I left the comfort of close friendship and nice hotels to head into Cambodia. This was one country that after reading about I was very excited to visit. I was intrigued to see the famous stone temples of Angkor Wat and in contrast the sobering experience of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's terror reign. I was also excited to visit a country that was mainly jungle, where the people eat anything and everything they class as nutritious and where history has had such an impact.
I flew into Siem Reap, the life-support town for the temples. In my ignorance I was expecting a run down airport and town. It was completely the opposite. The airport, although tiny was beautiful and pristine as were the grounds around. The roads into town, on the whole were well maintained. We did pass rural houses made from palm leaves and on stilts but the closer to town these became western style buildings and we passed some very glamorous and cosmopolitan hotels.
My flight had landed early in the morning so I thought I would spend the day chilling out and recovering before hitting the temples. My motorbike driver to the hotel had different ideas. He started negotiating with me a 3 day package to see the temples and surrounding area. At first he wanted $70 for 3 days driving. This certainly was not in my budget. (In Cambodia the local currency is riel but the dollars is used more). I agreed with him to take me to a few temples just for the first day and I would consider. It was a good job I did as he magically came down to $40! I could have hired a bicycle but the temples are about 7km from Siem Reap and would take a long time to cycle between. With the heat and humidity, I would not have survived! So instead of sleeping I went off to visit the temples.
For those who do not know Angkor is are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered the 8th wonder of the world. The UNESCO website writes "Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century". They number over a thousand in total, although some have long been lost to the forest. Mainly built as religious shrines, they did also host the capital in various stages over this time. However as only stone could be used to honor the gods, much of the daily living architecture has been lost to natural erosion over time, leaving the temples as the main evidence to this great culture. The temples are a mixture of religions, including Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Hinduism, showing how the worshipped religions changed according to the ruler of the day.The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began a long restoration process. This process is still ongoing today, supported by various countries across the world.
My first day was to see the Roulos group, including the Lolei temple, Preah Ko temple and Bakang temple. Whilst not the most impressive of the temples, these were the earliest built and separate to the main site of Angkor so made the most sense to visit them first. It was interesting to drive through the forest to the temples and see daily living. The temples themselves were sprawling ruins in the middle of this. Made from a grayish stone they were in different stages of preservation. Intricate carvings decorated doorways and tiered pyramids dominated the landscape. It was certainly an interesting start to the temples. The heat though was oppressive and after climbing up and down the stairs to the temples I was soon exhausted. I was also slightly disturbed to see a motorbike go past with 3 pigs strapped down on their backs to the end of the seat of the bike. They had their feet tied together, clearly on the way to slaughter. The noise from them was horrific. Pained squealing, knowing the end was to come. The sound lasted a long time after the bike had past. A very different culture.
I arrived back at my hostel around midday to enjoy a very cold shower and a deep sleep. In the evening a massive storm broke out, with extremely heavy rain and constant lighting. This took out the power, meaning I was able to congregate in the bars with other people and make new friends I also sampled a local Khmer dish- pumpkin and coconut soup. This was more like a curry and delicious.
Day two saw the main visit to Angkor. The temples I visited included Prasat Kraven, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Thammanon, Chao Say Tevada, Bayon, Baphuon, Elephant Terraces and finally the daddy of temples Angkor Wat. I will not go into detail about all these temples as after a while they did all blur into one. The most noticeable ones were Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Bayon, Baphuon and Angkor Wat.
Ta Prohm is the most atmospheric of all the temples and was my second favourite. It has been swallowed by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them. They decided to leave it in it's natural state with some minimal preservation techniques. The trees were enormous. Huge monstrosities of roots and trunks clambered over the remaining temple, eating every thing in sight. It was also used as a film set for one of the Tomb Raider films. This is what I imagined it to be like- lost temples waiting to be rediscovered. Very Indiana Jones!! A mysterious yet beautiful place.
Ta Keo is not normally on the list of must see temples but for me it was on there for the stairs that you had to climb to reach the top. They were gigantic. The height of each one was about the size of my lower leg and the depth of the step was so narrow, for some I could barely fit half my foot on. This meant it was a real climb to get to the top and I had to use the step above to pull myself up. I do not suffer from vertigo and love heights. However, after climbing just one flight of these stairs I did actually feel dizzy and wanted to go down. Not to be put off I managed it to the top, 50m high! I have no idea how this temple would have worked in practice as you could not imagine monks hurrying up and down the stairs.
Bayon was my favourite temple as it had the most religious feeling of them all. There are 54 gothic towers. On the side of these towers (sometimes all 4 sides, other times less) are 216 coldly smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara. These heads (in 3d) glare down at you as you walk past and designed show the power and control of the king himself. You have to submit to the power of the temple. The heads are visible at all times, either looking straight at you or in profile. The temple stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom and for this reason may have been one of the most significant temples. For me it brought a soul to the place that the other temples seemed to be lacking. You could feel that this was a temple where the local population would be in awe of and submit to the will of the ruler. A magnificent site.
Across the road is Baphuon which deserves a mention mainly because it is a huge jigsaw puzzle. It would have been the most spectacular of temples. It was at the centre of a restoration effort which saw it taken apart piece by piece with a map made on how to put it back. However, the Cambodian civil war erupted and work paused for a quarter of a century. During the Khmer Rouge years the records were destroyed, leaving no clue as to how to put it back. Work has resumed on it but is behind schedule. The blocks to be put back still litter the ground making it an interesting temple. On one wall, where it has been repaired there is a reclining Buddha as part of the stone work. In 3d you can just make out the head, but the body is hard to make out from the stone work.
The final temple that has to be mentioned is Angkor Wat, the daddy of them all and the most well known. It is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It is also the most well preserved of the temples, as it was not abandoned to the elements. The history of this temple is outlined by Lonely Planet; it was probably built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II (r 1112-52) to honour Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom the king identified. There is much about Angkor Wat that is unique among the temples of Angkor. The most significant fact is that the temple is oriented towards the west. West is symbolically the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. Vishnu, however, is also frequently associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and a mausoleum for Suryavarman II.
It is a huge site, with much to see. There were huge relief carvings decorating the walls (who needs wallpaper!!) depicting different stories, including the Indian fables on heaven and hell. Architecturally it is an amazing place. For me however, there was little life in it and I much preferred the Bayon temples and some of the living temples I have seen in India. It may have been that it was the last temple I saw or that I was exhausted from the heat, but besides appreciating the feat of skill and engineering there was little else that appealed to me spiritually.
Arriving back at the hostel I was exhausted and very much templed out. I met up with some people from the night before and went down to 'Bar Street'. Aptly named this is a street full of bars and happy hour lasting all night! We ended up at the Angkur What? Bar famous for it's bucket challenge to get a free t-shirt. Being rude not to partake we all ended up getting 2 buckets of alcohol for the t-shirt. An interesting night.
Unfortunately on day 3 my driver was picking me up at 8am. He was taking me to see a waterfall near the temples. Hoping not to see another temple for a while, my heart sank as he stopped at guess what, a temple! Not amused but being the dutiful tourist I climbed off the bike and went to wander round. As I got back my driver decided to be an idiot and say that to take me to the waterfall would be another $10. When we agreed the plan it was to go to the waterfall on day 3. I was therefore a little bit annoyed that he renegaded on the deal. As he was not going to budge and I wasn't going to pay any more, he took me on the grand tour of the temples instead. It was not the best day of my life.
However, to look positively on it I did see some more interesting temples that had more life to them. They included Banteay Srei, Easstern Maybon, Ta Som, Neak Poan, Preah Khan and one that I did not get the name of. More intricate in design carving it was nice to see them. The heat, humidity and the tiredness in my legs of climbing up and down umpteen steps means that I probably did not appreciate as much as I should have.
It was also nice being on the bike and driving through local countryside. I was amazed at how neat and tidy everything was. The houses may be on stilts made out of bamboo and palm tree leaves, but there was a pride here in appearance. Some houses were sponsored by foreigners. This may be a result of the war and international support but it also worth remembering that Cambodia has been heavily mined as part of the Vietnam war. Much work has been done to clear the landmines, especially with foreigners buying the land and paying for it to be de-mined before giving it back the community.
Overall Siem Reap was a must see and I am extremely glad I have been there. The temples were stunning, even if soulless and it was nice to have my ignorance about the country challenged. Needing a break though from constant exercise I headed to the beach of Sihanoukville.