Angkor Wat?!

Trip Start Nov 27, 2010
Trip End Dec 12, 2011

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Siem Reap Riverside

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, January 9, 2011

We loved Siem Reap. Sometimes you just get a good feeling when you drive into a place and that's definitely what we felt when we picked up a tuk tuk from the bus station.  In fact our tuk tuk driver proved most useful, we managed to (with a bit of haggling) book into a nice hotel, about a ten minute walk into town, with satellite TV and breakfast for $10 a night.

Siem Reap isn't a big place but it certainly has enough bars and restaurants to keep the tourists happy.  In the main the town is really used a base for those wishing to take a tour around the Temples of Angkor, which begin about 6km from the town centre.  The most famous temple - Angkor Wat - was something that both Nic and I had been looking forward to seeing since our arrival in Cambodia.  Angkor Wat is the national symbol of the Khmer people and the temple is the largest religious structure in the world.  Although it’s apparently been in almost constant use since it was built in the 1100's, we were still amazed at the state that this and many of the other temples have been allowed to get in to.  Considering it was built at around the same time as Notre Dame and Salisbury Cathedral, its deterioration is much more significant.  Perhaps the sandstone used in its construction erodes at a faster rate than the materials used in Europe?  Or perhaps, more likely, the funds weren't always there to provide the temples upkeep?  Either way its good to see (from a heritage perspective, not so much a visual one) that ongoing renovation is taking place on many of the temples.

Due to the size of the area that the temples cover, renting a tuk tuk for the 3 days that we planned to visit the temples seemed the most sensible thing to do.  There was the option of renting some push bikes but neither of us really fancied that in the sweltering heat.  So we had our transportation booked and agreed with the driver for a 9am start with the plans to see the fortified city of Angkor Thom (which itself is on a site measuring 10 sq km) and then Angkor Wat in the afternoon and for sunset at around 5.30pm.

We trekked in and out of the giant stone temples, checked out the ornate stone carvings and generally explored the grounds of what was once a huge and thriving city.  I took hundreds of pictures over our 3 days and seemingly the Korean tour groups we encountered took hundreds of pictures at every opportunity.  If we're being honest, with the amount of temples we saw they all started looking a little similar.  The standouts for us were, obviously, Angkor Wat, and also Banteay Srei and Ta Phrom. 

Being one of the 'modern' wonders of the world, Angkor Wat was stunning when we rose early (4:30am) to watch the sunrise on day two.  The three central towers are ubiquitous within Cambodia and are seen everywhere - t-shirts, silk scarves and even adorning the crest of the national beer.

Banteay Srei was a little further out than some of the central temples at around 30km from Siem Reap, which is a hell of a way in a tuk tuk!  The stone used to make the temple is of a pinky-red colour and the stone carvings were as intricate as they were numerous.  Work was begun on it in 967; another temple was begun in 883 – mental!  I said to Nic at the time, I had no idea what was even going on in England then.   Stuck in some post Anglo-Saxon dark age I guess, when the Khmers we building huge and towering temples with primitive tools and raw manpower.

Ta Prohm we both liked because of the way the jungle has enveloped and tried to claim back the temple as part of its own.  Through a state of steady decline over the centuries, huge trees, plants and shrubs have entered into the temple grounds and have taken over many of the monumental porches and corridors.  Giving the impression that the trees have taken root right through the masonry, one assumes that the trees in question have followed a similar path to the banyan trees we saw in Thailand and followed the water flowing through the cracks in the stone work.  Many of the passages within the ruins are impassable but the photo opportunities are many.  The juxtaposition of huge, centuries old trees and crumbling moss-covered walls allow for pictures that really stand out amongst the (literally) hundreds of others we took of all the temples we visited.

We took a little cruise onto the Tonle Sap lake as well to visit the floating village of Chong Kneas.  A bit of a tourist trap, it wasn’t really worth the $15 each for the hour and a half visit.  The main memory of this little trip was our guide telling us about the orphanage we could visit.  That sounded cool, we’d be happy to see the kids and likely make a donation to the school.  Our guide said we could only go if we took gifts.  Okay…that’s cool, we could buy the kids some coloring pens of sweets or something.   So we stopped of a little floating shop in the middle of nowhere and got out.  We walked in to the shop to look for a few things to buy.  Then the shop keeper said there were only two things we could buy for the kids – a small stack of writing books or some instant noodles.  Okaaaaay, bit weird but how much is that going cost? We were thinking $2-3 dollars at the most.  "$15 dollars" What?!  For twenty notebooks or ten packs of super noodles?!  That’s mental!  We only had round about that that for the remainder of the day on our tour.  But you’re in an uncomfortable position, they’re for the kids after all.  We looked at the guide.  He kept saying “It’s your choice” We wanted to help but then we took a minute just to asses the situation.  These prices were grossly inflated for what the products actually cost, by purchasing these goods we’d only be lining the pockets of the shop keeper and the guide who no doubt gets a commission.  No dice.  We both remember reading something in the Lonely Planet guide about this place being a bit 'scammy’.  We politely declined.  Seemed a shame but it somehow felt worse to be giving these jokers large amounts of money for goods worth pennies.  “Could we buy them something else?”  “No”.  And so we didn't get to visit the orphanage.  Perhaps we’d feel worse but it’s a fair bet that most people who get into that situation just put up the cash to get out of there.

One the way back from one of the temple groups that were a little further a field we stopped in on the Cambodian Landmine Museum.  Started by an ex-Khmer Rouge boy soldier, it charts the history of the landmine and its use within Cambodia.  Aki Ra was order to join the KR regime when he was 5 and was given a gun and began laying mines the same year.  He eventually defected to the Vietnamese army and now spends his time helping rid Cambodia of the millions of mines that till claim lives daily.  He’s personally cleared over 50,000 since he started and uses nothing but a spade and knife.  The non-profit museum houses many different types of unexploded –ordinance (now deactivated) and shows pictures of what landmines can do to the unfortunates that step on them.  He also set up a sanctuary for children who have been affected by a mine blast and helps them get an education.  An amazing man and an amazing place, one of the highlights of our visit.

We spent longer in Siem Reap than we had planned to but we just loved the relaxed vibe there and we contented to scour the night market for cheap silk goods (scarves, pillow cases could have been more if Nic had her way!) and try and find some souvenirs worth taking home.  For the most part, souvenirs in Thailand and Cambodia have been rather poor, mainly being mass produced tat that appears to have been imported from China as opposed to hand-crafted from locals.  We were certainly glad we found Artisans Angkor, a terrific academy that teaches traditional Khmer artisanship to impoverished youngsters.  We had a tour of the workshops seeing wood and stone carving, as well as lacquer-making, and we couldn’t resist purchasing a couple of things from the shop.  At least we know these were made in Cambodia by hand!

In all we ended up staying in Siem Reap for a week but we were still sorry to se it go. Pub street with its wall to wall bars and restaurants were the perfect setting to people watch and relax after the sun went down.  We’d managed to forget about our Vietnamese visas as well so we had to rush those through to get them in before the weekend to make sure that 7 days didn’t turn into 10.  We toyed with the idea of touring around more of Cambodia but we felt that time and money meant we should be getting into Vietnam as that would be taking up a fair percentage of our time left in Asia. 

So it’s onwards and upwards to Saigon!
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