Monday, 15 October 2012

Temples of Angkor: Day 2

Sunrise over Angkor Wat is one of those activities lauded as unmissable by the travel community and it was something we were both keen to experience. 

At 5.45am we were in the reception area of our guesthouse waiting for Barang to pick us up in his tuk-tuk, and listening to the drunken nonsense coming from a group of gap year kids who were yet to go to bed.

At that time of the morning the roads were quiet but once we were at Angkor Wat we joined throngs of tourists lining the shore of one of the pools facing the the temple - the prime spot for viewing the sun breaking over the tops of the towers. 

It was quite an overcast morning, so the sky wasn't perfect for a particularly spectacular sunrise, and any romance or wonder was largely intruded upon by the literally hundreds of jostling snap-happy tourists and the constant drone of the hawker patter; people selling postcards, scarves or trying to get you into their cafes for breakfast.

However, the temple did look stunning and it was just possible to lose oneself in the spectacle long enough to make it worthwhile being up that early.

We decided to have a bite to eat at one of the many cafes that line the bank of the pool. Someone in Cambodia has obviously done their homework on the most appealing celebrities that no Westerner can resist, and each cafe was named after one of these stalwarts of pop culture: Lady Gaga, J-Lo, 007, Angelina Jolie. In the end we opted for 'Justin Bieber', for no other reason than the extra lengths to which they had gone by hiring the Cambodian spitting image of the eponymous popster (he had a floppy hair-do). 

After a couple of distinctly average cheese baguettes and intensely sweet coffees, we felt ourselves sufficiently fuelled for another day of temples and went back to find Barang and our trusty transportation.

The next place we were to visit was Banteay Sanray, another massive temple complex made up of long, steep staircases and imposing towers. As it was still so early, we had the place to ourselves and really enjoyed the peace and quiet after the hustle of sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Once we'd finished at Banteay Sanray, it was time to head out of the main Angkor complex and travel about 30km from Siem Reap to the similarly named Banteay Srei. 

It's widely seen as the most beautiful of the Angkor temples, and the name means 'Citadel of the Women' as the delicate carvings are thought to be too fine to be created by ham-fisted men. 

By the time we got there, bus-loads of tourists had begun to pour in and it was often a bit of a struggle while they pushed and posed in front of each new carving they reached. But once you got the chance, the intricate craftsmanship and skill were truly amazing to see.

The weather had begun to take a turn for the worse, so Barang suggested we stop for a bite to eat before going into the next temple. And it's lucky we did! The heavens opened, and we refreshed ourselves with hearty bowls of noodle soup and lychee sodas while the rain fell in torrents, turning the corrugated iron roof of the cafe into the loudest mealtime musical accompaniment ever... you literally had to shout above it to be heard!

After the downpour eased, we entered the temple that Barang had brought us to see - the name of which we never managed to catch! The rain had created lots of deep brown puddles amongst the stones, but the golden light that hit the buildings as the sun came out again was gorgeous. And this particular temple stood out because of the little family of cats that had made its home in one of the towers!

It was a relatively small site and we didn't linger long as there was still much to see - however cute the kittens were! - so we hit the road again to take a look at Kbal Spean. 

At the top of a 2km climb and clamber through jungle and over rocks, there's a carved riverbed known as the 'River of A Thousand Lingas'. However, we can't personally testify to its existence as we didn't make it to the top. I had started to feel extremely tired and pretty unwell, so when we were about halfway up the steep ascent I had to admit that my going any further wasn't an option. So we picked our way back down to the tuk-tuk and sat with Barang for a while, quenching our thirst and chatting to him about his family and his aspirations to become a qualified tour guide at the temples. 

Soon it was time to move onto our final visit - the breathtaking Ta Phrom. Here nature has undertaken a fierce campaign to show the humans who's boss and the jungle is evidently taking back control. Ruins crumble amongst dappled sunlight as the trees recover the area, roots burst through brickwork, and 1930s adventurer-archeologists dodge booby traps and recover lost idols. OK, maybe not that last bit.

It's genuinely difficult to pick which photos to include here... such an awesome place.

It's a huge area and we took a good long time having a proper explore. What an atmospheric way to end our tour of the Temples of Angkor.

But being on the site of such history, where some parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed, wasn't the most dramatic part of our day.

The earlier rain had made the roads around the temples pretty treacherous. On our way back to Siem Reap for a well-earned 50p lager, Barang's motorbike went out from under him, shearing off the bolt attaching it to our tuk-tuk carriage and causing him to slide across the road, with Dave and I pitching forward and skidding along completely unattached to anything with brakes. 

The crash was something which, in hindsight, had felt inevitable from the moment we entered Cambodia. The roads in the country are insane at the best of times and I soon found that every time we were on them I was genuinely relieved when we made it to our destination in one piece. So a rickety old tuk-tuk, barrelling along mud-slicked roads amongst ancient ruins was, I suppose, always an accident waiting to happen.

We were incredibly lucky that we all came away unscathed; just the fact that 
at that moment no kids were playing in the road and no buses were ploughing their way through the other traffic was incredible. Barang had a couple of angry-looking scrapes on his elbow and ankle, but seemed far more concerned that we had come to no harm. Dave and I were both fine and kept telling Barang so, but he continued to check on us as he pulled out his makeshift tool kit and proceeded to reattach the tuk-tuk to his bike. 

Ten minutes later, shaken but unhurt, we were on the road again. Once we got back to the guesthouse, the first thing we did was grab three cans of beer and sit down to calm our nerves. Then, still assuring Barang that we were ok, we paid him his fee for the two days and said our farewells, thereby ending a very eventful couple of days.

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