Cambodia – Siem ReapBack to Story

The Temples of Angkor Wat

It was the result of a completely random act that I decided to travel to Siem Reap in the first place and it’s fair to say that I’m pleased that fate delivered me to this interesting destination. I had envisioned finding an ideal location in Vietnam to spend five days and was flicking through the relevant Lonely Planet when I stumbled across a chunk of information on Siem Reap. I was immediately drawn to the cultural and historical mecca of the Angkor Wat temples.

I’m staring out the plane window and am surprised that the landscape below is so harsh and brown. It’s not the lush, green image of Cambodia in rainy season that I had imagined – and it’s definitely not the rainy season. My second thought is that the beauty of Siem Reap airport strikes me. Any preconception I had about a mouldy, communist era shed has been completely discarded. The airport building looks local – adorned with the trimmings you might find on traditional houses whilst still being a relatively new and functioning airport.  They have totally pulled it off.

I’ve also arranged a pick up so I am whisked off with my driver to – Raffles Grand Hotel. So the town lives up to the crazy, busy, dusty label I’d read about but out of the blue an amazing garden opens up – I can already see that it’s a rare place of peace in the city but strangely unoccupied by locations. They have been pushed out of tourist spots and can be seen with their picnics beside the least desirable road – where no tourist could possibly wish to venture. Gotta love communism!

The biggest queue in town is outside the Children’s Hospital, which sees over 2,300 kids a week according to their website. Many of the children don’t receive immunisations and many die at home or are bought in too late for the doctors to be able to save them.

So back to the poolside at Raffles where I’ve ordered a pina colada and thai beef salad. Sheltered from knowing this yet and surrounded by the teenage kids of expats living in Asia.

Angkor Temples

I’ve organised a driver and guide to start my journey through the ruins.  The temperature soars as I climb and I’m grateful for the air conditioning. Within a couple of days I brave the motorised bikes as I’ve had a chance to adapt to the heat, helped by the fact that I do live in Australia where it is prone to humid weather. The guidebooks say avoid this time of year because of the furnace-like heat. If you’re uncomfortable in a furnace then by all means stay away – if you’re already living in Asia or fine with the heat of the day then go for it!

So I’ve paid the relatively high price for the monument card that allows access to all the Ankor temples. Later I am relieved to find that some of that money goes to rebuilding roads post flooding – well that and corrupt officials.

Angkor Thom

To escape the swarming hordes of tourist buses and weaving queues at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s main drawcard, my guide directs me to the lesser well known Ankor Thom. We start walking around the kilometres of temples that used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Thom actually spans 9 km² making it considerably bigger than the 2 km² of Angkor Wat.

Up and down steep steps to see views of burnt grass – no rice paddies at this time of the year. My guide tells me the temples are so steep because we are not supposed to approach the gods standing upright.  Between the grade of steps, heat and jetlag there’s no chance of experiencing the wrath of the gods as I’m crawling. A slip on the honed stone gave my guide enough of a fright to not bring me up any more 70 degree stairs (no argument from me).

The highlight of the temples in Ankor Thom was definitely the Bayon.  The evening light illuminated the bas-relief faces that are intricately carved into all facets of the temple. There are 216 intricately carved and detailed faces on the Bayon and I am amazed that they have survived. My guide enlightens me on the Khmer aesthetic sensibility by explaining that the faces with their broad features and generous lips were considered very attractive. Nothing prepares you for how high these temples are until you are confronted with them in reality. Each step of stone is deeper than you’d build these days and the temples literally tower over you.

Ta Prohm

After refuelling on the breakfast buffet at the hotel I am back on route to the Ankor temples. The guide diverts around Ankor Wat and delivers me to Ta Prohm.  It is unique and distinctive largely as a result of it being left in much the same condition in which it was found. Tree roots grow out of the ruins of the temple and creep all over the temple. This intriguing complement of the natural and built environments makes it popular with tourists to the area. Ta Prohm also has its place in popular culture as a backdrop in Tomb Raider and apparently influenced Angela Jolie’s decision to adopt a Cambodian boy.

It’s already hot but I begin to appreciate my guide. He’s worked out he’s going to be out in the heat forever if he can’t deliver me to take some clear shots. So he is ferrying me around the maze of people and when I look over the shots at the end of the day it looks like we were the only ones there. In my mind we had the place to ourselves.

My guide explains that foreign aid is vital to the restoration and preservation of the temples. France, Germany and other countries assist in funding the cranes and expertise required for this process. Another reminder about the enormity of the task of building the temples. How did they manage such an enormous building project without the aid of modern technology and engineering? The current restoration job is a huge undertaking in itself. Many of the buildings are done without any binding material and stones and locked in together. Thinking about the precision required in cutting the stone and then in placement makes it all seem more amazing.

Probably the key thing to note about the ruins is also the light. Trees surround  the temple and there is an amazing dappled character to the light. This adds to the incredible mood the jungle creates. It’s a photographers dream and an unforgettable experience.

Angkor Wat

One morning I decided in the spur of the moment to witness sunrise over Angkor Wat. I grabbed the nearest TukTuk (probably not called that in Cambodia but you get the jist) and headed out to the temple. There were many other tourists also making the same pilgrimage. On arrival I managed to elbow my way through the masses and capture the quintessential photo of the sunrise lighting up Angkor Wat. It is a wholly impressive image to savour that is ironically detracted from the many nearby onlookers that are busy ‘ticking the tourist box’ by quickly taking snapshots before retreating to their hotels.

It’s a much smaller temple than you’d expect and also built around the early 12th Century. One of the highlights was walking around in the galleries surrounding the temple. The carvings are truly beautiful and very intricate. Another curious point of difference to some of the other temples is the number of women carved into the temple. I believe some call them the Devatas but there are over 1,700 women carved into the temple and with an extraordinary number of hairstyles. Historians are apparently still debating their role.

As a summary of all the temples around Siem Reap they are simply outstanding and a must see for anyone who has an interest in history, architecture or religion. The highlight for me was the people. They were friendly and open.  Siem Reap is a travel destination you should add to your wish list if you haven’t already been.

Banta Srei and Beng Mealea

Banta Srei is a journey out of town but well worth the look around. It’s a temple dedicated to women and is small and carved out of beautiful pink sandstone. The most notable feature is the carving, which has an added level of intricacy.

I see some literature which warns of landmines. However my guides all tell me that in tourist spots the mines have all been cleared up. It’s a case of celebrity campaigning with Princess Diana and later Angelia Jolie being standouts in my pop culture memory. My guide tells me he learnt English from an American who was living in Cambodia and working on removing the landmines. Speaking English and working with the tourists is a real opportunity for work so it’s nice to hear another positive out of work done to disarm the landmines.

Also potentially on the same day trip (well I made it on the same) is Beng Mealea which seemed to take approximately 1.5 hours to drive out to. Because of the effort involved to get there it’s deserted. It’s typical for kids to hang out in the temples. Some sell things others I think hoping for a handout. A local boy befriends me, while I sit in the shade of a tree.

This temple is stunning and while some restoration has obviously been completed there is much left to do. As a result the atmosphere is as amazing as Ta Prohm and much more rustic. While there are platforms to assist your journey there is still some scrambling to be done.

After returning I read an article written about corruption and mining where funds earmarked for environmental restoration went straight into corrupt officials’ pockets. Examples can be seen all through Cambodia and its an openly recognised part of the economy. I do agree with the commentary however and believe that cleaning up that corruption will be a vital part of sustainable growth. You can’t help but get the feeling this will be a difficult and lengthy journey.

Around Town

Then it’s back to the hotel for some happy hour drinks. I make myself at home in the colonial era Elephant Bar before heading into town. My first stop was to Doctor Feet. A recommendation from my Lonely Planet. Just as well because I would never have gone in there otherwise. The entrance is a shabby door in amongst a whole line of indistinguishable “massage” shops located around the corner from Bar Street.

As I entered the Doctor’s ‘surgery’ my eyes were instantly drawn to the penned customer recommendations that adorned the walls. Some dated back to 94 (maybe earlier, that’s just what I could see) and all are testaments the “best massage ever”, particularly, it seems if you’re stoned. Immediately, the experts are putting on the hard sell by declaring that I’m in desperate need of a foot scrub. Can’t argue with that. I’m talked into a 2-hour experience of bliss for the feet. To be followed by a dose of reflexology with the stick. For an authentic experience Cambodians claim that using a stick to perform the reflexology is essential. No stick, no real thing. As a satisfied customer after the event I can’t say I’d disagree.

I did make a brave attempt at eating out in town that night that culminated in disappointment.  The dish I chose had a lot of potential but the meat was stringy and the produce was not of high quality. The key to delicious local food is good quality produce. Cambodian fare is less spicy than the cuisines of neighbouring countries but does have a lot of dried fish, which, I am informed is a local specialty.

I then made my way back into town for the morning markets. My first impression was that it was quiet, closed and with no one around. I was about to head back to the hotel when I decided to explore an alley with one door opening into the centre of the markets. It opened up into a very busy, crazy fresh produce market that was a magnificent experience for the senses. I had never seen anything like it. It was brimming with locals preparing and purchasing their food for the day. Like most of Asia it is a daily event to buy your produce fresh. Everything is going on in this market – fruit, vegetables, chickens, fish and cooking stalls. Great stuff and its all still fresh and cool(ish) temperatures so the smell isn’t bad. I’m guessing that’s not going to last long. Vendors are selling blocks of ice outside the markets to keep the food safe as many people do not have refrigeration in their homes. I took some time to enjoy soaking in the smells of the market before the midday heat descended.

Travel photographs from The Angkor Temples & around the town of Siem Reap. Ankor Wat, Ankor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Beng Melea. Images of the Floating Villages. Siem Reap markets and town.

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