Following our stint in Battambang we moved on to Siem Reap, the gateway to ancient Angkor. The bus journey was surprisingly smooth and we settled into our accommodation at the Luxury Concept Hostel.I could be tempted to say that the hostel was the best bit of the trip: only $6 a night, but with double bunk beds that were like heaven to sleep in, and a decent shower and wifi. It’s not often you get all three. I’m easily pleased.
If you’ve seen the Cambodian flag then you’ll know that Angkor Wat is the country’s national symbol. Built early in the 12th century, by King Suryavarman II, in case you were interested, Angkor was once the capital of the powerful Khmer Empire that stretched into most of modern Thailand, Laos and even Vietnam. Impressive stuff. My guidebook tells me that back in the heyday there were one millions inhabitants in Angkor whilst London was home to just a measly 50 000. Don’t fortunes change eh? Everyone tells you to make a trip at sunrise or sunset so we booked our tuk tuk for the next day and had an early night.
Getting up at 4:30 am was not pleasant. We’d left our clothes out ready and packed our bags but stumbling around in the dark hostel room and trying not to wake up the other guests was a challenge. Outside, there were tuk tuks all over the place at 5 am and there was something quite exciting about travelling in dark, especially once we reached the walkway over the moat to the main complex. You felt like a part of a pilgrimage and could just about make out the the distinct outline of Angkor Wat ahead.
Grainy as granary bread. Sadly I don’t own a swanky camera with all the guns and bells.
As the sky began to brighten, there was a bit of a change of mood as you could see just how many people there were. The constant barrage of guests bustling around trying to capture the best pictures did detract from the ambience. A lot of people also means litter, stalls and sellers pestering you to buy books which really takes the edge off a moment like this. I found myself thinking of An Idiot Abroad:
“Yeah, you don’t see that in the brochure, do you? Shitty old nappy whizzing through the air. They tend to leave that out.”
I didn’t see any nappies, but you get the gist. He’s no Alfred Lord Tennyson but you’ve got to give it to Karl Pilkington; he often hits the nail on the head. Nevertheless, you couldn’t fail to be amazed by the spectacle of the imposing silhouette against the changing colours of the sky. It was somewhat cloudy, so we didn’t get the breath taking moment of seeing the sun emerge among the towers, which we later saw in the pictures of our friends, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
The temple faces unusually faces west, unlike other Khmer temples, thought by some experts to be in honour of the Buddhist deity Vishnu, the protector. The Khmers were, and still are largely, Theravada Buddhists, so some of the names and images we saw were familiar from our little knowledge of Indian culture.
Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples is vast and, including the moat is roughly 1.5km squared, pretty amazing I think. Walking through the endless passages you can only think how on earth did they build this 1000 years ago? Our budgeting didn’t afford us a tour guide, so I can’t tell you much about the symbolism (although the Angkor Museum would later fill in our knowledge gaps) but it didn’t come as a surprise when we learned that the temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods; heaven. There’s something other-worldly about the place especially in the earlier hours of the morning.
Ankor Thom was our next destination. It’s a walled city built a few decades later, by a new fella called Jayavarman VII, and some regard it as more impressive than Angkor Wat. I’m not sure if I’d agree, but there’s no doubt that Bayon, the spiritual heart of Angkor Thom, is pretty awe-inspiring. There are incredibly detailed bas-reliefs depicting real-life, historical and religious scenes. The one below was enormous and the detail is astounding. It’s amazing how little it’s eroded over time. I think this one is supposed to be a battle between the Khmers and Chams (the empire of historic South Vietnam). What’s even more incredible are the face carvings, 216 to be exact, which are thought to be modelled on the king’s.
Khmers vs Chams
Perhaps Bayon seemed less inspiring because of the sheer number the of tourists. Of course, you’d expect a place like this to be super busy, but it’s the behaviour that gets really annoying, mostly because you have to fight through the jungle of selfie sticks and posers to get a good look at anything. I hate to generalise but Asian tourists are obsessed with photos! I mean, sure, Western tourists are too, but not on the same level. I say this from my experience of living in Hanoi too, where teachers would interrupt my lessons to take a photograph with me. (In fact this brilliant info graphic just sums it up: http://www.visualnews.com/2013/10/02/east-meets-west-infographic-portrait-yang-liu/) Here was no exception.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken a plethora of photos myself since being abroad. I love looking back at pictures and creating memories. But I’d like to think my friends and I don’t:
a) hold up everybody else by taking individual pictures of each group member before we’ve even got onto creating an array of group photos in several different poses.
b) spend five minutes trying to take the perfect selfie, then hit our friends when they photobomb us for a laugh.
c) start climbing all over the monuments for an impressive snap. It did make me wonder where our $20 entry fee was going to, as having thousands and thousands of people climbing all over the stone everyday can’t be helping with preservation.
I swear some people live their lives behind a camera!
We moved onto Phnom Bakheng Temple. This is one is particularly tall and involved A LOT of climbing. We were impressed to see a Japanese ‘OAP’ climbing it with his granddaughter. Respect to him. Especially as the steps were uneven narrow and super steep. It was a nice view from the top too.
It might only have been 10:00 but after this one we were baking from the heat and the constant climbing that comes with temple trekking. We’d had enough but our tuk tuk driver insisted we see one more, this time Ta Promh, the one made famous in Tomb Raider, not that I’ve ever seen it. It was pretty huge and required a good walk to get all the way through it. I was too hot and bothered to have a proper look at this one but the way the building was engulfed with tree roots was memorable.
After this one we really were done in and asked if we could go to the museum instead for a break and to cool off. The first destination was the cafe where we crashed for a good hour and chugged down some sugar and coffee to try to revive our drained bodies. The museum cost $12 which I thought was pretty extortionate. I mean, I get that’s it’s an important place, but often you wonder where and to whom all the money goes to.
Even so. I’ll admit it was a great museum. Often in Asia I’ve found that museums have some interesting photos and artefacts but not enough information. It was definitely something we found in many of the Hanoi museums. This one, on the other hand provides plenty of contextual info regarding the Khmer Empire and what Theravada Buddhism is all about, and the exhibitions are colourful and well organised.
After the museum we were well and truly burned out so returned to the hostel were I fell asleep instantly for a good two hours. We met some Welsh guys later on in the hostel and exchanged their stories from Thailand with ours from Vietnam. They were sociable guys so got talking with the old man who was in the bed opposite mine. His name was Bruce and he was a retired Presbyterian priest enjoying his chance to travel and other freedoms, although ‘don’t get any ideas,’ he said. The one Welshie said ‘well, I think you’re possibly one of the most interesting people we’ve met so far Bruce.’ He certainly was a character. He was one of many we’ve seen on the road who prove that travelling isn’t just for twenty-something year old backpackers.
We spent the evening with some friends from Hanoi before returning back to bed again. I’d just finished sorting myself out in the bathroom before bed and was walking back to my bunk when one of the Welsh guys ‘pssst’ at me. He said ‘have you seen Bruce?’ I shook my head. ‘His **** is hanging out his pants.’
Never a dull moment.