Siem Reap / Angkor Wat, Cambodia (18th Nov 2007)
We woke up late after probably too many beers the night before and managed to just cram our stuff in our backpacks and be down to meet the group in time to get started on the long journey ahead. Unlike in India we had some really nice mini buses that comfortably seated us all with plenty of room and most of us had two seats. The drive was due to take us 8 or 9 hours depending on the traffic and in the end probably was around 8 when we got to the hotel. The trip got broken up into two halves, one to the Thai-Cambodia border and the other from the border to the hotel, with a short stop for lunch just after crossing over into Cambodia. The whole journey was pretty boring and unfortunately not much to report about this particular part of the trip. The one thing that was of interest and certainly a shock to us was the ½ mile stretch of no man's land between the two borders, which was crammed with nice hotels and casinos, something we certainly hadn't seen anywhere else. One other funny but worrying thing was just as we came in to Cambodia, while we waited for our bus to collect us, a child no more than 6 or 7 came running up to us with the biggest grin on his face and was bouncing off the walls. We all just thought he was a happy street kid until someone noticed what it was he had in his hand, a can of the local 6.4% beer and in his shirt pocket were a pack of cigs, not quite your average kid.
Siem Reap today, being a popular tourist destination, has a large number of hotels and restaurants scattered all over the streets and alleyways, with most of the smaller establishments concentrated around the Old Market area which is where we were, while all the more expensive hotels are located between Siem Reap and the Airport which is only a ten minute drive away. The city itself is a mixture of colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter, and around the Old Market. The whole area known as Siem Reap is made up from a cluster of smaller villages along the Siem Reap River that were originally developed around Buddhist pagodas (Wat) which are almost evenly spaced along the river from Wat Preah En Kau Sei in the north to Wat Phnom Krom in the south, where the Siem Reap River meets the great Tonle Sap Lake.
After a long day spent driving, we arrived at our hotel at around 6pm and were given an hour to get ready to go out for our tea, which had already been pre arranged for us. Upon arriving in the small city centre it was clear that tourism ruled around here as there was such a large selection of restaurants offering both western and traditional local food, including Italian, Indian, French, German, Russian, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Burmese to name but a few. Plenty of shopping opportunities also exist around the Psar Chas (city centre) area as the nightlife is quite vibrant with a number of western styled pubs and bars out there for the comfort of the tourists.
We ended up in a place called Temple Bar which was a themed Cambodian restaurant that had replica stone carvings all around and the main attraction was a group of young boys and girls on a stage at the front doing the traditional coconut dance of Cambodia. The evening went on after a great meal across the road in a place appropriately named Angkor What?, after the temple that is the main tourist attraction Angkor Wat. After plenty of drinks and some dodgy dancing we went home around 12 since we were up super early for the sunrise over Angkor Wat at 4.30am.
We arrived early and hung over and were made to get our photo taken for the visitor pass we were getting which allowed us into all of the Angkor sites, unfortunately we both didn't quite look our bests and the photos that followed looked like they would be more at home on crime watch.
Angkor Wat is the central feature of the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the magnificent remains of the Khmer civilization that once lived in the surrounding areas close by to the temple itself which was used for worship. Angkor Wat's rising series of five towers culminates in an impressive central tower that symbolizes mythical Mount Meru. Thousands of feet of wall space are covered with intricate carving depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, that must have taken the people doing them years upon years. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture and is said to be the best ever example of Khmer architecture, that however in our eyes wasn't saying much as it didn't really wow us in the way we expected it to do, it has however managed to become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for tourists. The reason we weren't really that impressed with Angkor Wat is that it had been built up to us and had been compared to the architecture of ancient Greece or Rome, and quite frankly apart from the relief and engraving work the structure seemed quite basic and took a long time to build, (100 years). We were quite impressed by what the guide claimed that it was built entirely without cement or anything other than the stone being cut into interlocking pieces and fixed with a keystone.
The rest of our day was spent temple hopping from place to place which after 8 hours soon gets a bit boring; we did nonetheless see some pretty good bits of architecture. The other main highlight of the time we spent on our first day in Siem Reap was the final temple, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, its appeal for us was that it has been left to be swallowed by the jungle, and looks untouched, as the largest of the trees sprawl and run wild over the existing standing buildings, with their roots wrapping all around and the bigger branches act as props that hold up some of the weak walls. Because there is such a maze of rubble and vegetation, there are, somewhat predictably, children who manage to dodge the security and get in to offer guide services, sell you a book or postcards or just bug you for money which can be an annoyance but since the kids probably are so poor it was worth buying a few bits and bobs off them if not only to get them to go away. Ta Prohm is also one of Cambodia's more famous temples, as it is where the some scenes of Tomb Raider were shot in 2001, most noticeably, where Angelina Jolie picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth.
Day two in Siem Reap was due to start off at 9 in the morning, so the 12 of us in our group were in the hotel restaurant having breakfast at 8.30. At ten past we wondered where our tour leader was, at twenty past we still had no idea, and at twenty to 10 we rang his room. At 10:15, and hour and a quarter late, he turns up, ignores us and get on the tour bus, so we followed him and our local guide Mr Lee, who had been with us since breakfast apologised for the late start. Matt, our actual leader said sorry for being late to the bus driver and then went to sleep on the bus and on our arrival to the Bayon temple he decided that he was too hung over and tired from being out all night with his friend that he would just sleep on the bus until after dinner. He has not made himself any friends by doing this and seriously pissed off the group with his lack of consideration for how we may have felt about what he did and the fact he never said a word to us about it and how now he has tried to just forget it ever happened and acts as normal. Anyway, our local guide Mr Lee was excellent and by far made up for the jerk that is meant to be in charge of this trip.
The rest of our day was similar to the day before and was spent temple hopping, just this time they where Buddhist temples and not Hindu. On our way home we headed to the Cambodian landmine museum which was setup by Aki Ra whom was himself an Ex Khmer Rouge solider who helped lay them in the first place. The place is quite good and shows all sorts of old decommissioned military equipment that is critically acclaimed by the western world who support what he is doing as it helps make Cambodia a safer place, however local authorities are not too happy with what he is doing as they think he is painting a negative image of the country and it has been shut down time and time again, but due to the demand and pressures from the western world he has been allowed to carry on since 2000 un hindered.
Our final stop of the morning was at a local orphanage that wasn't on our itinerary but Matt the leader decided he fancied it so we went and although it was a good experience and everyone enjoyed talking to the kids and teaching them little tricks and stuff, I think the school were a bit annoyed that Matt just walked straight into the class room and disturbed the lesson going on when they had no idea we were coming, just his style I guess?
For our final afternoon in Siem Reap we were given some time to recover from the morning before heading out to the Tonle Sap Lake, also know to the locals as the 'Great Lake'. The lake is part of one of Earths most interesting natural phenomena, as each year, the Mekong River stops going out to the sea, reverses and backflows into 'The Great Lake' in quadruples the lakes area and floods the surrounding area until the start of the dry season when the lake empties out again and goes back in the way it came. The main reason we came to the lake is to see the floating villages, which are in essence just rafts that have house built on them and move around on the lake all year round depending on where is the best place to be at the time. The whole community is huge and it is such a strange sight to see these houses that float around on the lake with people living in them not probably knowing any other way of life, it really is an awesome sight and one to be remembered. We got a chance to pull over and see some children playing with snakes, big groups of crocodiles and some crazy fish that went wild for food when they were fed.
Our last day in Siem Reap was given as free time and we had such plans to visit the markets and the newly opened national museum but what we actually ended up doing was sleeping in until after dinner and only managing to have dinner before setting off to the airport for our flight to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The flight was a short 40 minute hop down south on a small local carrier that only seated about 30 people, the flight itself was pain free and the security was typically lax and didn't care about stuff like passports and the usual checking in procedures...