We wondered around the small town market and bought myself a "man-bag" as I had fed up of always holding a bottle of water and a map every day. It is only a small town but has a nice feel to it although totally different from Thailand. It’s a bit like when we left Argentina for Bolivia. Worlds apart really, but that is to be expected as they the Khmer people have had to build themselves back up again during the last 20 years. We met an older couple from Sunderland whom we got chatting to at the hostel. It had been their first day around the Angkor Kingdom and they were telling us their experiences and how best to tackle the vast area. We ended up chatting for ages, mostly about the North East before another couple joined in on the chat. Whilst we were in the town earlier, we spotted a Happy “Herb” Pizza place where we had decided to go for tea. We went with one of the couples and were served by what looked like a 13 year old girl. She took our order and asked us if we all wanted “herbs” which of course we grinned at. After scoffing one each and beer and getting nothing from it, we went to our room to watch a DVD, which kept skipping.
We were collected the following morning by our pre-arranged chauffeur “Wee-An”, pronounced like a Geordie "Wayne" in his tuk-tuk. You hire them for the day telling them what you would like to see/do and they just wait for you in between. We set off at 8.30am decided to drive
around the “short” circuit taking in no less than 11 temples called a “Wat” to break us in gently. The first really large temple we set eyes upon was called Bayon which you gained access to by entering “Angkor Thom”. Angkor Thom was the last walled capital city of the Khmer empire covering 9 square km. It was established in the late 12th century. Bayon was pretty busy when we got there but there is room for your own space. There are huge brick towers with a massive face on all 4 sides. There are such intricate gargoyle type figurines all around. Some parts are in a crumbled stage, others not so. We walked through the grounds of the Royal Palace area and got collected by Wee-An by the multi-faced Terrace of the Leper King. On our drive through and out the side of Angkor Thom we passed a couple of smaller (still vast and huge) temple structures arriving at an incredibly tall Ta Keo. What is incredible is how we (the public) are pretty much allowed to go wherever we want walking all over the grounds. There are still very little signs around and very few fenced areas but I guess this will change in time. We climbed up the very steep steps up to the top of Ta Keo but it was quite a hazy day in the sky despite the heat so the views didn’t extend vary far. I climbed into a small shrine right at the top and there was a guy hassling me trying to get me to buy his handmade bamboo instruments. After telling him “no thank you” for about the 15th time, he mumbled the F word behind me, nice! These temples are scattered around an area about 18 square kilometres of forest. The dwellings that the population lived in have long since decayed as they were only wooden structures as these large grand stone temples were for the gods. The Khmer Rouge did their best to destroy as much as possible during their 4 years of terror beheading most of the figures which is evident as you walk around. There was a bride having her wedding photos taken at Ta Keo which must have looked very grand.
The highlight of the day for us had to be the very eerie well photographed Ta Prohm. Unlike most of the temples which have had support from different countries to preserve them, this has been left in the same condition in which it was found and there is a good reason for that. There are trees growing in around the ruins which have now become part of the structure almost. We spent ages in there exploring all the nooks and crannies amazed at how the trees have entwined themselves through and around the huge blocks. It was like one big playground really. We did our best to walk away and avoid the coach loads. We loved it in there; it was very Tomb Raider, which is fitting because they filmed part of it here somewhere. On our way out we couldn’t find Wee-An anywhere and a barrage of children came up to us who wouldn’t take no for an answer. All around this area there are children working/begging with small
baskets of handmade bracelets, books, bottles of water, anything really. They are very young yet very confident and cocky. They know all the excuses and have all the answers. Saying “later” or “maybe” doesn’t register. They even tell you it is to fund their schooling but the more money people give them, the more likely they will never get to school. There are a number of charities set up here in Cambodia to help the children and try to get them into education of some kind. They advise you not to give them money as it they will continue to work in this way. It is tough to say no to them. If you gave everyone a dollar you would have none left! There were a few other stops after Ta Prohm, but none could beat that for us. It was the highlight of the day. Wee-An dropped us back at the hostel around 4pm and agreed to take us around the “large” circuit in the morning.
After breakfast we were met outside by Wee-An who introduced us to another driver with his apologies that he couldn’t take us that day. The large circuit meant more miles to cover but only 7 temples finishing with the grand finale of Angkor Wat, the largest most preserved temple. The outline of Angkor Wat features in the centre of the Cambodian flag. Most people’s highlight is either sunrise or sunset over Angkor Wat, we chose sunset as the mornings were very hazy. Our first of the day was Preah Khan which was a pretty large site, again the large trees becoming part of the structure now. They are so beautiful to walk around. We spent ages in that one and even found a quiet corner and access the main roof which put a while new perspective on it. We didn’t venture far on the 900 year old blocks though! The following site was uniquely different. There was a square pool with a centre shrine and four smaller “overflow” pools on each side of the large centre one. We still haven’t found out there purpose.
We were shattered from all the climbing and walking around in the stifling heat and arrived at the moated entrance to Angkor Wat around 2.30pm which was a little earlier than we thought as he had intended to wait for sunset. It is massive though. The moat circling around the Wat is the
width of 2 football pitches. We walked along the causeway through the very grand terraced entrance gate to the beauty in front of us. From the road it took us 10 minutes to arrive at the main temple. It is square in shape and is layered in platforms. All along the base on 4 sides are engraved bas-relief “storyboards” each one 400 metres in length. They have so much detail. You cannot begin to imagine how many man hours have gone into each tiny area. I reckon it took us nearly an hour to reach the next level. I expected to see another 4 sides for us to walk along but we entered an area which looked like it had 4 bathing pools in a courtyard much to our surprise. It’s the sort of place that actually makes you say “wow” out loud at times. We walked all around that level through to an inner section where the main towers were exposed to us. We climbed up the really steep steps to the top section, walking all the way around trying to take it all in. There were great views from all four sides. There are 5 towers in Angkor Wat, the outer four we walked under and are just hollow but the centre one a couple of Buddha shrines under it. We hung around a little while but decided we were too beaten to wait for sunset. We stopped by the lakes out the front to get some nice reflection photos and left with our awaiting tuk-tuk driver.
Once back at the hostel, we decided to book a bus out the following day and went to explore some more of Siem Reap at night before we left. We found a really neat night market at the other side of town and had grown to like Cambodia and its people. Sure they stare a little, but we are a different colour and in the minority, they’ll get used to it. We had a pie and chips valentine’s meal and packed up ready to leave.
We arrived in Cambodia with a certain amount of intrepidation not knowing what to expect from a country that is still scarred from not so distant genocide and war and us not entering the country in a friendly manner but still, after a night's sleep in our safe hostel, we chose to spend the first day in Siem Reap just exploring the town and resting up. The main reason to visit Siem Reap after all is one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat. According to our guide book, around 40% of the population here is under 15 years of age and there are still an estimated 3 landmines to every person.