Someone somewhere recently decided that a new set of 7 wonders of the world should be declared, and somehow they ended up not picking Angkor Wat. Obviously, Cambodia being quite poor has particularly low internet access, and without huge amounts of government funding, that somehow got the big statue of Christ in Rio on the list(even though it shouldn't have even made the shortlist of nominees). Macchu Picchu should definitely be considered among these wonders, as should the pyramid of Chichen Itza in Mexico, but the area around Angkor Wat is an entire province of Macchu Picchu-like cities and Chichen Itza-like pyramids. There are so many of them to see that after three full days, we could have gone on for another three and still not finished. Before being more specific, this was still Cambodia, and the effects of the Khmer Rouge were still felt here. Another Killing Field was found not far from the ruins, the largest land mine museum was close to one of the most visited 'distant' temples, and a clear generational gap was evident, which is to be expected when around a third of a country's inhabitants didn't survive past 1979. My initial intention was to take the archeological park in stages, dividing it up between those temples that were closest to siem reap, those slightly further away, and then those quite far away. The close ones were close enough to be reached by bicycle, but as not to be overwhelmed, and not to see the most impressive and famous ones first, we set off to a small set of relatively far away temples on the first day. Just like Phnom Penh, the preferred method of transportation is Tuk-Tuk and in Siem Reap, we got one near the hotel and stayed faithful to the same tuk-tuk driver as much as possible. Due to the scorching heat and surprisingly few other tourists(as these were among the least frequented temples, as it turned out) we were 'finished' quite soon. As a result, after a short break, we decided to return in the afternoon and see some of the other temples that weren't quite far away, but too far away to reach by bicycle. We ended up partially dehydrated and throughly exhausted, but entirely enchanted by the Angkorian ruins. It is a bit difficult also to call them ruins, as very few sites are properly left in ruins, thanks to the work of the early 20th century french archeologists, as well as the recent efforts of european-cambodian cooperation. Despite museums having said the contrary, it looked like the Khmer Rouge had somehow decided not to tear down the ruins, as they had decided to tear down all other facets of Cambodian society, although they did stop all conservation projects going on at the time, which led to one temple that was in mid-reconstruction, with a great deal of dissassembly and reassembly, to, because of loss and destruction of all notes and markings on the sets of stones, became the world largest, and most difficult, 3D puzzle. Making it even more surprising that it survived was the fact that the Khmer Rouge actually retreated into, among others, into the temple area when they were removed from power in 1979, and lived in and around the temples. The fact that they didnt take souveniers or use certain sights for target practice(guess you need to be European to think this way), or that nothing was damaged in attempting to fight these Khmer Rouge stragglers is hard to fathom to have happened in almost anywhere else in the world. Perhaps, which made Ta Phrom the most impressive sight, it was nature itself which was the toughest opponent of the survival of these structures, and this aformentioned temple has enormous, and as such enormously heavy, trees growing right on top of the roofs and walls of the temple. Many will only recognize this temple, among all the others, and this in fact we heard a few times by visitors and guides alike, as it was here that Tomb Raider was filmed, and that instead of talking about the endless number of windows and corridors in this 1000 year old structure, or the way that nature asserted itself among this immense effort of human construction, most simply wanted to talk about where Angelina Jolie had been, and the child she ended up adopting. Our guide, as well, sold this temple as a must see because of its 'Indiana Jones' experience. Well, with such a phenomal site, it isn't unexpected that the normal, the uncouth, the uncultured tourists are the ones who visit, and where 4 of 5 tourists who come to Cambodia never leave a 20 km radius around Siem Reap airport. Siem Reap itself has an identity that reflects this; there is not one central market, but 3, there is not one night market, but 3, and in lieu of proper names there are 'the alley' and 'pub street'. After 3 days wails of 'laiidyyyy' and 'coold driiink' became a bit difficult to bear. But going back to the temples, the first day also gave us sunset on top of a pyramidal temple, that then actually, foreshadowing future experiences, was less captivating than simply watching the other people there to see the sunset. As we would say later, it was quite crowded, and full of strange people, mainly a girl with a tv crew doing splices of tradiational Khmer dances(all chinese, of course), to a pair of hippie types, who made unsual hand and head movements, seemingly going into meditative trances. Really, the red light after the sun had fully set was the nicest part about the whole experience. Our first venture into town ended up quite an eventful one, watching Arsenal-Liverpool, and then eating quite good traditional Cambodian fare, but reflective of Siem Reap, was cheap but overpriced in relation to the other places we visited in Southeast Asia. In my opinion, Siem Reap had good, but unremarkable, fare for the uninterested western palates. The only positive surprise was a dinner at a hotel with a norwegian connection, with a norwegian manager and a norwegian waiter, that had a special thursday dinner deal, where every drink and every plate of tapas cost $1, and so a gin tonic and 4 plates of tapas cost 5 dollars. A very unusual meal we had was on the second main day of visiting temples, where we had, as part of the 'package' at the hotel a free 'chic picnic', where we were given special permission and dispensation to eat within the archeological site. This permission was a bit strange, given the fact that in front of every major temple, there were scores of food and drink sellers, as well as a general lack of guards and officials inside the park making sure people didnt do what they weren't supposed to do, like eating anywhere they wanted. The food was plentiful and good, which we shared with our tuk-tuk driver, and a child who wouldn't leave us alone, but was satisfied with a piece of chocolate cake and a coca cola. The lack of authority and vigilance was quite surprising, and as such there were many who took advantage of this, the worst of which was a large chinese tourist who laboured his way over a wall, that creaked loudly once he had jumped over the far side, and even more surprisingly, tour guides who in their explanations frequently touched and rubbed the amazing rock carvings, who having survived this long, may not last much longer with this kind of behavior. Back to the temples themselves, this second day was the meat and potatoes of the complex, that thanks to the tiring day before, and not the best digestive shape, we took again by tuk-tuk. Following the advice to avoid the masses by going to see Angkor Wat by sunrise, we woke up in complete darkness as well as arrived in near darkness, to find that japanese tourbuses have also followed this advice, and instead going to angkor wat at sunrise was the msot crowded experience, after the sunset. The number of japanese tourists was greater than all of those we had seen so far in southeast asia combined, and there were all the signs that chinese tourists would arrive in similar numbers in the near future, seen by several groups of quite official chinese looking people who came to see the grounds of our hotel during the time that we managed to make time to spend at the pool. Luckily, the itinerary for the japanese was just to see the sun rise over the ruins from a distance, and then head off somewhere else, which left the vast temple quite empty and allowing for quite an enjoyable visit with maybe 10 people in the entire area. We heard from others that if we had skipped angkor and started somewhere else, we would have been completely alone. I am at least glad I wasn't one of those poor japanese saps, as the sunrise was quite disappointing, dark and cloudy, and after waking up around 4 am and not even getting to see the inside of the temple would have really thrown off the rest of my day. The inmensity and grandeur is really hard to put down on words, and for that I refer you to pictures, if you can't get there yourselves, but there is little doubt in it being the largest and awe-inspiring religious construction in our planet's history, despite most of its detailed carvings and statues being taken or removed since their 'rediscovery' by french archeologists in the early 20th century. Leaving Angor Wat, we made our way towards the temple city of Angor Thom, to the north, that was more the administrative heart of the various Khmer empires, but whose policy of only using stone for religious buildings left us with no structural remains of the houses and palaces that once filled the grand city. The first stop was probably the most impressive, which is saying quite a bit for the temples of Angkor, being the temple of Bayon. This hindu temple had innumerable columns jutting out from a long, and narrow building, all with enormous heads on them, with 4 faces carved from giant pieces of rocks, all facing exactly in each cardinal direction. The kicker, of course, was that although these were supposed to be depictions of a hindu deity, bore a more than striking resemblance to the ruling king who ordered its construction, thus serving a constant, enourmous, incredibly numerous, but smiliing reminding of the powerful but benign ruler of the area. Again, I refer you to pictures or the temple in person to truly serve the place justice. From then we went to the older, main temple of the city, which looked more like a Mayan pyramid than one of Khmer design, and was the one famously referred to as the great 3D puzzle as mentioned before, and as such isn't in such good shape. A short stroll through some jungle then led us to Phimeneakas, which is completely inaccessible to visitors, despite a elevated platform being erected, but which remained closed, and was quite uninspiring until we got a view of the back of the temple. Not visible at first, the entire rear wall is actually formed into the shape of a giant reclining buddha, where the giant stones and contoured and placed in a certain way to make the outline of a reclining human shape, with obvious intention, as the french 'puzzle masters' would not have even known where to start. From then we went back east to the quite famous terraces, the facade of the part of the city that then held the royal palace and royal area behind it, separated from the city but clearly visible, imposing its presence upon the main road that runs right along these terraces. The top of them are quite normal, only having a few typical lion statues flanking rising steps, and a quite colorful buddha statues, but the walls of the terraces themselves are the real attraction. Not easily visible from close up, from the road or further away, the stone unveils a immense procession of creatures and deities, marching joyfully towards the main stairway, and up to the royal grounds, from carved elephants and elephants whose trunks were large support columns to the wall itself, to monkey warriors, to perhaps the most precise and intricate carvings of people found in the entire park. From then we made our way to the entrances to the city to the north and to the east, as immense gates, being exactly facing in the cardinal directions and being exactly in the middle of the perfectly square walled city of Angkor Thom, also had, once again, the four-faced carving of the God/King, that looked benevolently down upon all those entering and exiting his great city. At the exit were the only causeways over the city's also large moat, on which there were two rows of statues, involved in a tug-of-war, interpreted by archeologists as a battle for the souls of the dead, with characters substantially larger than humans pulling a naga towards evil on one side and towards good on the other. The gates are quite identical, but in different states, but the best of which was where we stopped and had lunch. Despite being the eastern gate, this gate is also known as the 'ghost gate' as another east-facing gate, known as victory gate, was built a short distance to the north, and became the main road in that direction, while the eastern gate, in more recent times of course, was left to the elements. As a result, the road from the inside of the city is quite rocky and bumpy, and the road on the outside is only navigable by single motorcycles. The carvings are in the worst condition, but besides being the most overgrown, also have certain statues and carvings that have been taken or smudged away at the other gates. Our final day of temple hopping was devoted to those most remote temples still oficially within the Angkor complex, which took over an hour by tuk-tuk to reach. These were temples as well, but comissioned by individuals and not the king, and as such were of red sandstone, and not grey or black, and as well, were left almost in tact, in much better shape. Banteay Srei, the more famous, and as such much more crowded destination, is described as having some of the finest stonework in the world, and to this I do not pose any major objection, as the detail and precision is to such a scale that it seems artificial, as small buddha-like individuals in doorframes, not more than a centimeter high, had a starkingly realistic smile and finely carved eyelids. Due to the crowds, we visited this place in a way twice, quickly seeing parts of the temple that the chinese and japanese tourist groups were standing and posing in front of, making sure to come back once again on the way back towards the entrance. The administrators have understood the popularity of this sight, and as such have created a structured entrance, and route to visit the area, which makes sure that you cannot exit without going by the largest, and again, most structured set of shops and food/drink sales within all of the archeological complex. The other more distant sites were quite similar, but not qutie as phenomenal as the first, but perhaps better, as the lack of crowds made them enjoyable and made the heat at least tolerable. After stopping by a few of the overlooked closer temples on the way back towards Siem Reap, we got some good glimpses of the monkeys that live near Angkor Wat, and in a more dramatic world, would actually live on and in the temples during the night. One can only hope that the french archeologists and then the Khmer Rouge found such previous occupants when first approaching these ancient structures up close for the first time. After a break, and a shift to cheaper accomodation, we ventured back to the temples one final time, for one final sunset visit. Alas, this would be the same, if not worse, than the others, where after not being allowed admittance to the most popular 'sunset' spot, we watched another cloudy and not particularly bright dance between our closest star and the jungly-horizon. Thanks to the far away temples, we also managed to see a good deal of the cambodian countryside, and as such really looked forward to our next destination, mainly because instead of taking the fast, three hour bus ride to Battambang, we would instead cruise seven hours along swamps and flooded mangrove forests, and through the large lake in the middle of the country, before arriving the third largest city in Cambodia.