07.05.2010 - 08.05.2010 35 °C
We had arranged a nice hotel cheeep at $26 a night on wotif.com. One of the great benefits of travelling in the off season! Once again, none of the signs held up at the airport had our names on, so we let an unthusiastic tuk-tuk driver talk us into being our driver for three days. When we arrived at the hotel anther driver came up with my name on paper saying he had been there waiting. We'd waited a good half hour - too bad so sad, he missed out on 3 days guaranteed good work.
Tuk Tuks vary country to country, but in Cambodia it's a motorbike with a trailer with two small facing bench seats. Best for two peope facing forward, but you can cram two more facing backwards. Our little mate "Chia" we believe is the fasted Tuk-Tuk driver in all of Cambodia. He overtakes every other Tuk tuk on the road, we never once had a Tuk tuk overtake us once the whole time in Siem Reap. Despite Mark's protest, Chia calls him "sir" and throws it a couple of times into every sentence.
Fancy hotel, beautiful carved wood on every inch from the walls, to the giant carved chairs, with scenes and figures carved at every opportunity. This 70 room hotel, had only 2 rooms filled, so we had about 3 staff each and the run of the place. "Sir" and "Mam' from everyone, our own bartender by the pool who also brought us our dinner. Pool to ourselves and towels on command. Ahh nice. Mind you, without the pool, this place would be hell. Siem Reap is soooo hot.
There are some downsides to having an empty hotel. The aircon is off. With the corridors and rest of the building hot it makes it hard to cool your room with the aircon. If you want they'll turn on the cooler next to you while you eat. Lights are off when there are no people around so sometimes you have to feel your way down the grand curving wooden staircase at night. Restaurant will be closed if there is noone around, ignore the opening hours. But, who can blame them at $26 a night.
We really liked the Cambodian people right away. So happy, smiley, friendly and they like a laugh. No hint of the hell they've been through or the poverty they go home to after work.
Siem Reap is a busy place, even now in the off season when it's too hot and dry for tourists. It's pretty exciting on the roads, can't imagine what it must be like when things get busy.
Chia had us up nice and early to start on the temples. He had a three day schedule worked out for us and it sounded pretty hard core. The first temple was a nice quite one. A cow wandered through, came up to me and started licking my arm. Mmm salty arm. Ow scratchy tongue. I was thinking after seeing a few cows wandering the roadsides that maybe cows are sacred here like india. No in fact they do have owners, but for some reason cows don't seem to be penned. They often graze the verges. Chia tells me they are used for working the rice fields as well as meat and milk. Not so sacred after all. Smaller than the ones back home and friendlier!
Right from the first "quiet" temple, it became clear that we would constantly be dealing with hawkers - relentless hawkers. Ankor books, scarves, beads, t-shirts.. "you buy? You buy?" Not just pushy, not just persistent, desperate would be a better description. When we moved on to the busier temples we really started to see how desperate they were. Of course selling is preferable to begging, but the line is very blurred. "You not buy from me I cry!", "why you buy from her not me?!" "You buy from her but I talk you first! You bad person!" "Oh my god!"- (not sure where they picked that one up or what they meant exactly). Mark is pretty good at doing the blunt "NO." and carrying on. I can 't help feeling like I need to be polite and explain why the answer is "no" at this particular time.. big mistake. The worst mistake of all - buy from one person when there are three other people crowding you selling the same thing. You have to choose one then the others can get downright angry at times. Particularly if you talked to them earlier - and sometimes you just can't remember which ones you spoke to and which ones you didn't. There seems to be no loyalty between traders. If one woman comes up to you with waterbottles, it's perfectly ok for two more to come and try to sell you the same thing. Then you get to choose and it all goes badly. I don't understand how they work side by side day after day. Just sheer desperation. Sheer poverty.
Then there's the children. That I found hardest of all. Plenty of kids had tried to sell to us, Some threatening to cry if I didn't buy, saying they needed it for books for school. They were getting younger by the hour, finally a girl who could barely have been two years old tried to sell me a handfull of wooden fans, complete with demonstration and probably the first words she learned "two dollar?" . I actually did want one of those fans, but how do you haggle with a two year old!?
Chia had picked a select few temples for us to visit that day, but because we were so slow, we only got through seven. Seven! In a million degree heat with rocks that felt like they'd come out of the pizza oven and a constant torrent of sweat running allong every gully in our bodies.
So, about those temples.
If you've never heard of the Temples of Ankor, you really should do some homework! They're just amazing. These were built for the Khmer kingdom between the 9th and 13th centuries. They built dozens and dozens of them here, culminating with the mighty Ankor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. Originally they were Hindu temples but Bhuddist seems to be the focus now. Ankor Wat was turned into a Bhuddist monastery and that seems to be the case in many others.
Eventually the population dwindled and dispersed (wars etc). The temples were abandoned for hundreds of years and overgrown by jungle. They were hidden and crumbling by the time the French colonised Cambodia. They instigated the uncovering and resoration of the temples but many countries are now funding work. Of course all work went backwards during the vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge years. The restoration is mostly easy to spot. Some has failed and had to be redone. It's been hard to match the skill of the original construction, the clever ways they locked stones together to form waterproof roofs etc. Similar joinery to carpentry but with massive heavy lumps of rock.
It's hard to imagine without being there the scale and number of temples we are talking about. Some are just piles of rubble in the jungle, while Ankor Wat's outer moat & wall is about 5km by 5km. Several of the temples need an hour or two to walk through. There are over 1000 temples in the region with a big cluster in this area next to Siem Reap city. There were about a million people living in the city of Ankor back at time when London was a big village.
The construction of the temples was quite phenomenal. Stones were often carted from far away, by elephant, floating on rafts and so on. Slaves ground the sandstone flat ready for construction. The most amazing part, is the ornate carving on every inch of space. It would once also have been painted and sections covered in gold. It must have been a stunning place to see. The carvings tell stories from mythology and Kmer history. Some are very well preserved. You can see images of what life was like back then, people catching fish in the Tonle Sap (Great lake which supports the region), crocodiles (now only farmed), constructing the temple, fighting wars on elephant back and so on. It's easy to burn up hours studying bas-reliefs (some 20m long) trying to work out the stories and scenes.
Ok, enough of the history lesson. A big thumbs up for the amazing Temples of Ankor, but I wouldn't recommend you do it in May as we did! It was a real struggle. The temples themselves are quite a physical challenge at times. This apparently was back in the days before they invented proper staircases. Or maybe they had really short feet, and really long shins? The steps at times were only 20cm deep but 40cm high. Often they were broken or worn to be rounded and smooth. Climbing to heights of 20 - 30 m gets a tad freaky for someone scared of heights like me. The heat adds another element to the equation, the rocks are burning hot, so you can't use your hands to climb.
At most of the temples, we came across a Bhuddist prayer spot where you would mostly also find a monk. At the first we were asked to remove our hats, much to the delight of the old monk sitting on the mat who laughed at Mark's bald head. Snap! At the time we knew nothing about bhuddist customs, we didn't know that we should not have been standing, while a monk sat at our feet. Very rude. He didn't seem to mind. He tied string around each of our wrists, said some words for us and gave us incence to place. Then we are expected to put a donation in the box which we did. We soon learned the routine. They were all very smiley monks and apparently quite happy to have us tourists stomping all over their temples.
One of the bigger temples, Ta Prohm is particularly famous for having been used in Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones movies. It's the dream set, apart from some serious occupational health and safety issues! When restoration work began, they decided to leave the fantastic trees in place that were effectively tearing the place apart. While the undergrowth is clear so you can walk around, giant strangler figs and other trees have their roots wrapped around the stones and poking between, gradually prising them apart. The effect is stunning. We got quite lost walking around this one.
Visiting in the dry season, the temples look quite different to the pictures. They are surrounded by jungle, but the smaller greenery is missing. The green moss covered rocks, ferns poking out from cracks etc. I'd like to see that. It's a pretty dusty place right now. Mark and I were still getting over the cold we picked up in Koh Tao. My ultra sensitive runny nose was driving me bonkers hooning around on the back of the tuk tuk. There were a lot of people around wearing masks and I was thinking I could use one. This seems to be the go everywhere in Asia and I'm still not exactly sure why. Sometimes they where them when there is no dust around, perhaps it's fumes from traffic, perhaps they have colds? I didn't expect the mask culture to be here in such a poor area. Maybe they know more about what the dust and fumes are doing to their lungs than I do.
We lunched among the hawker stalls, Chia slept in a hammock while we fought them off. A lady fanned us for a while and god it was nice, the heat was such a killer. After a while she asked if we would come to her scarf stall, we said no and the fanning stopped. A little girl tried copying the fanning sales technique, by this time we really felt like an evil pair of westerners. The silly thing is if someone had said "hey, I'll fan you for half an hour for 20 bucks" we probably would have said "Yes please!".
Chia's worked us through till sunset when he dropped us at the foot of a hill and told us to climb for sunset photos. Elephants! There were two elephants giving rides to the top (we didn't). I have a soft spot for elephants. I hope they are not unhappy elephants. Happier doing rides for tourists than logging I expect. I didn't see any signs of maltreatment.
The climb up the hill was nothing compared to the verticle steps to reach the top of Phohm Bakhem temple. A gazillion people gathered at the temple at the top for sunset photos. There were views over Ankor Wat on one side and to the region's famous Tonle Sap lake on the other side. There were so many tourists and in that heat a sunset photo really didn't seem worth waiting for. We held out, amusing ourselves by people watching. I began compling a collection of photos of innapropriately dressed people. We cannot get over the numbers of people covering every inch of skin with hot clothing. The locals complain about the heat yet they wear warm clothing. I think many are Japanese tourists. Gardening gloves, Jeans, High heeled shoes, so much camera fodder. Locals always wear a colourful checkered scarf, many ways to wear them but often they are just for wiping away the sweat. Sunset was, yeah sunsets we've seen them before. Yes it was great with the sillouetted temple tops but so hard to keep all the heads from bobbing into the picture. Man we went home buggered that day.
We ate in, too tired to check out the town. Cambodian food is great. Lots of variety, lots of fish. Not as spicy as thai. They put a little salad with everything so it's hard to follow the "don't eat the salad" rule from "How not to get sick when travelling 101" but we're trying. I'm still eating too many fruit smoothies, the tummy will get used to it eventually.