After a ten hour bus ride which passes without incident we arrive in Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient city of Angkor. Greeted by a scrum of eager tuk tuk drivers I'm annoyed to see the bus company locks the gate of the terminal so a select few have first dibs on us unsuspecting travellers. Needless to say we wait for the gates to be unlocked to negotiate a fair price on the open market!
After finding our way to our hotel we head out to find some dinner. Holy s***, Siem Reap is as I imagine Bali - a tourist theme park devoid of any remnant of local charm. I've never been to Bali though, so perhaps I should reserve my judgement.
The next day finds us exploring the temples of Angkor in a tuk tuk with an amusing guide called Akura. He likes to sing in the Khmer style and translates meticulously every tune he serenades us with. I won't bore you with the details of each temple but what is impressive is the scale of Angkor. It's (was) a city with a fascinating design and history that spans a large time period and changing religious allegiances.
A highlight on the first day is the temple of Banteay Srei which is a tenth century tribute to the Hindu gods. Although it's in disrepair it is remarkable how much is still intact.
Many of these temples were left to decay through the seventies when the Khmer Rouge held sway in Cambodia. Rediscovery - or more to the point, re opening - of these places in the nineties puts most other ancient sites of the world to shame. Beyond the religious significance the sheer effort it must have taken to construct these monuments is what is really impressive.
Apparently they floated the stone down a river on rafts from a mountain fifty k's away. The stone they used was mostly a type of sandstone but they also used a stone that was soft to cut and then left in the sun to harden. This stone was used for the foundations and walls as it is harder than the sandstone which is ideal for carving but weathers less well. It's amazing how much if it has lasted. The lesser temples are not as well preserved as Angkor Wat but the way the trees have taken over is part of the appeal in some of them.
On the second day we try a different guide and head to Angkor Wat for sunrise at five thirty. You'd think it'd be quiet but it's insanely busy. Our guide shows us a less crowded spot to watch dawn break over the monument and despite my growing ambivalence for sunrise/sunset at every bloody tourist spot I'm still impressed. The main towers of Angkor probably look best as silhouettes against the morning light as they look perfect - like giant pinecones. They're supposed to resemble lotus flowers but in the hard light of day they're a bit worse for wear, I guess given they were built in the twelfth century it's no wonder.
The entire complex is nothing short of mind-blowing though. It's like a man made mountain - which incidentally is what was intended. The whole monument is a symbolic representation of the religious beliefs and stories of the time with the mythical Mt Meru at it's centre.
No less mind-blowing is the Bayon temple in the centre of the Angkor Thom complex. This one has over two hundred giant faces carved into it's many towers. Built by Jayavarman VII, it's faces - while ostensibly those of Buddha - resemble him and range from a smiling aspect to more subtle moods. A truly weird place. You're constantly watched by these enigmatic figures gazing down upon you. Old Jaya seven must have had a monstrous ego. He certainly made sure no one forgot his face.
The guide told me that at first archaeologists didn't believe the Khmer people could be responsible for such grand temple building. Then they discovered remote communities that still specialized in the carving style seen at Angkor - mystery solved.
The guide also told me that all civilizations go through ups and downs and reckons Cambodia is heading for another up to rival the Angkorians. Apparently they have lots of untapped resources. In Siem Reap it's the tourist dollar that's driving things though.
The other interesting thing the guide informed me about was that where he lives, out of town, they have a problem with "black water" and its smell. A euphemism for sewage.The massive numbers visiting Angkor overwhelm its infrastructure and the government is yet to sink the huge money it's collecting into improved sewers. Out of sight and all that.
New Years we check out "pub street" for some action. It's absolutely heaving with people and crap loud music; mostly pretty hideous and we end up in a bar on a back street which is a bit more relaxed. We are off to Laos next and have to spend two days traveling by the dreaded bus. We'll cross the border and head to Si Phan Don - the four thousand islands - and spend a few days relaxing by the Mekong. After the craziness of Siem Reap and Angkor I can't wait.