Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor Part 2

We met Sanny and Sarom early in the morning for our second day of seeing the temples. It turned out that Sanny's son had also fallen sick on the same day that I did, but he was feeling much better by then too. We headed out of Siem Reap and made our way to the temple area. As we entered the area, a ticket officer stopped our tuk tuk to check our passes. As you may recall from our last post, Jenni and I had purchased 3 day passes. We weren't worried about them being expired as of yet because when we bought them, the sign at the ticket office stated that the $40 USD ticket was good for 3 days, with a 7 day expiry. When the ticket officer said we couldn't get in because our ticket had an expiry date of the day prior printed on the front, we got into a big argument, pointing out that on the back of the ticket it even states that the ticket is good for 7 days from the purchase date (which was also printed on the front). Eventually we were directed to the main ticketing office where we demanded to speak to the manager. A guy came out and we got into another huge argument with him, pointing out that his employee had wrongly given us a 3 consecutive day ticket (which costs the same as the 3 day, 7 day expiry ticket). My temper escalated when the cheeky bastard claimed that the person in charge was not around and he refused to let us talk to him/her on the phone, all the while smirking at us. We even pulled one of the tourist police officers into the argument and he was just as unwilling to see reason as all of the employees. At this stage I had lost my cool and was pretty much ready to hit the guy as he just would not listen to reason. Jenni was beside herself, no able to believe that they were being so unreasonable. We could see in his expression that he knew that his employees were in the wrong, but he was just too bloody stubborn to admit it. Angrily, we were left with little to no choice and were forced to purchase ANOTHER $40 USD ticket, which I sternly pointed out to the guy that it better be for 7 days expiry. The whole ordeal ruined the entire visit to the Angkor area for us. It wasn't the $40 USD that bothered us, it was the fact that they screwed up and were too stubborn to admit it. Incidentally, after we were finished visiting all of the temples we very nearly went back to the ticket office to cause a real fuss. In the end we elected not to go back as I was liable to loose my cool and do something that I would regret. We were also in fear that Sanny and Sarom may suffer the consequences of our actions and not be able to take people into the temple area.

With a solemn mood, we ventured to the distant temple of Banteay Srei. On the way, we passed the 3rd motorbike accident that we have witnessed in the past 2 months. A villager had fallen off their bike into the ditch on the side of the road. As we drove past, I said to Sarom and Sanny that we should stop and help. Sarom told us that we should avoid getting involved and that he could see that police officers were on their way. Looking around, we didn't see any police officers riding down the road, but we did see one person wearing what looked like army clothes helping a wounded lady out of the ditch, with blood dripping down her face. 

By the time we got to Banteay Srei, my anger had died down (although a week later, Jenni is still sour about the ticket incident - hell hath no fury like a woman  scorned!). This temple was very small in comparison to the others that we had seen, but it did have something special that set it out from the rest. The blocks that were used to construct this temple were made of pink sandstone. Not only did this temple have a very unique colour due to the pink stone, but it also had by far the most intricate carvings on its outer walls. The carvings were far more intricate and better preserved than any other of the temples that we saw during our visit to the Angkor temples. This level of preservation is attributed to the pink sandstone being far harder than the sandstone used on other temples, making it much more hardy to withstand the elements. Due to the intricate carvings, this temple has been nicknamed the "woman's" temple as the carvings upon it are so delicately preserved. 

On the way back to the main Angkor area, we visited a temple which was covered in thousands of little holes. It is believed that when this temple was built, all of the holes were used to house gems of many different colours. The gems were not only used to make the temple look beautiful, but would also help in illuminating the temple in the light of the moon. 

Back in the Angkor main area, we visited Sarom's favourite temple, Preah Neak Pean. This was not a temple as such, but still a place for worship. Four large pools surrounded a larger center pool. Inside the center pool was a small island where a tower which was used for worship stood. Each of the four surrounding pools represented an element; fire, water, fire and earth. At the edge of each pool was a small cave which housed a statue representing the pool's element, an elephant head for water, a horse head for air, a lion head for fire and a human head for earth. People wishing to worship at the central tower would bathe in the pool representing their element first and then bathe in the central pool while worshiping at the tower in the center. 

The next temple that we visited that afternoon was Preah Khan. This was one of the largest temples that we saw in the area. It is believed that it was built to protect the King's holy sword. The building in which the sword is believed to be kept sticks out from the rest of the temple structure, looking more like a building influenced by Roman or Greek architecture with its tall cylindrical columns all around the outside. The temple itself is built in the shape of a large cross, with each wing converging in the center. The center was the main location of worship, so to force people to bow down as they approached the middle, the doors would get progressively lower and lower as you moved closer and closer. Sarom told us that a few years ago one elderly lady hit her head on one of the door ways, passed out and nearly died due to not being able to get medical attention out to the remote area quick enough. Aside from the hallways leading up to the centre, most of the surrounding buildings have fallen down and a lot of the ruins have been overgrown by the jungle. The lack of other tourists, the many buildings lying in ruins and the overgrown jungle gave this temple a really authentic feeling.  

We finished off our second day of temple-seeing with a visit to the oldest temple in the Angkor area, Bakheng. It was the first to be built in the area when the capital city was moved from nearby Rolous to the Angkor region. This temple was built atop of the largest hill in the area and overlooks the entire Angkor park. During the peak season, this temple is visited by thousands of tourists at sunset. Sarom told us that people would arrive at the top of the temple to stake out a good spot on the western side as early as 3 hours prior to the sunset to get a good view. We visited the temple around 3pm, well before sunset. Due to it being the start of the rainy season here in Cambodia, there are not many tourists so it is not very difficult to get a good spot to watch the sunset from the top of Bakheng. Unfortunately because it is the rainy season, it is very unlikely that you can see the sunset anyway because the clouds hide it nearly every day. We were happy enough to take our time to enjoy the 15 minute walk up to the top of the hill and enjoy the view from the top in the middle of the afternoon. Like Angkor Wat, there are very steep steps rising to the top to force people to walk up and back down while facing the temple as to not be disrespectful. Unlike Angkor Wat, there are no tourist-friendly wooden steps leading up to the top, making it very hard work getting to the top. From the top we could see the large man-made lakes that were created to surround some of the temples. Nowadays they are all mostly dried up. We could also see some other temples like Angkor Wat in the distance. After a short stay we headed back down via the elephant's trail and headed back to Siem Reap for the night.

The next day we only spent half a day seeing temples. Sanny and Sarom took us to see some older temples built a short distance from the Angkor area. they were built in the region of the Rolous city, the capital city before Angkor. The first temple we saw was Lolei. This was built on a hill in the center of a huge man-made lake which has since dried up. Next to the ruins of the temple a Buddhist monastery and modern temple of worship have been built. Aside from a few monks walking around, we were the only people there to see the temple.

The next temple we saw was Preah Ko, the oldest known temple in Cambodia. This, as well as Lolei, had a different style of architecture to the temples we saw in the Angkor area. Instead of using large volcanic stone blocks, stacked on top of each other, this was constructed with smaller bricks using stucco (plaster) to stick them together. The tops of the 6 towers in this temple were falling to bits and all in need of restoration. One had recently undergone restoration as the whole top and pretty much crumbled away. We managed to get a couple of good photos of some of the local village kids were playing amongst the ruins.

Our final temple we saw on our visit was Bakong. It is surrounded by a large moat which has never dried up. Apparently the moat is home to a species of large turtles, although we didn't see any while there. Because of the constant supply of water, all of the trees around this temple look very green. This coupled with the water in the moat and the blue sky with wispy white clouds made this temple very colourful to look at. By this stage in the day, the sun was very bright and the lack of shade from any trees close to the temple made standing on the sunny side of the temple extremely hot. On the opposite side, we were able to sit in the shade and enjoy a cool breeze while enjoying the scenery. This was definitely a good one to finish our visit.

To show our appreciation for the past few days, we made sure to give Sanny and Sarom a generous tip. We spent the rest of the day trying to stay cool and humming and haaaing over going back to the ticketing booth to kick up a stir about what happened to us the day prior, but as mentioned previously, elected not to go.

That evening, I needed to get some cash out from an ATM to pay for our accommodation in Siem Reap. Jenni did not need to get any money out so elected not to stay in our room. The ATM that I needed to go to was a couple of blocks away from our guest house. On my way there, I noticed a tuk tuk drop off a couple of local "girls", wearing a lot of makeup and very short skirts. Most had their backs to me as they were disembarking from the carriage, but I did notice that one of them had rather broad shoulders for a young lady. Putting two and two together, I made sure I was well on my way down the street before these "ladies" of the night had got themselves orientated. By the time I was finished getting my money out from the ATM, I had completely forgotten about them and promptly started walking back the same way I came. By this stage, a few minutes later, they had sorted themselves out and were out on the prowl. Before I knew it, as I rounded a corner, one of them quickly stepped in front of me to say in a high pitch voice "Heellllloooooo". I quickly shook my head, smiled and said, "Errr, no thanks" and moved to walk around her / him. As I did this, he / she quickly turned around, put his / her arm around mine and started walking down the street arm in arm with me while making cooing noise. Flabbergasted, I quickly tore my arm away and cried in a disgusted voice "Eeewwwww! Noooooooo!." He / she giggled and left me be. Walking down the dim lit street back to our guest house, I was shaking my head thinking to myself "5 minutes by myself and I'm propositioned by a lady-boy, just my luck. It could have at least been by a girl, or at the very least looked like a girl.... kind of like the one walking toward me." As I passed the dark figure it asked me in a seductive girl's voice "Hi sir, where are you going?" I shook my head and squeaked, "No thanks" and quickened my pace to get back to the guest house where Jenni was waiting.

The next day was our last in Cambodia. We spent the morning stressing as we were still yet to hear back from the girl who was going to change our plane ticket to the flight that left that day because I was unable to make our previous booking due to being sick. In the end we managed to get hold of her on the phone about 2 hours before we needed to get to the airport and she was able to get us on the plane. Sanny picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off to the airport. In addition to our fare, we also gave him our motorbike helmets which we purchased in Vietnam as we did not want to kart them around anymore. He was very appreciative and said that his wife and sister in law would get good use out of them.  We spent the next hour waiting around in the very fancy airport for our plane to depart as it was delayed for a short while. We along with a couple of other American girls had to roll our eyes when an obnoxious big-headed American girl started showing off to her friends (and everyone else in the departure lounge) by loudly singing Disney songs. She even kept going while her friends had all lost interest, determined to show off her singing voice. To our relief our plane was finally ready for boarding and she ceased her bloody serenade. 

We didn't stay too long in Cambodia. We were in and out in less than 2 weeks. If I hadn't fallen sick, it would have been an even shorter than that. We are glad that we went as we saw some amazing things, especially in the Angkor area, but we don't think that we would come again. At no fault of its people, Cambodia is a very depressing place with a horrific recent history. It is terrible to say it, but Jenni and I felt very uncomfortable dealing with the extreme levels of poverty and being confronted face to face with the horrible scars, mutilations and deformations that many people here bear. It certainly has been an eye opener. The country is only really 10 years old (it only gained political independence and stability in 1998) and this has a long way to come in providing many of the things that we take for granted such as proper sewerage systems, 24 hour electricity and being able to walk through the bush without having to worry about stepping on a land mine. Even though many of the people in this country lack those things, they are among the most friendly and accommodating people we have met on our travels.

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