Siem Reap is Cambodia’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat, and indeed no visit would be complete without visiting the infamous temples of Angkor, only a few kilometres away. Siem Reap has become quite the thriving little metropolis! Maybe too much so! It now abounds with throngs of people on tour groups, who probably visit little else in Cambodia. The problem is that many look like they should be on a Milan catwalk, and look rather out of place amongst the poverty that surrounds them. This flaunting of wealth looks not only ridiculous, but totally out of place, in a country where so many people live precariously below the poverty line! Gucci handbags and stilettos have never really been my thing, but here they look both obscene and ostentatious! But that’s not all folks (not only do you get the free steak knives……) Siem Reap is full of pumping bars and pubs, pushing equally obscenely priced drinks………..whilst the locals walk around trying to make a living by selling whatever they can on the streets ! Alex and I refused to go to these places and pay the prices, and indulged in some phenomenal street food instead, thus trying to put some money back into the economy and helping the locals, rather than lining the pockets of the big players and the multi-nationals. Our gesture may have been small, but it was our way of showing some of the solidarity that humankind seems to steadfastly be losing!
Angkor Wat is free to the locals (and so it should be!) but overpriced for foreigners; a day pass costs USD $20.00, a three day pass $40.00 and a weekly pass $60.00. I almost would not have minded paying it, had I known that the money was helping its people. But no, a very small amount goes into conservation of the site (as in 10%) and the rest gets sucked into that vortex, possibly called corruption! I have never seen such a famous site so crowded and full of people. As I looked around and did my maths, I figured that the money being made on entry fees would be phenomenal….but where was it going? Was it fixing the roads? Was it feeding its people and eliminating poverty? Was it going towards a better education and thus helping create a future for its people? Having said all of this, as the Cambodians struggle to rebuild their lives after years of tragedy, trauma and terror, the temples are a point of pilgrimage for them, and no traveller would want to miss their extravagant beauty! Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!
Nothing, however, could take away from the Temples of Angkor. We had been told to prepare for divine inspiration! Indeed the temples of Angkor, capital of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire, are the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, nothing can take away from these most majestic structures, and the spiritual passion that went into their creation. The Cambodian royalty of old each strove to better their ancestors in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in the world’s largest religious building, namely Angkor Wat. What most people do not realise is how expansive the area containing the temples actually is. It cannot all be done by foot. One needs a bike, at the very least (and only for the smaller circuit), and only by taking a motorbike or a tuk-tuk (like a motorised motorcycle, with a carriage behind and taking up to 4 people) can you see the bulk of the sights. Can it be done in a day? It depends how long it takes you to get “temple burnout”!
Being the self-confessed culture junkie that I am, we spent a full three days at the various temples. Without a doubt, they were magnificent, and each had something remarkable to offer. On the first day, we did what is known as the Little Circuit, which is 17 kilometres and begins at Angkor Wat. We took a tuk-tuk, and hopped on and off at will. The way it works is that you effectively pay a driver for the day, and he goes where you wish, and waits for you, then taking you on to the next place you wish to visit.
Our first port of call was Angkor Wat. Although it was packed to the rafters with camera toting tourists, nothing could take away from its majesty. On coming around the corner and seeing it, live, for the first time, Alex and I were speechless! (Yeh, I know, doesn’t happen often with me!) It’s hard to describe, and re-live that spine-tickling moment when you emerge on the inner causeway and this temple of such grandeur presents itself for the very first time. I was overcome with emotion, and my eyes brimmed with tears as I, yet again on this amazing journey, thanked the universe for being able to experience that which I was experiencing! Although full of people, it was still an amazing experience to be able to walk around and explore this temple. Some of it is in excellent condition, and there are other parts that require ducking down and exploring, as if you were in an Indiana Jones movie. The bas reliefs are intricate and delicate, the most famous at this site being its beguiling apsara, or heavenly nymphs. Just to give you an idea of size, and exploration possibilities, Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat, 190 metres wide, which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 kilometres by 1.3 kilometres.
There were many, many temples, and over the first two days we saw many. On Day 2 we did what is known as the Big Circuit, which at 26 kilometres is an extension of the small circuit, and includes a multitude of other temples as well as the ancient gates that once enclosed the city. To be perfectly honest, it certainly is a lot to take in over a couple of days, and although each temple is different, after seeing so many, it can become difficult to recall each on individually. There are a few, however that really stand out. Bayon is one of these. The temple’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of enormous stone faces which are presented upon entering. The overall feeling is that there is a force here that is really bigger than us or that we can imagine! Preah Khan was another. It is a huge, highly explorable monastic complex, full of carvings and passages. The bulk of the fun was to wander and to see where it would take you.
Ta Prohm was undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, and quite possibly my favourite one. Unlike most of the temples, it has been left to be swallowed by the jungle, and has that real “Tomb Raider” feel. Indeed part of the movie “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider” , starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed here, and you can even see the infamous “tomb raider” tree, where Jolie picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth into…………probably some studio set! Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, close courtyards and narrow corridors, many clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks, dislodged by the roots of trees that have long since died. This temple truly transported me elsewhere, as my mind wandered…..where, what, why, how!
The list of temples and terraces we saw was both endless and astounding. We saw a spectacular sunset from Baphuon, a temple which is a pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt Meru, highly revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike. It’s a 10 to 15 minute climb uphill to get there, and I truly felt like I was on an ant trail (read chock-a-block full of people!), but the views were mesmerising. The fact that all of these temples are set in and amongst the jungle gives the whole area a very surreal and yesteryear feel!
On our third and last day, we took the 50 kilometre and very dusty trip out to Kbal Spean. Bitumen…..what’s that! We met a lovely Belgian couple in Siem Reap, split the cost, and took a remorque -moto (a motorcycle with a hooded carriage towed behind) out there. The journey to get there was actually half the fun, as we passed many traditional villages and villagers. These people seem to live a very simple and unfussy life style. As we whizzed by, they looked at us with curiosity. They were probably wondering what all the fuss was about . What we find fascinating and amazing is really just their backyard! Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle. Again, it’s the stuff that movies are made of. It’s a 1.5 kilometre walk up towards the carvings, and the path takes you through the jungle, passing by some interesting boulder formations along the way. The carvings include Vishnu, Shiva and a number of other Hindu deities, but the most interesting is the hundreds of linga that appear on the riverbed downstream. These are phallic symbols which have quite literally been cut into the riverbed, as the water continues to flow over them.
You may have heard that land mines are still a big problem in Cambodia. Although it is not something that affected us directly, it is still a big issue. On our way to Kbal Spean, we read the following in our Cambodia Lonely Planet guide, ” LAND MINE ALERT! At no point during a visit to Kbal Spean or Phnom Kulen should you leave well trodden paths, as there are land mines in the area.” This is also the thing that movies are made of!
After three days of temple after temple, I admit that we had both had enough of….temples! Instead of going straight to Bangkok, which was effectively supposed to be our next destination, we decided to do a boat trip to Battambang, as we had heard that the scenery was supposed to be amongst Cambodia’s best. In a tale to rival all tales, we were picked up early the next morning and crammed into a mini-bus. Crammed as in, no room left and dangerous! Alex and I began to voice our opinions and concerns, but it was obviously falling on deaf ears. After some 15 minutes of travelling in the foetal position (as there wasn’t room for much else), we arrived at the “port”. I couldn’t help thinking that this was going to be a good one! Apart from the trash and junk lying everywhere, I looked at the various “boats” and wondered whether they were going to be used as firewood, or whether they were truly going to be our mode of transportation. Not the safest looking boats I have ever seen! Needless to say, prospective firewood they were not!
The trip to Battambang took some 7 hours, in a rickety and somewhat uncomfortable sea vessel, which albeit survived the odds and stayed afloat! As we travelled along the Sangker River, we did pass some amazing scenery and many riverside villages. Having spent so much time on various bodies of water in the last months, however, we were perhaps a little bit blaze about it. To be brutally honest we were both looking forward to meeting up with Bec, Birdie and Megan in Bangkok, where we would all be meeting up for a Thai wedding. Battambang was an interesting enough place, and after looking for a place to spend the night, and dumping our bags, we had a bit of a walk around. Cambodia’s second largest city had an excellent market place and some wonderful coffee and food. We indulged in both! Our time here was short and brief, and we were keen to go. We had a couple of options. The first was to take the bus passing through from Phnom Penh at around 1.00pm. As it would take 8 or 9 hours, we did not want to get to Bangkok that late. Option 2 was to organise a private taxi to the border, and then catch an ongoing bus to our final destination. We opted for the latter, as we could choose our departure time, thus being able to leave early and arrive at our final destination at a reasonable hour.
Our tummies filled with good food and coffee, we had an excellent night’s sleep, and were ready to go at 7.30am the next morning. We would be travelling with a Dutch couple who were also on their way to Bangkok. The trip to the border was smooth and pleasant. We did pass an accident along the way, however, which left me a little shell shocked. Lying on the side of the road was a motorbike, and a bloodied person who was being given CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation) by a bystander. My humanitarian instinct made me want to stop and help, but then I reconsidered the option of giving mouth-to-mouth to a blood spattered victim in a country with poor hygiene and where the AIDS/ HIV infection rate is the highest in Asia. I sighed deeply and that image I had just beheld was my faithful companion all the way to the border.
We arrived safely some 3 hours later, thanking and paying our taxi driver, and farewelling our recently acquired Dutch friends. Exiting Cambodia was easy and painless, and we soon found ourselves in Thailand, a country that I have visited often and which I love dearly.
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act ” – George Orwell (1903 – 1950).
(Photos: 1.- One of the many faces of Bayon, on the walkway to the temple, Siem Reap. 2.- The infamous yet impressive temples of Angkor Wat. 3.- Monks entering Bayon Temple. 4.- Intricate bas relief, Angkor Wat. 5.- Ombi & Alex….tomb raiders! Ta Phrom Temple. 6.- Kbal Spean, river carvings. 7.- Some use a boat, some use a bowl! Leaving Siem Reap to go to Battambang by boat. 8.- On the Sangker River, on the way to Battambang. 9.- Loading up a pick-up…..Battambang style! 10.- That’s me again in the Tomb Raider Temple, aka Ta Phrom.)