Temple Surprises and Riverbed High Rises

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Saturday, June 1, 2013

After our crazy stay in Vietnam, Tim was still seething over the loss of his iPhone and it was the closest we had come to throwing in the towel and catching a flight home. But how could we when the next stop was Cambodia and the Temples of Angkor.

 Our arrival was pretty funny, we got the standard airport taxi and the driver was asking the usual perky questions, how are you, where are you from, do you support Liverpool or Manchester United?  It all went wrong when we asked us what we had planned for tomorrow.  We told him that we had a tour guide booked to take us around the temples. The taxi driver at this point made no secret of the fact that he wanted to make some more money off of us and told us he had no tours tomorrow and we should have booked with him.  Thankfully the airport in Siam Reap is just a short trip from the town as the taxi driver blanked us and spent the remaining 15 minutes of the journey mumbling that we should not have made plans, ha ha, nothing like a warm welcome to make you feel at home in a new country!

So our first day in Siam Reap and there was no messing around.  Thanks to the lovely Sam and Pip who we met in Laos we had pre-booked our tour guide Vannek to take us on a 3 day tour of the Angkor temples by Tuk-Tuk. 

Having seen so many temples on our travels I have to confess that I was a little concerned that my temple fatigue may still be looming but with the amazing Vannek providing us with a fascinating commentary and pointing out so many things that we would have never seen on our own it was an absolute delight to spend 3 days temple trekking.  If anyone is headed to Siam Reap, I cannot recommend Vannek enough he has his own website so get in touch and book ahead, you will not be disappointed. http://www.angkorspecialtours.com/

Let's start with a few factoids.  I am sure everyone knows Angkor Wat , it has become the national symbol of Cambodia appearing proudly on their flag, but this is just one of a thousand of the temples of Angkor.  It started as a Hindu temple and subsequently became a Buddhist temple and is the largest religious monument in the world.  The construction of the temples began in the 12th century and they were built over the course of 300 years.  It is thought that the city of Angkor was the largest preindustrial city in the world covering 1,000 square kilometers.  The first westerners visited Angkor in the mid 19th century and many of the temples which had been reclaimed by the jungle were unearthed.  During the 20th century renovation of Angkor began but was halted by the civil war and the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Since the 1990’s much renovation and reconstruction has occurred at Angkor and it now attracts over 1 million visitors each year.

So we became a part of those statistics and bought our 3 day temple passes.  With tickets costing between USD20 and USD60 you would think that buying your ticket to Angkor is a great way to give back to such a poor country and to help them build and grow their infrastructure. You would be wrong. The ticket price goes directly to a private company which is run by a friend of the Prime Minister.  Just our first lesson in Cambodian corruption at the highest levels! 

Our first day we started our tour with Angkor Thom the Ancient Royal Palace of Angkor, this is the home to one of the most well-known Angkor temples The Bayon.  This was my first sight of Angkor and like many other people turned out to be my favourite of all the temples.  With towers made up of contented smiling faces what is not to like.  Whilst touring Angkor you quickly discover that pretty much every temple with Buddha images or statues was destroyed as Angkor went from Hindu rule to Buddhist and back to Hindu.  Thankfully the faces of the Bayon survived the destruction.  Whilst the Bayon is a Buddhist temple, the faces adorning the towers are actually not of Buddha himself and there is much debate as to who’s face adorns them, but it is thought to be King Jayavarman VII; useless fact of the day for you there!

As with most temples in Asia there were people offering to bless you for a dollar, usually I politely decline, but after our run of bad luck in Vietnam, I figured I needed to make my peace with Buddha and where better than in the most beautiful temple I have ever seen.  One dollar later and rocking a day glow orange, green and yellow bracelet, Buddha and I were at peace.

After a few photo opportunities it was time to head to the next temple and seemingly my peace with Buddha was short lived.  The skies turned black and the heavens opened. We ran for cover and were soaked through in seconds and after a good half an hour eventually the rain stopped and we carried on our tour of the now flooded temples.  We saw the Royal Palace Area and Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King (which was housing with some rather cute looking monkeys), Bapuon which has a giant face of a reclining Buddha disguised on the back wall, Pimeandakas, Bantey Kdei, Takeo and last but not least Ta Prohm.  Ta prohm is one of the other temples that everyone knows of, it is the temple featured in the Toom Raider movie and the one that is at one with nature with huge trees and roots living within the temple.  Sadly there is a major reconstruction project taking place and much of the temple is being held up by scaffolding, but you still couldn’t help but be wowed by the size of the amazing trees that have taken over the ruins.  The trees are called Spung trees, they are actually hollow on the inside and they only grow from the top of old stone ruins with their roots spreading down over the years.  We were hot, tired, dusty and full of more information about Khmer history than the average human can take in one day.  Time to call it a day ready for some more exploring tomorrow.

Day 2 was unsurprisingly just as full of temples as day 1, there is no question that Vannek certainly gave us our moneys worth. Day 2 included Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Banteay Srey, Pre Rup and Banteay Samre.  My favourite temple of the day was Banteay Srey, this is also known as the Pink Lady temple, because it is like a miniature version of many of the other temples and is just so petite, feminine and of course a bit pink as it is made from sandstone.  The amazing thing about this temple is just how delicate and intricate the carvings are.  Sadly this temple was just a few months ago the target of thief’s and despite 24 hour security a beautiful monkey guard statue vanished overnight!  The other cool thing about this temple is that it is much further out than many of the other Temples so not many tourists bother to make the trip meaning we had it pretty much to ourselves.  We also got to enjoy the Cambodian countryside and had a good hour journey to quiz poor Vannek on the ins and outs of every part of Khmer culture that we could think to ask.  Our favourite revelation of our quizzing was to learn that in Khmer, tourists or foreigners are known as 'Barang’, this is always a useful word to know as when you walk past a conversation you know when you are being talked about.  The best thing about this nickname is the definition.  It translates as ‘Long nose’, so every time we were called Barang we did our best Pinoccio long nose move and had the locals in hysterics that we knew what they were calling us.

Our last stop of the day was Pre Rup to watch the sunset over the sprawling countryside, we were the first to arrive and before the sun had even contemplated going down we were surrounded by a hundred tourists with their giant camera’s poised, time to make a quick exit.

Day 3 and our final day of exploring Angkor, as with all good tour guides Vannek saved the best for last, our last stop of the day would be THE Temple of Angkor, we had missed out on the sunrise trip as for one it was too early for us, two the weather was a bit on the grey side and getting out of bed to watch grey clouds has never inspired me and three, everyone does it, which makes me want to break tradition. 

Something else that everyone does is to go to the floating village on Tonle Sap lake (The largest fresh water lake in Asia), to see the people living in stilt houses on the river.  It is now basically just a massive tourist trap and does not reflect anything to do with Khmer culture and you will just join a parade of boats going up and down the river.  So keen to avoid this we did our research and discovered a lesser known village of stilt houses.  Kampong Pluk.  This is a good hour and a half driver from Siam Reap so we saw our fair share of the countryside en-route, and boy was it worth the trip.  We were here in dry season which to me made this place even more beautiful and amazing.  Every house in the village is built on stilts around 7 meters high as during rainy season, which was on it way, the houses are in the river and even 7 meters up the water is lapping the bottom of their houses.  It was totally inconceivable to me that the main road becomes a river and the cars, bikes and motorbikes are moved and replaced with boats and all the animals are moved indoors until the water retreats again.  In preparation for the rain arriving and the waters rising the locals were busy preparing their fishing nets ready for the rivers return.  There were just a few other westerners wondering around looking as astounded as we were by the engineering feat of balancing your house on some pretty small looking stilts. I would love to come back here in wet season just to see for myself how different this village looks.

So finally it was time for the main attraction, the sun was shining and we were ready to take on the crowds at Angkor.  The strange thing is that there were actually  not many people around at all, whether we had timed it just perfectly or whether the power of my Buddha bracelet was working its magic, I don’t know, but I liked it.

Vannek as well as being filled to bursting point with information was also our personal photographer for our tour and after 11 years of being a guide he knows all the best places to get a good snapshop, so Tim and I were placed around Angkor and Vannek worked his magic, getting some pretty good angles even if I do say so myself, thanks Vannek!

So Angkor Wat, what a feat of engineering it is, you just can’t comprehend the sheer size of it and to think that it was built without the power of cranes and diggers.  The engineering feat of Angkor and all of the other temples is just beyond my little mind.  The genius behind the engineering is astonishing.  One notable feature of Angkor and many of the temples is the moat that surrounds them.  This is not a defence mechanism like you would have at a medieval castle, no, it is there to ensure that the water levers beneath the ruins remain at a certain level to stop the foundations from drying and collapsing, seriously what genius came up with that!!??

So we did it, three days of solid temple touring, we got rained on, we got scorched in the sun, we had lorry tires explode alongside our little tuk-tuk, we saw buses crashed into trees and we even saw a monkey in a bin.  I saw more carved nagas (multi headed snakes), Apsara (Traditional dancing ladies) and Garuda’s (a mythical bird like man) than I thought possible in three days.  Our feet hurt and we were ready for a day relaxing by the pool.

Our hotel in Siam Reap was a rather nice spa hotel which was a bargain as we were there out of season and every time we passed through reception they tried to sell us a massage.  After three days of Angkor we decided that was exactly what we needed so we tried to make reservations for the following day and were told that there was no need, just tell them 30 minutes before….. perfect.

So after a few hours in the sun, relaxing at the pool we decided it was time to give our aching bodies a rest and headed to reception to book our massages.  This is where they told us that we could have a massage one at a time and it was a 3 hour wait for the first one,,,, hmmm looks like the Khmer massage will not be happening after all, gutted.

Siam Reap is a funny little town, it has nice bars and restaurants and is very clean and shiny but sadly the dark side of Cambodia was all too clear to see when there was the most repulsive 18 stone westerner covered in Nazi tattoos having dinner with a beautiful little Khmer girl who could not have been more than 12 years old.  Such a sad thing to see and this is just a small window into the dark underworld of people trafficking and child sex tourism in Cambodia. 

We saw and did as much as there was to see and do in Siam Reap so it was onward to the next destination, Battambang.  Cambodia is a very poor and undeveloped country and the internal transport is pretty much limited to buses.  Some companies are better than others and we did our research which told us what companies to avoid.  We headed off and bought our tickets for the safest company we could find, avoiding Rith Mony at all costs.

The next day we were collected from our hotel to be transferred to the bus station and were surprised that they had managed to cram 20 people and their luggage in a minibus for 12, hey ho.  After a mini tour of the city we arrived at the bus station and my heart sank.  The bus we were being sent to Battambang on a Rith Mony Bus, awesome, let the white knuckle ride begin  - after I have stocked up on some KFC for the journey (Khmer Fried Cockroaches) yum yum!   
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