Wednesday, 29 February 2012

SIEM REAP - CAMBODIA

20th - 24th Feb 2012

Gateway to Cambodia at Poipet
So onwards into the Kingdom of Cambodia. Now back in the Frog ex-colonies of Indo-Chine where boulevards and good fresh bread still exist. The train stopped at Aranyaprathet and it is quite a time consuming performance getting through the Thai exit and in through the Cambodian entry points. It involved hassle with irritating over-enthusiastic Thai tuk-tuk drivers, a 5 km trip to the Thai customs post, more hassle with scam-merchants trying to sell you 'cheap' transport to Siem Reap, pushing luggage for another kilometre to the Cambodian customs post at Poipet, a bus to the transport hub near Poipet and eventually a taxi which I shared with a couple of dotty female Canadian students and a rather monosyllabic Aussie bloke on to Siem Reap. The Canadian girls had convinced themselves that they had developed an allergy while travelling on the train when dust and stuff blew in through the open windows. They were worried that without suitable medicines they might easily die. They had also lost their Thai departure slips which caused further delay. It reinforced my opinion that travelling alone is so much easier! It also reminded me of the paranoia which grips most North Americans concerning ( mostly unnecessary ) vaccines and medicaments when they travel. I will bore you on this subject later; suffice to say they are uncomfortable travelling without their bodies being pumped full of vaccines and serums plus a suitcase full of drugs and pills to combat all the many and much advertised lethal ailments and diseases without which they are convinced that they will inevitably fall victim to, much to the delight of greedy pharmaceutical companies which stir up this paranoia in the first place. Does anyone remember Swine 'Flu? What a successful con that was!


Left: The flag which features the outline of the temple at Angkor Wat. I was last in Cambodia in 1992-93 for six months service with the UN force ( UNTAC ) which, after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period and the Vietnamese invasion that ended it, ultimately oversaw the May 1993 elections. It was, despite most of us here then not knowing what the hell we were supposed to be doing most of the time, one of the more successful UN missions. It led to peaceful, free and fair elections in which the Royalist FUNCINPEC party won ( 58% of the votes ) and the communist CPP party came second. They offered to form a coalition with Prince Ranariddh ( FUNCINPEC ) becoming 1st Prime Minister and Hun Sen ( CPP ) being 2nd Prime Minister. A few years later Hun Sen instigated a military coup which ousted FUNCINPEC. Hun Sen and the CPP, by fair means and mostly foul, have maintained power ever since. The much revered old king, Sihanouk, abdicated but is still alive and the new king, Sihamoni, is now on the throne. It is all very complicated. In 92/93 I was stationed, as a United Nations Monitoring Officer ( UNMO ), at a nondescript village on the northern border with Thailand in remaining Khmer Rouge territory where the most notable thing we achieved was to organise some amusing water-buffalo and ox-cart racing. We also played volleyball with ex-Khmer Rouge guerrillas who, disconcertingly, were still well armed although had more or less stopped killing people, and propped up their AK47s and rocket launchers against the surrounding trees and net posts while games were in progress. I like to think a bit of sport and some dodgy ox-cart racing served to take their minds off politics and fighting, at least until we got out! I hope also that we taught them to smile. They, admittedly, did do a bit of kidnapping of UN personal while we were there but they declined to kidnap me. I suspect they realised that if they did they would sooner or later be offering money to have me taken back and anyway, who would organise the ox-cart races ( and provide the prizes ).
In those days the roads and infrastructure in general were in a state of complete collapse. The road now from Poipet to Siem Reap is a well maintained highway. It takes about 3 hours to drive. The Canadian girls managed to get there without dying...indeed I think they had rather forgotten about their allergies.
Incredibly, the town was packed with tourists. There are lots of hotels and guest houses, some of which are very luxurious and expensive. The bar and restaurant district was heaving at night; all kinds of food and drink on offer with, of course, the mandatory Oirish bears ( I visited Molly Mallone's for excellent shepherd's pie and Irish stew ) and much high-octane night-life. It is a far cry from those days in the early 90s when the town was an almost deserted ruin in the jungle. It is a very prosperous and lively place now.
The overriding attraction, other than cheap drink and entertainment, are the ancient Angkor civilisation ruins nearby. As you may know, Angkor was the capital city and centre of the vast Khmer empire between the 9th and 15th centuries when it ruled all of what is now Indo-China, Thailand, some of southern China and across towards India. To put it in perspective, at it's peak the city of Angkor had a population of over a million when London's was a mere 50,000.


Right: The centre-piece of ancient Angkor is Angkor Wat ( Anchor Temple ). It is advertised as the world's largest religious building. I don't think so. Maybe they mean it was at the time.
If you look at it from directly in front you only see three towers, hence the image on the flag. With apologies to Nigel Molesworth, "As any fule kno" it has five.
I hadn't realised that the Angkor city complex of stone temples and palaces is so huge. It covers an area of about 20 X 20 miles. Of course all you see are the remains of the religious and royal palace stone built buildings, and a lot of reconstruction and restoration work is going on here continuously, because the normal houses and other buildings were all made of wood which have subsequently disappeared.

The transport around the town and Angkor consists predominantly of the fairly modern ( because there were none in 1993 that I remember ) Cambodian tuk-tuks ( left ). Don't know why they don't call them something more original. They are basically a small motorbike which tows a little covered trailer with two rows of facing seats. Not bad, and you are continually pestered by their drivers for your custom. I was advised by the lovely lady who ran the hotel where I stayed ( Encore Angkor it's name, and highly recommended ) that you need at least three days to tour the whole site. She organised a tuk-tuk for me the next morning driven by Mr Rhet. He was very good; informative but not intrusive. There is a 'small' tour route and a 'grand' tour route around the site. I chose the small one. You pay either $20 for a one day, or $40 for a three day pass, plus $15 for the day's use of tuk-tuk and driver. Not cheap. Off we set around a series of temples and buildings in varying states of collapse and decay or restoration. I staggered and climbed my way through a selection of these. I will not itemise each one ( they all had names.. boring ) but just show a series of photos.


A typical building/temple.....Most of these places were Hindu ( I think ). The Hindus took over from Buddhists ( I think ), or maybe it was the other way around. BUT AT LEAST WE DIDN"T HAVE TO TAKE OUR SHOES OFF!!!! Actually your feet would be cut to ribbons if you did.









.......and another..













....and another, restored version....











...and one with trees growing through it. They say that the complex was mostly enveloped by the jungle. It is not really jungle, just a forest area, plenty of trees with quite sparse undergrowth actually.











.....and another.....












...and another...I think I climbed up this one...















....and another....












......and another....













......and another....











....and another....I climbed up this one too......














.....same one from the top.......












......and another from the top.....














...and a headless Buddha.....












...and another Buddha....

After driving, walking and climbing up and around about half a dozen of these buildings, and it was getting bazzing hot towards midday, we stopped for a well deserved lunch of delicious beef noodles and I murdered several bottles of Angkor beer. I was, to say the least, very thirsty!

The two main sites within the city complex are Angkor Wat ( wat means temple ) and Angkor Thom which is a large fortified area containing several palace buildings and temples, indeed it was the final stronghold of the city. Some of those pics above are of buildings in Angkor Thom. Much of the damage to these buildings and statues was done by invading armies after the fall of the Khmer empire, and some by looters and wreckers during and just after the Khmer Rouge period.

Scattered amongst the trees and along the sandy paths leading up to many of the temples were these 'authentic' Khmer musical ensembles ( left ) which played atmospheric Khmer music. They were also very keen to receive donations and to sell their CDs for $10 a piece. No thanks.
 The atmosphere was somewhat spoilt by far too many hawkers, often snotty nosed little children, desperately trying to sell souvenirs to the tourists. They were a bit of a pest.





After lunch we went to the Hindu Angkor Wat. This is surrounded by a 200 metre wide moat ( right ) which forms a giant square with sides of about 1.5 km.










Left: It is approached over a causeway from the west side, the 'direction of death'. From this direction you see the 'three tower' aspect. The entry reminded me somewhat of that to the Taj Mahal. Indeed it is presumed that this temple was also originally built as a mausoleum, this time for a dead early Khmer king. Indeed the whole area is a curious cross between Bagan, Burma and the Taj Mahal.





A wide colonnade goes around the entire outer edge displaying many intricate carvings and friezes which depict lots of 'apsiras' or goddesses, and animals. Inside are several towers and other structures such as four symmetrical sunken, they look like bathing pools, areas. One of which ( right ).







I was interested to see in one of the courtyards this display of little stone mounds ( left ). There were others elsewhere. They are identical to those I remember on the mountains in Peru which were put there originally by the Incas, and even by locals nowadays, as religious 'offerings' to the volcano Gods and over which you are expected to make a wish. Maybe the Incas paid this place a visit?





Right: There were plenty of the Khmer version of Buddhist monks around. These are much more upmarket versions of monk than the Burmese variety. They tend to carry cameras, wear colourful and expensive looking saffron robes and all have very natty and good quality silk shoulder bags in different bright hues.

I might have alluded to the fact that there are many tourists around the place. In fact it is, other than at lunch time when everyone is sitting down eating and drinking, a bit like Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour. The organisation which looks after the place, and I was told that a Korean company has bought the business, and/or the Cambodian Government must earn quite a packet from entry fees. To give them credit a lot of work and money goes into restoration and protection. It is difficult to guess the numbers but I estimate ( and I might be miles out ) that about 20,000 people visit per day in the dry season ( November to May ) at $20 per head per day.

Left: This is just one small section of the many tracks over which a line of tuk-tuks and bicycles are continually on the move. There are also large gangs of bicycle riding blue shirted maintenance girls which patrol the place.









I also reckon that about 50% of the tourists are Japanese. Angkor on their 'check list' of places to visit during their once in a lifetime world tour, along with Edinburgh Castle, the Louvre and Machu Picchu amongst many others. They were also here en-masse in 1942-45 courtesy of the French. Right: This is one of the many 'Banzai Tour' groups receiving a final briefing.






They patrol around the grounds behind their leaders who carry flags ( not necessarily of the Rising Sun ). Left: A squad of Japs launching a frontal kamikaze assault on Angkor Wat. Are they expecting rain? Maybe its camouflage from aerial attack.


I did all this on Day 1. As you can imagine I was by now somewhat 'templed out' having walked miles in sweaty hot weather and really couldn't see the point in doing another two days of visiting remarkably similar sights. My feet were a bit sore. I spent the next day pottering gently around the town and relaxing, some of it, I must admit, in Molly Malone's establishment.
Then I had a rush of blood to the head and, against all my principles and sound common sense, succumbed to the tourist bug and decided to do 'Angkor Wat' at sunrise the next day. This involved getting up at 0500hrs. The hotel had a packed breakfast ready for me. Mr Rhet was waiting and we drove off to Angkor in the dark. I was dropped off at the west end of the causeway and walked in.
I was not alone.


Right: This was my view of the temple when I got to a prime viewing position just on the corner of one of the lakes in front of the wat at about 0545hrs.












Left: Eventually, it started to get a bit lighter after 0615hrs.











Right: ....and as the sun came up over the temple. It then quickly clouded over and the sun was lost until later in the morning.
There were plenty of mosquitos around as well as scores of hawkers selling various tat; books, postcards and coffee. I'm not sure which were the most irritating.







Left: More interesting was the reverse view. The crowd must have numbered over two thousand and the sound of clattering cameras ( or cratterling camelas as most of them were wielded by the sons and daughters of Nippon ) was almost continuous.









This pretty Chinese lady offered to pose with the damned rat in front of one of the ancient 'library' buildings walking back to the tuk-tuk park. She wanted to pose with it.










We stopped off on the way back at the site which offers a 'tethered' ballon ride to see and photograph the area from above. It was out of action because of the windy weather, I was told. I didn't notice much wind and suspect they didn't have enough takers this morning due to the cloudy conditions, although they seemed to have a few written down on their bookings board. The Japanese writing at the top means, I think, something along the lines of 'There's a nip in the air'.









So a fond farewell from all of us at Siem Reap and next onwards by bus down south to what was known in French colonial days as 'The Pearl of the Orient'; the charming city of Phnom Penh.

Origato!

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