Sunday, 13 October 2013

Siem Reap and the Temple(s) of Angkor

Firstly I would like to apologise for the terrible Indiana Jones-esque title of this blog (blame Rob). Secondly I would like to apologise for the amount of time that has passed between blogs but we've been pretty busy and haven't had particularly good internet access.

So where we left off, we were leaving Phnom Penh and about to head to Siem Reap which is in the North of Cambodia and is mostly visited as a jumping off place to see the Angkor complex of temples. Here you will find Angkor Wat which is the most famous and one of the biggest and most recognised temples in the world. We took the 6-hour daytime bus ride from Phnom Penh (there is an option to take a 12-hour bus through the night but we decided against that one) which took nearer seven hours by the time the driver had navigated the ridiculously potholed and bumpy roads (safe to say, we both bashed our heads off the ceiling a few times).

We arrived at our new hostel, Mad Monkey, in the early afternoon and went to get some food in their rooftop, beach-themed bar complete with sand...

 After cleaning off our feet, we went for a walk around Siem Reap to find a ghost town. When we visited there was a 3-day national holiday in Cambodia so everyone had shut up shop to head home and spend time with their families. Because of this, we opted to go to the hostel BBQ for dinner which they were hosting that night. We had a few drinks with some other travellers and a couple of rounds of beer pong with one of them, David from Switzerland, before heading to bed. 

For the following day, we had organised with a tuk tuk driver to do a day-and-a-half tour of the angkor temples. The tickets range in price from $20 for a one-day pass to $100 for a week pass. A good cost-cutting tip is to go and buy your tickets at about 4pm one day and you can visit for sunset that day and still use the pass for the whole of the next day. We got picked up at about 3.45pm and taken to the ticket office. We decided to visit Angkor Wat for sunset and then again the next morning for sunrise as this is supposed to give you some good photo opportunities and it is one of the larger and more accessible temples. We drove by a lake through the park but didn't get our first glimpse of the temple until we pulled up to it because of the huge number of trees surrounding it. Unfortunately, because of the looming cloud which arrived at about 4pm, we weren't expecting to get the best views of the sunset. It was very quiet, apart from the hoards of children selling trinkets, so we were able to get a good view of the temple, albeit without the promised sunset.

We headed back for a quick bite at a local rooftop cafe and an early night (complete with a standard flood and powercut-welcome to Cambodia) ready for a 5am start the next day to try and see sunrise at the temple (hopefully this time without the cloud). We stumbled bleary-eyed and groggy from the hostel and into our tuk-tuk. We made the 15 minute journey back to Angkor Wat in the dark and the crowds were there as expected (although it was quieter than expected with it being low season). We found our position behind the reflection pools, and waited for the sun to come up, thankfully with a lot less cloud cover than the day before! It may be a cliché to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, but when you come to Cambodia it is something you have to do and the pictures we got were definitely worth it! Here is a couple of the many which we took...

After sunrise, we noticed that most of the people on guided tours were heading back out for some rest before tackling the interior of Angkor Wat. We decided to make the most of this opportunity and went inside to the almost deserted ruins. We walked through the entrance gate to see the 3 towers behind it. Angkor Wat is the image on the Cambodian flag so it was really cool to see it as it's an image that we've seen numerous times over the last couple of weeks. Getting through the main gate and the many corridors winding through the temple, we eventually reached the courtyard (avoiding the many women enticing tourists to buy offerings for the Buddhas for 10$!!) and circled the gardens surrounding it. It was cool to see in the early morning light when we were practically the only ones there and exploring the ruins did make you feel like you were in an adventure movie (hence the title of this blog). 

We crossed the moat back to the main entrance and met our tuk tuk driver at the late time of 6.45am! Tiredness was starting to kick in at this stage so he took us for breakfast at one of the many makeshift restaurants in the area. As a warning, be aware that these are very overpriced and breakfast will set you back about 6$ but there isn't any other option in terms of food. A second warning, there are a huge number of stray dogs ambling around and they will come to you looking for food. 

After breakfast and some much needed coffee, we headed further into the complex to visit the second most famous area, Angkor Thom, which is an ancient, capital city complete with multiple temples, a royal palace and some other ruined archaeological wonders. Along the way we spotted several monkeys running wild and looking for unsuspecting tourists to steal from...

First stop within Angkor Thom was Bayon which is in the very centre of the city and is almost as large as Angkor Wat. Bayon is comprised of numerous pillars and towers, each with four faces on them looking out in all directions. The carvings are very impressive and apparently similar to the King of the time. It's also well-preserved although the numerous tourists climbing on it every day can't be doing it much good. Taking in the carvings around the perimeter, some depicting stories from the time, we delved deeper into the ruin to see some of the inner structure. 

It's also possible to take an elephant ride from Bayon to Baphuon which was our next stop, but we opted not to as the elephants looked in a very poor condition. Instead, we walked and saw a huge number of monks, a Buddha shrine and more insects than we care to think about on the way. Baphuon is one of the smaller and slightly lesser-known temples, although it is still a pretty big tourist attraction. It's known as the worlds biggest jigsaw puzzle, as it was deconstructed during the Khmer Rouge regime, but was put back together by a team of archaeologists and reopened to the public in the late 1990s. There was a long walkway across a field to the pyramid-like temple which ended at the gardens on the exterior of the temple. Following a wander around, you could then walk in and up the narrow flights of stairs to the three levels of the temple. This afforded a great view across the grounds, but getting down the same staircases was definitely a challenge. 

Following Baphuon, we walked the km or so back along the road to meet our Tuk Tuk driver passing some other key sights on the way. Firstly we saw the Royal Palace and Pagoda which isn't as well-preserved as other buildings and is very difficult to climb due to the moss-covered stairs and decaying walls. 

In front of this, you walk along the Terrace of the Elephants, which as the name suggests has numerous stone-carved elephant statues and some pictures similar to that of Bayon, along a huge walkway. Again, this is in a state of quite bad disrepair, but you can still make out quite a lot of what was once there (after you've leaped across many mud puddles).

We exited Angkor Thom through the large gates which had Bayon-esque faces on them, towards the final temple on our agenda, Ta Prohm. This is a couple of kms further away and is famous because of the trees which have grown on the temple with their roots growing into the stonework. It has been used as a set for a couple of films including Tomb Raider, and is perhaps the temple which most makes you feel like you are exploring true ruins. 

Unfortunately, this temple was the busiest of all the ones we visited, both with sellers and tourists, so to enter you had to dodge a barrage of 'hello ladees' and push past the group leaders waving brightly coloured umbrellas in the air. Finding a good spot to take photos without other tourists in, proved quite difficult, particularly in the famous area of the 'empty doorway' where there is a open doorway with a tree growing over it. We did eventually manage however...

After about 8 hours of exploring, and with it not quite yet being 2pm, we were exhausted so headed back to the hostel. After a quick lunch, I went for a gigantic nap while Rob made himself stay awake. When I eventually woke up, we went for some more delicious Khmer food (that tells you how long I slept for) Rob is essentially living off Steak with Kampot pepper which is a speciality out here. I had a red curry which was also delicious, rounded off with some tropical fruit platters. Some classic 80s tunes were also playing including Lady in Red, which some of you may know as Robs favourite song (loser). 

The next day, Siem Reap flooded again after some more particularly heavy rain, so we were grateful that the weather had been good for our visit to Angkor. We went to a local restaurant called GreenStar which is a non-profit restaurant that puts proceeds towards housing street kids. Our food was delicious and it's a great cause to support. After this we went for a wander around the local markets and got some Christmas shopping done to take home with us! The next day we were planning on heading to Sihanoukville so we had an early night to prepare for the 11-hour 7am coach ride.

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