I like big Wats and I cannot lie!

Trip Start Jan 17, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Where I stayed
Hotel 89

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Wat" is another name for a temple for those not in the know, and we've immersed ourselves in the wats of Angkor - the most famous of which is Angkor Wat - for the last six days. I'm not sure where to start in describing Ancient Angkor (perhaps I should start with an advance warning of excessive use of superlatives), the magnificent ruins of the Khmer civilization of the 8th to 13th centuries. Ordinarily Kanan and I are the kind of people who get temple fatigue before we even set foot in one, shunning as we have the all but the oldest and most ancient – and as a rule, even they're not really our thing. The size of this place is breathtaking; there are well over 1000 wats in the Angkor area of which we managed to see just a small portion, diverse and magnificent. We can't recommend a visit here highly enough - these temples are worth the trip to Cambodia alone.

These are not just any old temples either. The intricate brickwork which puts modern buildings to shame in some temples is replaced by massive carved boulder-bricks, seemingly held together by some balancing trick, in the form of haunting Buddha faces staring down from all angles in others. Perhaps best of all are the Temple-of-Doom style ruined jungle temples of Ta Prohm and Ta Som, where ancient trees weave and tangle their branches and roots through the crumbling, sprawling ruins. It's not difficult to lose yourself and imagine you're discovering them for the first time, which I suppose in some ways, you are.

It seems another world away now when we traveled by rickety bus up the "Highway" from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, braking down occasionally (a new fan belt was expertly fitted by the on-board mechanic) and bathed in pools of unwelcome sweat, a product of the dysfunctional air-con. Our unexpected (at least until we caught first sight of the bus that morning) roadside time-out helped us discover that, outside of the big city tourism business of hard-selling/touting/pestering/fighting for business - which has been as worse here than anywhere on our travels - Cambodians are hugely engaging people, and very keen to talk to us about their country and learn about ours. As an aside, and by way of illustrating the Cambodian sense of humour: whereas (as a general rule) the Indians just stared at me, the Vietnamese pointed and whispered to eachother and the Malaysians looked away in horror and disgust, my height simply has the Cambodians rolling around in fits of laughter everywhere I go - particularly as I attempt to conquer the dual challenges of gaping holes in the pavement and seriously dangerous, decapitation-level obstacles. So far luckily for me the feet have come off worse. Anyway, we arrived in Siem Reap on Tuesday last week to be greeted by the wonderfully attentive staff at the five-star-service-at-one-star-prices ($15 for a double room) Hotel 89, which comes with a glowing recommendation from us.

We chose to see Angkor for three days rather than one (it's pretty expensive for this part of the world at $60/20 respectively), which in hindsight was a great decision, given the wonders that lay in store. The heat in Siem Reap is still as unbearable as it was in Phnom Penh, without quite so much traffic to compound our irritability -  we have interspersed our temple sightseeing with alternate relaxing days by the pool in posh hotels (not our I might add). It's been rather a pleasant way to spend the best part of a week.

Starting first with the magnificent Bayon (another number 1 contender!) at 7 sharp on Wednesday morning in a pleasingly successful effort to beat the massive crowds - the majority of whom start with the massive, sprawling Angkor Wat - our remorque driver pulled up outside a huge crumbling structure with hundreds of imposing carved stone faces staring down at us from innumerable towers. The pictures I have taken (see below) just cannot capture the wonder of this temple, unsurprisingly described by our guide book as “one of the most enigmatic and powerful religious constructions in the world". Built in around 1200 and the walls house hundreds of intricate carvings depicting scenes of Hindu Worship and great Khmer battles, whilst the morning rays of sunshine strike the hundreds of massive, haunting stone Buddha/king faces watching us and throw shafts of light through the labyrinth of corridors. Wes stayed and played for several hours.

The guide books are rightly boastful of the fact that the city of Angkor Thom, in which many of the temples of Angkor are contained, was a huge city with a population of over a million when London was still a little river village. The still-standing city walls stretch 3km on each side and frame a stunning array of crumbling jungle-infested delights (of which the Bayon is one). Majestic tree lined boulevards led our remorque up to the garuda-guarded gateways of one Indiana-Jones-scape after another, leaving us bewildered and having to remind ourselves we weren't in a movie set. In fact we were, as Tomb Raider was filmed at the Ta Prohm site (see pics). I won't go on and on about the temples as I'm sure it makes for dull reading, but they are just incredible to behold. Come and see them!

Angkor Wat itself was actually a little bit of a let-down, and whilst impressive for its scale, for us - apart from some lovely carvings around the outer bas-reliefs - held much less interest than the smaller temples we toured on our second day. Kanan was as diligent in her temple-research (this is VERY unusual for her!) as I was in my constant camera clicking, and together we sweated (not hand in hand) from sight to sight and gaped in awe. This morning we used up our final day pass watching the beautiful sunrise at Angkor Wat before re-visiting a couple of our favourite temples.

We've had a great time here, as illustrated by the fact that I've never had to stop myself banging on about temples before. Tomorrow we head off for Kompang Cham on the breakdown-bus for an overnight stay before heading to Kratie near the border with Laos. The Temples of Angkor will live long in the memory.

Jo x
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mum on

Of course, I am not at all a biased mother but I seriously think you should write a guide book! Fascinating.x

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