Thursday, 30 August 2012

Travel Log: Roaming in Southeast Asia (Part 2)

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed; 5am found us stuffed into a mini-van for a 15 minute ride in the pitch black to the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The early hour was necessary for us to watch the sunrise over the main temple. First, we stopped off at a tourist information centre to obtain our temple passes. Passes procured (part of which required peering blearily into the camera for a passport-style photo on the pass) we headed off to Angkor Wat.

To my surprise, no jungle trekking was necessary to hit out first location for the day. The filming location for the Tomb Raider movie was actually accessible by paved main road, a short ride from central Siem Reap. Crossing the large moat on a stone bridge layed unevenly in the pitch black was trecherous enough, then there was the tourists to deal with! Hundreds of them vied for the best position around a small pond to snap the sun as it rose over the monolithic temple, casting a reflection in the water as it did so. My Australian friend and I decided to avoid the crowds and chose an elevated position on the steps of one of the temple's outer buildings (which we later found out was originally the library) to watch our sunrise. Peaceful, the colours absolutely stunning, my camera does not do it justice...

Pondering life's great mysteries... (That's what you do at sunrise right?)

By the time we had all regrouped and finished breakfast, the crowds had sidled away from the pool to begin their temple adventures so we were able to sneak in for a group shot...

Then, we began our own temple adventures. Our tour guide gave us a run-down on the history of the temples in the area. Angkor Wat temples were largely constructed from lime stone which is easy to carve into fantastic images and shapes. Sadly, due to the malleable nature of lime stone, many of the temples are deteriorating because of weather and acid rain. Many of the temples have also been targeted over the centuries by actual tomb raiders who stripped the temples of their jewels, carvings and golden fa├žades. Many heads were stolen from statues in the area to be sold illegally on the international market. The area around the main temple was thought to be occupied by average citizens of Cambodia, a kind of city, but centuries ago, people moved away from the area and historians are unsure why. The temples were rediscovered by French colonialists in the 19th century and have since become one of the world's greatest tourist destinations. Sadly, because of the deterioration of these temples, the government is planning to cordon off many areas in Angkor Wat from tourists in 2013. 

Despite the tomb raiding, the temples today are in splendid condition and are still stunning to look at. It's easy to just marvel at the place while wandering the vast grounds and admiring the detailed carvings. The main tower is accessible by climbing a steep stair case at the centre of the temple. Inside are buddha statues in various positions for worship. Amazing views of the surrounding jungle and grounds can be seen from the top.

Next, we headed off to the famous Ta Phrom where the jungle is slowly reclaiming the temples. It was truly the most beautiful and busiest temple of the day but I can only show you a few photos; most of my pictures were full of Korean tourists (who on that day sheltered no qualms about wandering in and out of other people's shots and blocked entire thoroughfares so they could take a group shot. Huff!). If you plan on visiting soon, Ta Phrom's more desolated areas are currently being rebuilt so you may find some areas cordoned off for renovation. 

We hit a few temples that day but I'll skip ahead to the big finale... Bayon. Bayon's sprawling grounds are shadowed by the towering faces of smiling Buddhas looking over temple visitors.  One couldn't help but leave with a positive attitude after being surrounded by smiling faces...

If you are planning a trip to the temples of Angkor Wat, I cannot strongly recommend enough the benefits of a local guide. They know the best temples, the best sights, and how best to avoid the crowds. Our guide could show us hidden gems like carvings of elephants, kings and even dinosaurs while imparting amazing knowledge of the temples' history.

Finally, we spent the rest of the day visiting the floating village just outside of Siem Reap. The floating community was largely made up of Vietnamese immigrants. The floating village was prone to move with the tides, but it was possible to see a floating school, a floating bar and restaurant, even a floating basketball court. Frequently, locals would pull their smaller boats up alongside our larger one while their children stormed the ship so they could try to sell soft drinks and candy with their big brown eyes. On more than one occasion, boats pulled up alongside offering pythons to passengers to take photos with for a fee! 

They even had a floating church!

A brief bout of heavy rain forced us to seek shelter at the floating bar/restaurant!

Eventually trapped by the rain at a floating bar, I realised that I had never experienced weather like I had that day. It would rain like a typhoon had hit for about 10 minutes and then dissappear completely, replaced by sunny blue skies within minutes. The previous three photos were all taken within a few minutes of each other!

Phew! What a day! Stay tuned for Part 3 when we visit S-21 (prison) and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. 

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