Friday, 5 November 2010

Siem Reap

I'm in Cambodia for a week. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, inspired by seeing Mi Son in Central Vietnam, which fed a great desire to see the wonderous Angkor Watt. I had no idea of how long I'd need here for a good experience, but arranged with a very efficient Vietnames girl in Hoi An to fly in two days time via Ho Chi Minh City into Siem Reap, and then back to Hanoi after 7 days. A quick search on Trip Advisor for a hotel turned up this wonderful place, the 9-room River Village manor run by Matt, an Australian from the Gold Coast. He is a bit of a Basil. He loves to regale his guests with tales about the decadence of the 5-star hotel industry and the general lack of happiness in western countries. "What do we have to show for all our efforts? Gadgets. Just more gadgets. Walk around the vllage here and you'll see people living in the most basic conditions, whole families living in these these tiny shacks without floors or windows, but they are HAPPY. These people are happy." Indeed they are hovels along the banks of the brown, rubbish-strewn streak that is the river. Scrawny chickens scratching in the dirt beside little plastic chairs around a cooking pot over a small fire, skinny dogs lying in the dust, an endless stream of motorbikes and cycles stirring up that dust, and from anyone you care to greet, the biggest and most welcoming smiles you'd get anywhere.

The deal is, you get a 3-day pass to visit temples in the area. It can be used on any three days in the week. If you go to get the ticket after 5.00 pm, you can experience the sunset that night for free. Matt has a family of staff, and I have Mr Lai assigned to me. He was there to meet me at the airport the first night with his tuk tuk. So Mr Lai took me out past Angkor Watt that first night and pointed to a dusty track. I fell into line with hundreds of other tourists speaking all languages you can imagine and we proceeded to stroll up the hill. You watch the sun go down, the last rays lighting the towers of Angkor Watt far in the distance. The evening was hazy and I know quickly it gets dark here and I wasn't hanging about to find my way back down the track after the sun had gone, so after climbing up the steep steps to the top of the temple and admiring the view I was heading back. I had to stand to the side of the track to make way for the elephants that were still heading up, carrying straggling tourists, as I walked down.

Mr Lai was ready at 5.00am next morning to take me to Angkor Watt for the sunrise. The road out of town was a steady parade of tuk tuks. "I wait here" promised Mr Lai, who is a shy lad of 26, not yet married, with little English and a lovely smile. Off I went in the dark, wishing I had thought to pack a small torch, stumbling on the flagstones, heading towards the East where the sky was just beginning to show light. I left those with their serious cameras and tripods waiting to catch an ultimate image of the towers reflected in the lake, and headed off to explore the inner temple ahead of the crowds.

Three days later, having visited many more temples, it is those first views of Angkor Watt that stay in my mind. I know I want to come back again, to explore more.

My favorite temple was the second I visited this morning, Preah Khan. It is so intricately designed in the overall plan, such a complex arrangement of avenues and gates and terraces. Ta Phrom I saw twice, to appreciate the different light in morning to that of the afternoon - this is the place made famous by Tomb Raider.

The town of Siem Reap is totally charming. It feels very safe. There is an endless choice of places to eat and drink. The markets are packed with cheap silks and local crafts. Come soon though - there are shopping centres being built all over the place, and there is already a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Why, why? There is a charity called White Bikes, for $2 a day I have had a bicycle to get around town. I feel better that Mr Lai is not sitting waiting for me outside the shop/museum/cafe I'm hanging out in, and enjoy riding around; but on the other hand Mr Lai doesn't have any work that day so is not getting any income...

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