Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Temples of the Angkor Wat Complex

In the morning, I was in a quandary. I was told that Siem Reap was already celebrating the Buddhist Water Holiday and for the next week, there will be no outgoing buses. I was stuck in the expensive “town” of Siem Reap! What to do? In a couple of days, I had a flight from Saigon to Hanoi - and I was stuck in Cambodia! The morose-looking “mom” made her calls to the other bus companies, but I was out of luck. My only option was to book a flight (read: expensive - add to this is Siem Reap’s airport departure tax - $25). So I was to fly from Siem Reap to Saigon! I withdrew cash at a nearby ATM machine and handed $120 to "mom". She was still sporting her characteristic smirk, but by this time, I was sure it wasn't personal. With that taken cared, I was now set on conquering the Angkor Wat temples. The options were varied: a taxi could be arranged to take me around the temples. And there are tuktuks and the motodup as well.

I wanted the wind on my hair, and I wanted a comfortable sit as well, so I hired a tuktuk (a motorcycle pulling a 3-wheeled roofed carriage). Passing through the town center (luxury casinos, resort hotels, golf courses – a far cry from the squalid capital Phnom Penh), my driver drove me to Angkor Wat’s central office. A foreigner has to buy a $20 day-pass. This “pass” is randomly checked - and you have to show this at every temple entrance.

My first stop was the main temple, Angkor Wat, looming majestic with a moat and a baray (body of water). My driver waited outside while I navigated the temple. Stepping on the moat leading to the Wat was like stepping back in time. One can’t help but be mystified by the history and regal bearings of each structure. I had goosebumps.

The complex of temples spans around an area as big as Manhattan. Some are closer to each other, while others are far away, like Banteay Srey which is 37 km from Siem Reap. Each temple has specific features. My personal favorites were: Ta Promh (where they filmed Indiana Jones and Lara Croft) – with gigantic trees growing out of temple structures, a case of nature’s triumph over men; the Bayon, a part of Angkor Thom, which has more than 200 enigmatic faces in half-smiles looking down their visitors; and finally, the magnificence of the main Angkor Wat. If you closely observe the details of the designs, they tell stories of the 12th century. Every part is picture perfect.

Reality is, one cannot possibly view all these temples in a day, though the temple grounds open as early as 5AM (for the avid photographers, this would mean daybreak photos overlooking the Western Baray and Angkor Wat) and close at 5PM. You need a minimum of 3 days (that’s $60) to appreciate majority of these temples.

You also need a comfortable ride because it is almost impossible to walk from one temple to the next, unless you have several weeks of holiday. A bike may be used but Siem Reap (SR) has prohibited bike rentals within the town’s confines (unless you have rented your bike outside SR.)

Some of these temples are poorly maintained, remote and unpopulated. Some can be found in the bowels of a jungle, thus not so safe especially for lone female trekkers (a couple of rape cases have been reported). Next important thing to consider upon visiting these temples: it is physically daunting! You need some stamina to climb up and down each temple. There may be limited mobility/activity for the physically challenged (the handicaps) or the elderly, unless they're happy watching the view from the outside. I had 4 shirt changes during my visit. The sun can get harsh - so bring extra shirts, bottled water, and maybe a face towel.

As I moved from one temple to the next, I would raise my soaked shirts against the wind (best sensation there is). Another must-have: a good sunblock with high level spf! I used enough and still got fried. Some of these temples, like Ta Keo, were very very steep. After persevering it’s very thin steps, I was petrified coming down. It was hard to maneuver your feet sideways (to fit the width of the steps), balancing yourself so you won't suffer a long, bumpy fall.

Another tip: if you have agreed on a $15 whole-day ride with your tuktuk, make sure that this includes Banteay Srey. I was emphatic to point this out to my driver - or it would be a “no-go”. Banteay Srey turned out to be “pretty”; it was a girlie temple, relatively small and with a pinkish hue! This "most beautiful" temple is some 30 minutes from the central congregation of temples.

Banteay Srey

I enjoyed the ride through the countryside on my way to Banteay Srey. Green fields, wooden houses that rise on stilts (typical old khmer architecture – as noted by a Chinese farmer who first visited the temples way back 12th century). This was a far advanced civilization, with a population of 1 million when London only had 100,000.

I noticed several “artesian wells” that had signage’s “donated by Mr. So_and_so of Toronto, Canada” or “By Fredirique of Nice, France”. There were signs that led to other temples further afield, but you had to risk landmines as well as hoodlums to visit such remote temples.

Outside Banteay Srey, there were stalls selling brass wares, paintings, souvenir shirts. Several young men offered Lonely Planet books of Cambodia and a Special Edition of the Angkor Wat Temples. It was sold at $13. I had no intentions of buying one, but these young boys were so persistent. “I wait for you, mister,” remarked one of them. I told him not to wait for me, but he disregarded my reply. After roaming the temple, I found him waiting outside. He kept dogging me every step of the way until I finally relented. "$9," he offered, but I wanted him out of the way so I said, "$6" or I'll go! He stared at his wares then finally handed the book over. I almost felt sorry for him, but this was a book I didn't need! Was I bad? He was the persistent one! Over at Shangrila's Powerbooks, the Cambodian Lonely Planet sells at $36 (PhP1650)! This edition was a special edition of just the Temples of the Angkor Wat!

This is the Eye in the Sky!


I have since visited Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples for the 2nd time this year (July 2011). The actual travelogue is posteD here - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/07/siem-reap-bakhen-temples-golden-sunsets.html - and the successive posts follow.

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