Sunday, 14 October 2012

Temples of Angkor: Day 1

Having done more than our fair share of cycling the day before, we decided to see the Temples of Angkor in a more leisurely fashion and hired ourselves a tuk-tuk. 

Luckily, our pal Barang had given Dave his telephone number for just this reason when he'd dropped us off on our first evening, so we got in touch and he soon arrived to take us around the much-anticipated ancient ruins.

First stop was yesterday's elusive ticket office, where we each had our photo taken and paid $40 for a three-day pass to all the temples.

The first one we visited was Angkor Wat itself, the crown jewel in Cambodia's Khmer temples and a symbol of huge national pride - it's even on their flag! (Dave: And on their beer!)

Barang stopped in the car park opposite the entrance to the temple and told us to take our time. We crossed the moat that surrounds the enormous temple - Angkor Wat is the largest religious building on Earth - passing young boys hurling themselves into the water with impressive backflips.

Once through the main entrance, we walked up the long, wide stone path that leads to the main section of the temple, flanked on either side by palm trees, ponds and scattered ruins. There were a lot of tourists around but it wasn't heaving and we ambled at our own pace in a relaxed atmosphere. Very relaxed for some...

We began to get a sense of the scale of the site and also for its masterful architecture and intricate carvings.

We wandered among passageways, gazed up at majestic towers, peered through windows and doorways, and marvelled at beautifully carved figures of ancient Khmers and their gods and monsters. 

The central tower, signifying Mount Meru (the sacred mountain in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies), is reached by climbing a tall flight of steps, but I wasn't allowed up because even though I'd brought my sarong with me to cover my legs apparently this wasn't enough to appease the gods of moral modesty. But Dave was ok in his outfit and so went up to take a look. 

Speaking of Cambodian fashion statements, Angkor Wat was the first place I noticed the intriguing phenomenon of women wearing matching pyjama sets out and about during the day. It's a common sight and one we'd become very familiar with - but never less amused or confused by. The men have their own statements to make in the wardrobe department: the young ones have a habit of wearing their baseball caps very high up on their heads (a bit East 17), while the older men like to cool off in the humid climate by not taking off their shirts, just gathering up the front and exposing their bellies to the open air. (Dave: A look I'm planning to introduce once back in Blighty!)

After we'd had a good look at the inner sections of the temple, we went to see the 800 metres of bas-reliefs carved around the outside, some of which show an early version of the Hindu Ramayana.

Angkor Wat certainly lived up to the hype. It was impressive and beautiful and we had a great hour or so wandering around it. We looked forward to heading back there the following morning to see it at sunrise. But in the meantime there was much more to be seen elsewhere.

Next on the agenda was the Bayon, which turned out to be one of the most spectacular of the temples. It comprises over 200 wonderfully expressive carved faces of the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, looking out peacefully in all directions.

The effect is absolutely breathtaking, and although the site was beginning to fill up fast with tourists and the rain started to fall in earnest, it was a wonderful place to meander around.

At the back of the Bayon is a large pool and lots of playful monkeys throwing themselves out of the trees into the water and teasing the tourists.

We met Barang back at his tuk-tuk, where he'd parked not far from the Bayon, and as we were climbing in to continue our fascinating tour a very young girl with a basket of woven bangles came up to us trying to sell her wares. 

She was obviously well practiced at her patter: "Hello lady, one bangle for you," she said in her tiny little voice. They didn't look anything special and being on a backpacker budget and with only limited space, one has to be very careful not to accumulate too many souvenirs  "No thank you," I said with a smile. "Ok three bangles one dollar," was her next attempt. "No thank you," from me. "Ok fives bangles one dollar," she said. "Oh no thank you sweetheart, I don't need any," I replied as Barang started the tuk-tuk and we got ready to pull off. She was relentless and the number of bangles I could purchase for one dollar kept rising as she could tell we were about to leave. Still smiling, I told her "No thank you" one more time, and as Barang began driving away she thrust one of the bangles into my hand with a gesture of 'it's ok you can have it'. We hurtled down the road away from her, my new most-cherished-possession clasped in my hand, and the irrational temptation growing to go back and buy everything in her basket. It was a delightful encounter that I'll always remember.

After the Bayon, we visited Angkor Thom and the Terrace of the Elephants. While Angkor Wat and the Bayon were still very much intact and it's possible to walk around them as complete temple structures, this area was far more dilapidated and nature had really begun to re-stake its claim.

It was very peaceful around Angkor Thom and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Quite a contrast to what it used to be; at its height, the city was about 10km square and had a population of around 1 million. And this was back when London only had about 50,000 inhabitants!

However, we did need to dodge a couple of local kids who had quite clearly set up a bit of a scam. First we were asked for some money to go towards school materials and although we were becoming quite adept at avoiding a lot of the barrage of hawkers in SE Asia this was a new one on us. We'd heard about similar rackets but hadn't had any experience of refusing and so ended up parting with a not-insignificant sum of money to this rather charming young man (it was about what a night's accommodation was costing us). When he then asked for more - we'd given him dollars and now he wanted some Cambodian riel too - that was far enough and we quickly extricated ourselves to go and see the ruins. 

Not far away we were accosted by another young lad who wanted to give us a tour. We told him no thanks and that we were happy to look around on our own, but he shadowed us recounting the history of the site. After about 10 minutes of this we had to quite firmly tell him 'thanks but no thanks' and he then asked us for money for the information he'd already given us. We clearly explained that we wouldn't give him anything as we'd told him from the start that we didn't want a guide. He skulked away, clearly a bit miffed. 

Finally back on our own and able to concentrate on what was around us, we made our way through the ruined city to the Terrace of the Elephants, the last stop of the day.

After a long day of spectacular ancient history, it was time to head back to Siem Reap and we gratefully got back into the tuk-tuk to rest our weary bones for the homeward journey. Before going back to the guesthouse though, there was one more visit we had to make.

Blue Pumpkin is a smart ice cream shop in Siem Reap with the most delicious flavours on offer - mint choc chip, dark chocolate, peanut, pistachio, coconut, Khmer fruits, green lemon and kafir lime, raspberry... to name but a few - and nothing less would've satisfied us after a day of temple-traipsing than two big indulgent sundaes. 

Then, exhausted after a very rewarding day and acutely aware of our pre-dawn start the next morning, we went back to our room to crash for the evening.

1 comment:

  1. wow, thanks Bec and Dave for sharing this, what an awesome adventure you are on, the photo's magnificent and your narration made me feel like I was right there...thankyou for my feeling of being on holiday! xxxx Love, Nat and Ian x