Siem Reap (Cambodia), 25.07.2013
Probably I should have done my homework better, to not be caught by surprise on arrival in Cambodia. Or better in this specific place, Siem Reap, the town that hosts the ruins of Angkor Wat. I had expected a simple, poor, basic place. The temple complex, a Unesco listed site, is one of the wonders of this world, and a major magnet for tourists. This seems to have brought quite some wealth and investment to this town, that greeted me on arrival with a clean modern airport terminal, very chic. I had to get a visa on arrival. There were 3 guys taking care of the payment, 20 USD plus 1 for the passport picture I didn’t have with me. The visa counter is a long round wooden bar, with 12 officers sitting behind it. After the payment, my passport took a tour through the hands of the next group of four officers, then another four. After some minutes I got called up by name and the last officer an the other end of the counter and in uniform jacket, handed me back my document. “Welcome to Cambodia.”
Getting a taxi into town was easy. Outside the terminal was a clean booth organising transportation. In front of me was a group of Australian girls joking with the taxi guys, who all spoke fluent English. The road into Siem Reap leads through an alley of luxury hotels, one bigger then the next. The competition seems to be about who has the more lavish entrance, parks and wall with its name on it. We drove quite some time before the rest of the town appeared. Cleaner and more organised then any tourist place I’ve seen in Thailand, this town offers everything the international travellers crowd needs. Restaurants, bars, a pub alley, a night market, souvenir stands, massage and beauty parlours, banks, art shops with colourful paintings, clothes shops. Everything is clean and organised, you pay in USD everywhere, it’s cheap for western standards. On the roads clean Toyotas, scooters and scooters with a passenger cart attached (also called tuktuk) drive orderly and quietly.
The next morning I got picked up at 05:00 by a tuktuk driver, Sim, that would take me for a day trip through Angkor (15 USD for a small tour, 22 USD for the big one). In a half an hour drive through the sleepy town we reached the ticket booth, where I paid 20 USD for the one day ticket that came with a pic of me on it. Another 10 mins we drove through a beautiful jungle alley lined with high rising trees, temples further inside the wood and hidden behind vegetation. In the freshness of the morning a magic atmosphere came up. Then we reached Angkor Wat, the biggest and most famous site. The huge parking area in front of the main gate was already full of tuktuks and buses, the food and souvenir stands were all busy, and the moment I stepped out of my tuktuk the bugging began. I got my best Roman “I don’t care” attitude out and just walked on, trying to not have these guys ruin my morning. Past the ticket check, I walked over a paved dam crossing the pond around the site. In the morning light the water was completely calm, with water lilies on it, the sky reflected nicely. There were a lot of tourists on the site, and past the first gate I was the grounds in front of the temple were filling up with people waiting for the sunrise. Sunrise and sunset watching are a major attraction in Angkor Wat. On the left, around a pond, a big crowd was gathering. Contrary to other crowded tourist sites I’ve seen here everybody was very young, almost half my age, and I’d say two thirds of the crowd was groups of girls. Coming from several countries where women have a hard time traveling this was noteworthy.
I waited some time, looking at the sky there were plenty of clouds. The crowd started to get bigger, while few people were entering the actual temple. I decided to skip the not very promising sunrise and go see the temple before all these people would flood it. Wise decision. In relative calm and with few people around I wandered through the many portals, courtyards and hallways. This place is breathtaking, and lines up among the most spectacular places on this trip together with Persepolis and the Taj Mahal. There is probably not a single wall, column, portal, stairway, window that is not beautifully decorated with floral ornaments and scenes of fighting, marching, celebrating. Particularly the outer hallway is completely covered with engraved scenes on the entire outer wall. Check the many pictures on Flickr. Plenty of people have described this place better then I could, so I’ll not go into much detail. See the pictures, read on Wikipedia. This place is amazing. The geometry of the complex, the abundance of ornament, the clean layout strike. And contrary to the many Muslim influenced sites of the last months here floral, non-geometrical designs and picturing people, animals and hybrids of both are the norm. I crossed the temple and finally got out on the other side. Still high on the many impressions I walked down an alley of high jungle trees. The smell, the sound, the colours of the forest reminded me my first enchanting stroll through this vegetation many years ago on a remote Thai island. At the end of the alley, past the ruins of an exit gate, I sat down and had breakfast between the rear side of the pond around Angkor Wat and the gate. Magic!
Back to the main parking lot, the driver drove me to the next site, Angkor Thom. Here already the entrance gate was striking, with its two lines of warriors holding back a giant snake at the borders of the bridge crossing the pond and the elegant, high rising cones towering the gate, all covered in ornament carved into limestone. The entire site is built into the jungle, there are big and small temples scattered all around, all marvellous and in different grades of decline. The biggest attraction in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, another jewel of a temple. The layout repeats the geometric design of the previous one, and as I would find out during the day, all temples here share it. Also the decoration is following the same style in every temple. The more I wandered through this site, the more intoxicated I became of floral ornaments, kings, dragons, soldiers, dancers, Buddha-like heads, window columns. I sat down in one of the many portals and took a break, admiring the site and he vegetation around it. The sun started to shine and heat the day. I almost fell asleep on the spot, last night I had just 4 hours of rest.
Sim drove me to two more temples, before a very early lunch. I was wet of sweat, overwhelmed by the impressions, tired. In front of the restaurant were some hammocks. I got into one, and as Sim started to make basic conversation I fell asleep in seconds. While sleeping I heard the kids play around me and the sounds of the jungle. The nap gave me the strength for the afternoon part of the tour. I saw five more sites, all marvellous The combination of jungle vegetation and temple atmosphere is fantastic. The last temple, the Preah Khan, was the one famous for being slowly reclaimed by nature, with trees and plants growing over it. To is an impressive sight how the man made construction slowly gets covered, eaten up by nature. I could keep writing about this place for hours and hours. Come see it yourself. It’s easy to reach, and an experience for life. At the end of the tour I wanted to see the sundown from a nearby hill. As we drove past Angkor Wat, Sim suddenly stopped at the side of the road. Rain was coming, and he put on a rain suit and closed the tuktuk. No sundown today. Too bad, but I was exhausted and sweating like crazy. Back to the hotel I took a cold shower and a nap, letting the impressions of the day pass by in my head. What a day!
After nightfall, I took a walk through town, to see if I had missed anything and to eat. I had not missed much, Siem Reap has no sights in itself. Driving through last night had shown me all there was to see. I found a food stand on the road, one of the few not overly touristy places, and had some noodles and a beer. It felt good to be back on the road, out of the glitzy aircon hotels. This was way more authentic.