Temples of Angkor, II

Our last morning in Siem Reap we visited Angkor Thom – a huge walled area which was once a great city dotted with Temples, Palaces and squares. Now only some temples and a few terraces remain within the outer walls, but once a estimated million people lived here. Some of the temples here are in a very bad way. One of them, Baphuon, was taken apart in the late 1960s for careful restoration. This process was interrupted by civil war, and in this period of confusion the careful plan of how to put it all back together was lost. A large part of the structure is now in place, but thousands of stones lie scattered around the site awaiting identification and replacement. It seems an impossible task.

Restoration was underway in a lot of the temples we saw that day, most of which are famous, and very much on the tourist route. We were very disappointed to see that Angkor Wat itself was also partly shrouded by scaffolding and green netting. Worse, no one seemed to be working on it, so perhaps it is a semi-permanent feature. Angkor Wat is the most famous, and by far the most visited of the temples, receiving 6 -10,000 visitors a day. It is the largest of the temples, and some claim it is the largest religious building in the world. Alison’s flip flop broke just after we entered, so she walked around most of it in bare feet. Maybe some people thought she was a particularly devoted buddhist. Or else that she was crazy. It did make the place seem even bigger though. The huge crowds meant Angkor Wat lacked the atmosphere of other temples, and for us, the best temple was actually Beng Mealea.

The crowds of people really brought home something we had gradually been noticing around Cambodia – the place is full of Chinese tourists. When we were in Angkor Wat at least 50% of the tour groups there were Chinese. Chinese people tagging around in a huge tour group is really not that new anywhere in the world, but what we have also noticed in Cambodia is small groups of independent travellers from China, almost entirely young women, but also families. On a mostly unrelated note, we overheard a family group from China chatting in Chinese as they relaxed on top of one of the temples. The family was joined on their trip by their daughter’s white American boyfriend. The daughter was complaining that it wasn’t nice to call her boyfriend ‘foreigner’, and that it upset him, and they should stop. Uncle, father and brother all laughed heartily, as at a preposterous request. Uncle responded wonderingly ‘But if we don’t call him foreigner, what are we going to call him?!’.

We had again cycled up to and around the temples on our hired bikes. Alison’s bike had a poorly designed fixed back lock – which would only release the key when the bike was locked. When the lock was open, the key would just bounce around in the lock. As the lock was a bit sticky, we had been advised never to lock it using that lock. It is a mystery why, but when we returned to our bikes after visiting Angkor Wat someone had turned the key in the lock and stolen the key, rendering Alison’s bike unusable, 8 km out of town. No bike and no shoes was a pretty gloomy situation, but luckily we weren’t out in the middle of nowhere, we were at the car park of Angkor Wat, surrounded by bored tuktuk drivers waiting for their customers to come back. In no time at all they had found a small boy with the same type of key – we thought they were crazy, but it turns out it’s true, crappy bike keys work on multiple crappy locks. Once the lock was opened a tuk tuk driver unscrewed the lock for us, small boy had his key restored and everybody was happy with a job well done. We didn’t even have to ask these people for help, they saw our consternation and jumped in. Though why anyone would be so malicious as to do that in the first place is unclear.

After walking barefoot around Angkor Wat, we celebrated that evening with a Siem Reap speciality – Fish Massage. I’ve heard of it before in spas and saunas, but Siem Reap takes it to the streets, with huge tanks of fish on every corner, hungry to nibble at the dry skin on your feet, legs, hands – anything you’re willing to put in the tank. A bargain at only $2 for 20 minutes including a free beer. Siem reap is a small town, but with such an enormous tourist attraction nearby it is thronged with tourists, and the streets are lined with bars, restaurants, night markets, and fish massage, all doing good business. We even found a bar/restaurant with a pub quiz, although frankly we made a poor showing. Now that we are winding up the trip, and are no longer on the bikes, we have started to allow ourselves to actually buy souvenirs and clothes in the markets. If anyone has any requests from the markets of Phnom Penh please let us know. Cambodia T-shirt anyone?

Our second set of pictures is up as well, they can be found here

~ by Elephants on February 13, 2011.

Leave a Reply