Wonder Of The World

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Where I stayed
Neth Socheata Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  , Khétt Siĕm Réab,
Thursday, January 26, 2012

We have had the good fortune/bad fortune to have seen some of the big wows of the world without having to share the experience with large crowds. We were in Egypt just after 9-11, visiting Machu  Picchu, Peru during a cholera outbreak, in Fes, Morocco after a restaurant bombing, in Timbuktu, Mali after high profile kidnappings... (you get the idea). Avoiding the crowds at another wonder of the world, Angkor Wat, was simply not going to happen. Not only is it on the bucket list of most travelers, it is also the high season for travel through Cambodia (dry season with manageable hot temperatures). Whatever the economic downturn has done to reduce travelers from Europe and North America is more than made up for in increased travelers from China, Korea, and Vietnam. It does sound somewhat pompous to desire a site like Angkor Wat all to yourself but I find that there is only a limited value in crawling around ruins with a fact sheet in hand. I believe that the real magic is in allowing your imagination to drift- imagining the superhuman effort required to build a structure like Angkor Wat with the tools and technologies of the day, imagining the ceremonies, pomp and circumstance, as well as day-to-day life within the temple walls, imagining the high drama, events, and wars that the temples were witness to, imagine a crumbled, sleeping giant, hidden by the jungle waiting to be rediscovered. This is harder to do with brightly coloured tourists who have the latest in camera gear hanging around their neck scrambling over every inch of the temple complexes like ants at a really bad picnic. It's even harder, as we found out at Angkor Wat, when many of those tourists treat the temples as an extended amusement park complete with all the yelling and screaming that entails (I'm hoping that this is just a maturity issue and as many of these new travelers gain experience they will modify their behaviour).

We started our Siem Reap temple trekking with the star of the show, Angkor Wat itself. By sheer fluke we got there just as the sunrise bus tour crowd was leaving for their organized breakfasts. After fighting the crowd current, we had a number of remarkably quiet hours within the complex. Its claim to fame is that it is the worlds largest religious building and has been a significant religious centre since inception, first as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, and then as a Buddhist temple.
It is designed to represent Mt Meru, home of the supernatural beings in Hindu mythology. It definitely is huge- it's surrounded by a moat and an outer wall that is 3.6 kms long which helped to keep the jungle at bay even after it was sacked for the final time by the Burmese. Limestone blocks were transported from a quarry 40 kms away and, almost unbelievably the entire temple was completed within 40 years- must have been a lot of construction elephants on site. Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east (and the bas reliefs flow counter-clockwise). This has led many to conclude that Suryavarman (original architect/king) intended it to serve as his funerary temple. Apparently a funerary jar was recovered from the central tower- it's really hard to comprehend the ego of a man who would require this amount of effort and fortune just to dispose of his corpse! 

Just as we found our way to the front of the temple again, we could hear squealing bus brakes and could see the distance invasion starting to form (headed up by a number of flag carrying tour guides). It was time to go and for the rest of the day we seemed to be about two hours ahead of the hoards. Our second stop within the old capital city of Angkor Thom (host to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for those fans of Angelina Jolie), was also one of the big hitters of the temple complex- Prasat Bayon. Its fame comes from the large serene faces carved into the many towers on the site. There are about 200 faces staring down at you as you explore. The face is argued to be a morphing of the faces of Buddha and the temple builder, King Jayavarman VII The reason that this temple is so different from the more classical style we just saw at Angkor Wat is that it was the last temple built at Angkor and was largely a Buddhist structure. Our tuk-tuk driver had dropped us and moved to the other end of Angkor Thom to set up his hammock and wait for us- as a result we meandered through most of the other temples (DH might argue that we saw and explored EVERY temple within Angkor Thom but I think that was just a blood sugar issue because we skipped breakfast and lunch). In total there are over 50 temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park- it was good fun to explore some of these because they were obviously not on the bus tour itinerary and we were largely wandering by ourselves.

After waking our driver, we took in Phnom Bakheng which is normally only visited at sunset because it sits at the top of a hill and gives sweeping views of the surrounding areas including Angkor Wat. Unfortunately it's the only hill in the area and as a result, it is a big stop for the bus tour folks and it gets so crowded they try to limit the number of people going up just so the hill doesn't collapse under the weight of these many sunset buffs. Neither of us needed to see the sunset that badly so we went for the early visit- Angkor Wat is way off in the distance so I can't imagine the sunset would be that wonderful? Back at sea level we continued our tuk-tuk tour although, even for me, the temples were all starting to blur together.

As our day was winding down, we went to visit Ta Prohm, a temple that was on the bus tour itinerary. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same jungle covered condition in which it was found. The combination of the surrounding jungle and trees growing out of the ruins themselves have made Ta Prohm one of the most popular temples to visit. For some reason we had entered through the back way and were really enjoying this atmospheric complex until running headlong into those dreaded bus tours- not just any bus tours but an army of loud-talking, photo posers. Most of our run-ins with the photo-posers of Asia have been fun if somewhat baffling but when you're trying to enjoy the serenity of a lost temple (as well as grabbing a people-free photo) the endless lineups of people getting the exact same picture under the roots covering the walls all the while yelling and squealing encouragement at each other was just annoying. Most stood stoically flashing a peace sign but the more extreme were twisting themselves into sexy root-hugging positions (grandma- is that really necessary??). With her blood sugar at a dangerously low level, I had visions of DH introducing a whole new set of posing positions that might require the surgical removal of various camera parts, so it was time to quickly head back to town for an emergency application of a mango smoothie.

Our second day of temple touring started further afield with Banteay Srei, another of the must-dos. Even though we started out early, the buses had more HP than our over-worked tuk-tuk and many beat us to the site. The guardians of Banteay Srei had obviously tired of bad tourist behaviour and had roped off the entire temple (is this the future for the other temples?) but since it is a relatively small temple it was still possible to get close-up views of the elaborate carvings that were the big draw of this temple. The poor photo-posers were relegated to posing in non-descript doorways off to the side. This did nothing to lower the volume of their conversations which had nothing to do with the temple itself (you've spent hours riding the buses- what have you got left to talk about??), but DH had loaded up at breakfast so we were able to take it all in stride. After 11 hours of climbing over temples the day before I had promised a reduced version of that today and when you make the Princess a promise it must be kept. By mid afternoon we were heading back to the Blue Pumpkin Restaurant for a mango smoothie refill.

On the way back we stopped at a landmine museum hosted by former child soldier Aki Ra who is well known for his efforts to clear Cambodia of the millions of landmines and unexploded ordinance/bombs that still kill and maim thousands of people every year. Although constantly harassed by local officials (who believe he will scare tourists off) Aki keeps his museum going with the help of foreign benefactors. He also supports mine-blast victims and has an ambitious goal to clear the remaining 1-6 million mines out of Cambodia within 3-5 years (the official estimate is 50-100 years). The costs of laying mines are low, as little as $3 US per mine, but the costs of
removal are very high, $1000 US per mine or more. This tragedy is the very dark side of Cambodia and stands in stark contrast to the shining jewels of Angkor.
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Comments

Martin on

Incredible. This too is on my bucket list, however unoriginal this may be. Truly something and to think it was built over 900 years ago. This City Temple is unlike any other building in the world. The photos are great, but I must see this first hand for myself. Safe travels and look forward to your next posting.

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