So the whole raison d’etre of coming to Siem Reap is to take in the temples. Take on the temples might be more accurate. There are quite literally hundreds of them, all glorious in their own way, and spread out over a vast expanse. They date from between the 9th and 13th centuries. The ruins are scattered over some 160 square kilometres although the main cluster is pretty close to Siem Reap.
Honestly, fantastic as the temples are, it is all a bit of a blur in terms of what we actually saw. There was just so much to take in. I do know our guide made excellent choices, and the jaw-droppingness quotient increased exponentially as the day went on. You think nothing can impress you more than the first ruin, then another larger, more elaborate, more moss-covered with more tree roots emerging from it emerges round the corner. It’s very difficult to comprehend. Our guide did give us a lot of history but as this involved essentially a sprint through several major world religions (animism, hinduism, buddhism for a start) and lots of stats about numbers of temples, and a squillion stories to explain the symbolism we’d encounter it all sort of morphed into one amazing tomb-raider spectacle. not that I’ve actually seen tomb raider, but I know what it is enough to be able to ask when we got to the jungle covered Bayon temple and our guide was saying ‘and this is where Lara descended the tree into the arch, pulled out a sword and awoke the monkeys‘ to chip in with a straight face ‘and is that a documentary?’ I thought that was quite good. He got the joke straight away, one of the Australians did not. Pleasing.
Mind you, the Australian had got me earlier when we were debating what sort of genital displays were being referred to in some of the warning signs about correct dress and behaviour at the sacred site. It is not allowed to do a great number of fairly obvious things. Amongst those things listed are the requirement that you should not flash your genitals. ‘What about having my cleavage on show?’ she speculated, ‘are breasts OK?’ erm ‘ill advised’ I ventured. She laughed a lot, at me mainly. Fair enough. You are also not allowed to take selfies with monks. The picture is very clear on this point:
OK, so I think we visited Angkor Thom first off. Then there was ‘the elephant wall’ which overlooked what was once a palace parade ground. Then Banteay Srei – The Temple of Women, with exquisite carvings out of pink limestone and finally ‘The Temple of Men’ – Lara Croft and Chinese Tourist country.
What you need to know about temple visiting in Cambodia, is that whilst the structures are remarkable, and fully deserving of their reputation, it is, perhaps inevitably an incredibly heaving touristy experience. You may find moments of calm, but there is queuing for photos at key hot spots, and in many ways it is hilarious that we visitors all worked so hard to capture pictures that make it look as if we had the place to ourselves. Ironically, despite the sometimes tense battles to get to the perfect picture spot, it is nigh on impossible to photograph up close. The scale is just too huge. Some of my better photos are of the more modest constructions, because that is all my camera could cope with. The scale of this site is indeed extraordinary, it’s not surprising there is a mass of people all wanting to go and see it for themselves.
So anyway. All aboard the fun bus leaving the hotel at around 8.00 a.m., it was raining, and overcast. As our guide picked up the mike for the briefing he began with ‘hello‘, innocent enough but it seemed such a karaoke moment i interjected with ‘is it me you’re looking for?’ and he did indeed, with very little encouragement break into song! Not a Lionel Richie number, but showing willing. He has a very good voice when not distorted by a karaoke mike!
It was still incredibly sticky, and the rain was a relief, though it definitely hampered photography. Just as well really, I took hundreds of shots anyway, being so dark overhead probably saved me from myself to some extent!
First stop was the tourist office where you had to queue up for photo ID passes. All very straight forward, and entertaining too, as the photos distorted everyone brillianty, meaning some looked liked death masks, others criminals, me? I just looked like a slug. Poor for my ego but amusing for my traveling companions.
Next stop was Angkor Thom. We were supposed to go somewhere else, but it was shut for a special holy day (8th day after the full moon?) so we have to go tomorrow. Our guide looked sheepish at the change of plan, but as not one of us had the faintest idea which temple is which, none of us was remotely bothered what we saw when quite honestly.
It was pretty gloomy and overcast. Cold even in the bus with its arctic air conditioning and rain beating down on the windscreen. We soon found ourselves caught in a traffic jam of tourist buses. Not auspicious, we were also perilously close to a boy giving elephant rides. I thought for a terrible moment they were going to suggest we went and had a photograph taken with him. Fortunately not, Intrepid, quite rightly, has a policy of not encouraging this. It was really shocking seeing this poor pregnant female in such an alien context of vans, and tourists, and it is so pointless. It’s one thing to use an elephant in former times, but now if its only purpose is to serve the whims of tourists wanting to experience something new it seemed particularly anachronistic and horrific. Tourists are legitimising and creating this demand. You really shouldn’t ride elephants, especially in Cambodia. If you don’t know why, read up about elephant crushing, and even watch a video of the elephant breaking process on YouTube and weep for those beautiful creatures tortured in the name of tourism. It looks so picturesque, but what leads up to it is indefensible. I’m pleased to say Intrepid no longer support elephant riding activities. Good. Our guide also later told us horror stories of atrocities against elephants he himself had witnessed at Angkor Wat. It will break your heart to hear them.
So, apart from the poor elephant, once we got off the coach, things rapidly looked up. Yes, there is a sea of people, many armed with umbrellas offered up to them by attentive guides – no such luck with ours, though he had bought himself a hat to keep him dry. We laughed at him for worrying about messing his hair – which is short-cropped, so unmessable. It was good banter, the group is starting to gel.
the American couple invested in matching ponchos. This pleased and amused me. Not them though, they were unbreathable so useless, just made them sweat even more. Good fun as a spectator sport though. We went to look at the entrance bridge over the moat. There were lilies in the boat, and a line of demons having a tug of war with a snake, apparently. I tried with the photos, some limited success, but hey ho, you get the idea:
Through the arch, back on the bus to the central area. We were shown elaborate carvings which were extraordinary. They date back to around 1100 AD that is pretty mind-blowing. I also queried whether the temple complex was actually ‘discovered’ or was it really the case that local people didn’t know it was there either. It seems that it is true it was. Having been abandoned (due to war/ theological advice to king to relocate/ drought/ diminishing population unable to maintain irrigation systems/ expanding population unable to feed themselves – depending on who you believe), the jungle quickly overtook it. The discoverer (whose name I forget and will have to look up later) only came across it because he was following exotic butterflies. Imagine that, finding a temple complex that can be seen from the moon! No really, it can. Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China. Amazing.
It really helps to have a guide to point out the good stuff and make sense of things. He showed us how the carvings showed people on a boat fishing, at war, and ‘daily scenes of life’ including childbirth (OK), gambling, and a man being eaten by a tiger, with his wife weeping at his fate. That was what the guide said. She may of course have been weeping because she didn’t get to see the tiger, and now they are all extinct. Definitely a tiger attack and a weeping woman though.
This temple was busy, but good naturedly so. So many umbrellas, so many columns to peer around and carvings to scrutinise. There was restoration work in progress too. Though it was too humid and rainy for much work to be happening, sheltering from the rain was more the order of the moment if not the day.
En route to the next stop, some merriment re the warning monkey signs – especially apt given the owl and the monkey experience at the bat cave! Posing took place next to that, also posing to try to get shots of us pouting skywards so it would look like we were ‘having a moment’ with the profile head shots. I do have one of those of me, but it’s too hideous for inclusion. Make do with the monkey warning one, which is still hideous, just not too hideous on the sliding scale of dire photos. i.e. the amusement potential trumps the humiliation of sharing…
The next stop was The Elephant Wall. Now, between you and me, I don’t think it’s actually called that, but I can’t honestly remember what it was. I do know it is a wall that overlooks what was at one time the parade ground for the palace. I really liked these elephants at the time, though later they faded by comparison with even more impressive moss-covered three-headed beasts. The elephants were etched onto the wall getting up to all sorts! Two had their trunks wrapped around what appeared to be cows but were maybe deer of some sort? I asked the guide what that was showing. ‘Oh that is elephants hunting‘ he said. What the…? I had a moment, before I realised no, they weren’t actually pursuing deer/ cattle and snatching them from the ground like tigers pounced on people in earlier carvings, rather the people shot the prey with a bow and arrow, and the elephants lifted the carcass up for the hunter. Ah, that makes sense. I never knew elephants were used for hunting before, in context I suppose best way to get through a jungle really. Poor elephants, and poor prey too.
Also at this stop we saw a monkey (our guide said it was a short-tailed macaque) pace past with real swagger. Most of us moved aside, but one idiot woman tourist, chinese I think, scrambled in her bag for sweets and posed for a photo with the monkey begging whilst we and other onlookers with her protested to her not to. She was entirely oblivious. It’s not just unhealthy for the monkey, it was potentially stupid and dangerous too. They are powerful animals. Oh, and I got a very fine booty shot of a lion-type creature. You have to appreciate that attention to anatomical detail do you now. Check out front and rear views.
The next stop was my favourite. An archway where there were three-headed moss-covered elephants on either side. Here we saw the first of the massive tree root systems too. Also within the arch was a hollowed out tower type thingy, with bats inside. We went inside to explore, it was dark, and stunk of bats, but nothing to see. I felt guilty for having crawled in, hope we didn’t disturb them too much.
Next stop lunch. We were next to an amazing furniture shop, selling elaborately polished wooden carved furniture made out of the most enormous pieces of wood. The prices were thousands of dollars, but apparently people really do pay those prices, presumably an ostentatious display of wealth. It is lovely, though it would require grand surroundings and look pretty stupid out of context. I found our guide photographing some pieces too. I suggested next time he left his fish paste on the boat, he might buy his parents a nice bit of wooden furniture instead.
Lunch was expensive, relatively speaking. I had noodles and veg for $5.50 and a lychee can of soft drink that was too sweet to finish for $1.50 but I don’t ever have to order again. When the bill came, it was altogether, so we all chipped in, but they had only charged for one soft drink not two, so we ended up putting the money in anyway as a tip. Someone, somewhere miscalculated I presume (mix of dollars and reil didn’t help) as when I handed it over to our waiter he looked a bit stunned and thanked us for our kindness, oh well, it’s good if it made his day!
As a group we were less popular with the poor woman on toilet monitor duty. Outside some immaculate cubicles were flip-flops. We all walked past these, sat down to ‘perform’ so to speak, and then realised our muddy shoes had made a real mess of the wet floor. I was mortified. Others were less so, not wanting to swap their shoes for unknown flip flops. I take their point, but today I was wearing socks. I had to concede though, that had the attendant not been in evidence I’d have skipped away ‘having got away with it’ with much less angst. Basic British hypocrisy I suppose. Still, in a way she exacted her revenge by afflicting me with bashful bladder syndrome. I did apologise on way out and she smiled in the Cambodian forgiving way, which made me feel worse.
Various wood carvings and handicrafts on sale. Low pressure and nice goods. I was puzzled by the sling shot phallus display. Joke for tourists apparently, but why?
Next stop was the women’s temple, full of really breathtakingly detailed carvings. There was a confusing introduction by our guide. He made veiled references to the slingshots we’d seen earlier, saying that in the entry was an enormous phallus with a fountain of holy water issuing from it. What? I wasn’t really following, was this previously, commonplace or just some male fantasy? Not what I would see as a centre of worship at the temple of women. Oh well. It was gorgeous though, and on a scale that made it easier to get a sense of things. The carvings are extraordinary. As we exited the site, there was a traditional band of musicians. They were land mine victims, and collecting for that. I didn’t want to buy a CD. The music being best described as niche. Certainly evocative and atmospheric in context, I think it would wear rather thin removed from this temple setting. I made a donation anyway. They were so pleased I then felt guilty it was just a couple of dollars I think. Worse yet, I sat to wait for the rest of my group and they felt compelled to play on by way of appreciation. Again, Cambodian history underpins every experience here. Landmines. Damaging people to this day. We departed through a selection of stalls. The tourism aspect is escalating as the temples get grander, more insistent sales pitches, and children selling postcards to get money instead of being in school. It is sad, and shocking too, they are so small these children. You get a sense of how vulnerable they must be, what they would do for a trivial sum I dread to think. They need protection and assistance, but not through the purchase of postcards that will keep them on the streets.
And so we travel onwards. A long hot day. You might think we would be templed out by now, and in truth, I think I would have been but for the extraordinary grand finale that awaited us. It was the Tomb Raider site. Ta Prohm I think.
It’s hard to capture what this place is like. It is absolutely extraordinary. It appears to emerge from the jungle, there is a knot of trees and roots and these ancient constructions. Some are still heaped where they have tumbled down over time, other areas have been renovated. As you arrive at the site it is heaving with coaches and small stalls plying their trade. Immediately really small children ran alongside trying to sell postcards with sad faces. One little girl looked about four years old. It was horrific really. This isn’t ‘sweet’ it’s exploitation. I feel for families that are so desperate that this seems a legitimate way to make money, but how vulnerable is that child. I felt awful saying ‘no’ but it would have been very wrong to legitimise this trade by a purchase. Our guide is clear we should not. However, he also explains that he understands how this came about. Again the legacy of the Khmer rouge. This child’s parents are of the generation who had no teachers because they were wiped out. They may have little education themselves, and relatively few choices. Sometimes in the years he has worked the site (he spent 17 years as a guide here before moving to work with intrepid) he saw child postcard sellers just continue selling different small amounts of items, scratching a living as best they could. Occasionally one would make the transition to guide, through education, but it is incredibly rare. It was a shadow on the day.
Then again, so many distractions. Some aggressive shoving for photos went on here. It was too crowded to be fun at times, and we actually by-passed some areas of the site due to a particularly obnoxious tour group that was monopolising the site, leaving drinks on balustrades and posing everywhere. Mind you, I quite enjoyed watching that. Some went for comedy shots, some for decorative poses, loving couples all sorts. It would be a fun project to be there all day and take photos of everyone who chose to pose in one particular spot to see the variance and choices made. Of course, some of us posed too, some with more success than others. I persuaded the American couple to pose in a loving embrace, and told them I couldn’t work the camera so they had to hold it for ages, which amused me and the rest of the group, but initially puzzled them until they reviewed the shots. Simple pleasures eh, simple pleasures. I think I’ll have to let the pictures do the talking. They have lot to say. Enjoy or not as you choose. See if you can spot the Lara Croft locations, I couldn’t, I’ve not seen the film. Maybe I will now.
So a long and full on day. It was a good one, you can’t not view these things, but I did feel somewhat templed out by the end of the day. So much to process, it would take years to really explore the site. I’d like to see quieter ruins if I came back. Hypocritical as I am aware it is, this site is spoiled by too many tourists. I wonder if we will be allowed to get so close to it all indefinitely. I asked if our fee goes to preserve the site. It does not, just goes to central coffers and disappears in a cloud of corruption was the implication. Be Careful indeed!
Tomorrow is the classic sunrise at Angkor Wat. Rendezvous 4.30 a.m. blimey. Hope I make it.