Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor Part 1

Jenni and I arrived in Siem Reap in the middle of the afternoon. Even though we had previously been warned by other travellers that Siem Reap and the surrounding Angkor temple area was really hot, we still were not prepared for the searing heat that awaited us upon disembarking from the bus. Our bus arrived about half an hour early so we had to wait in the heat for about 20 minutes at the "bus station" (see the adjacent photo to see what a bus station looks like in Cambodia) until our hotel's driver arrived to pick us up.

We stayed at a hotel called the Red Piano based on the recommendation of a friend. It was in an excellent location, a very short walk to Siem Reap's famous "Pub Street". Our room was very nice looking and had plenty of character. It was a real shame that the drains in the bathroom emitted a foul sewerage type smell and the hotel did not have any internet facilities. We managed to work around these two problems by clogging up the drains with wet towels and by using the internet at breakfast each morning (our guesthouse had an accompanying restaurant set up in Pub Street where we had a free breakfast each morning). That evening we visited some of the travel agents to see if they had any good tours that we could go on to see the Angkor temples over the next few days. To our disappointment, we could only find tours involving a single guide addressing a very large tour group of about 20 people, rushing them through a lot of temples in a single day. All of private tours that had a good guide available were very expensive and the cheap private tours did not seem to provide a very good guide, if they provided one at all. In the end we decided to try and find a better tour at the tourism office, located at the other side of town opposite the Angkor Museum, the following day.

On the following day, before we could even get out of the restaurant where we had finished eating breakfast, a tuk tuk driver flagged us down to see if we wanted his services (you can't walk 10m down the street here in Siem Reap without being pestered for a tuk tuk). Two minutes prior, Jenni and I had agreed that we would get a tuk tuk to take us straight to the museum after breakfast and we would try our best to bargain a price of $2 USD for the ride. When we stepped out of the restaurant, we immediately asked this tuk tuk driver what his price would be. $2 USD was his reply. Absolutely shocked that we had been quoted a reasonable price, we agreed and he took us across town to the museum. When we got there he told us that if we would like, he would wait for us to finish our visit and give us a lift back to Pub Street for $2. Happy enough with this arrangement, I agreed and he gave me his name, "Sanny" (pronounced "Sunny") and told him we would meet him outside when we finished.

After spending a few days in Cambodia, we were expecting the museum to be pretty sub-standard. Instead, we were surprised to find that the Angkor Museum in Siem Reap was probably the most state of the art and modern museum that we have ever visited. We both used an audio guide to guide us through the exhibits, although we could have done without these as there was a large amount of information available to read on plaques and video presentations throughout. The museum houses a large collection of stone statues collected from the surrounding Angkor area. Through a series of exhibits, its explains how the kingdom of Cambodia changed from a Hindu state to a Buddhist state. Some statues that were created during the transition period even exhibit aspects from both Buddhism and Hinduism to cater for both.

After our visit to the museum, we met Sanny outside who was waiting as promised. We asked him if he minded if we popped into the tourism office on our way back to Pub Street. He brought us past a building that didn't look open (it didn't look like a tourism office either...) and exclaimed that it was closed for the day. Sanny suggested that his friend who was a "certified" guide go with us and he would be our driver. Hearing this offer, we were rather skeptical. Sanny called his friend Sarom and allowed Jenni to speak with him on the phone. Jenni thought Sarom seemed to know his stuff and had very good English, so we agreed on a price to hire he and Sanny as our guide and driver for the next 3 days and organized to meet the two of them early the next morning on Pub Street. The rest of the day was spent enjoying US$1 tacos and margaritas and visiting the night markets where we found very reasonable prices and in fact it was nigh impossible to walk away without the sellers discounting something to such a price that it seemed unreasonable not to buy it. During dinner we couldn't help but laugh at the teenage guys that were part of one of the visiting school groups, trying to act cool by wearing souvenir t-shirts with beer logos on them, all the while drinking coke and lemonade with their dinner.

The next morning after breakfast, we met Sarom and Sanny. As it turned out, Sarom was a certified tour guide for the Angkor area, but he took freelance jobs like ours during the low season as his tour agency did not always have work for him. The first order of business was to buy our ticket for the Angkor area. Sanny dropped us off at the ticketing station where we had to pay US$40 a pop for our 3 day ticket. Ticket in hand, Sanny drove us to the first and probably most grand temple of our visit to the Angkor area, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat not only boasts being the largest religious structure in the world, but can also boast being one of the few religious structures that has been continually used for worship since its construction in the early 12th century. It was originally built as a Hindu temple to worship the Hindu god Vishnu, but was later kitted out with Buddha statues when the state religion converted Buddhism. Surrounding the temple is a huge man-made moat that is 190m wide and surrounding the main temple structure is a huge outer wall. Crossing the moat and leading up to the main temple is a promenade that is flanked by stone railings in the form of the Naga (multi-headed serpent). These types of stone railings can be seen all throughout the Angkor temple area, some of them with statues of Hindu gods and demons holding the body of the serpent as per the Hindu story of "The churning of the sea of milk". Throughout our visit, Sarom pointed out the best places to take photos of the temples, in this case, from the front with the reflection of the temple in the lake in front. Unfortunately the sun was not in the best position for photos, so ours didn't turn out as good as some of the others we have seen.

Sarom lead us around the sides of the main temple structure and showed us the 100m long stone carvings that showed various Hindu and Cambodian stories. It turned out that Jenni and I had really lucked out with Sarom as he was extremely knowledgeable. He was able to tell us all of the stories on nearly every carving that we came across and was able to answer every question we threw at him. During one of our conversations he even mentioned that he enjoyed being a tour guide for us as we were very eager to ask many questions and listen to what he had to say about the temples. He told us that the worst tours were the ones where he was hired to escort professional photographers who would spend an entire day taking photographs of a single temple and not show the slightest of interest in hearing about its history.

Inside the main temple structure, Sarom pointed out an "echo chamber", a room that would make a deep echo sound when you stood with your back against the wall and thumped your fist on your chest. Most temples built in the area had one of these rooms. The Cambodian people believe thumping your chest in an echo chamber will bring you good luck, so you will often see people without guides, beating their chests in every room in a temple like some sort of crazed gorilla to try and find the echo chamber. Opposite the echo chambers, Sarom also pointed out 4 dried up pools, one representing each element, water, earth, wind and fire. When people came to worship at the temple, they would clean themselves first in the pool that represented the element they belonged to, based on their year of birth.

Before leaving Angkor Wat, we climbed up to the highest point in the temple. We were lucky to be able to do this as this area of Angkor Wat was only opened up to the public a few months ago. Before climbing to the top, each person had to be reasonably dressed meaning no skirts above the knees, no bare shoulders and no hats to be worn. Even though Jenni was wearing a top with sleeves she made sure that she was well covered up with her Krama (traditional Cambodian scarf) that she purchased at the markets the night before. One girl was not so lucky and was refused entry because she was wearing a pair of short shorts that she had tried to cover up by tying a sarong around her waste, however the sarong was not quite long enough. The steps up to the top of the temple were extremely steep. They are made so steep on purpose so you cannot walk down the steps with your back facing the temple as this action would have been deemed disrespectful. Fortunately a set of tourist friendly wooden steps that are not quite as steep have been built (although these are still very steep too). We were glad to get into the shade of the temple at the top as it was swelteringly hot outside. Angkor Wat was by far the hottest temple we visited, probably due to the fact that the area around the temple has been completely cleared of trees, leaving it with no shade, and its dark volcanic stone blocks soak up the hot sun all day long.

After a quick bit of entertainment by the local monkeys at the back of Angkor Wat, we drove over to the temple Ta Prohm. This temple is famous for two reasons. It is famous for being very overgrown by the jungle, so overgrown that a whole tree is growing on top of one of the structures. The tree in question is so entwined with the structure of the building that it cannot be cut down because its roots are actually holding the building together. The other reason this temple is famous is because some scenes in the first Tomb Raider movie were shot here. Apparently the movie company had to pay a couple of million dollars to have the whole Ta Prohm area to themselves for only half a day to shoot the scenes, although they spent many weeks prior setting up the project, during which tourists were allowed to pass through.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was set up in a traditional Khmer style house that was raised on stilts. During lunch we were joined by a cheeky cat who lazed around on top of some of the tables. When our food came out, she was quick to jump onto the seat by our side and beg for something to eat. After getting a piece of scrap chicken, she wouldn't leave us alone. She eventually jumped up onto our table, started inching closer to my plate and then got ejected from the area by one of the staff members. She reminded us so much of our own misbehaving kitty cat, squealing as she was carted away.

That afternoon we spent exploring the ancient capital of Angkor Thom. Even though the city was quite large, only stone ruins of a couple of temples and structures still remain. We walked over the terrace of elephants, a stone walkway that looked onto a field with towers opposite. From this terrace, the king would watch parades and various forms of entertainment including tightrope walkers that walked from tower to tower on the other side of the field. Carvings of elephants wrestling with beasts such as lions and boars line the bottom of the terrace suggesting that one of the forms of entertainment was warriors riding atop of elephants, hunting game in the field lying opposite the king. A short distance from the terrace of elephants was the terrace of the leper king. This was a tall winding walkway covered on one side with faces, some of them quite gruesome. There is an argument over the purpose of this place in Angkor Thom. One belief is that it was a quarantine area for people suffering from leprosy, the other that it was a crematorium.

At this point in the afternoon, the rain would not hold out any longer, so we had to don our ponchos. The whole of Angkor Thom was pretty much deserted at this stage, making our adventurous group of 3 more willing to put up with the rain. We walked through the city past a couple of smaller temples, walkways and a set of pools used by the city's citizens to bath in. As the rain was easing we arrived at one of the temples that we had been most looking forward to, Bayon. You may not be familiar with the name, but you may be familiar with all of the stone faces. This temple has many towers in it, each with a set of four large stone faces, facing in all directions. Walking around this temple, with all of the faces looking at you, makes you feel as if you are walking through an evil witch's castle in some sort of fantasy story. The place is fantastic for photos, so we made sure to get plenty of them. Sarom pointed out some of the best spots that professional photographers like to use, so we managed to get some really good ones like the one with the 3 faces all in a row. A popular type of photo is one of someone facing one of the statues in the background with the photo taken giving the illusion of your nose touching the statue's. Jenni and I have agreed that this temple was our favourite of all of the ones we visited in the Angkor region.
Our visit to Bayon marked the end of our first day of visiting the temples in the Angkor region. 

That evening we had a very cheap dinner at one of the little places on the side of the road. It only cost $1 USD for Jenni's plate of tasty noodles and veggies. That evening I suddenly woke up with a fever and spent the night keeping Jenni awake (and probably the rest of the guesthouse) while making horrible retching noises and reluctantly re-experiencing that evening's dinner. I can assure you that it didn't taste anywhere near as good on the way back up.

In the morning, Jenni went down to meet Sarom and Sanny and explained that I was in no state to go out for the day and organised for us to resume our visit to the temples in a couple of days time. Over the next few days, we did not get up to much as I spent most of it lying in bed, while Jenni made regular visits to an Irish pub in Pub Street to get her lunch and use the internet to keep our family up to date with our progress. The only thing that happened during these days worth mentioning is that I managed to learn how to solve the 4x4 Rubik's cube. Three days, plenty of rest, a course of antibiotics for gastro and a few jacket potatoes at the Irish pub later, I was felling good enough to venture out to the temples again, so we resumed our guided tour with Sarom and Sanny.

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