IndoChina – Cambodia; Ankor Wat & a tuk-tuk

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Architecture is the alphabet of giants; it is the largest set of symbols ever made to meet the eyes of men. A tower stands up like a sort of simplified statue, of much more than heroic size."
Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The 'Group Dynamics' finally got to us at Ankor Wat. A pre-dawn start to get to Ankor Wat for the sun-rise meant everyone was a little antsy to start with. The guide faffed around organising tickets to the complex leaving us very little time to get to the lake in front of Ankor Wat before the sun rose.

After the sun-rise rather than staying at the complex we had to go back to the hotel for our insipid complimentary breakfast – a stupid, stupid thing to do because that was when the light was best for photos. Worse some of the group started to get arsey because a couple of the group where late back to the meeting point as they were taking pictures. At that point Claire's patience ran-out and she snapped at the guide telling him we wanted to see this place for ourselves and leave the group for the rest of the day.

As we walked back to the coach the group was engulfed in a tide of urchins selling postcards – "ten for a dollar" they would incessantly pled - or bracelets or guidebooks. Not taking 'No thank you' for answer they badgered the group not stopping until the coach had started to drive off. We noticed later on that individuals didn’t get this quite so much so it must be a tour-group ploy.

Back at the hotel Claire mollified and then buttered up the guide. He couldn’t get us a another guide at such short notice but he was able to provide something better, a knowledgeable, friendly tuk-tuk driver called Maly – who I would recommend to anyone visiting Siem Reap and Ankor Wat – who would be our driver for the whole day for the princely sum of $25.

By 8:30 Maly and his tuk-tuk were waiting outside the hotel. And as the rest of the group were still having their 'complimentary’ breakfast we took off without telling anyone just in case someone wanted to join us. We needed to escape group timetables and the faffing around and the herd mentality.

It was undoubtedly the right decision. We agreed with Maly which sites we wanted to see and he suggested a couple of other temple ruins to visit and off we set. The Ankor Wat complex/park is massive, far too big to see everything on foot.

The first stop was to return to Ankor Wat itself. The 30 mins we’d spent there with the group before b/fast was nowhere near enough time. Maly suggested about 90 mins would enough and he was right. For an hour and half we wandered around with a guide book (more informative than a guide and better English!) taking photos and generally being awestruck. The scale of Ankor Wat is amazing. It was a city in its own right and as still used, in places, as a Buddhist temple making it the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple. In the centre four towers are joined by cloisters and in the centre is the tallest tower representing the mythical Mount Meru symbolising the centre of the Hindu universe.

I’m going to quickly run out of superlatives in describing each of the temples or ruins we visited during the day so what I’ll do instead is list them:

-       Ankor Wat – described above

-       Ankor Thom – an extraordinary complex of temples and palaces. Even larger in ground area than Ankor Wat. The guide book suggests it’ll take several hours to cover it. The book isn’t wrong. On the south gate to Ankor Thom you first come across the faces of Buddha engraved into blocks of limestone that Ankor has become famous for. In the Bayon temple each of the towers has, or had a face engraved looking over the four point of the compass. Noone really knows how many towers or faces there were originally but today there are 37 towers still standing.

-       Preah Khan – Claire’s favourite and one we would not have seen had we stayed with the group. Preah Khan was a university as well as a temple.  Much of it has been reduced to rubble but amazing engraving still exist. In the centre of the temple a long corrider runs West to East and North to South. As you walk thru’ doorways to the central sanctuary the doorways get smaller and lower forcing you to be bowing (and therefore be paying respect) when to reach the stupa in the central sanctuary. It also creates a mirror image effect as you look from one end to the other.

-       Thommanon & Chao Say Tevoda – Two of the smaller temples and built very close to each other.  Not much more to say about them

-       Ta Phrom – also known as ‘Tomb Raider’ temple after being in the film. Somewhat disappointed that there weren’t cut-outs of Angelina Jolie at the entrance that you could have had your photo taken with. If this had been Thailand or Malaysia there would have been a cut-out with someone close-by offering to take a photo for $5.

Anyway it’s one of the most dramatic of the temples because of the taking back of the site by mother-nature. Silk-Cotton and Strangler Fig trees have partly taken over the site leaving the trees interlaced with the ruins. The trees have been deliberately left in-situ to give visitors an idea of what all the sites looked like when they are re-discovered in the 19th century. It is quite extraordinary to see huge trees seemingly growing out of the top of a temple with its roots tumbling down over the sides or reaching out along the length of the roof.

It was also at Ta Phrom that we caught back up with the rest of the group. We’d spent the day with huge smiles plastered to our faces dumbstruck by the scale and the magnificence of Ankor. They, by contrast, had spent the day holding their noses after one of them was sick on the coach and were so behind schedule that Ta Phrom was only their second stop. Not a coach load of happy-campers...

-       Ankor Wat (again) – this time for sunset. With the sun setting in from of Ankor Wat we finally got some decent light for photos as would have had in the morning if we hadn’t have had to return to the hotel for b/fast.  

After the sun had set we headed back to the hotel. We caught up with the group and from a couple of them heard all about their day. It made us all the more pleased to know that we’d booked Maly for a second day. 

The following day Maly and his red and blue tuk-tuk were waiting for us just after b/fast. We decided to go further afield this time to see a waterfall and a temple at the northern limits of the Ankor site. We headed off for Banteay Srei, some 20+km north of Ankor. 

As we approached Banteay Srei we could see that the car-park was rammed with coaches. Causally taking his eye of the road Maly turned around and suggested we skip the site and go straight to the waterfall at Kbal Spean, another 6km further, and return later. It made sense so we agreed. By now tho’ Maly’s tuk-tuk wasn’t sounding so good and even gentle hills were becoming a struggle. At 2km outside Kbal Spean the tuk-tuk was reduced to walking pace. Maly jumped out and using the tried and tested Jeremy Clarkson method of auto-maintenance he hit something. Whatever it was it sort of worked and a few minutes later we reached Kbal Spean.

A 1,500m walk uphill brings you to a waterfall on the Stung Kbal Spean river (which flows into the Siem Reap river). In the 11th or 12th century Hindu images had been carved into the sandstone rocks around and in the river. The climb thru’ the forest was pleasant enough and not too difficult. The round trip had taken about two hours during which time Maly had obviously been patching up the exhausted Suzuki because as we set of for Banteay Srei it sounded a lot smoother and healthier.

It didn’t take too long to reach our destination. Banteay Srei was built in the 10th century. Unlike other temples in Ankor it is not a royal temple having been built by one of the king’s counsellors. As a consequence it isn’t as large as others but if it lacks scale it more than compensates in ornate-ness. There are amazing and intricate carvings everywhere – many still complete. We spend a good hour or more just wandering around the place taking photos and just taking it all in.

Our last stop was to catch sun-set at Pre Rup. On our way to it we stopped off to visit the Landmine Museum. We’d done something similar in Laos visiting the COPE centre. This time the museum was about one man’s effort to clear the mines like the ones he had laid whilst he was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. It was and interesting, depressing and yet inspirational story of how he’d changed and the contribution he and others in his group had made.

We reached Pre Rup just before the hordes descended on it. Actually that should be ascended because to get the sunset and the light you have to clamber up Pre Rup’s central tower. From there you can see the sun setting over Ankor and just about see Ankor Wat. As the sun sets a golden light is cast over Pre Rup and the sandstone and laterite turn a wonderful deep red and yellow.  

It was a brilliant and evocative way to finish our visit to Ankor and marked the end of the tour. The following morning we boarded a cramped coach to take us the 4hrs to the Cambodia/Thai border. From there we took two speeding minibuses back into Bangkok for our final group dinner before departing to go our separate ways. The tour on the whole was excellent but if nothing else we’ve learnt that we need to do our own thing at our own pace rather than follow the herd.

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Harick on

Lovely travel posts and photos. Get to know your blog from Dollah, he posted them on facebook. Seems you guys having lots of fun travelling. You guys have facebook ? Take care and say hi to Claire. x

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