Siem Reap & Ankor Wat
Arriving in Cambodia was a lovely change of pace to the bustle of Vietnam. Although we really had a great time in Vietnam, i think we’d just about had enough. Almost three weeks was just the right amount of time.
Even getting off the plane I instantly noticed a difference. There was this quite pleasant smell that seemed like a combination of farm and smoke and that sweet smell you get in humid places. We had possibly one of the best trips through customs ever. We’d managed to get an earlier flight to siem reap (just) which meant we were probably the last ones to check in and got seats right near the front. We were first off the plane, first through immigration and then our bags were in some of the first to come out. There was no one manning the customs area, yes that’s right…no one – so we just walked straight on through. We were picked up on the other side by our taxi driver. The taxi turned out to be a motorbike tuk tuk, which was a great introduction to this small tourist city. It was great being out in the open air and being able to soak everything up.
We arrived at our hotel, which was beautiful and had our first Khmer meal of a fish and a chicken curry. I was expecting the food to be more like Vietnamese for some reason, but it was probably a bit more like Thai food, many coconut milk based curries etc. I really enjoyed it and will be looking to see if I can find any Cambodian food in Melbourne.
The next morning we were picked up by our private air conditioned car and tour guide. We’d heard from trip advisor and the Canadian couple from our Halong bay tour, that this was the best way to see the temples. They were not wrong. It was about $65 for both of us for the whole day. We had another fantastic guide, Wannack, who was so very, very lovely and knew his stuff about the area. He also had a great sense of humour.
We saw Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (which featured Bayon temple), Ta Prohm (where some of tomb raider was filmed) and a couple of other bits and pieces. All were amazing. Despite the fact that is Angkor Wat that is one of the 7 wonders of the world and the temple that brings everyneto the area, it was probably our least favourite. Not that it wasn’t spectacular, but it was crawling with tourists and I thought, didn’t quite have the same character as some of the others.
We both loved Bayon temple. It lies within the walls of Angkor Thom (once a city home to about 1.2 million people) and was built by Jayavarman VII (colloquially known as J7), a King in the 11th/12th century. J7 by all accounts was a pretty awesome dude. The Cambodians really look at him as a good King and even though he was from ancient times, they still seem to worship him to some extent. He was responsible for really improving life for his people and alleviating suffering.
Bayon has 54 towers which represent the 54 provinces of ancient Cambodia and also, as I have just read up, something to do with the lunar calendar. Most of the towers are four sided with a face on each side. It is quite spectacular. Our guide took some photos of us here, rubbing noses with one of the faces, which apparently means we will get what our heart desires.
Ta Prohm was also pretty amazing. Unlike the other temples, which had all the trees and folliage and that had been growing through them removed by the French, Ta Prohm has been left au naturel. Huge trees grow out of the ancient ruins, with their sprawling roots, creeping down to the ground. Our guide says what would have happened, is the the trees seed themselves in the moss growing on top on the structures and live there until they get too big, then their roots find their way down to the ground so they can continue to grow. So they don’t start off in the ground in most cases.
Much of Ta Prohm, like many of the temples in Siem Reap, is having major restoration done. In the case of Ta Prohm, this is being funded by an Indian organisation. While the trees are being kept, some people are apparently still unhappy about the restoration. Much of the temple lies in pieces as much of it was destroyed by the Siamese (or Thai) and they believe it should be left to remind people of the conflict. Personally, I think the restoration that was done has improved it and if it’s making it safe and preserving it for longer, then I think it’s probably a good thing.
Towards the end of our day, Wannack asked if we would like to here a bit about Pol Pot. Since we both didn’t know too much about it, we said we would. It’s a horrific story and you could really see the sadness in Wannack about it all. He grew up in Phnom Penh and although born in 1981 (2 years after things technically ended), was obviously very affected by it. He spoke to us of his memories as a child and getting food dropped from UN helicopters. He said it was very hard. Pretty much everyone in Cambodia has at least one familiy member that was killed during the Pol Pot regime. It is estimated that approximately 2.5 million people were killed – that is almost one third of the population at the time.
Wannack told us another amazing story that day of how he became a tour guide (you need a degree and to be able to speak another language to do this in Cambodia, as you need a tour guide licence). He was working as a taxi driver and one day was driving around an Australian man called John. John obviously took a liking to Wannack (which is not hard to believe) and told him he would be back and would use him again next time he was there. At the time Wannack had just finished high school and had told John how he would have liked to go to university, but he would’t have been able to afford it. Wannack was surprised when John did return to Cambodia and contacted him. After using his services again for his trip, John offered to pay for Wannack to go to universitiy. He paid for his whole tuition, about $2500 worth. It was such a touching story and made me proud to be an Aussie. The sad thing is, Waneck lost contact with John and hasn’t been able to find him. It’s his dream that one day he will be able to thank John in person and show him what he was able to achieve.