As I left Koh Tao with a lot of sadness at leaving behind some great friends and memories, I was also glad to be back on the road again with that feeling of anticipation for the next destination. My next country to visit was Cambodia for around 10 days before I would go home for a short break to see family and friends. Cambodia is a country which is both depressing yet inspiring. This is mainly due to its splendid and magnificent early years of the Khmer Civilisation, the terrors and atrocities of the Pol Pot’s recent years the continual corruption that is the present day but also a bright hopeful and optimistic future. After a short stop over with some friends from Koh Tao in Bangkok it was a bus journey to Siem Reap through the notorious Poipet crossing. The bus journey was a civil 8 hours and as we arrived at the border our bus driver warned up of pick pockets and thieves at the crossing along with “Welcome to Cambodia”!! As gambling is outlawed in Thailand the Poipet crossing is a mix of casinos and bars and a popular destination to gambling Thais and westerners.
Cambodia is north east of Thailand and cushioned within Laos and Vietnam it is around 181K sq km and 58m people. As soon as we crossed over the border and waded through the array of beggars and kids you had the feeling that you were in Cambodia. Our bus on the other side of the border was certainly a down grade but still comfortable if you like sitting on a park bench! The ride was only 3 hrs to Seim Reap and was a more comfortable one now that the road had proper tarmac. For many years the road had been in disarray due to the airlines bribing the government so that tourists would have to pay the extra $30 import tax. Also looking out through the window of the bus ride seeing the many houses on stilts reminded me of Laos. However I was expecting Cambodia to be a lot poorer than Laos but I guess the financial aid over the last 20 – 30 years had actually filtered down (although I am sure a lot had been creamed off through bribes), in fact the conditions to Seim Reap was much better and than any road in Laos.
Seim Reap is a town that is built out of tourism centred around one major landmark in the area which is Angkor Watt. Thanks to my cousin Nigel (who worked over here for a while) I was also aware that the town is used as a base for around 4 UXO (unexploded Landmines) organisations that are currently disarming landmines. In Cambodia 63,000 mine and UXO casualties have been recorded since 1979, and Cambodia has over 25,000 amputees – the highest ratio per capita of any country. Mainly due to the Vietnamese occupation in the 10 years from 1979 to defend the border of Cambodia to Thailand to defend against the Khmer and Thai forces an area of around 4500km² is still a potential death trap with so many (still the numbers of mines are unknown but potentially millions) unexploded landmines in the area.
I was staying in a nice guesthouse only 5km from the main attraction in the area and the next morning is was up bright and early in search of a tuk tuk driver to take me to Angkor. Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. The Tuk Tuk driver was easy to find, there were around 10 outside the guesthouse and after a small negotitating deal I was off around the temples for the whole day for $7. The entry fee was $20 to the temples and the temples attract around 1m vistors a year. The safest fact is that Angkor Wat is actually now owned by the Chinese as it was sold to them for $20m.
The Temples of Angkor built by the Khmer civilaization between 800 – 1220 AD and represent one of humans most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the then kings rulled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the bay of Bengal. With over a 100 temples these are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and adminisatrive metroplis that housed over 1 million people (London at the same time housed a mere 50,000 people). The main tmaples that I visited during my day pass were – Angkor Watt – This temple is 1,5 km² x 1,3km and built by Suryavarman ІІ and is considered the biggest Asian pyramid. It is 65m high and divided in several layers.
The central part has on the four corners four towers in the shape of a lotus flower. This temple is the largest and most breathtaking temple of the whole complex. The most famous decorations of Angkor are the heavenly nymphs (Apsara), there are more of 300, each one is unique and in total we can group them in 30 different styles. The central temple complex is an 800 meters long bas-reliefs, includes the Battle of Kurukshetra, the Army of Suryavarman II, Heaven and Hell, Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Elephant Gate, Vishnu Conquers the Demons, Khrisna and the demon King, Battle of the Gods and the Demons and the Battle of Lanka. Angkor Thom – one of the most atmospheric of the temples in Angkor Wat, which incorporates Bayon, Terrace of Elephants and also Baphoun. Situated over around 1km²it was a fortified city in itself and built by Jayavaram II in 1000AD.
The Bayon – Built by Jayavarman VII the temple stands in the center of Angkor Thom. With its 54 towers and 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara, this temple looks best in the morning just after sunrise or at the end of the afternoon as the sun shines on the faces. Its magic is does not appear from a distance, it looks more like a pile of stones. But coming close to the temple the faces start to appear and reveal its magic on you. The temple was built on 3 levels: the first 2 are rectangular, while the 3rd is circular. The Bayon has over 1.3 Km of bas-reliefs corresponding to more than 11.000 figures. Most of them depict every day’s life scene of the Cambodia in the XII century. Inside the Bayon, we suggest you to visit The Cams of the Run, Linga worship, A Naval Battle, The Chams vanquished, a Military Procession, Civil War, The All-Seing King, Victory Parade, The Circus comes to Town, land of Plenty, The Chams retreat, The Chams Sack Angkor and the Chams Enter Angkor.
Ta Prohm – Still covered by the jungle this place is exactly left as they found it. The Ta Prohm is not only a possibility to imagine how the whole temple complex looked like when re-discovered in XIX century The trees swallowed the temple and nature takes back its space, and it has been left like this. Don’t miss this astonishing mix of nature vs humans. The charm of this temple is, you don’t know where (or when) the nature finish and the human work starts or vice versa. Amazing! Probably made most famous by Angelina Jolie and the film Tomb Raider.
Elephant Terrace – A 350 m long terrace of elephants. It was used as a giant viewing stand during public ceremonies, royal ceremonies and so on. Many lions decorate this enormous path. Now it’s surrounded by the green and very relaxing, but try and close your eyes, imagine thousands of peoples on it, then the army, the king,the music, the dance. Daydreamers will have tough time to leave this place. Angkor Wat is a truly fasination place and one that you can explore in a day or three. As I was ona tight schedule I was only limited to one day but for me that was enough. The structures are truly amazing and to tthink that thesse4 were created so long ago and with basic tools and a lot of man power is fansinating to think of. It shows the power of human abilty to witness (albeit now in a more delapidated state) the amazing temples of Angkor Wat. It is good to see that money from visitors enterance fees is being spent on restoration although how much and the effort is unknown, just like most of Cambodia!