Friday, May 22, 2009

Cambodia - Siem Reap aka Ankor Wat

Siem Reap

While i was traveling in South America I met a lovely Norwegian girl - Ranghilde. As it has happened a couple times before, we were at the same time at the same place - more than once ;)

We had started in SE Asia almost the same day, but took different routs. After some coordination efforts we were actually in Phonm Phen the same day, but separated by a few miles. Siem Reap was supposed to be our re-unification ground...

When I arrived with the local bus in Siem Reap, only a couple other "westerners" were with me. Most of the time you end up talking and catching a ride together .... in this case the tuk-tuk driver denied me my first choice - a couple from the Netherlands - with the reasoning the tuk-tuk would only take two people - whatever.

The next "white" guy, turned out to be Peter, a journalist from Sweden (who looked south American), who (un)covered stories in Vietnam and Cambodia (presumably for a newspaper back home). As usual I didn't have a plan and simply decided to go along with someone elses- Peters in this case. His tuk-tuk picked him up to check out a hostel called Garden Village . Once we arrived and I saw the rooms- $5 a night, with fan and bathroom, decently clean for SE Asia conditions - i settled.

When signing in I was hoping for someone to catch my job description, which i states as being a deep sea diver ... no one did, but someone ended up reading my entry after all.
Literally 30 seconds after I had closed my door and dropped my bag I heard a knock on the door. Peter? Housekeeping? The couple from the Netherlands I just lent $3 for the tuk-tuk?

Nope ... Ranghilde! Without any plans, details, or communication at all before our arrival we ended up at the same place at the same time. She had arrived 30 seconds after me and had decided to check the sign-in sheet before doing anything else. What a coincidence ... or whatever you want to call it.

She had been travelling with Mira (which we moved into a room with) and both of them just met Daniel (Germany) ... we all ended up exploring the temples of Ankor Wat over the next few days.

Siem Reap is Cambodia's most touristy town - rightfully so, with all the amazing tempels of Angkor close by. In 802, jayavarman II united the warring Chenla factions and worked towards building a magnificent and prosperous kingdom. he declared himself universal god-king, and became the first of a succession of 39 kings to reign over the most powerful kingdom of Southeast Asia at the time. So the Angkor era was born, a period marked by imaginative building projects, that design and construction of inspirational temples and palaces the creation of complex irrigation systems and the development of magnificent walled cities.

After a day of rest - and catching up - we all took a tuk-tuk to explore the main temples on day one. Ankor Wat is very popular, but this magical place can become very common if flooded with one thousand people at once. Thankfully we took it easy the first day and arrived way after the first wave of tourist buses (but also under the beating heat of the mid-day sun).

Ankor Wat to ourselves - once we made it passed the heaps of children trying to sell you 10 postcards for $1(I did not support any child labor, instead all postcards send by me were purchased in a art store - however, I am still not sure if that is the best choice ) Built in the 12th century as a mausoleum and temple for King Suryavarman II, Ankor Wat represents the height of inspiration and perfection in khmer art, combining architectural harmony, grand proportions and detailed artistry. Impressive .... but not outstanding ...yet.

Next stop -lunch at Bayon, followed by temple exploration. Bayon (aka Angkor Thom) 2 km north of Angkor Wat, was the last and greatest capital of the Angkor era, built during the 12th and early 13th centuries and is best known for its large carved faces ... very cool. One of my favorites!

Next stop: Ta Prohm - rather than being cleared and restored like most of the other Angkor monuments, this 12th century monastery has been left to the ravages of the jungle and must look just when the first European first rediscovered these ruins in the 19th century ... roots and trunks intermingle with the stones and seem almost part of the structure. A must for nature lovers ...

Sunset at Phom Bakheng ... a temple on top of a hill. Gorgeous, but a true tourist circus, hard to escape from ...
That night I had the best massage of my life - the "seeing hands" - blind people perfomrning a japanese style, one hour massage for $5!! ... just for this experience it is worth visiting Cambodia.

Day two - anothe tuk-tuk day.
Sunrise at Pre Rup - absolutely f$%&*# amazing. At 5:30 we started heading north east to catch sunrise. Mira, Ranghilde, Daniel and I were the only ones on top of this tall temple surrounded by jungle, seeing the sun come up. Outstanding!

Followed by the two "far away" temples of Banteay Srey and Kbal Spean - both nice, but more impressive for the town and life you pass by on your way ... Loads of rice fields and water Buffalo, children in school uniforms riding their bikes, roosters, chickens and dogs crossing the street, and fruit and vegetable stands along the side of the road ... since we all had to get up so early, we took a afternoon nap, followed by an amazing dinner in the "dead fish", a restaurant with a Pulp fiction feel to it, seating on the ground, local art performances, life alligators and great Cambodian food...

Day three (I don't know how people can actually see Ankor Wat in just one day)
Ranghilde joined me in my attempt to explore some of the more remote temples by bike. We started at Banteay Kdei - great place to have breakfast by yourself. Followed by the royal baths - Sras Srang and the highest, pyramid like temple of Ta Keo (a bit of climbing is required to get to the top of this one)...

but by far my very favorite was our next stop. I had seen it on a "artsy" postcard and asked the tuk-tuk driver to take us there the days before ... he told us it be too far (which was a lie) ... Preh Khan!

Preh Khan is a huge, highly explorable monastic complex - as my book says ;) Full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities. It originally serves as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks.

For me it is the best playground, the most beautiful temple, a place of complete peace - simply heaven. Ranghilde and i ended up spending 4 hours - most of the time by ourselves - enjoying the atmosphere of this magical place. Similar to Ta Prom, nature is taking back its territory or merging with the man made structures. Many walls have fallen, but all seem/are stable enough to support climbing efforts to the roof top. At times it can seem a bit confusing to find your way through this labyrinth of hallways, but one can imagine what it must have been like to walk through them 800 years ago quiet easily.

On our way out, a guard told us about the holiest site in Ankor Wat: Neak pean - may have served as a irrigation/absolution function, the waters were thought to have healing properties. After visiting one of the Buddhist shrines, again all by ourselves, we were floating on our bikes, as magical as we felt ;)

We made it to the backside to Angkor Wat for sunset - again by ourselves ... however, we were not so lonely trying to find our way back to the Garden village while the sun had disappeared and motorbikes came out like flies ...

The last day we treated ourselves to some amazing western food in the Blue Pumpkin.
Breakfast is served on a huge, oversizes, white, leather sofa, streching over 10m (along a very large wall) ... with trays in front of you, AC and all fresh fruit .... I felt like a princess eating my $5 three course breakfast!!

Time passes so fast when you are having fun. Siem Reap was certainly one of the highlights of Southeast Asia for me - a must, especially if you make it off the beaten track.

In the morning of the 9th of May I made it to the Airport to catch a flight from Siem Reap- out or the most luxurious airport I have been to yet - to Kuala Lumpur.

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