< Previous | Next >
Wat's in Cambodia?
By Mikey
Monday, 4th October 2004 06:28

It's been a while since I wrote anything and to the best of my recollection I think I left off at about the time that we got on a boat. If you've been reading our diaries religiously then you'll know that boats and us rarely get on well together. This boat journey was no exception, although I think I'm safe in saying that it wasn't our fault!

We chose to go from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by boat for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was supposed to be a quicker journey. Secondly, the road is supposed to be very bumpy and we thought the boat ride up the river would be nice and smooth. Thirdly, we thought the scenery might be better. (The price didn't enter into it. In fact, the boat was more expensive than the bus.)

As the Meatloaf song says, "Two out of three ain't bad". Although we had no idea when the bus got there, I can say for sure that our boat ride was about three hours longer than it should have been. About two hours into the journey we were zooming merrily along when the whole boat started vibrating alarmingly. It eventually came to a stop and after a couple of minutes the crew started going again, but very, very slowly. Every time the engine revved even slightly, the boat started vibrating again. For about 45 minutes this carried on as the boat wound its way painfully between trees and bushes. We later learned that the crew were looking for a good place to tie it up at this time.

We eventually stopped and then spent at least two hours either baking in the heat of the boat cabin or frying in the sun as the crew tried to replace what turned out to be a broken propeller. We had stopped near a few house and all of the local children came by, very interested to climb on the boat and have a look at its strange cargo of white people. It was highly entertaining, their English wasn't too bad but I imagine they had rarely seen a westerner to try it out on.

I managed to finish my book while we were waiting. When the change was finally made and we were on our way again, there was a collective sigh of relief from the passengers, largely because the air conditioning came back on again.

When the journey was over, an army of taxi drivers boarded the boat all trying to offer their services to take us to Siem Reap some 10km away. I'm not sure if we chose one or were chosen by one but we ended up in an immaculate car driven by a young man who'd only been driving for five months. He obviously cared a lot about his car though as he drove us around more in the style of a chauffeur than a taxi driver. He only wanted $1 to take us to Siem Reap but this turned out to be because he wanted to try and offer his tour guide services. We didn't know it before we got to Cambodia and read our guide book but there are many temples near Siem Reap, not just Angkor Wat and if we didn't want to walk or cycle between them, we'd need transportation.

Suoy, our driver, made what seemed like a reasonable offer for his services at the time and so we accepted. The alternative would have been to seek out a motorbike driver or two or a tuk-tuk for the three days but neither of those have air conditioning and allow you to leave your bag in them while seeing temples. After a quick bit of late lunch we headed out to buy our visitor's passes and to watch the sun set near Angkor Wat.

The sun set wasn't too impressive really but it was great to see and touch the elephants that carry tourists up the hill of Phnom Bakheng. On the way we also had our first glimpse of Angkor Wat from a distance.

Back in our hotel we had some dinner and settled down in our room to cool off, relax and watch some rubbish on the television. The internet there wasn't working too well which was unfortunate but not the end of the world. Sokkha, the receptionist (who turned out to be only 15 years old), kept apologising for it even though it wasn't her fault.

We didn't start too early the following day although in hindsight it might have been sensible. The midday heat combined with the humidity really left me flagging. Regardless though, we saw some truly amazing sights that day, absolutely unforgetable. I would try and describe the temples that we saw but I think my photos will have to do some of the work for me. I'd suggest having a look at them after reading this.

For Cambodia pictures, click here.

Up until that morning I hadn't really registered any excitement about being where we were but once we got started I was completely in awe (cue a George of the Jungle joke). The temples we saw were built between the 10th and 13th centuries and it's amazing to think that the quailty of workmanship back then was so high. Most stones in the temples were not only carved to be the right shape and size, many were carved with intricate decorations too.

On our first day we started at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, a walled city that may have housed as many as a million people in its heyday. (Most of buildings were constructed from wood and are long gone.) About 1km into the city lies the temple of Bayon. That was our next stop and one of the places that we spent the most time in. The pillars, towers and many winding passage ways gave us so much to explore.

Next we walked around the temple of Baphuon that was undergoing restoration at the time. We climbed Phimeanakas next and then walked through the site of the former Royal Palace and saw both the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants before climbing gratefully into the coolness of Suoy's shiny car.

We saw the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom next (we think it, or one of the other four gates, was used in the Tomb Raider film) followed by the temples of Thommanom, Ta Keo and Ta Prohm. All were amazing in their own unique ways. Finally we headed for the big one, the biggest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat.

It was slightly disappointing that Angkor Wat was also being restored as the sight of tarpaulins and scaffolding really didn't fit in with the rest of the buildings and walls but I'm so glad that they're doing it. Something so magnificent deserves to stand for many years to come but with all of the tourist traffic and the relentless passage of time, it needs help. There were also too many tourists there in my opinion. Granted, the Cambodian government gets money from each one that visits, but I think that perhaps the temples are also in jeopardy from those high numbers. Too many of them are too ignorant not keep their hands to themselves and some of the carvings are stained from being touched. And you can call me selfish but it's also hard to take good photos with large groups of sun burned, under dressed Europeans in the way.

Despite all that though, Angkor Wat was stunning to behold and it was a shame when we were too tired to carry on. Instead we contented ourselves with a promise to come back and have another look around.

Our second day started far too early. It was still pitch black outside when Suoy picked us up at 5am to go and watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. It's quite a popular thing to do but has the advantage that in the semi-darkness, the people just fade away and the photos end up looking good. The sunrise wasn't amazing, there wasn't a huge, red ball of fire popping up on the horizon but it was colourful all the same. And the really weird thing, we were moving on to our second temple of the day before 7am!

Preah Khan is a sister site of Ta Prohm, built by Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father (Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother). Like Ta Prohm it had lots of trees growing in and over the walls with roots curling around stones like spaghetti. We moved on to Neak Pean, a reservoir, and Ta Som, a small temple where one tree is growing on top of one of the gates.

Our next stop was East Mebon, a temple that once stood on an island before the Eastern Baray dried up. Following on from that was Pre Rup, where the towers were built with bricks. I can't work out what is more amazing, that a civilisation had worked out how to make bricks in the 10th century or that those bricks are still standing there over 1000 years later. You choose and then go there and see if you were right.

Our final temple for the day, at the hot and humid time of 2pm, was that of Banteay Kdei. It has suffered quite badly over time but apparently efforts are being made to restore the miniature version of Ta Prohm. By the time we had explored it we were ready for a nap. Briefly though we looked at the reservoir just over the road and bravely fought off offers of handmade bracelets from local children, we had already bought ten and didn't really need forty more. There's a limit to how many bracelets a person can wear at one time without looking silly. For me that limit is zero by the way.

Perhaps now I should mention all of the vendors around the temples of Angkor. At each temple site there are probably a dozen or more stalls selling everything from t-shirts and hats to food and cold drinks with many other bizarre categories in between. As soon as any of them spots a tourist they all fall upon you. "Sir. Something to drink sir." or "Madam. Please buy a t-shirt madam." or just "Buy something." It's an interesting experience to be sure. Some are more persistent than others and if you really don't want another Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia then you end having to ignore them which, to me, seems rude but it's the only way, believe me. Some will let you go only if they get your promise to buy from them when they see you again. The scary thing is that they probably will remember. Fortunately we've never found out one way or another.

That night we went to the FCC in Siem Reap and ate too much, it was nice food though. I had some amazing lamb and lots of Angkor beer. We discussed, at length, what we wanted to do the next day. Our driver, Suoy, had put his price up a bit for the final day and we thought he was being a bit too cheeky and so we spent some time formulating a plan. Plans that changed the next morning when he turned up. We settled on going to the temples of Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre which were both fantastic. We passed the landmine clearing crew a couple of times on the way. Fortunately the temples have all been cleared of landmines for some time now.

We then walked back through Bayon in Angkor Thom to take a few more photos that didn't come out well because of the tourists two days earlier. Most tour groups and drivers have itineraries that they stick to meaning that Bayon was relatively deserted by the time we got to it. We spent some time wandering through the maze of lower passageways before joining up with Suoy again.

As we had promised ourselves, we went back to Angkor Wat. Our timing was fortunate once again as there wern't too many people around. We were able to take some more photos and examine the huge walls of the temple that are covered in bas-reliefs and carvings. A monk who was also there decided to try out his English on us and we listened for quite some time about his desires to learn many languages and about how he was only going to be a monk for nine more months. At one point he offered to give us a guided tour of the whole temple but as nice as he was we preferred to go at our own rate. The reliefs and carvings were pretty spectacular by the way. Imagine the Bayeux tapestry carved in stone and you're not too far off the mark.

All too soon our time was over. We headed back to Siem Reap and paid Suoy off. I imagine that we paid him too much but then that was probably our fault for not commiting him to a price when we hired him. Still, to us it wasn't a huge amount of money anyway. You couldn't get drunk in a British pub for the amount we probably overpaid by.

The temples of Angkor are certainly a sight worth seeing, one of the wonders of the world in my opinion. Cambodia may have been more expensive than we were expecting but I would have paid double or more to have seen what I've seen.

For Cambodia pictures, click here.

< Previous | Next >