SIEM REAP | CAMBODIA
ANGKOR WAT WAS ROBBED.
That was my overwhelming thought when gazing at the ancient Khmer temples just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Among all the hype over the voting process over the New 7 Wonders of the World was a small band of dissenters clamoring for a recount. The votes, they said, were bought. Now I’m not caught up to speed on the whole controversy, but I will say it’s a crime that Angkor Wat wasn’t included in the lucky seven. Popularity contests suck, but none more so then this. My mind was blown, probably more so than anything I’ve seen since.
It had been a few days since we had landed in Bangkok, and we had crossed the Thai / Cambodia border by bus. After cluelessly blundering through the border crossing despite being asked for a bribe we eventually made it into the hot and sweaty Cambodian immigration office. After what seemed like sixteen days queuing (my guy went for lunch just as I got to the window) we got our E-Visas stamped and were back on the bus from Piopet to Siem Reap.
Or at least most of us were. After trying in vain to ignore a bunch of threatening children outside the immigration office, Jimmy was quickly set upon by the irate adolescents and hauled away screaming down a dark alley way. Our last image of him, burned into my mind, was his horrified face as he was carried along on a sea of tiny hands. I hear he ended up in a sex ring.
The rest of us reached our hostel just as darkness was falling, and the evening was pleasantly cooling down. That night was loud and stormy with fat streaks of lightning illuminating the skies and the droning of crickets and god knows what else. It was time to sooth our shattered nerves with some ice cold Angkor draft at the bar, and at 25 cents per drink, we could afford to have a lot. A lot, a lot. This would be a welcome theme of south-east Asia. Along with going through Jimmys’ like Jimmy goes through beers.
The city of Angkor lies in jungle a few miles outside the town. Having been constructed in the 9th century before undergoing a mysterious decline in the 15th century, it was lost to the outside world until it’s rediscovery in the 19th century by french explorers. The entire complex houses the world’s largest religious buildings, the best preserved and most famous of these being Angkor Wat.
The temples were originally designed as Hindu shrines, the imposing towers of the Wat symbolising the peak of the sacred Mount Meru, before being converted to buddhist temples.
We rented tuk tuk drivers for the day to bring us to our first port of call : Angkor Wat itself. It’s probably a good idea to visit the smaller temples first before being blown away by The Wat but when you are this close who can wait?
Ben, that’s who.
Ben was at the rooftop bar surrounded by cheap booze and weed. He was prepared to wait. Quite happily. “I can see it another day” he slurred before closing his eyes and dreaming of being in a sex ring himself.
So with Francis and Charmain in the lead tuk tuk, and me taking Jimmy no.3 for a test drive in tuk tuk no.2 we made the short journey from the village to the site entrance. And what an entrance. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge moat over 600 ft wide. Access to the central island is by a causeway, before passing through an ornate outer wall. The central complex towers above the site, its iconic towers dominating and daring you to draw closer.
And the place is massive. It would take several days to explore Angkor Wat in depth. Not only that, but Angkor Wat is just one of several complexes that make up the Angkor Archaeological Park. The nearby temples of Angkor Thom are even bigger in surface area. As wondrous as these structures are they could do with a lick of paint. No point in undergoing such a huge restoration project if you’re gonna leave it half done. That’s just lazy.
Charmain came down with a mild fever and took her turn on the sick bed previously vacated by Francis. Replacement Jimmy looked on in concern. Probably wondering if his next premature death would be illness related.
The next day we tuk tuked ourselves out to Angkor Thom, home of the Bayon temple and it’s many faces. Ben even came. And looked at things. And was impressed.
Instead of a taxi rink the Bayon temple has an elephant station that offers rides around the temple. I’d always wanted to ride an elephant seeing as Ireland provides little opportunities to do so. After buttering the elephants up with some bananas (also work on me by the way 😉 we took off on a surprisingly uncomfortable ride. The problem with elephants is that they’re too friggin’ big. Each stride is huge which makes it feel like you’re jumping a chasm with each step. Having got the taste of our bananas one of the elephants picked up Jimmy and shoved him into it’s mouth. And so I found myself on the phone placing an order for a fourth Jimmy.
The Bayon temple hosts over 200 stone faces of Lokesvara “The Lord who Looks Down”. Like Angkor Wat it features amazing carvings and reliefs depicting mythological battles and creatures. I love the names of some of these places too. “Hall of a Thousand Gods”, “Terrace of the Leper King”. Revenge of the Leper King coming soon to Xbox.
Ben refused to believe that buildings this big could remain hidden in the jungle for centuries, and that a lot still are. Until we were dropped off at the trail for Ta Prohm – the “Tomb Raider Temple”. In typical fashion instead of following the main roads and entrances we found ourselves clawing through jungle, getting lost, and asking for directions from bemused locals collecting wood. It turns out we had been within a few feet of the temples the whole time and couldn’t see them through the foliage. “OK, well maybe they could stay hidden”.
Here are some interesting things about Ta Prohm. It was used in the making of the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider. Some people believe that one of the bas reliefs show a Stegosaurus (or it could be Angelina Jolie). It’s famous for it’s trees which are known as “sprung” and grow through the ruins like possessive tentacles, just like Angelina Jolie when she married Brad Pitt. It’s incredibly easy to get lost here.
With Charmain still resting we took a boat trip down the river and out into Tonle Sap lake to visit the enormous floating village here. This place was cool. We floated along picking up some rice for the schoolkids we were visiting. When we arrived at the school I was surprised to discover they were being taught in Vietnamese as well as Cambodian. Not one to balk at a challenge I took up the gauntlet and did a bang up job teaching maths, in vietnamese to the cambodian kids. I really believe I made a difference here, and maybe even blew some tiny minds in the process. There was also a floating crocodile farm here and a floating christian church, which looked kinda out of place. Oh, and we got into a very weird conversation with a local over whether English footballer Danny Welbeck was a lady boy or not. I tried to explain that not every guy back home feels the need to chop his balls off, but I don’t think I got through to him. Unlike the kids, who are probably working in NASA now thanks to me.
That evening we tried a local delicacy that we had been looking forward to for a while. Happy Pizza. Happy Pizza contains a secret blend of “herbs and spices” that “induces a feeling of well being”. I was happy enough at the price. Ben’s feeling of well being seemed to have a bit of a delayed reaction and soon enough the heavens opened into an afternoon downpour. We had arrived in Cambodia just before the start of the rainy season and things were just cranking up. It would rain for a half hour or so in the evening. But when it rains it rains. I thought it was gonna demolish some of the dodgier looking shacks along the road but as soon as it started it stopped. Despite the road being flooded within an hour it was bone dry again. It had me looking at the happy pizza wondering just how much “herbs and spices” had been added to it.
That night we wandered through Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street, full of drunk backpackers, predatory lady boys and Batman. Batman is here and he drives a tuk tuk. No luck in rounding up the rest of the Justice League though. Cambodian Batman obviously works alone. It was a memorable night, we found a strategic balcony for some people watching, and in between power cuts, took it in turns to run the gauntlet through a crowd of suspicious, but very friendly, “ladies” at the bar to get to the jacks.
We had lost a few days due to illness so the comfortable sleeper bus I had booked to take us to Hoi Chi Minh had already left a few nights ago. We were assured though by the hostel staff that there was another available which was “top class”. The pictures looked nice, but pictures lie.
It was not top class. Not top class at all.
It remains to this day the worst transport I’ve ever been on, and I include stuff which has crashed and broken down on that list. Where do I begin? The bus was arranged in bunk bed format, one “bed” on top of the other. Only they weren’t beds. They were torture devices designed to contort and crush the human spine. If you found yourself in the bottom bunk you were entombed in pitch darkness, like being locked in a serial killers basement. If you were on the top bunk you were lucky enough to spend your time banging your head against the roof or the window, whichever seemed softer. What made matters worse is that the locals seemed to love it. The torture devices were just the right length for their short legs so they quickly spread out like sponges hitting water and fell asleep. We were left with our knees drawn up to our chins and waiting for death.
Mercifully we had a bus change in the capital of Phnom Penh. Amid all the confusion there were bags lost, tickets refused and phones stolen. But I didn’t care. I had the feeling in my legs back, and the inspiring feeling we were halfway to Vietnam.
We survived that night. I don’t know how. Maybe a wizard helped us.
Next time: Adventures in Vietnam, Jimmy sleeps with the fishes, Francis eats things, and I watch How I met Your Mother in Vietnamese.