Saturday 29 March 2014

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Angkor Temples

The first day at Siem Reap was spent wandering around town and checking out the overpriced souvenirs (since they use USD, things weren't as cheap as I thought they were going to be). Then we met up with A who is a Swiss I met in the Hualien hostel! Talk about a small world. Just so happens that A was in Cambodia around the same time so we decided to meet up in Siem Reap.

We rented bicycles which were really cheap at USD1/day to cycle to Angkor Temples the next day. The city was pretty scary to cycle around because roads were very busy and there was a lack of traffic lights. Thankfully once we got out of the city center, cycling was a breeze. I can't remember how long it took us but the ride was pretty enjoyable. We reached the ticket booth and bought the 3 day pass (USD40) since it cost the same as two single day tickets. We continued cycling but we were stopped by the guards because the main road was for locals who could enter for free, we had to go through the gates at the other side.

We went to Bayon first which was the biggest according to the map. The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes. The current main conservatory body, the Japanese Government Team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA) has described the temple as "the most striking expression of the baroque style" of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat (via Wiki).

Then we made a turn and reached another temple but I have no idea what it is called. The whole Angkor complex was enormous and confusing, we just let our bicycles take over and stopped at wherever we felt like. This temple was quite nice with the windows looking like huge photo frames (the first photo of the post was taken at this temple too). The climb up the temple was really steep though, there was at least a 60-degree incline and the stone steps were extremely small and narrow. Thank goodness for the railings which was an added feature, I wonder how people in the past used to climb up these steps without them. The decent was even worse, it felt as if you're going vertically down. One wrong step and...

We cycled around and stopped at various temples and I've lost track of their names. When we were at Preah Khan, this Cambodian man started telling us stories about the Gods and he even said some phrases in Chinese. I was duly impressed. He said he could help us take a photo so I handed him my camera. But he didn't return it and asked us to follow him. I didn't think much of it so we did. He kept taking photos of the temple and of us before I could say anything. Then my friend became wary and warned me that he might run off with my camera so I stuck myself right behind him trying to get my camera back. Thankfully he handed it back but he did ask for a tip of USD20. I was like what, no way am I going to tip you USD20 when I didn't ask for your "photography" service! He actually seemed angry when we didn't want to tip him so much but I wasn't having any of it and told him to either take it or leave it.

We also went to Neak Pean where there was a bridge through a swamp at the entrance. I thought the swamp was really beautiful, reflecting the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds. We had to climb up a small hill to get a better look at the whole structure because it was fenced up. Neak Pean was originally designed for medical purposes. The ancients believed that going into these pools would balance the elements in the bather, thus curing disease (via Wiki).

It was already 5pm when we reached East Mebon Temple which is one of my favourite temples besides the "photo frame" temple (for lack of a better name). Probably because it was basked in the gorgeous sunset glow and the rainbow was just an added treat. I also liked it for its sculptures. The sculpture at the East Mebon is varied and exceptional, including two-meter-high free-standing stone elephants at corners of the first and second tiers. Religious scenes include the god Indra atop his three-headed elephant Airavata, and Shiva on his mount, the sacred bull Nandi. Carving on lintels is particularly elegant (via Wiki).

We made this our last stop because the sky was looking threatening but unfortunately we were not fast enough. It started pouring just minutes after we left. And I mean, it POURED. We stopped at a notice board in front of a temple for shelter, hoping the rain would become smaller. Then a little boy ran towards us and at first I thought he was seeking shelter as well but he opened his school bag and asked if we wanted to buy fridge magnets. I felt sorry but outraged at how his parents made him sell such stuff at such a young age. I didn't want to buy anything from him because it would encourage child labour/the parents making him work more/the money might not even go to him/etc, ah it's a vicious cycle. Then my friend suggested that we give our unopened loaf of bread to him (we bought too much food along) and I thought he would be skeptical like the man we met but he was really thankful and accepted the bread gratefully, hugging it close to protect it from the rain. It made me feel like giving him a hug.

The rain showed no sign of subsiding and the sky was getting dark. We couldn't wait any longer because there were no street lamps in the Angkor Complex all the way until near the city center. So we braved the rain. It was quite a frenzy racing against the sun and to make matters worse the rain splattered on our faces, reducing our visibility. With drenched clothes and aching bottoms, we pushed ourselves forward. Thankfully I was with people who miraculously knew how to navigate us out to the city center because I could only focus on pushing one paddle after the other. We finally reached a place which looked familiar to me and I heaved a sigh of relief. The cycle through the city center was no bed of roses either, with no proper street lamps and traffic lights but tons of honking tuktuks and other vehicles. I almost collided with a motorbike at a cross junction, scaring the daylights out of my friends (and myself too). We stopped at a night market and bought dinner to eat back to the hostel. After a hot shower which felt like bliss, I spent the night watching TV. My passport was destroyed in the rain, my VISA stamps were all blurred and I was temporary afraid that they might not let me go home. Lesson learned: Always put your passport in a zip lock bag.

We spent the next day sleeping and doing touristy things. We also discovered a eatery near our hostel which was frequented by many locals and everything only cost USD1! Cheap and good. We started going back for every meal and we always exchanged this "we're back again heh heh" grin with the owner haha.

We woke up at 4am the next day to catch the sunrise but to our dismay, the sky was cloudy so we didn't get to see the sun rising behind Angkor Wat. We consoled ourselves that the bursting colours behind the clouds would be nice too but no flaming red clouds, it just turned bright. The cloud cover was too thick. It cleared up afterwards but no sunrise.. Nooooooo sunrise. You can't go up Angkor Wat (which was another steep climb) unless you're properly covered, short sleeves at least and your bottom must reach your knee. You will be denied access if you fail the 'test' like this lady we saw and she started arguing with the staff. The view from on top was really nice so you wouldn't want to miss it!

Then we went to Ta Prohm which appeared in Tomb Raider. It was really gorgeous. We also went to the temple where we sought shelter at the notice board two days ago and guess what, we saw the little boy there! He smiled shyly at us and waved. Aww. He didn't approach us to ask us to buy anything this time but other children did. This girl wanted to give me a lotus flower for 'free' but I didn't take it because I've heard that they will guilt you into buying things from them later on. And another lady practically forced this bamboo bracelet into my hands then asked me to buy drinks from her. My friend bought from one of them and the one following me around got mad when I kept saying sorry and she was like I don't want to hear sorry!. I mean I had a drink! Sigh.

We did meet some people who turned the situation around with their wit. Like this lady whom we kept saying no to replied, "How about 'yes'?". And this tuktuk driver said "Help me!" which got our attention, then he said "I'm very bored tomorrow. Can you help me? Want tuktuk?" and it sent us laughing. He wasn't the least bit angry that we still walked away but we definitely would have chosen him if we needed a tuktuk.

I love it that the branches/roots/trees are growing all over the temples, even though maybe it's not so good for the architecture. They might collapse due to the weight of the trees, there were already some metal frames supporting the structure. But I felt that it added this sense of tranquility and loneliness to the whole place which I thought made the temples even more beautiful.

How to get there?
We cycled there for the first day (USD1/day rental) and hired a Tuktuk for the next day for USD8. Entrance fee is USD20/day, three day pass cost USD40.

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