Siem Reap - gateway to the mighty temples of Angkor. Four months into our trip and and we haven't met a single traveller yet that didn't have this one high up on their itinerary. In fact, for most it is their only destination and ubiquitous with a trip to Cambodia. Surely so many people can't be wrong so we're dead keen to find out for ourselves what the fuss is all about. Off the bus we cut straight through the mobs of hawkers and navigate our way along the Stung Seam Reap River to a rather faceless establishment at the outskirts of town, one of the few places with spots available. A small town at heart we find it a real charmer with an old Psar Chaa (covered market) smack in the middle, an usual assortment of ochre coloured French colonial leftovers and a damn fine tree-lined boulevard that runs along the river, connected to the other side by the occasional "authentic looking" stone overbridge. Moreover, its clean and there are even signs up encouraging people to dispose of their waste - a novelty in these parts of the world.
Our first impressions are good and spirits are high. Most of the action is actually confined to a small wedge shaped part of town where Bar street (with its bars, cafe's and resto's) rules the roost and liveliness radiates outwardly through a dense network of alleyways and backstreets. Much to our amusement we watch the commotion and gaze at the sheer number of shops and establishments that cater to the farang - they must out number the temples 10 to 1 easily. Part of the parcel; a seemingly endless supply of pizza joints that stretch into the distance bearing such imaginable names the likes of 'Happy Herb Pizza', 'Ecstatic Pizza', 'Happy Special Pizza' 'Happy Angkor Pizza' and the list goes on. After all you wouldn't want to run out of pizza in a place like this.
The next couple of days slip by quickly as we explore the ins and outs of Siem Reap, track down decent eateries and relocate from our rather drab looking place to the Ivy - a much more atmospheric guesthouse just around the corner. Well, at least they have a few hammocks strung up and Pol Pot's old toilet seat on the wall so they must have some sense of humour? With a stroke of luck we also discover a Khmer place near the old market which does amazing authentic mains (fish amok anyone?) and wicked fruitshakes without costing the earth. This, supplemented with the popular mobile food cart stalls that set up along the main road means we have our staple diet sussed - sweet! It's not that we're food snobs by any means but since they cater for every imaginable taste under the sun, from pasta to Turkish to Rasta cuisine (go figure) we can't imagine they do any of it particularly well. Tonight however, we go to Temple Balcony to watch a 'free' Apsara traditional folk dance performance. With stunningly ornate costumes the dancers reenact a story from the grandiose Indian epic, the Ramayana - Khmer style. 'Free' as long as you buy a $0.50 draft beer. Tough choice we thought too.
Armed with a brand new $4 'Temples of Angkor' bootleg copy from the market we studiously plot our next 3 days worth of adventures at Angkor; intending to temple hop from place to place with the rusty retro bicyckles we acquired for $7 total. So much has been written about this place already; a dazzling array of different itineraries to choose from; visit in chronological order or not...according to building style or not...or avoiding the crowds perhaps? Enough drivel to drive anyone bonkers really. With the archeological park only 8kms away we decide to take a late arvo sneek peek. Cycling the dirt road alongside the enormous 19 meter wide moat past the outer guard wall perimeter the temple of all temples: majestic Angkor Wat slowly rolls into view.
Pandemonium complete, we stand awestruck by the sight of innumerable tuktuks and buses which are parked up in front and the thousands of people that slowly shuffle their way over the stone causeway which leads across the moat into Angkor Wat. This must be the most popular place on the planet! Standing on the causeway, soaking up the sunset this monument to ultimate divine worship is without question breathtaking. And when you see a rope tethered hot air balloon full of tourists drifting its way up in the sky against the fading light of day, you suddenly realise that by now you really have seen it all. Now to make our way back to town in one piece amidst the turmoil of tuktuks, cars, buses and what not. Engulfed by darkness, no street lights to back us up and only one intermittendly working bicycle light between us we wait for that mammoth pothole which will send us flying.
4:30am next day - peep peep peep...the alarm resonates throughout our room, courtesy of our new $4 g-shock watch we acquired just for the occasion. That all too familiar noise which gnaws at your subconsiousness that you ought to be somewhere else...darn. With the sleep still in our eyes we jump on our bikes and start to make our way towards the Angkor Archeological Park. Five o' clock and well before the crack of dawn as we cycle along the solemn and quiet riverine boulevard; lamp posts project our ghostly shadows on the tarmac. Even the lamp posts are adorned with ornate carvings a la Angkor Wat style - subtle details we only make out now and there's not much else to occupy our minds this early. We are not entirely alone though - the occasional tuktuk careers past and a handful of other cyclists share our endevours.
On we cycle to the tix booth, where we pay a whopping US $40 entrance fee for 3 days of sightseeing. Bloody UNESCO! With our golden Willy Wonka ticket in hand which we cannot lose, tear, frumple or even laminate we pedal for Srah Srang - our first destination in what will be a busy day. The park seems like a fairly big place so our intentions to cycle around its perimeter might turn epic. Well, we've never been any good at guestimates and they say the journey is part of the fun right? Things to ponder about as we cycle our lungs out to Srah Srang (pool of ablutions), a large man-made basin of 800x400 meters, where the king and his many wives let their hair down. A considerable journey and well beyond Angkor Wat we get there only just before sun rise. With 15 minutes to spare and having lost most of the mobs earlier the place is incredibly serene and peaceful. The local village girls are also abound and, business savvy as they are, hook us up with a hot brew of sweet coffee, which of course helps to soak up the surroundings as we sit by the lake where a lone fisherman cast out his nets.
With the day now in full swing, we stroll across the road to Banteay Kdei. Constructed in the late 12th century by Jayaverman VII it is a sprawling, largely unrestored monastery. The place is literally falling apart, apparanlty due to poor building technique and using inferior sandstone, but it's a funky place to walk around in, and the multitude of Apsara dancer carvings; heavenly nymphs or goddesses and garuda's on the walls keep us entertained.
We have the place to ourselves too which is great. Amidst the rubble two kids, locals no doubt, walk up to us. The conversation goes something like this:
G says "hi there!"
boy says "Candy"
G says "What's your name?"
Boy says "Candy?"
G says "right"
Boy says "candy?"
What's up with that anyway? Sure enough his belly was a tad bit distended but its not like we walk around with a bag of lollipops all the time. We soon get used to being followed around the temples by little shadows in trance chanting "one dollah... one dollah" as they try to sell their flutes, postcards, whistles, whatever...
Past the outer walls of Banteay Kdei to the atmospheric ruins of Ta Prohm, one of the big hitters in templetown. Walking underneath the monumental entranceway of this Buddhist temple we enter the realm of an ancient world inhabited by crumbling towers, closed courtyards and rather claustrophobic dark corridors. Reclaimed by the jungle over the years past, the many bass relief decorations are covered with soft lichen, scrubs and vines climb their way up the walls, and massive fig trees emerge from the walls and roofs they set root in over a thousand years ago. Its hard to tell whether these strangulating root formations holding the temple in chokehold are keeping it all together or tearing it apart.
Many of the overhead corridors we explore have long since collapsed, their entranceways clogged with enormous carved sandstone blocks. Others are about to with their stones balancing precariously on walls that are about to topple over. Cloaked by the dense foliage of the jungle, the few rays of light that manage to penetrate bathe the temple in a greenish hue, reminding us of the ferocity with which nature attempts to recapture the grounds from which this temple was carved. Its a magical experience. At least it was until the 40 odd bus loads of tourists descend upon it, swiflty replacing serenity with circus madness. Imagine a herd of sheep, 40 busloads of them running amok in a temple the size of a rather large supermarket and you get our drift. Time to pedal on.
On the far flung southeastern corner of our circuit awaits Pre Rup; a Hindu pyramid-shaped temple mountain with the uppermost of its 3 tiers carrying five impressive lotus towers. Pre Rup meaning "turning of the Body" which eminent archeologists think refers to a traditional method of cremation where the body is bbq'd in hot cinders. All good with us, it makes for fine commanding views over the countryside.
Tracking up, we cycle into the Eastern Baray, a truly enormous 8 x 2km one-time water reservoir fed by the Stung Siem Reap River. A depression of dry wasteland is all that remains which makes for a nice but exhausting ride past grazing ox. Approaching noon, temperatures are quickly reaching pitch fever and it's becoming punishingly hot on our bikes. Our next temple; 'East Mebon' lies at the centre of the Baray, once an island it now lies dry baking in the sun. A smaller version of Pre Rup dedicated to Shiva we find it very much same same but different. The elephant statues are cool though and the shade offers a welcome respite.
Many hours and several temples later we arrive at our last destination for the the day; 'Preah Khan'. A Buddhist temple sanctuary Bayon style it's a teaser for what's to come in the next few days. Chockered with bass reliefs, hidden passages, vaulted corridors, cylindricral columns and piles of tumbled sandstone blocks it resembles somewhat of an archeologists playground. Better still, basking in the glow of the late afternoon sun we have the place to ourselves - inspirational.
5:30pm and utterly shattered to bits we prepare for the long ride home through the fortified city of Angkor Thom, past the splendid terraces of the leper king and the Bayon - all deserted with not a soul in sight, until we get to Phnom Bakheng - the sunset temple where a spectacle awaits. Hundreds of renegade buses and tuktuks parked about, scores of people stumbling down the temple stairways in the twilight. We pedal past as fast as as our feet allow but to no avail, soon we find ourselves in the midst of a motorised turmoil weaving in and out between hooting tuktuks, cars, buses, and lots of cambodian dust. An experience in its own right =) Sure enough all this traffic soon comes to a grinding halt on the one single lane road into town. Not that it matters much to us, watching the spectacle unfold from the excellent roadside BBQ Suki, a wicked Khmer all-you-can-eat barbeque spot. We must have looked like the shaggiest dishevelled bunch ever amidst the upper class of Khmer society.
Fortunately the next few days aren't nearly as epic, yet there are some real delights to be had. Meandering up the forested path to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat from the holy temple mountain Phnom Bakheng...
Entering the forbidden city of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the mighty Khmer empire; dwarfed while cycling through one of its massive gateways...The Bayon with its numerous classic towers and their four giant stone faces looking down upon us mere mortals, while its extensive wall murals provide a glimpse into daily life eight centuries ago...
The richly decorated terraces of the leper king, or the terrace of elephants perhaps with its 300 metre long facade of carved life-sized elephants and garudas; standing upon the same grand viewing platforms the Kings once admired the processions of their mighty marching armies from.
Or how about watching the sun rise over the five lotus towers of Angkor Wat whilst sipping a hot coffee at 6am in the morning? Or even strolling past the sandstone murals which depict grand storylines such as the churning of the oceans of milk; an ancient tug of war between gods and demons, pulling the serpent coiled around the Holy Mount Mandala, churning up the seas to extract the elixir of life. Unforgettable experiences!
Easy as pie the following days are. You would not believe how much you come to appreciate a tuktuk after having been on the saddle for two long days. Zipping around checking out Banteay Srei; the finest display of intricate sandstone carvings yet.
The landmine museum established by Aki Ra - a former Khmer Rouge child soldier turned DIY deminer. Onsite an orphanage taking care of the landmine victims, centred around a wacky depository of defused mines, mortars and other ordinance - the very source of their predicament.
Or the Artisans 'd Angkor - a stunning shop of classy silk garments and sandstone sculptures, made by impoverished street children turned to traditional trades. A wee bit too expensive for us not too mention that a slab of sandstone doesn't travel well either, but the free silk worm tour which showed us all the stages of production was fascinating all the same. In case you wondered the grub tastes kinda nutty. Also discovered the best cocktails yet. Delicious 'dragonfly' - a concoction of Midori, Contreau, lime, pineapple juice and vodka, and the 'beach monkey' - a sweet treat made of rum, malibu, banana liquer and grenadine. Ice cold and served in mammoth long glasses just the way we like them. $1.50 each - go us!