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Angkor What?
Rating : ( 4.8 )

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Oct 04, 2003 03:45

Pros: beautiful temples, friendly people, awesome Angkor
Cons: sad history

Saturday 4th October
Last night was a nightmare - I barely slept a wink in our horrible little guest house with no air conditioning. I must have eventually fallen asleep because I woke up sticking to the bed by someone knocking at the door, which was just as well as we'd slept through the alarm. It was a 7.00am bus and luckily it was fairly empty and we got 2 seats each - we were the only westerners on the bus. It was a very uncomfortable journey but I managed to sleep at bit. I woke up as the bus stopped at what looked like a local market somewhere. The bus was just moving off when I noticed someone holding a sign with our names on it. We were just able to stop the bus and get off. We found a lovely guesthouse with air con - yippee! As an example of how tired I was this is how one conversation went. We noticed a sign on the wall saying the guesthouse would be showing Cambodian movies every night at 8.00pm. Hamish said he'd quite like to watch one, I then looked around the room for a TV, before saying "so where's the TV then?". Needless to say we were actually sitting watching TV at the time!!!

I slept for a couple of hours before we got motorbike taxi's out to Angkor Wat and climbed up a steep, worn stairway to Phnom Bakheng Temple to watch the sunset. It was a bit cloudy with lots of tourists around - but still good! Back in town we decided to go and see Beatocello, a swiss doctor who has founded 3 hospitals for children in Cambodia. He played some songs on his cello and discussed the plight of the Cambodian children. He also showed a couple of films about the hospitals and what went on there. It was very moving.

Sunday 5th October
It was an early start today so we could see as much of Angkor Wat as possible. Angkor Wat is an area 77sq miles in size full of temples built by the Khymers over the space of about 600 years.

Our first temple was Banteay Srei which was about 16km out of Siem Reap, but it was a nice ride of the back of a bike. This temple was built in 967 and there were hundreds of intricate carvings all over the stonework. It was in the process of being restored, but a lot of the relics had been destroyed by the Khymer Rouge or stolen. It was said to have been carved by women as it was so intricate.

A quote from the Odyessy Angkor Guide book summed it up nicely:
"Banteay Srei is an exquisite minature: a fairy palace in the heart of an immense and mysterious forest: the very thing that Grimm delighted to imagine, and that every child's heart has yearned after, but which maturer years has sadly proved too lovely to be true. And here it is, in the Cambodian forest at Banteay Srei, carved not out of the stuff that dreams are made of, but of solid sandstone."

We got back on the bikes and headed back towards Siem Reap. All the way, you occasionally see an old ruined temple peaking out from the forest. The next temple we stopped at was Ta Prohm which was built in 1186.

"Ta Prohm's state of ruin is a state of beauty which is investigated with delight and left with regret. But one can always come again and one always does."

It was at this beautiful and unusal temple, surrounded by trees growing in and around the ruined stonework that we met the Lonely Planet Man, who can be seen on the front of the latest edition of the Cambodian Lonely Planet. He was happy enough to let us have our picture taken with him, before we spent quite a while wandering in and out the temple, marvelling at how nature can both tear mans work apart but at the same time confine it within it's clutches.

Our next stop was Angkor Thom which was actually a city. It was a huge area full of temples and palaces. We walked along the Leper King Terrace and the Elephant Terrace. At this point some local kids took it upon themselves to become our tour guides. They showed us the lost jungle temple where the Khymer Rouge bombed a tower containing a large buddha. The buddha has been put back together on the ground with a new head. There were parts of the buddha still in the tower. We then walked along to Baphoun which was built at the end of the 12th Century. It was undergoing major construction, but from the pictures you could see that it was a mighty structure in it's day.
Bayon was another temple nearby and this was my favourite, succinctly summed up as follows:

"We stand before it stunned. It is like nothing else in the land.".
And stunned I was. It was awesome. Built in the late 12th Century from some kind of grey stone that on greater inspection showed the most intricate carvings on every surface. It was fun wandering through the temple, up and down steep stairways, through courtyards and along narrow, dark corridors.

Our last temple was Angkor Wat, the temple that most people have probably seen pictures of or heard of. My first impression as we entered the walls of the temple was how vast it was. It may not be quite as impressive as some of the other temples we'd seen, but just the sheer size of it was enough to take your breath away.

"An impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal."

Inside we climbed up to the middle of 5 towers. The steps were so steep that I actually felt quite sick as I looked back down, but the view from the top over the whole Wat was stunning. Such a huge structure, built so many hundreds of years ago, with such detail and craftmanship, in an age when modern building equipment was unavailable makes the mind boggle.

After having quite enough of temples for one day we headed back to Siem Reap via the Land Mine Museum. This museum was shut by the government a number of years ago on the grounds that it was dangerous. Not long after it was shut the government opened their own, overpriced museum. The museum can still be visited today and just runs on donations. The museum is an amazing place run by a former Khymer Rouge soldier, Akira. At 5 years old both his parents were killed by the Khymer Rouge. He was kept by the army as a soldier and he was taught how to plant landmines. Now in his 30s he spends his time travelling the country removing the landmines that he himself helped plant. The museum shows many of these mines along with stories of children who have been wounded by stepping on the mines. Akira takes in children wounded by mines, sends them to school and provides them with a better future. You can visit his website at http://www.landmine-museum.com where there is a brief history of Cambodia and it's wars.

Cambodia is a country of dramatic contrasts where I plan to return to in the near future. It's amazing that a race of people can construct something as awesome as Angkor and can also carry out atrocities on a scale so horrific it's almost unimaginable.

Back to Bangkok now!