< Previous | Next >
Tuesday 28th September - Siem Reap
By Claire
Monday, 4th October 2004 06:06

Mikey sent me into the bank on my own this morning, which was only a bit scary. There are no cash machines in Cambodia at all, so I had to do a Visa transfer which was easier than I was expecting - the time we did it in Peru took over an hour. I was done in ten minutes and I had a huge wad of small dollar bills to play with. Then we headed out to the entrance to the temples.

Before we got here, I thought that there was only Angkor Wat and that it was a single place. Actually, Angkor itself is an area of around 77 square miles with about 40 sites that have been cleared of mines and can be visited. The temples and cities were all built roughly between the 1100s and 1400s and the whole area was lost to the jungles until the very early 1900s when some French archaeologists started hacking away at the undergrowth. The restoration work continues (with a break for the civil war in Cambodia in the '70s) right up 'til now. All the diary entries will be much clearer if you look at the photo pages, as these places are enormous and hard to describe properly.

The little free guide that we picked up at the hotel had a suggested three-day itinerary, and our driver stuck to it pretty well without being asked. He took us straight to Angkor Thom, past the huge outline of Angkor Wat, as the latter is best visted in the afternoon.

Angkor Thom is a huge city - its walls are more than 9 miles long. It is approached along a stone causeway over a moat, guarded by 54 mythical figures on each side. The south gate is an enormous stone edifice (that we saw briefly in Tomb Raider on television last night. Oh, how we laughed.) with giant heads in all four directions, and then there is a dusty road to the Bayon, which was my favourite place. It's huge, and I'm not going to go into too many details cos there are whole books written about the place, but what struck me most at first were the empty doorways, just free-standing stones with lintels and no roof, and all lined up so that you could see through eight or ten of them at once. There are also incredible carvings on the walls here, and it's hard to imagine that they have lasted for 800 years and remain in such a good condition. We wandered through the doorways and up stone steps. The place was a total maze, and, once inside, every doorway led to another few steps or another corridor with a door at the end. I just wandered randomly, and it felt a bit like an old computer game where you had to chose a direction and then a description came up on the screen. Or one more like when Andy and I played Quake at Christmas and I hid in a corner and shot him cos I was scared and was trying not to fall of my wheely chair. Lots of good hiding places for that. The place was crawling with tourists, but within seconds there were no other people around, and some of the rooms I went into still had thick moss on the floor and looked like no-one had been there for years. I found Mikey again and we just walked randomly up and down steps, into and out of halls and corridors and doors, inside and outside. There were carvings all over the pillars and the walls, like ancient wallpaper. Every edge and join had beautiful motifs on them, and there were apsaras, female figures that were dancers or deities or nymphs, on all the pillars. Outside, there were piles of rocks, carvings, pillars and balustrades on the ground, as a restoration project is underway. People were standing on them to get good views, or to get into or out of the temple.

Having spent ages downstairs, we went up to the top, where the most famous part of the Bayon stands - there are fifty-four towers here, jagged pillars of stone, and every one of them had four huge faves carved into them, looking in all directions. Everywhere you look, a giant, benevolent, smiling head, thought to be the image of King Jayarvarman VII, the man who built it, watches you. It's hard to see them up close, and, sometimes froma distance too. The stones have moved around a lot, and sometimes it's a bit like a tal Jenga game where bits are sticking out and piled on top of one another, but when you see them, the faces are definitely there. Ferns and weeds grow out of the gaps in the rock.

We had to be very patient to take photos here because everywhere we went someone would walk in front of the camera, but we managed it in the end. Although I was reluctant to leave, this was only the first day and we had plenty of other things to see. We were attacked by a swarm of pushy hawkers, offering guidebooks, drinks and silk goods, and we bought a book from one of the children to refer to later. Suoy, our driver, was waiting for us, and the car was blessedly cool with airconditioning. He took us to the next stop, only a couple of yards down the road and explained that a major part of Angkor Thom, a temple called Bauphon, was undergoing restoration and we couldn't go into it.

We did, however, manage to walk round it, and it looked wonderful despite the scaffolding and the hoards of men chipping away at things. There was a long causeway here, not underwater, though, and it led to a hill temple called Phimeanakas. This one is noted for not being decorated, but was once called 'The Tower of Gold' and is thought to have had a golden spire. It was a series of steep staircases - like all of the stairs here, the steps are about five inches wide, just enough for the side of a foot, and between twelve and eighteen inches high, and very dusty - leading to stone ledges and doorways. We climbed all the way to the top, despite the incredible heat, and explored all the nooks and crannies. There was a nice view here, over the whole of the temple, and we could see the square walls round the edge and the tower doorways in the middle of the walls.

Once down again we headed round, using a basic map, to what we were hoping would be the Terrace of the Leper King. We actually found ourselves by a big pool, and a man started to follow us and talk to us about it. I kept walking, as I knew that he was after money, but Mikey was too polite and let him talk. This was the Royal Bath, the larger one for the men, the smaller one for the ladies. They were big, rectangular pools with sandstone edges, and they all had beautiful carvings on them. It looked so tempting to jump in for a while, despite the dark greenness of the water. I carried on walking, hoping that Mikey would do the same, but his guide had already cornered him for money. It was only a few riel, not a lot of money at all, but it's annoying to have to pay for something you didn't ask for.

We found the wonderful, old stone wall, all mossy and carved, and an ornate gateway with rocks and carvings and a little room inside it, and left the enclosure. After a wander through the fields, following the dusty tracks made by other people, we found the Terrace of the Leper King, an eight-foot tall walkway, with carvings all along the walls, still in almost-perfect condition. As we were standing there, looking at the incredible artistry, something brushed my foot. A long, very thin snake carried on over my sandal and slithered into the grass. It moved like it was hovering over the ground, and then it paused, with about a quarter of its body lifted up slightly. It was beautiful, black with lengthways yellow stripes and a long red tongue. I was fairly sure it was a garter snake, and completely harmless, although without picking it up and counting its scales, as we'd been taught in Australia, it's hard to tell. When I told Suoy, he said it was probably a cobra, which I didn't believe, and he said it was good luck to have a snake cross your path. Probably good luck that it doesn't turn around and bite you - you'd have about ten minutes to find some antivenom, apparently.

The Terrace of the Leper King led onto the Terrace of the Elephants, another raised walkway. There were elephants carved along a balustrade here, and more on the walls, visible from the ground below us. Suoy came to pick us up when we reached the end, and took us out of Bayon via the Victory Gate, the fifth exit from the ancient city.

While I stopped off at some very impressive loos, Suoy told Mikey that all the landmines had been cleared from this area, which is good to know. Apparently, most of the six million remaining mines are in the Thai border area. Our next stop was at one of my second favourites (along with Angkor Wat), the temple of Ta Prohm. This place hasn't had much restoration work done to it, and it had been left in much the same way as it was found, with the jungle growing out of it. I took hundreds and hundreds of 'tree in temple' pictures, and it was incredible. There were a lot of loose stones and plenty of places to crawl around and into, and a lot of exploring to be done. I think this was one of the most photogenic of them all and the most exciting, as if we were the first people to see it. Walls were tumbling, trees were growing out of the stones, huge roots dripped like melted wax over the roofs. It was really, really gorgeous, and quite huge. It took a long time to go through the whole place, and we were very thorough. By this time, there were few people around - mid afternoon is quite quiet.

Then it was on to Ta Keo, a small but very tall hill temple, and again we climbed all the way to the top and had a good look round everywhere. After that was Thommanon, a little place that looked a bit like a chapel, with a tower on one side and a lower, long building attached. Two men were climbing the sides, weeding the roof, which was funny. It was a cute, almost gothic-looking place.

Finally we arrived at Angkor Wat. I have to say that I was a bit disappointed this afternoon, as the causeway was undergoing repairs and was covered in green tarpaulin and tents, and there was scaffolding all over the place, making the classic and long-anticipated photos impossible. The temple was crowded, it was not easy to take any photos at all as peole pushed and walked in front of us all the time, and I suppose we were hot and tired too. We dutifully walked along the path and into the temple, and followed the crowds up steep, steep steps and into the middle, highest point. Up here it was a little quieter, and we could walk around and investigate a little bit. Every doorway had the intricate geometrical wallpaper patterns, there were wonderful carvings on every lintel and wall, and the doorways and corridors looked beautiful. But we were tired and hot and had had a long day, so we trudged back to the car and drove the fifteen minutes back to Siem Reap. At this point Suoy suggested getting up for sunrise, and asked for more money than he'd asked for today, saying that tomorrow's tour was longer. We agreed, had nice long showers and then had some supper. We found an internet cafe too, as the one in the hotel was far, far to slow to use. On the way back, all the shrines and spirit houses in people's gardens were lit with candles, and mooncakes had been put out. Tonight was the festival of Chang Er and her moon-bunny friend (as related to me by Jake, thank you!) so everyone ate cakes and thought about rabbits or the moon, or something. We read for a bit, I set the alarm for 4.30 and went to sleep.

< Previous | Next >