11.01.2009 - 16.01.2009 24 °C
The Angkor ruins feature heavily in most South East Asian itineraries. A vast area covered with hundreds of temples, all served from the hub town of Siem Reap. Whilst some will pass through here on their backpacking tour and camp down at a guest house, those with money to burn can pay over $1,000 per night for a suite in a luxury hotel. This was the location with the most tourists we had visited so far, and as such had the best airport and easiest visa application process. Being Cambodia, we'd expected a crazed rabble of tuk tuk drivers at the airport exit, but it turned out to be a carefully orchestrated and civilised affair. It appeared that the drivers weren't allowed in to the arrivals terminal. We suppose this is to spare the rich elite the indignity of having to engage with the locals while they're ushered into a limo. We had arranged through our hostel for a tuk tuk to pick us up, but someone else nabbed it and left us a bit stranded. After waiting nearly 40 minutes for our free ride, we gave up and took a taxi instead, which was compensated by the lovely Mr Khun, the manager of Jasmine Lodge. And so, from our air con cab, we were offered a glimpse of how the other half lives, with huge, ostentatious, gold hotels lining the road into town. We had been warned that these resorts were becoming increasingly common and the town was starting to feel over-run by them, but to see them in person is another thing - there were so many of them, both fully operational and still under construction, and the various levels of completion indicate that the developers have no intentions of letting up any time soon.
We spent the first day mostly at the hostel, hanging out and planning our visits to the temples. One of the tuktuk drivers, Phat (pronounced Pat, not Fat), gave us loads of advice and seemed very knowledgeable and very friendly, so we hired his services for three days to show us around. The staff at Jasmine Lodge were without doubt, the friendliest in any of the hostels we've stayed in so far. The manager, Mr Khun (who used to be a guide himself) was very knowledgeable and Hak, who seemed to be his right hand man, was fantastic. Both spoke impeccable English, although Hak amusingly had a bit of a kiwi accent! That night we had a stroll around the old town, which was still fairly unspoiled despite all the resorts we had seen on the outskirts. There is a very French feel to the place, especially the architecture, which isn't surprising really, given the history. There were a few markets selling the usual tourist souvenirs, silks and fake lonely planet guide books, and in the centre there was a high concentration of bars and restaurants on what is officially named "Pub Street"
Angkor Watt is the undoubtedly the most famous temple associated with this area, and some people just come to visit that single large site, which is represented on the Cambodian flag. To visit any of the sites, you buy a pass from one central location and can either buy a one, three or seven day ticket. We decided to visit over three days, at $40 each, which hopefully afforded us enough time to really explore without getting temple fatigue.
Phat, our tuktuk driver wasn't a guide as such, but he knew his stuff and gave us loads of info as we arrived at each place, and a few times, when he was able to, accompanied us around. We had bought a book in the market on the first night, which gave lots of info about each of the temples, so we took our time at each site as we read through the description and the history provided. If you are visiting alone (i.e. not part of a tour group) and are unable to pay for a guide as well, it's well worth investing in a good book so that you do have some background information - only a couple of the sites had decent information boards when you arrive, and even they were lacking in detail when compared to the book.
Phat and the tuktuk
It would be impossible and probably very boring to go through each temple, describing it and our experience there, but we can assure you that we were astounded; amazed; astonished and thoroughly impressed with the sheer volume, size, design and overall feel of the place. Phat was very experienced and knew when the tour groups would be visiting each temple so he helped us avoid the crowds. So much so, that quite often we where the only people exploring a site.
Angkor Watt was very impressive, but the Bayon temple, which has the huge columns featuring faces on each side, was one of our favourites. Another was the temple featured in the Tomb Raider film, which had huge trees growing up through the roofs, their root systems enveloping the structures, slowly tearing them apart over periods of decades, if not centuries. This is not the only temple that has this feature though, and it turned out to be quite common at the smaller, less prestigious sites where there's less funding available for restoration. Phat informed us that the Cambodians call them 'Useless Trees' as they literally have no use - they can grow very quickly but nothing can be made from their wood and they don't even burn well enough to be useful as firewood.
One of the Bayon faces
As one of the most amazing places we have ever had the fortune to visit, it feels that we should write more about how it affected us and just how utterly spectacular the place was, but it's just so hard to put all this into words. We feel so incredibly lucky to have seen all these amazing things. We quite often take a moment to reflect on what we're seeing while we're seeing it, to try and take it all in and understand and appreciate what we're doing. There were plenty of these moments where we stood on top of Buddhist stupas, surveying the amazing scenery around us.
We have also fallen in love with Cambodian people. There is a childlike quality to their culture, where grown men play fight in the street, groups of adults whoop and cheer as they play games (like football, badminton and hackey-sack with a shuttlecock) in the street, and families seem to have so much love for one another. We smiled so much on our first day wandering the streets that our faces hurt. Our cynical sides wondered whether this is just the tourist effect and whether we were seen as just great big dollar signs walking around. Our experience in the Philippines had been quite the opposite though, where it seemed that the more touristy a place was, the more the tourists were treated with disdain. We were intrigued to find out whether Cambodians elsewhere were this friendly and open. Phat, the tuk tuk driver that showed us the ruins, was a great guy, and as he is the same age as us it was nice to chat and draw comparisons on our lives.
Our social life was non-existent. We were so wiped out each night from the long days that we just ended up chilling out in front of the TV in our room. We had planned to just spend four days there and then move straight on but we ended up extending for a day to recover and plan our journey to the south of Cambodia. It was nice to be able to just chill out at our hostel and just recouperate before the long bus journey to Sihanoukville.
The subplots of the week are..........
Our second day in, the camera toppled over on the tripod and despite the tiny fall of about 2 inches, the lens wouldn't retract and the camera wouldn't turn on, leaving us worried and annoyed that we wouldn't be able to take any more photos. Nothing seemed to make the thing work, and at that moment we felt like the very worst luck had befallen us. Anna committed the cardinal sin of electrical equipment, and forcibly pushed on the lens mechanism, which snapped it back into place without any problems, fixing the camera. Cue us both running around the room shouting 'it's fixed, it's fixed'!
Another near miss, Anna fell awkwardly while jumping around a ruin and twisted her ankle. This was the first official injury of the trip, but was dealt with swiftly and bravely and had no effect on the temple visits, especially as it was towards the end of the third day. A few ibuprofen and a couple of pints and it was soon forgotten. There seemed to be loads of people hobbling around with ankle or foot injuries, so it seems quite common. The ruins are pretty dangerous in places and us westerners are so used to having health and safety regulations everywhere, warning us where to be careful, that it is all too easy to forget that you are responsible for looking after yourself.
When we returned to the room on the second day we found a mouse sitting quite brazenly on a pile of Anna's things. Anna was very calm and knew immediately how to handle the situation - she asked Brads to sort it out, who promptly removed the mouse and deposited it outside on the street. The next day we found a little dead mouse under the bed, Brads didn't need any prompting this time and quickly took care of it. Both of us are improving when it comes to creepy crawlies and such like, Anna becoming more swift at pointing it out and Brads relenting quicker to the fact that it is his responsibility to be brave and remove the offending article.