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Day XXIX: Temples of Angkor: Remorkable!

Angkor Wat and beyond...

sunny 39 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

NB. The temples at Angkor are nothing short of spectacular. In three days I took over 500 photos, wrote several pages of blog notes and felt very fortunate to be there. None of the guide books or magazine articles adequately prepared me for the experience and a personal blog will be no different for its readers. So please excuse the lack of specific details about the individual temples over these next few entries - this is something that needs to be experienced first-hand and my words could never do it justice.

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Bleary eyed but excited we assembled at 5am sharp outside the hotel and our driver introduced us to our ride for the day, a cute little tuk-tuk or 'remork' made up of a motorbike towing a small roofed carriage behind it. Very nice indeed. We set off at a little-too-leisurely pace up the road to Angkor, and by the time we reached the ticket booths there were already deep red scars appearing in the sky. The ticket office is a little like a toll checkpoint on a motorway, with loads of tuk-tuks, minibuses and even mentalists who have decided to cycle queued up to purchase their passes. Felix & I jumped off our carriage while it was still moving and got straight to a booth in front of a giant coach-load of Japanese tourists, paid our $40 fee for the 3-day pass and were back in our seats within 5 minutes. As we turned the corner around the far edge of the temple complex, the orange sun reflected in the giant moat and our first sighting of Angkor Wat was a dark silhouette encircled by a river of fire. We were far from alone, the roads and paths into the temple were already packed with sunseeking tourists and we took a few photos from the outer walls before following the crowds inside for the main event.

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By 6:30am the sun had risen over the temple and the masses that had gathered by the pool, fighting for the best position to capture that iconic photo, had dispersed. We took a seat at a cafe nearby and had an expensive banana pancake breakfast, then made the most of the empty grounds to explore before the daytime hoardes arrived. Zlatan had warned me in an earlier email that I may be underwhelmed by Angkor Wat, and he was right. Yes, it's a magnificent piece of architecture and its size is impressive, but walking around it feels like too much of a deja-vu after seeing it so well publicised all over the world. Nevertheless, we enjoyed walking the grounds with very few visitors around and two hours after arriving we arrived back at our tuk-tuk and patient driver and continued on the 'small circuit' route around the complex.

Next stop was the walled city of Angkor Thom, with the highly impressive Bayon temple. The 54 engraved stone towers that make up the temple each display four giant faces, so visitors are greeted by the intimidating stare of 216 pairs of ancient eyes. It was here that we were introduced to the first of the many 'children of Angkor' who roam the temples begging for money and sweets from the rich Westerners. This first boy was a little different to the ones we would meet later in the day, and showed us a hidden, steep stone staircase at the back of one of the old library structures that we climbed to get a decent photo viewpoint. Once we decided to leave he produced a laminated sign asking for donations to help with the local children's education. Having taken Dad's advice, I had packed a small stash of Bic biros for just such an occasion and handed one to the boy in place of the dollar he was expecting. He seemed happy enough, and we continued up the path to the smaller Baphuon temple and the intricately carved Terrace of the Elephants.

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Back at the tuk-tuk and now in full light of day we were bombarded by traders and beggars. The grating sound of "Hallo sir, you wan buy cold drin? You wan mango? Two for one dollar..." from the female traders became very tiresome very quickly, but was still a welcome break from the hundreds of young children intent on selling packs of 10 postcards for a dollar. These children are all trained to say the exact same lines and put on a whinging voice (which soon disappears after they run back to their friends) as they walk beside you counting out each postcard and repeating "ten for one dollar... one dollar... one dollar..." Beyond power-walking, avoiding eye contact and in extreme cases shouting "shush!" we couldn't come up with a foolproof system to ward off their advances. When we arrived at Ta Prohm we found a solution: a rather stupid woman had sat herself against a wall and was producing mini packs of Oreos from her bag. The kids were all over her, and her futile attempts to control them allowed us to pass into the temple uninterrupted and with a plan to go shopping when we returned to town.

Ta Prohm is the 'Tomb Raider temple' that is famous for the giant trees that have taken over the stone walls, and Lonely Planet readers swarm to see "nature run riot", another annoyingly over-used part of their phraseology. It is quite spectacular to see the difference between the pristinely maintained Angkor Wat and this tumbledown mixture of rubble and overgrown tree roots, and it quickly became our favourite temple of the day. Our final stop was Banteay Kdei, another fascinating blend of man and nature where the tree roots run through the walls and stone paths like thick snakes and make the whole place come alive. The morning sun had by now reached its full intensity so most of the children here were fairly sedate, but two bold girls approached us and sat on the rocks opposite for a chat. We were blown away by their manners and their command of both French and English, and when they asked for chewing gum instead of money we gladly obliged and proceeded to be educated on the Khmer school system and the local temples.

Supiret, our driver, was fast asleep when we reached him but seemed grateful that we were ready to go back to town. The temperature had reached 39C and it felt like at least 2pm, yet when we stopped in Siem Reap for an iced tea the clock only showed 11am - 6 hours of temple hopping had taken its toll. We treated Supiret to a drink too, and he seemed more than happy to accept when we asked him to be our chauffeur the following day. With just enough energy we found our way to a little restaurant down a side street and I couldn't contain my excitement upon discovering a French baguette (real bread!) on the menu. It was an emotional sandwich and set the tone for a wonderfully chilled afternoon - I was too tired to fulfil my promise to visit Felix's hostel for a swim and a beer and opted for an afternoon nap and a movie (Hunger Games, had me sat on the edge of the bed for an hour!) instead.

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Before Felix arrived for dinner I ventured out to the local minimart to purchase some birthday breakfast supplies, a very Cambodian experience as nothing was priced so I had to some several shuttle runs to the till before settling on a giant bag of muesli. Fortunately Felix shares my dislike for the tourist scene, and particularly the Western drinking scene so we skirted around 'Pub Street' a found a fantastic little Khmer restaurant on a small side road. It wasn't very busy, possibly due to slightly inflated prices, so we had very attentive service and the food was magnificent. Freshly made spring rolls with satay dip followed by vegetable roti cutlets and banana fritters, delicious - we sent our compliments to the chef who waved his thanks through the window, and our small tip was warmly received by the whole staff.

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We ended the night at one of the town's night markets, but after some unsuccessful haggling and being forced to join a dance to 'Gangnam Style' we went home for a long sleep.

Posted by WorldWideWill 11:06 Archived in Cambodia

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