Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Ruins of the Khmer Empire

And here begins the long process of documenting our fantastic journey through Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Hard Part
On Saturday, December 23rd, my dear wife and I woke up before the sun to make our way to the bus which would take us to the airport. As I recall, it was quite cold at 4 in the morning, and I was really looking forward to getting to our tropical destination. The first couple of hops of the day (Utsunomiya to Narita Airport to Taipei to Saigon) were uneventful, China Airlines did a good job of keeping us comfortable on the flights. This is my second time flying with them and I would do it again. When we arrived in Vietnam for our flight transfer, it became quite apparent that we'd landed in a very different place then we'd ever been. As our plane was taxiing towards its gate, we went by a few dozen low-lying airplane shelters which were used to protect aircraft from mortar attacks during the war some 30 years ago. One of these was painted with a peace sign. The airport itself was pretty basic compared to others I've been through. After refusing to pay 3 dollars for a can of Pepsi at a little cafe, we settled in with the 1 dollar can we bought at the gift shop and waited for our Vietnam Airlines connecting flight to Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia. Our third flight of the day was also uneventful, though we were very travel-wary by this point.

Our arrival in Cambodia was amusing to say the least. We were led off the plane and onto the tarmac in front of the newly constructed terminal and from then on it was a free for all with no signs directing people where to go. We followed a gaggle of people and entered the immigration area, where again no signs or assistance was forthcoming. After approaching the counter where a uniformed customs agent sat next to a briefcase of full of US dollars, we filled out our form and handed it in with the 20$ visa fee. The process afterwards was interesting with the application form and your passport passing through the hands of the 6-10 immigration officers behind the counter before ending up in the hands of the one I took to be the supervisor. He would look at the passport, call out a person's name and make comments about each person to his colleagues as they walked away. After a cursory passport check, we were suddenly outside of the terminal, with no customs area in sight, though we'd been told to fill out the appropriate customs form on the plane. Very different from the rigid formality and officialism we left behind in Japan. We quickly found our guide and driver and were brought to our hotel where we were warmly greeted by the staff. From the very beginning of our trip to Cambodia, I fell in love with its people. Such understated kindness and politeness, the staff at the hotel seemed almost shy to be dealing with us. Cute! Quite impressed with the rooms at the Princess Angkor, very nice hotel to stay at, located on the main drag leading to the airport, and just around the corner from the road into Angkor Wat. After a quick shower, we crashed for the night.

Angkor Thom - The Great City
After a nice breakfast at the hotel, our guide and driver picked us up and we were off down the dusty roads of Siem Reap. It was fascinating to see local life as we drove by, though due to our mode of transportation throughout our trip being a car, I did feel somewhat secluded. A car is a good thing to be in when driving down country roads, though, with cars leaving behind clouds of red dust. We immediately made our way into the temple area and got our first glimpse at Angkor Wat, covered in mist, as we drove by.

Our first order of business was to visit the once great city of Angkor Thom, where it is said more than one million people lived. As we parked our car and started walking towards the city gate, I was overcome with a feeling of awe. We were here, standing before the ruins of an ancient kingdom... cool! This was the first picture I took on this trip.

As we got closer to the South Gate of Angkor Thom, we were surprised to be confronted with an elephant. You can get rides out here on one, and from what Lonely Planet tells me, the animals are well taken care of, which is nice to hear.

Here we are, in front of the still fully functioning (as in cars, bikes, motos, goats, etc. continuously make their way through it) South Gate. It is interesting to note that the heads of the statues on the right are reproductions if I remember correctly. Nearly all of the temples in the area were pilfered by temple robbers over the past few hundred years, with the heads of countless statues being shipped off to faraway museums. Sad.

After checking out the gate, we hopped back into our car and drove through it and to the very center of Angkor Thom and Bayon temple, originally a Buddhist temple built in the 13th century. I say originally because the kings of the Khmer Empire switched their religion once in a while, from Buddhism to Hinduism and vice versa, and the temples changed along with them. When this site was originally discovered, nobody noticed that this temple sat at the exact center of the walled city, with the 4 roads leading to the 4 cardinal points leading directly to it.

This temple is unique and very popular due to the towers on which are carved a few hundred smiling faces. While many theories abound as to their meaning, no one really knows for sure. Today, 37 towers are still standing, and a little over 200 faces are still visible, though many are only remnants.

Case in point, here is the remains of the top of one of the towers, I think this may be my favourite picture from this trip.

As we climbed up and into the temple to check it out, our guide pointed out interesting facts and sights. Another common attribute of the Angkor temples is their use to document the Empire's history and beliefs. Not only in libraries, which are numerous, but also in the many detailed carvings on the walls of the buildings themselves. The carvings tell the stories of wars, important events or religious fables. Very interesting. From this one spot inside, you can see three faces in a row... and if you looks closely, you can see that each one has a slightly different expression. Very cool temple to start off our trip.

We walked around in the city and stopped to visit small temples and places of interest. We were approached by this cute little girl offering up 3 little bracelets for one dollar. Due to the cuteness factor, we gave in and collected our three bracelets. Moments later, another girl approached us, this time offering 5 for a dollar, at which point Yoshiko and I burst out laughing. First lesson of shopping in Cambodia\Vietnam\China, etc.... never accept the first price... a lesson that Yoshiko learned well and took to heart. Nevertheless, a dollar for 3 is fine with me. Before leaving on this trip, I had decided to take a very different approach to my shopping than I did in China. While being mindful not to get ripped off, I decided it would be best not to push too hard since the little extra that I end up paying makes a hell of a lot more difference in the lives of these people than it does in mine. When I went to China, I had no sympathy for the business men behind glass counters selling stuff, and I took them for all they were worth. :-)

Our first real climb of the trip occurred here, which if I recall correctly was Baphuon. Legend says the king had to climb these steps each night and make love to the snake-queen inside lest he lose all his power, or die... I don't recall which... lol. They didn't have Viagra back then, wonder how long the old guy managed to keep it up... so to speak.

As you can see it's a pretty sheer set of stairs, and this was just one example of the stuff we had to climb up... sometimes exciting, sometimes scary...

As we continued to walk around this ancient city, we came upon this little guy which I found very interesting. While not a "famous" temple and probably not on any tour group's list of stops, I found it charming as it was off in the jungle and far from the crowds and noise. This temple, like many others, is engaged in a dance of death with the trees which have sprung up from within. On the one hand, the trees are slowly destroying the temple's foundation and will eventually cause it's collapse. On the other hand, were the trees to be cut down, the roots would dry up and weaken the integrity of the temple causing it to collapse faster. An interesting symbiotic relationship.

After heading back to the central area for lunch and exiting our car, we were surrounded by kids selling books, postcards, and other stuff. Quite the salesmen they were. They asked me for my name and proceeded to use it profusely to try to convince me to buy their wares. When we came back from lunch, they once more called me by name, but I wasn't interested in a photocopied version of Hamlet, so I said no.

Magnificent Angkor Wat
Our task for the afternoon was to tackle the behemoth, Angkor Wat itself. The crown jewel of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat was built at the height of the Empire's power to be both the King's main temple and his capital city. The scale of this place is awe inspiring, and I often found myself imagining what this kingdom must have been like back during its peak. The Khmers at one point in time held either in part or in totality present day Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia. The ruins they have left behind are certainly testimony to their former might.

Once you cross the huge moat and make your way into the inner grounds of Angkor Wat, it is impossible not do a bit of a double take. It is massive. Unlike most other temples, which face East into the sun, Angkor Wat faces West, the direction of death. It is thought that it was thus meant to be a funeral temple, but no one knows for sure.

On both sides of the walkway as you approach, there are these gorgeous libraries, from which we saw the sunrise the following day.

The outer walls of the main building are covered in carvings depicting epic battles between the gods and between kingdoms as per Hindu beliefs. Very interesting to walk along the huge arched hallways and admire the detailed works carved a thousand years ago. After going around the outside, we entered the building proper and proceeded to climb to the top of the central building.

From the top, you are afforded a great view of the grounds of Angkor Wat as well as of the miles upon miles of surrounding jungle. It's not hard to understand how these temples were lost for so many hundreds of years. Were it not for tourism, Siem Reap would still be a sleepy little fishing village on the shores of Tonle Sap lake.

Little funny\candid shot here. While we were climbing around the top of Angkor Wat, our guide Roat took the opportunity to get some shut-eye. Having a super-zoom camera does come in handy sometimes...

At the very top of one of the corner towers, we found this little girl playing in the dirt and looking outside. As I said in the previous post, Angkor Wat is a sightseeing spot to some, a babysitter to others.

The Sunset from Phnom Bakheng
When visiting Angkor, there is a certain cycle or a certain set of things that most people do. While my guidebook did mention that this made certain things very crowded at certain times, it also said there was a reason for these things being popular and that they should not be missed. The most popular place to take in the sunset is a hilltop temple called Phnom Bakheng. To reach the temple, one follows a foot path up the side of the mountain, or you can take an elephant up to the top if you don't mind shelling out 15 dollars. Just next to one of the footpaths leading down is this sign telling you to mind the elephants as you walk down, which most people do in the dark.

Here is my Yoshiko in front of the temple. Gotta love the colours brought out by the setting sun.

And yours truly.

After climbing to the top of the temple and joining the few people waiting there, we thought the stories of overcrowding were overblown. There weren't so many people and the view from here was amazing. We could see right out over the jungle to Angkor Wat and out to the lake. A group of monks was up there with us to enjoy the sunset. Are monks allowed to smoke? If not, these guys were not nice monks... they hid behind one of the towers and lit up... we were surprised!

As time went on, more and more people joined the group at the top of the temple until it got really really crowded. There were people everywhere you turned, no places to sit down, and almost nowhere to go that didn't put you in the middle of someone's photo attempt. Finally, after over an hour of waiting, the sun started to head down over the horizon.

We watched it set for a while before deciding it would be best to make the trek down the mountain when there was still some light left. I snapped this shot as we headed down, you can see the temple teeming with people. This really was the only time in our entire trip that I felt overwhelmed by the crowd of tourists. I think the government will have to step in pretty soon with measures to protect these important relics, with more and more tourists coming in to visit every year.

After finding our guide at the chaos of tuk tuks, taxis and buses at the bottom, we headed to the hotel to get ready for the Christmas dinner which was planned for the evening. The Princess Angkor's gala was very nice. Good buffet dinner including roast turkey and all the trimmings, music provided by our own Cambodia version of Stevie Wonder, and even a prize draw. The hotel manager took the mike in the middle of dinner and said some things which really touched me. He talked in broken English about how we were all travellers and had chosen to spend our Christmas visiting his country and he thanked us for coming. He said that he knew that we were far from home and he decided to hold this party for us to make us feel like we weren't alone in this far away land. Very thoughtful words, and a very nice Christmas Eve dinner.

A Christmas Morning Sunrise - Angkor Wat
The next morning was another early start with our guide meeting us at 5AM for the run out to Angkor Wat to enjoy the sunrise. We made our way in the quiet darkness of early morning to the inner courtyard just outside Angkor Wat's main building and took a seat the ancient library which is pictured above to wait for the sunrise. This time was, for me, one of the most precious moments of the trip. We were practically alone, at a very special time of the day, waiting for a magnificent sunrise over one of the World's most important cultural treasures. As the stars slowly started to fade and some light started to appear behind the temple, our guide turned to us and broke the silence with his opinion that we would be lucky and see a great sunrise this morning.

Sure enough, as time wore on, he was proved right.

Our guide headed down to the pool in front of the temple to capture the typical view of the reflection of the temple. After looking at the gaggle of people standing by said pool, we opted to hang back for a while and stay on our quiet library until later when the crowds had thinned out a bit.

After walking back to the car, we went back to the hotel for breakfast and a quick nap before continuing our tour. This was the view from our hotel after breakfast.

Outer Ruins - The Undeniable Power of Nature
After breakfast, we headed out from the central area around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom into the jungle to visit some of the other temple groupings. By this point, we were starting to feel templed out, but I still found the tidbits of information pouring from our guide quite interesting. What was even more interesting was the location of the temples, quite far from the main group and very much isolated in the jungle, with walking paths heading out into god knows what. The temples we visited were perfectly safe, but some of the ones further out have yet to be cleared of landmines from the decades of war that Cambodia has endured and people are warned to stick only to well worn paths.

I believe this is the Bahkong, a temple set on what was once an island. Funny thing happened here. A police officer struck up a conversation with us, and after a few minutes offered to sell us a police badge. We politely declined, and went along on our way...

The main feature of this temple are the elephant statues which decorate each corner of each level. They were all carved out of one single piece of stone, and this one is the one which is in the best shape.

Throughout our travels in the countryside of Cambodia, we were constantly surprised and entertained at the number of dogs there were. Dogs scratching themselves, running after each other, lying down in the hot sand... they were everywhere! Here's one having a snooze in front of a temple gate.

Same gate, no dog.

While visiting Preah Khan temple, we saw the impact of the religion-changing kings of the Angkor period. King Jayavarman VII united the people by embracing both Buddhism and Hinduism as his religions and blending both into a number of the temples he built. His successor however, Jayavarman VIII, rejected Buddhism and proceeded to change or remove carvings in the many temples to reflect his choice. The result is lots of these empty slots on walls which were once covered in Buddhist carvings.

He changed many of the carvings and left behind the hindu ones such as these.

Luckily, thanks to the sheer scale of these temples, some of the original Buddhist carvings survived.

It was also interesting to see how closely the lives of the local people now revolve around the tourist trade which has boomed since peace has returned to Cambodia. Around every temple are small makeshift villages, food stands, souvenir shops. And kids... lots and lots of kids ambling amelessly through the temple grounds.

Hammocks are also a popular way to snooze in Cambodia, good way to stay cool I guess.

Many of the temples are still entwined with vegetation, with the large, soft trees sprouting up all over the place.

As we were heading to the car after visiting one of the temples, this little girl came up to us with her armload of shirts. When she saw I wasn't interested, she whipped out her secret weapon. Upon finding out I was from Canada, she rattled rattled off the names of 10 or so of the large cities as well as some basic facts such as "It's a big country". I was impressed. To test her knowledge further, I pointed at Yoshiko and said she was from Japan. She looked at me with an embarrassed smile and said: "Tokyo?" and nothing else, causing us both to double over in laughter. She sold two shirts from the exchange, and posed for a picture.

Finally, later in the afternoon, we made our way to Ta Phrom, the temple I was looking forward to. It has been left somewhat how it was found by the French some one hundred years ago, covered with trees. When Scott showed me his pictures of this place, they had such a surreal look to them, that was when I decided I HAD to visit Cambodia. Here's a big old boy, 3-400 years old, growing and creating a gap in the stone wall around Ta Phrom.

You can really feel the age of this place when you are left alone in the courtyard for a bit.

These huge trees are pushing the temple apart very slowly, an impressive display of power.

In some places, it looks like the temples have hair due to the many vines hanging everywhere.

In some places, little faces are peering out from the roots, carved hundreds of years ago and forgotten.

This is a similar picture to the one Scott had which just blew me away. I think this spot was used in one of the Tomb Raider movies, not sure which one...

Simply an amazing afternoon tour of the jungle temples. Our second to last temple to visit was this one.

You'll notice it's haphazard construction, lack of carvings and any finishing. Quite simply, that's because it was never completed. During its construction, there was a lightning strike nearby which was seen as a bad omen and all work was halted on the temple.

And here we are in front of our final temple, quite happy not to have to climb any more scary steps. An amazing couple of days in Siem Reap.

Our final evening was spent having a wonderful Khmer dinner at Madame Butterfly, which we got to using a tuk tuk, little motorbike-pulled trailer thing, made popular in Thailand and now spreading. When the driver took us back to the hotel and I asked him how much, he quoted me a half-day's rate for 20 minutes of work.... and then quickly covered in face in embarrassment before asking me how much I wanted to give him. Since he had been a good chap and came back to pick us up after dinner, I gave him an extra dollar over and he went on his way quite pleased.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
On our final morning in Siem Reap, we had the hotel pack us breakfast and were met by our driver for the trip to the lakeside to catch our boat. The lakeside village was quite interesting and shows you just how important this lake is to the region and the nation. Tonle Sap lake is a massive lake sitting in the middle of Cambodia. It is fed by some major rivers, including the Mekong which backs up into it during the rainy season. Due to the changing levels of rain through the year, the lake grows and shrinks a substantial ammount, and the villages follow right along. Those who do not live on boats or floating homes move anywhere from 5 to 10 times a year following the lake and the fish it provides. The arrival at the boat area was pretty chaotic, with no one really knowing what was going on and kind of wary to giving their bag to someone to be carted off somewhere.

In true relaxed Cambodian fashion, we stayed well beyond the 7AM departure time and kept accepting passengers. Once the interior of the boat was filled, they started filling the roof with people. Luckily we had a good view of the rising sun from our inside seat, though it ws FREEZING due to the AC in the boat.

And finally, we were off. The boat ride was long, between 5 and 6 hours, but it did give us some interesting views into river\lake life in Cambodia.

The poverty of the people living along the shores was staggering. Kids working fishing nets alongside their father, houses with pastic sheeting as a roof, very basic living. Another thing I noticed was the wilderness. During a 5 hour boat ride down the lake and rivers leading to Phnom Penh, I didn't see one bridge, no high tension wires, nothing. The infrastructure quite simply has not developped, leaving most of the country's population without such basic needs as clean water, never mind electricity.

Anywho, that's enough for tonight... next post, Phnom Penh!

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Anonymous Cla said...

welcome "back": great reportage and nice pictures too! i've tried to light up one wich is a little dark:


after (not so much work...!)

And if you missed my link in the previous comment, here some idea for tokyo "walkabouts":

The 7 lesser known architectural wonders of tokyo

11:24 AM  
Blogger Anskov said...

Amazing - utterly amazing. You, my friend, are an excellent photographer.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Thanks Cla!

I didnt have the time to process all my pics before I uploaded them, and blogged from my wife's place... thanks for the help, I'll get that up there shortly.

9:47 PM  

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