Cambodia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 261 (71)

Siem Reap

Wednesday 24th November

All the beds we had tried in the other hotels we looked at yesterday evening we as hard as rock – just like every other bed we’ve experienced so far here in Asia. This hotel, however, has mattresses made from a generously thick layer of soft foam and we had the most comfortable night’s sleep we’ve had in a long time. Our driver was waiting for us downstairs, as promised, with a beaming smile on his face. So far, he’s been looking after us quite well and I was looking forward to continuing this trend today. He, like almost every other car driver here in Siem Reap, drives a modern, roomy, Toyota Camry. It’s very dusty around here but he keeps the inside of the car immaculately clean at least. Just as we were getting in, he reminded us that we needed some passport-sized photos for the three-day pass to the temple complex we planned to buy this morning. Already I felt like we were in good hands again.

We had skipped breakfast at the hotel this morning in favour of finding a quick snack when we were inside the temple complex. I had planned on changing a couple of traveller’s checks but all of us had forgotten this by the time we arrived at the main ticket building just outside of town. Chan, our driver, offered to double back so that we could change up the checks but I had the forethought to bring enough cash in US Dollars with me for this not to be necessary this morning. We will change the traveller’s checks into cash later this afternoon instead. I handed over $80 (€61,54) along with the passport photos for the two three-day passes and Chan went in to sort them out. We sat in the comfort of the car’s air-conditioning for the few minutes that it took him to do the dead.

Soon after receiving our laminated thee-day passes, we entered the Angkor grounds through one of the main gates. The grounds look very much like a large park with just a few, wide, dirt roads and the odd row of temporary-looking market stalls and eateries. Men and women wearing overalls and straw hats were tending the grounds using machetes to cut the grass by hand – another indication of this being a poor country.

Chan dropped us off near one of the temples and told us that he would be waiting for us when we were ready to return. We spent the next hour or so walking in and around this particular temple complex with our jaws hanging open for the most part. The temples here at Angkor are absolutely amazing. They are in an advanced state of ruin and in many cases have previously been so completely overgrown by jungle that most of the stone work had already fallen to the ground and been lovingly re-erected by conservationists. They can never be put back together with the exact same precision as when the buildings were originally constructed, some eight hundred or more years ago, however, and the result is frequently a rickety looking building that looks like it might collapse at any moment. Indeed there are many wooden and concrete struts and supports that are keeping many of the walls, roofs and towers from toppling onto the gawking tourists. Nothing we saw looked particularly stable. All the temple buildings look like they are huge jigsaw puzzles made of individual boulders about the size of my backpack. Individually, these boulders don’t look too impressive but put together en masse, they create these huge temple structures complete with towers, walls and roofs. Strange faces are also fabricated by a dozen or more of these boulders and the towers are frequently constructed to include four of these faces, one on each side. The temples are by no means complete and there are literally hundreds of toppled boulders that litter the surrounding sites. Many of the temples here are in varying states of reconstruction using all of these toppled boulders.

For the first time since we were on safari in Africa, our cameras went into some serious overdrive. Pretty much nothing that we saw was not worthy of a snap and we nearly filled our three Gigabyte memory cards completely with a total of eight hundred and sixty eight photos taken between us during the course of the day.

Dotted around the Angkor temple grounds, mostly near the temple entrances, are rows of market stalls where the locals try hard to sell the passing tourists such things as T-shirts, drinks, souvenirs and other assortments of trinkets. Each stall owner would call out from afar to try to attract our attention so that they could shout out their well-rehearsed sales pitch. We stopped at one of the more densely packed series of market stalls and sat at one of the many snack eateries there. Although this restaurant of sorts was little more than a roof held up by stilts with some tables and chairs beneath it, we had a lovely cooked meal of noodle soup, a chicken sandwich and French fries. Everywhere you look, there are traders selling huge green coconuts and I ventured to try one after we sat and ate. Using three swift strokes of a machete, the woman expertly sliced away a triangular opening at the top of the huge and rather heavy green coconut, stuck a straw into it and sat it in front of me. It was full to the brim with a sweet, clear, coconut milk and it was delicious. There must have been a good litre or more of fluid inside and it took me a while to get through it all. A natural electrolyte, it was an extremely refreshing drink that helped greatly to cool me down from the tiresome heat of the day. When I was finished, the woman took the machete to it again and sliced it clean in two before handing it back to me again so that I could scrape out the soft and juicy flesh lining to eat. This too was exceedingly scrumptious and I enjoyed every last slippery blob of it. Chan was helping us with translation all throughout but otherwise stayed very politely in the wings to allow us to enjoy our meal.

Kids were constantly badgering us to buy something from their little baskets of goodies. Their sales pitch for the most part seemed to consist of proclaiming ‘Ok then, two for one dollar.’ Some of the kids selling things here can be no older than four or five. Apparently they go to school for half the day and spend the rest of the time helping their parents and trying to sell things to the tourists.

After we were thoroughly rested and watered at one of the little restaurant stalls, off we went to see the next temple, Ta Prom. This next one is famous for all the huge banyan trees that have overgrown many of the walls. Indeed some of the temple structures were so far overgrown that they would no longer be able support their own weight if the tree were removed. At times it wasn’t clear if the tree was growing through the walls or vice versa. The whole complex here is extremely impressive and it is easy to see why this was the location of choice for the Tomb Raider film.

The heat of the day was taking its toll on me as I wandered around within the Ta Prom temple grounds. We’d forgotten to top up the water bladder in our backpack and I must have lost a good litre of moisture through sweating. When I started to feel dizzy and a little light-headed, I knew it was high time for me to quickly top up with some fluids somehow. Luckily, I stumbled into one of the many women walking around selling peeled pineapples and for just R2,000 (€0,38), I was able to enjoy a whole peeled pineapple sliced into quarters.

Along the path leading up to the temple from the main road was a small group of musicians tapping out tunes on traditional Cambodian instruments. Some had various limbs missing and others were blind or maimed. A sign sitting in front of them indicated that they were land mine victims and we were happy to through a few notes into their bowl.

After a while, we suddenly became aware that there was a constant screeching noise in the background. I thought initially that it was the whistling of the wind through the trees but as we walked, the sound grew steadily stronger to the point that it was so loud and distracting that we kept looking into the bushes to try to locate the source, which could not have been more than a few feet from us at any one point in time. This noise turned out to be the sound made by small cricket-like insects. When one of them starts, the entire colony slowly joins in and the resulting din can be quite deafening. Try as we did, neither of us could find a single insect responsible for this racket even though we must have been right on top of them.

We decided that we enjoyed the previous place that we ate at so much that we wanted to return there again for lunch so Chan took us over there and this time the three of us sat together for another really nice meal. We had a lot of fun with the kids and their persistence in trying to sell us anything and everything. We weren’t in a buying mood today, however. Some of these kids are extremely astute. One young lad tried repeatedly to sell Sandy a flute but when she finally said she didn’t want one, he told her that she could give it to her husband as a gift and motioned over towards me. She asked the little tyke why he thought I was her husband and he replied that it was obvious since we both had the same type of wedding ring.

The third and final temple that we visited today was Angkor Wat itself. The familiar sight of the three towers with the centre tower being slightly taller than the other two was waiting there for us when we arrived. Actually, there are five towers with the tallest one being in the centre of the other four but the perspective view makes it look like there are just three. Like the Taj Mahal, the sight of these three towers is instantly recognisable as Angkor Wat to anyone that has ever travelled. Angkor is probably the one site of interest that every visitor to Cambodia, and possibly even South East Asia as a whole, comes here to see. The temple itself, ironically, was less interesting that the previous two that we saw today. It was very much more intact that the rest of the buildings we visited throughout the day and complete enough to encompass three stories, which were easily scalable up the extremely steep steps on each side of the inner temple structure. Monks dressed in orange robes were scaling the main temple building just like the rest of the tourists here. As I sat and rested at the upper level, one of them ventured over to strike up a conversation with me. What little English he spoke was very articulate but even so, it took us about ten minutes to hold a very basic conversation. Curiously, he ultimately asked me to write down my name on a piece of paper that he had. Just what that was all about, I don’t know.

Angkor Wat is famed for the contrasting colours of the towers that are illuminated by the setting sun and most people tend to make their way to the main temple at Angkor Wat late in the afternoon so that they can stay to see the light show. Although still very warm and bright, it was now fairly overcast and there was little chance of seeing one of those famous sunsets today. One of the more expensive ways of experiencing the temple at twilight is from the hanging basket beneath a huge, hot air balloon tethered to a line fixed to the ground. A ten-minute jaunt up into the sky is enough to entice hundreds of Dollars from some tourists and we saw the balloon make several trips into the sky whilst we were there. I’m not sure how much for their money today’s balloon riders thought they got with the overcast skies putting such a damper on the sunset show.

Temple trekking takes it out of you and we needed to sit down and rest for a while. We found a nice seat at the end of one of the rows of market stalls and were instantly offered a coconut to sit and sip from. I quite enjoyed the coconut from earlier and for just R2,000 (€0,38) I couldn’t say no to another. Once again it was deftly sliced open at the top and handed to me with a straw sticking out of it. I enjoyed the litre or more of sap and was looking forward to scraping out the flesh even more so I signalled to the woman to slice it open for me when it was finally sucked dry. This she did but unlike at the previous place, she next took her machete to the side of the coconut and sliced off a slither of the tough, outer shell. To my astonishment, she continued to use her machete to fashion this slither into a spoon that I subsequently used to scrape out the jelly with. I thought this was quite ingenious.

After exploring every last nook and cranny of Angkor Wat and finishing my delicious coconut, we found Chan’s car, left the temple complex and headed towards Siem Reap again. Along the way, we stopped at a money change office and converted a couple of $100 traveller’s checks into Dollars. We also bought a pile of small denomination Cambodian notes.

Even though we were quite exhausted by the time we made it back to our hotel, we noticed that one of the rooms on the ground floor was unoccupied so we asked if we could move from our third floor room into this more easily accessible ground floor room. The hotel proprietor was happy to let us do this and we moved accordingly. We spent the next hour chasing several dozen mosquitoes around the room, squashing them one by one in turn. It didn’t seem to matter how many of them we killed, there always seemed to be another four or five flying around. We gave up exhausted and frustrated and eventually went to bed, safe in the knowledge that we would be eaten alive tonight.