The temples of Angkor Wat
Trip Start Aug 19, 2006
11Trip End Sep 01, 2007
Arrival was truly Asian, the hotel pickup service had forgotten about us and the hordes of guesthouse touts who managed to piss off Marta within seconds. We hopped on a random tuktuk taxi and scooted for the hotel we had booked; we had a pleasant cabin with plenty of lush greenery around. As it was the end of the monsoon we were the only guests - low season for western tourists. The Chinese and Koreans were out in force but you hardly notice them in town as they stick to hotels and air-conditioned malls for dinner and karaoke and don't go to the centre for drinking or shopping.
The good thing about the monsoon: everything is verdant green and the nearby lake and rivers are brimming with water
The temple complexes near Siem Reap are huge and quite far apart despite their concentration in this part of Cambodia. Three days is just enough to have a look at most of them, and the favoured way of getting around is in a mototrailer - a motorbike with a four-seated trailer (with roof) attached. $10-15 gets you one plus driver for a day.
Built between the 9th and 13th century, there's a variety of temple types and styles, and to make things more complicated some are Hindu and some Buddhist temples. So we thought it would be a good idea to hire a guide for the first day to get more background about the whole thing. That turned out to be a bad idea - they guy wasn't really interested in talking and didn't tell us much that I hadn't read in the Siem Reap 'In Your Pocket'-style booklet (see www.canbypublications.com). Next time we'll just bring a good book and read from that.
We saw the two main complexes on the first day, Ankor Thom and Ankor Wat. Both 12th century creations, Ankor Thom was the largest one, a huge city complex with walls running all round, once housing a million (!) inhabitants
Angkor Wat was next - another massive city-temple surrounded by huge walls and a lake-sized moat. The temple still works its magic - we were just walking in when we bumped into some friends from Prague - they were here on a Hash House Harriers Asia tour that they had mentioned months ago before we left. Small planet. We timed our visit here with lunchtime so we'd avoid the worst of the groups, and succeeded in finding peace and quiet in the temple. The walls of the galleries were decorated with massive, well preserved friezes hacked into the stones, depicting gods, demons and countless battles on land and sea (in particular against the annoying Cham people, who inhabited what is now south Vietnam). The is was up up up steep stone staircases to the top of the temple, for a cool breeze and views over the complex and the dense jungle beyond.
Nest up was the Ta Prohm temple made famous in the shitty movie Tombraider, which had huge trees growing on top of the temple roof and galleries. All the temples in the area looked like this until fairly recently - completely overgrown and hidden in the jungle, though not completely forgotten, as there were some small villages dotted around the area. The temple also had half a million loud and annoying Koreans climbing on it and lining up for the perfect photo opportunity. Nevertheless, very beautiful, and livened up with the cackling of green parrots in the trees overhead.
The next morning we were up very early for what some feel is the highlight of an Angkor visit - sunrise at the temple. This means setting the alarm clock at 04:30 and a dark and chilly tuktuk ride to Angkor Wat. It was still pitch dark when we arrived, and we made our way to the reflecting lake in front of the main sanctuary. We weren't alone - about 100 others were there, though most groups stayed at the viewpoint near the main entrance, far from us. Sunrise was magical - the silhouette of the towers slowly came into view, and rays of light shot up from behind the buildings before the sun finally popped up into view.
After the crowds had dispersed, we had Angkor to ourselves for an hour before grabbing breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Then followed a whirlwind tour of temples. First Preah Khan (my favourite), a rambling set of buildings smothered in jungle. Then Neak Pean, a beautiful Hindu temple consisting of a small island shrine surrounded by square lakes. Then Pre Rup, a 9th century 'mountain temple', looking like a Maya temple. Then home for rest.
The final temple day we scooted east to Roulous town, home to some of the oldest temples around - we saw two complexes, built around 890 AD, and in an amazingly good state of repair
With one day left we planned a quick trip to the lake, Tonle Sap. We made the same mistake of thinking we could better leave the planning to others, and booked a travel agent tour which turned out to be a rip-off, with only 45 minutes spent in a boat. Ah well, a good reason to come back and do it our way next time. We visited the Chong Khneas floating village, which was a collection of stilt houses, stilt schools, stilt churches and stilt shops. People even kept pigs in stilt pigstys.
It was quite lively, with small shop boats being paddled from house to house, water buses, school kids buying sweets from a floating supermarket, fish being hauled in and tourists being paddled around. Small children were bobbing around the lake in dodgy metal tubs, trying to get money out of the tourist boats. Incredibly, in dry season the whole lake is ten metres lower, and the houses remain marooned on 6-10 metre-high stilts; many people decamp to temporary houses on the new lake shore until the rains bring the level up again.
Interestingly, the extreme fluctuation of the lake is a result of the swollen Mekong river forcing water up the Tonle river at the confluence near Phnom Penh - it effectively turns the flow of the Tonle river around, and starts filling the lake from the lower end, increasing its area massively. Although the local museums claim it's a unique phenomenon, a similar thing happens to Lake Shkodra in Albania every year (I wrote about it here www.inyourpocket.com/albania/shkodra/en/feature?id=55967)
Apart from temples and lake adventures, we spent time shopping around Siem Reap's market, which had no end of attractive clothes and souvenirs on offer.
We also went to visit the local children's hospital, whose Swiss doctor/director gave weekly cello concerts to raise money and ask for blood donations for the kids, and to raise awareness about the nasty state of healthcare where children die every day of diseases like Hepatitis that are relatively easy to prevent with the right medicines and education. And then there's the cynical, perhaps intentional inability of the western experts of the World Health Organisation to do nothing about it. His main gripe was the official notion that third world countries should not have too complicated, too expensive, 'too advanced' labs and machinery. The insistence of this doctor has lead to Cambodia's first blood bank and testing lab. Until recently HIV/Aids and other blood-related diseases was passed on to patients without check. 'Too advanced' for Cambodia, according to the WHO experts staying in the $400-per-night Le Meridien hotel. Read more about it here www.beat-richner.ch, and keep it in mind as a good place to donate some money at Christmas time, it's really well spent there.
The bus brought us back to Phnom Penh the next day, where we headed to the airport after a sandwich lunch on a terrace overlooking Tonle river. A budget flight, bus ride and monorail trip later and we were home in KL.