trip End Nov 01, 2006

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Saturday, September 3, 2005

After 5 uneventful and actually quite pleasant hours on a boat, we arrived at the Siem Reap port. What came next was less than pleasant as we decided not to use the 'free' pick-up service that had been foisted on us by the ticket-checker at the boat dock in Phnom Penh, instead choosing to go with a driver that was from the guest-house where we wanted to stay. Unsurprisingly this went down pretty badly with the original diver. Him and his cronies starting hurling all sorts of expletives at us and a shouting match developed between the competing drivers. The mini bus driver explained why... The man who checked our tickets at the boat station in Phenon Penh is not actually employed by the boat company at all. Instead, he sells the names and descriptions of passengers to the tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap for about $3 a time. The reason that the drivers pay this is that in order to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, you need a vehicle. And as it takes a minimum of three days to see the main sites, this can be a very lucrative few days for the drivers. All in all it was a very unpleasant experience for us.

After arranging a driver through the guest house, we went to watch the sunset from one of the many temple. Not that you could see the sun setting. Firstly it was a pretty dreary evening and secondly this site was over run by hordes of Japanese and Korean tourists all battling it out to get a prime spot to snap the sunset with their massively unnecessary professional cameras.

An early start next day was in order to avoid crowds and the intense heat of the place. Sonia made the executive decision that a tour guide would be more helpful than the pitiful attempts made by the wretched Lonely Planet. And much as it pains me to admit it, on this occasion, she was right. The vast Angkor area includes 40 main sites with some temples located over an hours drive from the centre and a guide is essential if you are to learn anything of the history. It would be unfair to bore you with the details of all of the temples that we visited (besides even my vivacious appetite for architecture was beginning to wain after temple number 23) so here are the highlights:

The Bayon Temple was the first site that we visited and from a distance it had all the aesthetic qualities of a 1960s multi-story car park. It literally looked like a huge pile of stones that had fallen over in a big pile. Once past the initial wall, it was possible to get some sense of the work that had gone into constructing it. Each wall of the perimeter had been lavishly carved with depictions of life and wars in the 12th century. As you go further into the temple you begin to climb upwards towards the third level. The stairs leading up are very steep, as these were designed for the gods to climb and not for the tourist multitudes. At the top are 13 large towers, each with four huge faces facing north, south, east and west. Can't remember if this particular temple was originally Hindu or Buddhist. Khmer Kings had a funny habit of changing religions every so often. Buddhist temples would have all the Buddas removed and replaced with Vishnu and vice versa. This is easier said than done as there are literally thousands of Budda faces and carving at each of the sites. Many of the sites are a jumbled mess of the two religions which obviously didn't bother the latter kings too much.

It is currently possible to climb and scramble all over the monuments, doing all sorts of damage to the delicate sandstone. Although this really allows you to explore the temples, it should be stopped in order to conserve the sites.

Angkor Wat. Words really can't do justice to this place. A moat runs round the outer wall of the Wat, each side around 1km in length. As it was rainy season, the moat was full and this only added to the grandeur of the place. Decades were needed to construct this place and it seems that the Kings spent a large part of their reign constructing ever-more impressive monuments to the gods (and ironically themselves whom they also considered to be gods). Around the lower section of the main temple is a wall about 3 metres high that runs around each of the four walls (totaling around 800 metres in length), every inch of which forms a stunning bas relief. Again it depicts scenes of everyday life as well as the great battles that had been won. I'm afraid that the pictures don't come close to doing it justice. In the very centre of the complex lie the 5 massive bee-hive towers that have become such famous images. Upon climbing the central and largest tower we met a monk. His name was Sakhan and every Sunday he comes to the Angkor temples in order to practice his language skills on tourists. We chatted for a while and he invited us to come and visit him at his Pagoda (monastery to you and I) which was close to the centre of Siem Reap. He was a really likeable sort, constantly laughing a smiling and really pleased that we were taking an interest in his life. We exchanged email addresses and said goodbye before joining the queue to descend the perilous steps back down to the lower levels.

Jungle Temple (AKA Tomb Raider Temple) The jungle has totally taken over this temple to the point where the trees are actually holding the walls up in some places. This was probably my favourite temple as it really was something straight out of Indiana Jones (or Tomb Raider for that matter...) with creepers and strangler figs everywhere. Most of the walls are set at funny angles where the jungle growth has knocked things out of shape. Many of the sites are currently undergoing multi-year and cripplingly expensive restoration programmes but others are simply too far gone for that, like this one. Alas, despite much looking, I didn't manage to spot Angeline Jolie running around in her hotpants. Damn it.

Our third day was perhaps the most unusual birthday I have ever had. We headed off to one of the outlying sites in the morning (nothing too spectacular) before coming back to Siem Reap. En route, we stopped at the amazing land-mine museum. Set up a number of years ago by a local man (an ex-Khmer Rouge child soldier) in his hut, this facility serves two highly important purposes. Firstly, it is an orphanage/refuge for children and adults who have been directly affected by landmines. Secondly, it serves as an educational base to explain the deadly nature of these devices to locals and tourists. On arrival, the first thing that greets you is a young child dressed in the black and red of the Khmer Rouge - complete with AK47. Things only get worse from here as you then see the museum staff, children, all missing one or more limbs. Walls are decorated with the grim life stories of how these children have been injured and then usually disowned by their families as they cannot work in the fields. Here, the children have been taught English and act as guides around the museum/their home. They are also often used to explain the dangers of the mines to other children who still play in the countryside which contains an estimated 6.5 million unexploded mines. The grisly collection of defused hardware is complemented by a mock mine field in the garden, complete with trip wires and anti-personnel mines smaller than a yoghurt pot. It was by no means a pleasant place to visit but the centre is helping some of the many victims to gain an education, something that most do not have access to. They are also involved in the continuing clean-up operation which at current rate will take approximately 100 years before Cambodia is free from this menace. The crazy thing is that despite all the horrors brought about by mines and the crippling expense of de-mining, they are still being laid in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US still has the gall to manufacture them along with our friends, the Chinese and the Russians.

We had both decided that it would be interesting to go and visit our new monk friend as we suspected that he didn't have many people take up his offer to visit. Sakhan was asleep when we arrived (that's what I would be doing if it was 35 C outside and I wasn't allowed to eat anything all day) but was clearly a) surprised and b) delighted to see us. Our conversation covered everything from Cambodian politics to the story of how he came to be a monk. His parents were both taken and killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was young and he was raised by his aunt until such time as he could become a monk. The only reminder he has of his parents who he barely knew is an old and dusty picture which he keeps in a frame by his bed. Sad though this is, Sakhan is far from unique in his situation and it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge murdered approximately 2-3 million citizens during its 3 year genocide at the beginning of their regime. It was great to meet Sakhan as he had an amazingly positive outlook on life and is better off than some in that he has a place to sleep and food to eat. Before leaving he also gave us a 10 minute crash course in Buddhism... still not sure that I really understand it.

Next up on my rather unusual birthday schedule was getting beaten-up by a blind bloke. Seeing-Hands Massage Centre employs only blind people but they are very very good. Not usually my sort of thing but I enjoyed it, well sort of anyway... The following day we headed off to Luang Prabang in Laos. Our Lao Airlines international flight left half an hour EARLY as the pilots obviously decided that 12 passengers was plenty enough. The pilot was obviously in a great hurry to get somewhere because as soon as we landed, instead of waiting for the main doors to open, he jumped out through the hold, onto a baggage trolley, and scampered off into the distance. I wager something not often observed at Heathrow...
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