Friday, 12 August 2011

Temples of Angkor

Ta Prohm
John and I took a boat up the river from Battambang to Siem Reap, passing through rural communities, floating villages and some stunning scenery. The trip was expected to take 7  hours but it took almost 10, largely due to us having the Derek Zoolander of water-based transport. The delay just gave John more time to make me feel even more guilty for bartering with a small child for a can of coke the previous day (you can take me out of the City, but...).
We based ourselves, as most Angkor visitors do, at Siem Reap just a few km from the Angkor complex, and it was far nicer than I imagined for a tourist trap town. Lots of money flows through here - temple day passes are $20, which is an order of magnitude higher than all the other attractions in Cambodia - and it has largely translated into investment in the town. While Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the most famous of all Khmer temples, the larger area holds several other temples and religious sites, not to mention the hundreds more dotted around Cambodia and even stretching into eastern Thailand.

We spent the first day exploring the less visited temples on the outskirts of complex, which we pretty much had to ourselves: Lolei, Preah Ko, Bakong, Ta Prohm and (eventually) Prasat Prei Monte, the latter being one our tuk tuk driver was loath to visit and proceeded to concoct all sorts of excuses (even trying to convince us that a small pile of stones near the car park was the ruins we were looking for, before sheepishly relenting). Prasat Prei Monte had the real feel of jungle ruins - not a person in sight, covered with vines and thick cobwebs, hidden away down a makeshift trail. Every little rustle caught our ears, half expecting to see a flashing glimpse of snakes or feral children scampering into the undergrowth. Ta Prohm was nature at its rawest, with vines, bushes and even whole trees jostling for space with the ruins. It was like something out of Tomb Raider, which is apt because it was actually used as a location in the film.

Preah Ko

Ta Prohm

Plenty of little Cambodian kids peddling their parents wares and tugging on our heartstrings. Once you were embroiled in a conversation a soft drink purchase was pretty much guaranteed. Most went along the lines of:
"Where you from?"

Being Welsh, John was finding it difficult to forgo his national pride and pretend to be from London for the sake of making these conversations easier (saying you're from Wales just gets blank stares). When he finally cracked, answering "I'm from the UK, about 150 miles west of London", and got the reply "Cardiff?" he was so overjoyed it was soft drinks all round.

The next day, our temple appetites sufficiently whetted, we headed straight for Angkor Wat. After fighting through the tour groups (we couldn't be bothered to get up at 5am to beat the crowds and catch an overcast, gloomy sunrise) we caught sight of the iconic building... plus scaffolding, which made getting the perfect photo a little tricky. Next up was the Bayon where seemingly everywhere you look you're being watched by several huge stone heads (216 in total) all smiling rather eerily, and supposedly modeled on the face of Avalokiteshvara.

Angkor Wat

 I expected Angkor Wat itself to be the highlight, and even with the crowds and repair work this was a fantastic sight, but on its own it didn't overwhelm me. However the temple complex as a whole was magnificent - the scale and the variety in the structures, each one brimming with "how did they do that?" stonework and surrounded by untamed jungle. I should probably stick to more pictures, fewer words to really do it justice.

Preah Khan
Next up, a short trip into Thailand, for visa reasons, and through to northern Laos. 

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