Cambodia and Laos, Angkor and Luang Prabang - Part 2
Angkor - Day One
Kazna offers a no nonsense selection of tour packages for 1,2, or 3 days, with or without guide, by Tuk Tuk or car (basically with or without aircon). For our stay we had chosen three days, the basic minimum if you really want to see the place, by car with a guide.
After a simple but adequate breakfast, taken on the roof terrace, of cold fried noodles, coffee and toast which we had chosen the night before we met our guide, San, and our driver, Pok, in the forecourt of the hotel at 8.30 a.m. and drove to the entrance of the Angkor National Park which is located just a few miles outside of Siem Reap. At the main entrance we stopped to buy our two 3 day passes, which cost $40 each (not cheap but worth every cent). It is all very efficient, your photograph is taken and then printed on to the pass which has the start and expiry date on it and presented in a small plastic case with a neck string so that you wear it on top of your shirt so that it can be checked at all the various sites throughout the complex. At most sites, even the more obscure ones, there is a 'pass inspector' so whatever you do don't lose it!!
So we were in. First stop Angkor Wat itself. It was a boiling hot day, over 30C already, and we started at the East gate of the complex because of the position of the sun. The light is very intense and so taking good photographs was tricky. Like so many of the world’s great monuments it can be viewed at any time during the day but obviously for good pictures early morning and late afternoon are best.
So just a bit of history and stuff as background. Many people tend to think that Angkor is just Angkor Wat but the Angkor complex covers an area of some 300 square kilometres in which are over 1,000 temples, many sadly just ruins. However Angkor Wat is the centre of the whole complex and is without doubt the main attraction. The Khmer Empire stretched from the 9th to the 15th century and Angkor Wat was built at the zenith around the beginning of the 12th century, exact dates vary, by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu. It was built as an Hindu temple NOT Buddhist, although it was used as a Buddhist temple later in its life when Buddhism became the main religion in the Khmer empire. So, all around the Angkor complex the visitor has to get used to the mixture of Hindu deities with images of Buddha which have become inextricably interlinked throughout all this part of the world as influences waxed and waned. But this is not a history lesson, you can find all that elsewhere on the web.
There were quite a lot of tourists around, notably the afore-mentioned Koreans, but not too many to spoil the pleasure. We walked around the galleries making up the first layer of the temple and then moved inside. Everywhere you see wonderful carvings of Apsara which i like to think of as temple dancing girls. They all have astonishing hair styles, so complex and intricate, and are a highlight of the visit in my opinion. The climb up to the central tower is very steep (there is a handrail to help you) and numbers allowed up at any one time limited. We were lucky when our turn came as we were the last two allowed up. The galleries on top are marvellous, more Apsara and stunning views over the surrounding countryside giving one an idea of how imposing the site must have been during its heyday. Also at the top are pools, sadly empty, where the King and his entourage presumably cooled off during the heat of summer as the complex was not only a temple, a place of worship but also part palace, where the King also spent his time, conducting ceremonies and rituals.
Back down to base after the steep climb down (same way up and down) and now on to view some more galleries where the military exploits of the king have been carved in relief all along the wall. Take the time to study these in some detail as it gives great insight in to the power of the Khmers at this time. One further layer away from the central tower and we come to the relief showing the ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’, the Hindu version of the creation, a must see.
We look at our watches and we have been wandering around here now for over 2 ½ hours, time has flown, and now we must leave by way of the West entrance along the long causeway which crosses the surrounding moat before reaching the main road and our driver. The view of the complex from the end of the causeway is the famous view of Angkor as seen by all tourists but was marred today by some green netting on one of the towers undergoing renovation, memorable nonetheless.
In the car was that most valuable of commodities for the tourist visiting Angkor - water. It was a hot day and we had expended plenty of liquid with our activity and the water was needed to replenish and refresh. There are stalls everywhere around the complex that sell water, Coke, Diet Coke, beer and all sorts as well as ice cream in some places. Of course souvenirs and postcards are also on plentiful offer as are cigarettes and often it is small children that are used to entice you to their parents' stalls often by giving you a 'free' small wrist band made of coconut fibre as an enticement. But don't say you will go if you don't really mean it as they will get mightly upset even more so if you go to the wrong stall which is easily done as they all look alike both children and stalls!! We found the easiest way around this was to take our own water in the morning and to replenish at lunchtime.
Angkor Thom and the Bayon
Angkor Thom and the Bayon
After our visit to Angkor Wat it is time for lunch. It is getting very hot by now, over 34C and a short rest with some food seems like a good idea. We are taken to a small restaurant, many of which abound throughout the Angkor complex, where we seated on our own away from the guide and driver. Basically they eat for free based on the price we pay for our food and drink which whilst not too much, $10 for the two of us, is far more than a local would pay for local food. I have a diet coke (bad choice as the gas makes me feel uncomfortable) and my son a fresh coconut. For food I order Khmer chicken curry and he opts for a local delicacy, amok, which is basically fish cooked in a banana leaf together with coconut milk and spices. It all comes with enough rice to feed an army. The food is soon served and we realise how hungry we are after the morning’s exertions. More drink is ordered, I have coconut too this time, we are also more dehydrated than we realise. The meal is all over in about 30 minutes so we sit and chat about the wonders of Angkor Wat which has impressed us both, definitely not a ‘been there, took the photograph, got the T-shirt experience’ but one to be cherished for all time. We stock up on water for the afternoon and pay the bill, go to the loo (there are plenty of these throughout the complex either as part of the restaurants or specially constructed loos along the roads.) it is clean, so no unwelcome surprises there!! The guide asks us if we enjoyed the food to which we reply in the affirmative, we load in to the car, ratchet up the aircon (more welcome than we thought) and are on our way again.
A short drive from the Angkor Wat complex is the gate to Angkor Thom and the Bayon. The gate is probably most famous in the scene in Tomb Raider but is one of the most memorable sights in the whole Angkor complex with the face of the King who built it looking down across the bridge bordered by rows of Giants and Devils at the entrance.
At each stop we are accompanied by our guide who tells us the historical context of each site and some of the history intertwined with anecdotes about what happened around here during the civil war. Of course the information is too much to take it all in but nevertheless essential and he will do his best to answer any questions. No doubt, following on from Angkor Wat was a tough act to follow but King Jayavarman VII did just that when he ordered Angkor Thom to be built at the end of the 12th century together with the Bayon. All around the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon in particular the visitor is confronted by hundreds of faces, all faces of the King, who by this stage had presumably risen to God-like status. All I can say is that the result is incredibly impressive.
We walk through the gate, just to get the feeling. The road is a normal thoroughfare and we have to watch out for motor bikes, tourist buses and private cars speeding through with little or no regard for pedestrians. Essentially Angkor Thom is a walled city, we have entered through one of 5 gates and will leave through another. Newly built it must have looked incredibly impressive, also surrounded by a moat which is currently full of vegetation and other rubbish but which is being cleared little by little to try and bring back the original effect.
The main structure inside the walled city is the Bayon. Much photographed, its images are familiar all around the world and indeed they are familiar to us immediately because the faces that look in all directions from this temple, North, South, East and West, are all the same face, the same face that we have seen already at the Gate, King Jayavarman VII. This is a Buddhist temple but it is the King’s image multiplied many fold on stone tower after stone tower, omnipresent. Today we are allowed to clamber and walk around the temple but in my opinion it is already showing signs of tourist wear and it wouldn’t surprise me if in not too many years to come access becomes restricted and only certain paths allowed. It is wonderful to behold, the faces serene and not at all threatening. The heart of the temple is in relatively good condition but the surroundings are undergoing renovation as the outer walls have obviously been damaged by nature like so much of the entire Angkor complex before being ‘rediscovered’ by Henri Mouhot in 1860.
Nevertheless, in the outer galleries there are some excellent reliefs, reminiscent of Angkor, showing the prowess of the King, his military conquests, a naval battle and also, rather surprisingly, some interesting ones depicting normal life in Angkor at that time in and around the Tonle Sap lake, nearby to Angkor.