So off we trundled to Pakse airport to catch the Lao Airlines flight to Siem Reap, wearing our uniforms and getting very very excited. We checked in our baggage together and got chatting to a lovely German lass called Antonia who became part of our tour group very quickly. The flight was uneventful if a little unsettling (Lao airlines refuse to release their safety records and someone once said that travel insurance is void in the event of a crash if you fly with them... reassuring, eh?) but because we were all sat at the front we got to talk to the pilot afterwards and have a peek at the cockpit which was very cool. We arrived at a brand new air terminal at Siem Reap that was all polished marble and elegant water features - hardly what was anticipated from such a poor country. Where were the feral dogs and toothless and limbless beggars?? We stood in a long queue and dutifully paid our 20 US dollars for the visa and chatted until we got our passports back and made ourselves comfortable waiting for our luggage. We waited a loooong time. Our luggage had been left on the airplane and had flown back to Pakse.
After leaving our details and a tentative address to send the bags on to the next morning we headed into town and finally found a hotel, although it was a bit of a squeeze as it was very busy. At the earliest opportunity we left to find a bar called Le Tigre Papier that Mick had visited some 18 months before and wanted to meet up with some friends who worked there. Happily the same faces were there and greeted us all as friends and we had a great afternoon and evening supping white wine and chatting until quite late, gently fending off the street kids who swarmed around using every trick imaginable to extract you from your dollars - including fiendish strategies of noughts and crosses which was my particular weakness ($3 for a manky set of postcards!).
Too early in the morning Mick and I set off to the airport via the Tigre Papier to pick up Straw, a lovely Khmer lady who was going with us to help out. We pretty much waltzed into the airport and picked up the first set of bags on the carousel which was ours, then a few bags later was Micks and a few more down the line was Antonia's. Easy! Then we got back on the tuktuk and dropped by a really nice hotel that was half the price and twice as nice as the one we were already in and reserved three rooms for the next day. Mick and I just couldn't put a foot wrong that morning. It must have been the Beerlao t-shirts...
Rest of the day we explored Siem Reap which is just a huge boom town with huge posh hotels being constructed within months and swanky bars and clubs opening every week. We knew it wasn't an authentic Cambodia but was fascinating nonetheless.
The next day we had planned to visit Angkor Wat for sunrise and woke at 5am bleary eyed for the cold journey by tuktuk, racing to cover the few miles that separates the historical park and the town. It was still very dark when we crossed the huge stone bridge over the moat and found a nice spot to sit and wait for the sun. Despite the growing crowds piling in from their coaches the temple was earily tranquil and odd details emerged with every passing minute - the figure of a Chinese Buddhist nun waiting patiently in front of us; the beautiful carvings of the "apsara" dancing girls that adorned every stone surface and the majestic three towers of the temple complex before us. We waited and waited and it got lighter and lighter but still no sign of the sun as there was a thin veil of cloud covering the brightening sky. We moved closer to the temple, past the huge stone libraries, along the huge slabs of raised stone that formed a causeway. Stopping at a reflective pool containing pink lotus, the sun peeped above the low palm trees next to the right hand tower. Gradually it rose, higher and higher in a red and orange haze holding us spellbound by its simple beauty as it traced its path into the sky.
In front of us stood the most amazing sight - truely a wonder of the world. We've posted the pictures so have a look but it just cannot translate. There is a stillness and a mute tranquility and vastness that is too huge to comprehend. Exploring the temple took some time and our eventual ascent to the top required some dubious mountaineering skills (no namby-pamby health and safety regs here, just some big signs disclaiming ALL responsibility!). It seemed almost sacreligeous to clamber over the huge stones, as though touching them wil degrade its very physicality but any doubts were quashed when taking in the view and finding yourself shaking your head in disbelief with the panorama below.
The sun was getting quite hot when we reunited with the tuktuk drivers and headed over to Angkor Thom which predated Angkor Wat as the religeous and administative city and only a fifteen minute drive. The gates to the old city are guarded by four huge faces that see from all directions and the bridge has huge figures recreating the fable of the "churning of the ocean of milk" from the Ramayana, with gods on one side and demons on the other. The first temple we visited was Bayon which is just madness with the multitude of enigmatic faces looking out of every direction at all levels. Mick got talking to some people from ABC tv in America at the entrance and ended up being interviewed for their documentary. They were making a short film about the ever growing number of visitors to the park (something like 1 million last year - about the total number that visited Laos!) and their presence at this particular temple was well calculated because it was HEAVING with people at this time of day, prior to getting back in their air-con coaches and going to one of the big hotels for lunch. It was so busy that we cut the exploring short and went to lunch ourselves. But hey, that's the key - if we had timed it an hour or so later the place would have been deserted. We visited some more smaller temples that afternoon and headed back early in the evening for a nice meal and an early night!
Next day we were able to find a larger tuktuk that could accomodate all 4 of us, driven by Mr.Sech who proved to be a wonderful guide and driver. We visited the strange jungle-choked ruins of Ta Prohm which was straight out of a film set and visited Bauphon which was collossal in every respect. That evening we happliy met Zoe, whose vibrant braids took 7 hours one night along the Kao Sahn Road and who we were to meet up with for weeks to come in Bangkok and Ko Lipe. She is such a sweetie!
The next day, which was Micks birthday, we made a special trip further afield to the wonderful remains of Bantay Srei which were amazingly well preserved and had some astonishingly detailed carvings that were so crisp and clear. At some point during the day a strange insect (?) bit/stung Cheryl on her foot and left a painful bite that bubbled up and looked as though acid was eating at the flesh! A similar bite had happened when we were in Kanchanburi but this was far worse so we went to a grotty Chinese hospital whre they prescibed the most bizarre intravenous solution (containing bits of powdered root, etc. hmmmm that CAN'T be a good idea can it?). Almost immediately went to a more conventional doctor for a second opinion who gave us some strong antihistamine and anti inflamatories.
Given that it was Mick's birthday we celebrated in some style, with an alternative uniform of Angkor beer tshirts and some particularly "happy" hats which were the talk of the town and we had a fantastic evening at the Tigre Papier and then a Khmer nightclub where Cheryl, Mick and I danced like loons on the main stage to the delight of the kids! It was a fantastic night and the staff of the Tigre Papier did us proud by decking out the whole place with baloons and a massive cake and had a big crowd of people, including zoe and her friend craig from new zealand and many others.
The next morning we had to bid a sad farewell to Antonia and Mick who caught the bus to Phnom Penh (or "ploppy pen" as it became known thanks to Cheryl!), leaving us to venture into the temples again with Mr Sech - feeling just a little bit hungover...
After some time taking in the atmosphere of Angkor Wat, including a little snooze in the shade, we toddled off to some of the places we had overlooked previously like the Terrace of the Leper King. Our last stop was a temple called Preah Khan which like Ta Prohm is largely overgrown by jungle and huge misshapen trees grow out of its very fabric. It was very quiet and the squawk of the parrots overhead and the increasing volume of the jungle as dusk fell all reverberated around us. The carvings were magnificent and the layout vast. It was a perfect visit. We had toyed with the idea of staying one more day but this really was the most perfect, tranquil and serene way to finish our explorations and our ride back to town after the sun had set filled our hearts with great contentment and joy.
Hastily we arranged a bus for the next day to take us over the border to Bangkok - a ride that is justifiably famed for being a hard and tortuous slog for hours over little more than a dirt track to Thailand. I read somewhere a suggestion that development of this prime route is being deliberately delayed due to unnamed airlines paying off certain persons in government! With that happy thought we woke early the next morning for our return to Thailand.