The temples of Angkor

Here’s a new one to me. On leaving Phnom Penh I had sent an email to my hotel requesting a pick up. On arriving at the Siem Reap bus stand I wasn’t too hopeful and hence was surprised to see a man knocking on the window with a sign holding my name. Brilliant! But then on getting off the bus I spotted another man with a different sign with my name on it. I did a double take and soon found them both stood next to me. If it had happened in India I would have thought of it as a genius scam but it seemed entirely innocent with neither of them seeming to understand the strangeness of the situation. I went with the guy with the name of my hotel on his piece of paper and asked no further questions. As we made our way to the hotel, the moto chugged to a halt having run out of petrol. I wondered if the other one might have been a better choice as we had to push it through the streets until we finally arrived at base.

Tired after the previous day travelling, I spent the first day in Siem Reap getting to know the town and doing a bit of planning for the following days. In terms of recovery it was helpful but there really isn’t anything to see in Siem Reap. It did though have a lively pub scene, which was a good place to meet up with a number of people that I’ve met along the way. Oh and my room also came with a TV which had every Saturday Premiership game at my disposal! Thankfully you don’t come to Siem Reap to see Siem Reap. It’s a town that has expanded to meet the needs of the visiting hoards on their way to South East Asia’s proclaimed greatest attraction, the Temples of Angkor!

My free guide book had suggested that an increasingly popular way of getting around the world heritage site was by bicycle. What a lovely idea I thought as I peddled the six kilometers to the entrance gate. An hour or so later I began to feel slightly mad as everyone powered around on motos with the temperature creeping close to the 40 degree mark. Mad I might have thought but as I traveled back for another two days on a bike I think it would be closer to say clinically insane. I seemed to become well acquainted with the moto drivers who took pleasure out of seeing me peddling past day after day before erupting into laughter. One passed me on the ‘grand circuit’, promptly turned around, smiled and said “bet you wish you took a moto now?” as he sped on. Silently the answer was no. I might have been drenched in sweat for my entire time in the Ankor Archeological Site, sun stroked and dehydrated but I will stand by the fact that my guide book was right. It is an excellent way of experiencing what many suggest is the eighth wonder of the world!

The remnants of the Angkorian era dating from 802 to 1432 are a sight to be believed. It is its scale that sets it apart from any other comparative aging structures. For a person who is quite used to walking around ruins and attempting to visualize what it must have been like, Angkor comes as quite a surprise because even though parts are obviously showing age, and have crumbled to the floor nearly all of the temples still stand (at least in terms of size) as they once did. It’s also impressive in terms of scale because despite cycling around forty kilometers (sometimes more) each day, for three days straight, there were many temples and ruins that I never made it to.

The Angkor Archeological Site is I guess pretty much unmatched anywhere else in the world. At its heart is Angkor Wat, surrounded by a moat, it is the largest religious structure in the world. A few kilometers further on is the fortified city of Angkor Thom, some 10sq kilometers in size, with five 20 meter gates that are utterly breathtaking. Within it is the Bayon with 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara peering out across the land. There’s also the Terrace of the elephants with it’s incredible stone work. A few kilometers away there’s Ta Prohm, or the Tomb Raider temple, unsurprisingly named because the film was shot there, famous for the trees and vines that emerge and wind their ways around the ruins. And then there’s Phonom Bakhen with seven different levels as it climbs up to the sky.

And yet as the one day is enough crowd enjoyed the above, there are so many other (for me) more impressive temples waiting to be discovered away from the crowds. Ta Keo, with it’s huge pyramid mountain design. Banteay Samre with it’s almost gothic courtyard, carrying immaculately carved designs and Ta Som (I think) which beat them all, a better version of Ta Prohm, with a huge tree that has grown straight through the entrance gate. Plus of course so many more whose names have slipped from memory that I passed randomly and stopped in awe.

But there is a problem to Angkor. Whilst its sheer size is what makes it remarkable, it’s also its burden. It took me three days to fully start to appreciate what I was seeing. Every temple is so impressive, in terms of both size and of the stone work, that it is hard to comprehend what you are seeing without inevitably ending up ‘templed out’. Also it is, and rightly so, stupidly popular. Many people come to Cambodia just to see the site and then leave again. That means some temples can become crowded with tour groups. Fortunately with so many temples to see, there are always places to get away from them and unlike anywhere else I can think of, even the most out of the way temples are just as impressive.

With Siem Reap’s success on the back of the Angkor Archeological Site one very annoying trend has developed, hawking and begging. Now I’m well used to it after traveling across the Indian Sub-Continent but here it did get to me. The two worst offenders were:

• The begging children who were never going to be in my good books purely because they always seemed to approach me when I was eating. Taking a leaf out of the Indian street sellers they attempted to sell the biggest load of junk imaginable. All that they were missing was the Jeffrey Archer novels from the road sides of Mumbai. Sometimes they were marginally entertaining like the boy who disturbed my Amok curry by attempting to sell me a romantic book for a girlfriend. He showed it to me. It was on the Killing Fields. Increasingly more desperate he then proceeded to name ever Prime Minister of the UK, starting with David Cameron (and Nick Clegg) all the way down to Jim Callaghan! The problem was that due to the salesman rhetoric that has been taught to the children from an early age, I struggled to feel any pity of sympathy for them (despite the obvious hardships that many of them have), unlike the far more likable and indeed heart breaking kids that you see in India.

• Secondly it’s the women selling drinks and fruits outside a lot of the main temples. Whoever decided to teach them that the way English is spoken is to exaggerate the last word and increase the pitch up to an unbearable level deserves to be shot. On the hundredth time of hearing someone saying “Would you like a pineappppllllllleeeee” in the most whiney voice possible is almost intolerable. I remember a girl on my teacher training placement driving both myself and Ian mad with every sentence that she said ending with a high pitched question like ending. Having a whole choir of them everywhere I went made me want to run a mile.

However obviously it’s all harmless, even though the underlying desperation is troubling, and does not detract from what was a wonderful few days at not just one of South East Asia’s greatest sites but the worlds. It’s just such a shame that Cambodia’s number one asset has been sold to a Chinese Oil Company. Try and work that one out!

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