Ciarán & Elaine's Travelog

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Angkor Wat?

We left Luang Prabang and flew Lao Airlines to Siem Reap. Elaine really hadn’t been looking forward to the flight as Lao Airlines don’t have a good reputation and a lot of Western countries recommend that their citizens don’t fly with them! Elaine’s not the best flier in the first place but a trip to the local pharmacy in Luang Prabang and some over the counter valium soon sorted her out - she nearly flew there on her own! To be fair to Lao Airlines, apart from the terrible food that you get on every flight there wasn’t even a bit of turbulence. Once we landed in Siem Reap, we quickly found a taxi and made our way to a nice hotel, organizing a tuk tuk & driver through our taxi driver for the next day.

The reason we’re in Siem Reap is to visit the famous Angkor Wat temples which are situated only a few miles from SR. We bought a 3 day pass as that was what everyone we’d met had recommended but we thought it would be a bit of overkill. Who’d want to spend 3 days wandering around temples? But we had completely underestimated the size and scale of these ancient monuments. It’s more than just 1 temple but a series of temples and cities and in the 12th century it was the capital of Cambodia, housing over 1 million people.

On our first day, as we were driving along a big river on the way to the temples we asked our tuk tuk driver if we were near and he started pointing just up ahead. It turns out this ‘big river’ was in fact the moat around Angkor Wat. The moat is 200 metres wide and certainly puts the one around Drimnagh Castle to shame! When we got to the carpark and got out of the tuk tuk we got our first glimpse of the famous image of Angkor with the 3 spires rising into the sky. It’s hard to believe that it’s approaching 1,000 years old!

The next thing that struck us was the detail. Every last square inch of the stone walls and pillars was decorated with ornate carvings. We had always assumed that Angkor Wat was a Buddhist temple but in the past in Cambodia, successive kings switched religions between Buddhist and Hindu (this switching eventually led to the demise of the Khmer Empire) and so nearly all of the carvings depicted Hindu stories, lore and symbolism.

Our guide proceeded to relate the story on the walls to us. It ranged from flying monks to 3 headed elephants, giant turtles to monkey warriors (led, of course, by their monkey general!) There were stories of a 7 headed serpents – some story I tell ya! I don’t know where these guys get the imagination from but they certainly worked hard to carve it into those walls! The carvings went the whole way around the outside of the temple and by the end our heads were swimming with too many facts.

The next level of the temple at one point housed over 1,000 statues and images of Buddha. The King that built Angkor Wat was a Buddhist and so filled it with Buddha statues, but his grandson who succeeded him was Hindu and destroyed all the statues of Buddha. In fact this crazy grandson had even gone to the bother of defacing anything that even slightly resembled Buddha but of course leaving anything Hindu and the Apsara celestial dancers untouched.

We then went up to the next level via a set of extremely steep stairs. They apparently made the steps so steep so that people couldn’t ascend upright, but rather, had to scramble upwards so that they would enter the temple with their head bowed. A way of making sure they showed enough respect. The final level is the one with the spires at the top (5 spires but only 3 are visible from the front) and the view out over the temple and moat was amazing. The whole place was completed by the monkey that was wandering around on the top level - happy as you like!! On the way down those steps I was clinging on to the handrail so hard - steep as it looked from the bottom, it was nothing compared to how steep it looked from the top! I can’t believe they don’t have accidents there all the time!

Angkor Wat itself took only 30 years to build which is an amazing feat, considering the ornate detail on every surface. They did use 54,000 people though, so that may have something to do with that fact…

After we went back to our tuk tuk we were immediately surrounded by loads of kids trying to sell bracelets, postcards and books. They were all so persistent saying that they would wait for us outside the café and that we would buy from them afterwards. Elaine was dubbed Lady No Name by one little girl after she wouldn’t tell her name and anytime we saw that girl later during the day she would run over to us saying ‘Lady No Name, lady No Name, you want this bracelet?’. We eventually gave in and bought something from them – just to get them to leave us alone if nothing else! That didn't stop the kids from the other sites though trying their luck though...

After Angkor Wat, we went just down the road to Angkor Thom, which used to be the ancient capital, and within its walls were a host of other temples. On the way there we passed by a wooded area and saw loads of monkeys on the ground, running across the road and eating used coconuts - our tuk tuk driver seemed to be amazed to hear that we don't have monkeys in Ireland!

The first temple in Angkor Thom we went to was called Bayon. This one wasn’t as well preserved as Angkor Wat but we thought it was almost more impressive with every pillar having 4 faces pointing in different directions. The walls here were all carved too, but these ones were depicted daily life at the time as the king wanted to show future generations how they lived. There were scenes of hunting, fishing, traditional boxing (which look suspiciously similar to Thai Boxing), wartime with the generals riding atop elephants. They even depicted the different races that lived in the area with a lot of Chinese with different facial features - it gave a good feel for what the society was like there.

After that it was down the road to Ta Prohm. Now this really is like something out of a film. Tombraider in fact. Some of the scenes from the first film were shot at this temple and it’s easy to see why they chose this location. This temple mightn’t have been as atmospheric as the others but it really did look so cool! There were huge trees growing in the temple and sprouting out of everywhere – on top of buildings, through buildings, through walls with roots tangling amongst the stones. I don’t know how the whole place hasn’t just collapsed under the sheer weight of these trees.

After our couple of days at Angkor, we had one day at Siem Reap but we basically spent the day running from one cafe to the next trying to find shade and the elusive air conditioning. It was so hot and humid that day that any other sights at Siem Reap got overlooked! We did make it into one of the markets though and it was quite strange to see a lot of the vendors turning on the lights as we approached their stall and turning them off as we left - anything to save a bit of money as they all seem so poor.


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