16.12.2012 - 18.12.2012
Upon finishing our time at the Elephant Valley we knew we wanted to head west in search of temples. This would require us to travel across country via bus for 12 hours (it actually turned out to be 16) but we had done it all before so we jumped on in the morning and made our way to Siem Reap. The journey was relatively easy but a bit too long, fortunately we had booked our hostel ahead and was able to get a tuk tuk. The bus stops in Cambodia are always very odd, never really located for ease of the passenger rather more for the bus driver as we had been dropped off at the depot, which had been fenced off to stop locals coming into the area and supposedly stealing. We thought it could also be a cartel of tuk tuks who make sure they get first dibs on passengers. Either way we got our transport and excepted that the 4 dollar cost was fine despite it probably being inflated.
Our hostel was chosen specifically for the pool that it had as we knew we would be cycling around the Angkor site and we would need cooling down after long days. This was a blessing as we were so hot and fed up from the bus ride that as soon as we checked in we jumped in. However we had to do this all with torches as the hostel had had a power cut, a slight concern but when we were chilling in the pool it really didn't matter and the power came on pretty soon after. (You learn to take things a little easier as time goes)
Our next day would be the longest cycling excursion taking the larger outer ring road bypassing the famous Angkor Wat and taking in the smaller sites. This was recommended to us in order to save the best till last. So off we set on our bikes and we stopped to buy our 3 day ticket for $40 each. As we went through the ticket checkers sold us the option to see Angkor Wat at sunrise and further afield sites of Bantrey Srei, Landmine Museum and the Butterfly Centre. It was a good deal and we set it up for the next day.
Our route would be 40km in total and we saw many temples, some of which I have listed below. The day was a great introduction into the sheer size of the area and we felt like we had our own mini adventure. Here are some of the best bits we saw.
Bantrey Kdei with Sran Srang lake
Baray of Phreah Khan
This was the first site we reached which was a shrine called Prasat Kraven meaning Cardamom Sanctuary. It was small in its size and did not have many hallmarks of the famous Angkor Wat but was interesting nonetheless, mainly for the way they were able to build into the wall a almost 3D shape.
Before we left to go to the next site we were approached by locals trying to sell souvenirs and drinks, something that would be a regular occurrence throughout the trip. The little kids got the look down to a treat making it hard to say no but we knew that buying from these kids was not doing them any favours as it would essentially keep them out of school so we refrained and moved on.
This site called Pre Rup had a more similar look to what we recognise as Angkor and we had a good walk around despite the stifling heat and also walked to the top to take in the view.
We found Elephants at East Mebon.
We found this at the Bantrey Kdei site and it looked straight out of Indiana Jones film.
After our long day we ventured in Siem Reap for dinner. We must of been so tired because we can't remember where we had dinner but it was good. Later we walked the night markets but with the early start on our minds we went back to hostel and saved the batteries.
Next morning we were treated with probably the most stunning moments of our trip so far. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. We both were excited about this before reaching Siem Reap but words almost couldn't describe the view we saw. The early start meant we approached the Angkor Wat site in pitch black ( silly dopes we forgot our torch) fortunately there was a young Cambodian girl who sold drinks who helped us out and we met up with her later to by some drinks from her stall to repay the small favour. Standing by the small pond that is situated outside the main temple we waited and it certainly was worth it. The change of colour as the morning sun rose was breathtaking and there was a sense of satisfaction that we had seen one of the 7 wonders of the world at such a perfect time.
Sarah took some incredible shots which I think captures the beauty of it.
As the sun rose we walked around the site and got to see the outer moat that surrounds the area. It was built during the reign of Suryavarman II both as a city capitol and a state temple. ('Angkor' meaning 'City' and 'Wat' meaning 'Temple'). But also it is said that the temple mimics the home of the devas from Hindu mythology that is situated on Mount Meru.
After a quick baguette from a local vendor ( yes there is food served as well) we hopped in our tuk tuk and our driver started the long trip to Bantrey Srei. It was a good scenic trip with another opportunity to see rural life in Cambodia. The site is extra special due to intricate carvings that have managed to sustain the test of time. To look at these designs you would think that it had only been done this year. They were incredible to look at as the symmetry and depth of each design could have you staring for hours. It was believed that due to the intricacy's of the carvings it was more likely that women made these as they would have required a far more delicate approach. The site was built by one of the future Khmer King's counsellor's or guru. The name Bantrey Srei means 'Citadel of Beauty' and it certainly held firm to its name as it was one of the better temples to really see the Khmer's abilities in stone carvings.
One thing that amazed me was how they built all the temples considering they did not have machinery to aid them. The size of the blocks that made the walls were at least 1ft cubed and were heavy. I was interested to find out that they vegtables compound to hold the blocks in place which is why you don't see any mortor joints.
After a delicious Khmer lunch we moved on to see the Landmine Museum,a non-govrnment organisation (NGO), which was a real eye opener to the real affect War has had on Cambodia and the rest of what we call Indochina. We were fortunate that when we got there a tour was just starting with an American guy who had started working full time with the founder of the museum Aka Ra. He had heard about Aka's story and instead of just sending some money he decided to up sticks and move out to Cambodia to help with the foundation. His knowledge and passion for the cause really helped us understand the magnitude of what they face in terms of ridding the country of landmines and helping local children gain the education they need to have a better life.
The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Facility (Museum for short) was established in 1997 by ex-child soldier Aki Ra. After years of fighting he returned to the villages in which he planted thousands of mines and began removing them, by hand, and defusing them with homemade tools. Aka also saw the hard lives young children were experiencing in the rural areas and decided to help by offering a home to these troubled kids which allows the to live and learn at the same time so that can get the education they desperately need to achieve a better standard of life.
The cause itself was very admirable and we were glad that we stopped by, however it was shocking to hear the difficulties they have with the bureaucracy and cruption in that is rife in Cambodia's politics right now. One example was that the location of the museum had to be outside of Siem Reap due to the fact that the local General owned the museum in the centre of town and therefore it is seen as competition meaning there are forced to stay on the outskirts, it was a hard fact to swallow.
The stories we got from the American guy helped us understand just how much the Vietnam War has affected Cambodia with families losing members due to unexploded mines. We were shown a map of US bombing missions over Cambodia during that period and it was nearly half the country. It was the US attempts to seal over the trails of supplies to the Vietnamese but it just looked like a free for all. They reckon that the amount of unexploded devices that surround the country will take over a 100 years to clear and what's frustrating for them is a that the don't have the governments financial backing so it is all done through fund raising which our American tour guide plays a huge part in.
He also told us about a possible break through that could change things dramatically. One of the problems they face is that it takes a huge amount of time to clear an area known to have landmines. This is because the techniques used are still relatively basic. You set out an area with sticks and poke the ground until you find something mental and then dig around it before exploding it in its location. If you are lucky and you can afford the $20,000 mental detectors you can scan the ground rather than poking it, but even then you still have all other bits of mental to contend with. A possible breakthrough we were told about is that a student at Stamford in USA is developing an app which could be plugged into the mental detector which then would provide a visual of what was in the ground and therefore would speed up the process drastically that larger areas could be covered in a shorter space of time. Lets hope this can be discovered and put into action sooner rather than later.
We left the museum for the butterfly sanctuary and Sarah's was able to finally get her picture of a butterfly. it wasn't the best place to visit but we did get a short tour from a friendly Cambodian guy who was very knowledgable and enthusiastic. We even got to see a stick insect! They are huge!
Later that evening we had the pleasure of meeting up with our friend Jude as she had decided to stay longer in Cambodia. We had a delicious meal at the Red Piano catching up about our experiences through Vietnam.
Next day would be our last around the temples and we decided to use the cycles again to go round the shorter tour which takes in Bayon, Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. As we had seen Angkor and Thom and Angkor Wat the day before we concentrated on the other two. the Bayon a state temple is one of the most powerful religious constructions according to historians. It's design is complex and includes many faces carved into the walls and statues. As you walk into the first outer wall and upstairs you instantly get a different experiences as the platform as it tree height and is far more peaceful.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, made famous for its use in the Tomb Raider film, however me and Sarah just felt like we were in an Indiana Jones scene.
It was a temple-monastery and had been taken over by the jungle until it was found. It was decided that it should be kept in this way to show what it would have looked like upon discovery. An inspired decision as a lot of people venture to this area now to see it and to be fair me and Sarah really liked it. A significant amount of work that went into keeping the area from collapsing which you can visibly see.
Siem Reap is a nice place to relax, the pub street caters for all kinds of culinary choice and we were certainly guilty of enjoying a few western treats.
It was a good few days.
Stay tuned for more tales