On the short bus ride up from Battambang to Siem Reap I could have been forgiven for thinking that I’d crossed a border into another country. If not for the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers and wildly unpredictable storms, I would have thought that the purpose built resorts and westernised buildings were a world apart from from anything else I’d previously seen of Cambodia. If only the ancient Angkors could know how they would impact the country’s economy some 1000 years later.
After arriving early afternoon I had a chance to look around town. Like I said, it’s a town based on tourism, so the main ‘sites’ in town were limited to the busy “Pub Street” and local market, and it really didn’t take long to get a feel for the town. I made it back to the hostel just as a 5-a-side football tournament was getting underway. I managed to sign up with a few other people from the UK as a truly international tournament started, with the outcome being if you score, you got a free beer. Needless to say I got a few free beers and the UK team were the best amongst the group.
I spent a day looking around the local arts school. This had been set up with funding from countries in the EU in order to help any members of the community who were in anyway disadvantaged. It was amazing to walk around their workshops where their crafts included sculpting sandstone, wood, copper, paintings and lacquering, and ceramics amongst others. Outside of town there is a silk production factory where all sorts of silk products are made by hand from start to finish. It is amazing what this school is achieving and their products are a real source of pride in the area.
I couldn’t wait much longer to go to see the main attractions to this area, so the next morning I set my alarm for 4am and set off for Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Angkor Wat represents the pride of the nation and is seen everywhere – on their flag, on their money, on their beer. It was too cloudy that morning to see the sunrise, but I could still take in the majesty and the beauty of this incredible archaeological site.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built during the 12th century as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu – the protector of the universe in the Hindu Trimurti, therefore differing from the Shaiva tradition of previous temples. It’s affiliation with Vishnu is one of the reasons the temple is thought to be orientated to the west, which is why the sunrise over the temple in the East is so famous.
The whole complex is extra ordinary. To even approach the west gate to the temple complex you have to cross a 200 metre wide moat, a further causeway approximately 300m in length takes you from the gate to the temple’s entrance. There are then three enclosures to the temple, with each wall of the entire complex delicately inscribed with teachings and carvings, and each walkway studded with sculptures and shrines. It’s incredible to see how they brought together sides of emotional and rational intelligence to combine into such a grand structure. I was looking round the temple with a French person I’d met who was interested to think that Angkor Wat was built in the same time period as Notre Dame de Paris. I think this comparison goes to show just what the Angkors achieved and the legacy that lasts today.
Angkor Wat was just the start of a three day exploration around the massive area that is home to all the Angkor Temples. There’s simply too much to talk about in this blog, but a few extras for you to read about are Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.
The grandeur of Angkor Thom has been cited as contributing to its own downfall, but Bayon temple – built to honour the king – is an incredible piece of artwork. At first glance, the temple is a picture of chaos, but soon you start to pick out the hundreds of faces carved into the upright towers, and the symmetry of the whole structure becomes apparent. Inside the walls, you feel like you’re lost within a labyrinth, until you realise the symmetry you saw outside has also craftily spread to the inside. That being said, I still became hopelessly disorientated.
Ta Prohm is now know as “Tomb Raider Temple” as this was a main location for filming in the 2001 film. It’s a magnificent site, half in ruins, half under ongoing restoration whilst giant banyan trees sprawl across the vast facades of the temple.
With Siem Reap being one of a number of major cities in Cambodia lying in close proximity to the vast Tonke Sap lake, I took a day trip out to the lake and to pass through the soon-to-be floating village of Kompong Phluk. In a few weeks time, this village will be totally immersed in water, rising to a maximum of 9m in the height of the wet season. For this reason, the houses are built on stilts, and it was incredible to see the scale of this before the flooding begins. In recent times, funding has been brought in to villages like this across Cambodia from a number of European countries, including the UK, in order to build schools in the villages that are free to attend for the children. Despite this, many families do not send their kids to be educated, as it is more effective to keep the, back to help the family business – which in Kompong Phluk was either fishing or farming.
Further on from the village towards the lake, the river passes through the forest. This also becomes flooded, with evidence of previous floods apparent in the odd broccoli like shape of the trees. You can tell the height the water usually reaches just by looking at the trees.
I finally came to the Tonle Sap lake in time to watch the sunset. This was the point that I finally gave up on watching sunsets, as even though the rainy season is not yet fully here, it is close enough to mean the skies are constantly full of clouds! That night back at the hostel i bumped into someone I’d met way back in Phong Nha, near the start of my travels through Vietnam. It’s nice when you see familiar faces again and the ‘travellers community’ is truly amazing.
On my final day, I took a trip a little further afield, deep into the countryside and on a short hike up to the river and waterfalls. Even up in the waterfalls you could still see some ancient sculptures and carvings in the natural rock formations. This peaceful stop off was a great way to finish up in Siem Reap, but on my way home I stopped off at the sobering land mine museum.
This was set up after a local man (but of Japanese origin) called Aki Ra started devoting his life to clearing land mines throughout his country. As a child, he’d been brainwashed into fighting for the cause of the Khmer Rouge, before defecting to the Vietnamese later on in the conflict. Under the Khmer Rouge, he had himself been responsible for setting hundreds if not thousands of anti personnel and anti tank land mines, and the work he does now is using his specialist knowledge to help right these wrongs.
Approximately 1/300 Cambodians is a victim to land mines, but thanks to people and organisations that stem from the work Aki Ra has been doing over the last 20 years or so, the number of casualties and fatalities as a result of unexploded land mines and bombs is continuing to fall drastically. The site of the museum is also the private home to a number of child land mine victims who have nowhere else to go. Here they are educated, and a high proportion of them make it into university each year.
Despite the temples of Angkor being the main attraction in Siem Reap, I ended up staying here for almost a week due to the diversity of culture and history in the region, but it’s now time for me to get back on a plane and leave Cambodia.