rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-05-25 10:28


To Khmers, and more or less to foreigners as well, Angkor is Cambodia and Cambodia is Angkor. Every Cambodian flag since the French annexed the place in 1863 has featured Angkor Wat - including the gold-towers-on-red flag of the Khmer Rouge, who did what they could to destroy and deface the Angkor temples. The national beer (slogan: My Country, My Beer) is called Angkor. The flashest hotels in Siem Reap are the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Le Meridien Angkor, La Residence d'Angkor, the Victoria Angkor, FCC Angkor, Sofitel Royal Angkor, Angkor Century Hotel, DayInn Angkor Resort, Angkoriana Hotel, Angkor Village, Angkor Palace Spa Resort, La Maison d'Angkor, Lotus Angkor Hotel, and the Royal Angkor Resort. That's not counting any number of smaller places, or restuarants, shops, tour companies, travel agents, taxis and whatall else. You aren't worth a damn in this town unless you've got the mark of Angkor.

The entrance fee to Angkor Archaeological Park is about the most expensive attraction in Southeast Asia - $20 for a day, $40 for three days, $60 for five days. That gets you into the main complex containing most of the more famous Angkor temples and ruins, but unfortunately doesn't protect you from the madding crowds of Korean herd-tourists or the touts and hawkers. We visited on May 23, and we were there by 0630, leaving Jen and Ben and Ossie in bed for another couple hours. There's a lot to see: something like thirty full-size temples in varying stages of ruin and repair, and many smaller monuments and features. The big daddy, of course, is Angkor Wat itself, more like a castle than a temple.

So much has already been written about Angkor Wat that I'll keep my account brief. We visited the four-faced sandstone towers of Bayon (also a Cambodian beer) first, then went on to the Elephant Terrace and climbed the tower of Phimeanakas nearby. Preah Khan, the monastery of the sacred sword, is very extensive and partially ruined, still - it's peaceful and set away from the road in the jungle, and there was only one Chinese tour group. Neak Pean is an island in the middle of a small lake, which is currently a lawn since it's the dry season. This seems to be the place to come and sit around in the shade, watching dragonflies and butterflies. Ta Som is another small temple, notable in that the apsaras (female air and water spirits of Hindu legend) are each carved to represent individual women; true enough, they have very distinct features, shapes and postures. East Mebonn, formerly in the Eastern Reservoir but now in the Eastern Rice Paddies, has complete, undamaged elephants and backs onto a section of jungle; I saw a snake. Pre Rup is a tall templewith a grand view from the top, from which you can see the tall central tower of Angkor Wat itself. The last, and best, temple we visited before Angkor Wat was Ta Prohm - famous now as the temple in which they filmed most of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; a massive, sprawling complex still left partially overgrown and mostly in ruins, though they are currently building more walkways. It's the sort of place you need to climb through holes in the wall and over piles of laterite blocks to get around, a wonderful, cool, quiet place of spiders and birds and jungle and old musty stone cracked by tree roots.

Angkor Wat is, of course, the most popular and heavily touristed of the temple ruins, and also the largest - not in the complex, but apparently the largest religious building in the world. It is indeed huge - across the bridge and through the first gate you come into grounds containing smaller temples, lakes, and enough flat ground for many football fields. The main structure is itself vast, as well, and is the only truly multi-leveled building in the group. It also bore the brunt of early looting, and extensive destruction by the Khmer Rouge and who knows who else. The quality of the construction is notably superior to the other temples: the stone of the side corridors still sits square and flush, and the destruction is mostly cosmetic rather than structural. What this all means is that Angkor awes you for reasons of scale and solidity, rather than because of its decorations and carvings. This was the only really crowded temple we visited. Apparently the season is in full swing now, and Angkor is pretty full of Korean and Chinese and Japanese and Thai and, to a lesser degree, European package tourists. The central building of the wat is a four-sided tower complex with the three (originally five) towers which are so well-known in silhouette; it's reached by the simple means of Climbing The Stairs. You'd be amazed how much of a rigmarole this is, however. It's a fairly high staircase - perhaps ten or fifteen metres - but the horizontal depth of the staircase is no more than three or five metres. When it comes to staircases, there are two important measurements: the 'lift', or the vertical size of the stair - how much you go up with each step; and the 'going', or horizontal depth of the stair - how much you go forward with each step. In the case of the stairways here, the lift is normally three or more times the going, which is my very roundabout way of saying that it's an incredibly steep staircase. One staircase (the South) has been doctored for the thousands of fat, aged americans and soft korean ajummas who want to climb to the top every day; a set of sturdy square stone stairs and a handrail, one person wide, have been installed. The funniest thing is seeing the incredible queueof people at the top, stranded but for the until it's their turn to descend, when anyone who's got full use of both their legs can simply walk down any of the other staircases, if they're careful.

The Done Thing is to take in a glorious Angkor Sunset on Phnom Bakheng, but since the rainy season has now started, evenings tend to be overcast and the sunsets are less than memorable, so we walked back out to the bridge and sat there with a beer until dusk, and home time.

We considered buying a second pass and returning to see some more temples, and the River of a Thousand Lingas, and Phnom Kulen, Cambodia's most sacred site, but have decided instead to go north to Anlong Veng on the Thai border, and then East to Preah Vihear, a temple on the mountain range separating Thailand and Cambodia, which historically the Thai keep trying to claim as their own, and to which they've built a superhighway and allow tourists from thailand into Cambodia on a day pass. On the Cambodian side it's apparently not so easy - combinations of share taxi, pick-up and moto are required to get there. We'll see. We should be leaving tomorrow.