CURRENT LOCATION: Siem Reap, Cambodia
We have spent the last week and a bit in Siem Reap (see Sam's previous blog post), the access point for the temples of Angkor. The ancient temples were commissioned by a number of successive Kings of the Khmer people from the 9th - 16th century. They were built to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Angkor while serving as religious places of worship. As a result, they are truly spectacular. To clarify, as I was confused about this, Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples and can be seen on the present day Cambodian national flag.
It is believed that at one point there were over a thousand temples of Angkor, and there are an impressive 147 temple ruin sites remaining in the region near Siem Reap. Of these we were aiming to visit between 15-20 temples in 3 days. To enter these temple ruins you need a number of things:
1) a Temples of Angkor pass ($40USD for 3 days)
2) a mode of transport to get to and around the temples
3) sunscreen, sunglasses and a good hat
4) a steely resolve
1) To get the Temples of Angkor pass, you turn up just outside the main road into the temple complex (of which Angkor Wat is the first temple) and you pay them in US dollars, then they take your photo to have printed on your pass! This was very cool, kinda like a temple passport! You need to have this handy as it would be checked and rechecked multiple times each day...often embarrassingly - we'll come back to this.
2) Our chosen form of transport was tuk tuk and accompanying driver, Mr Smey. He was so great, always on time or early to pick us up, spoke excellent English, and provided us with information, a lasting smile, and a never-ending supply of cold water! He recently had purchased his own tuk tuk and was starting up a legit business as a tour guide and professional driver. Awesome to have such a genuine, nice guys in a part of the world where you're never 100% sure if someone is actually nice or if they're just seeing you as a big $$ sign and taking advantage of you.
3) Oh man, it's hot here. On average it has been 32°C and just baking. There is rarely a wind to cool you down and often no clouds to speak of. It's great, but it's hot. Sam and I both got stupidly sunburnt in Thailand before coming here, falling into the trap of, "We'll be fine, we're used to NZ sun." Nope. This is not a thing. Sunburnt and now peeling. So we have been diligently slip, slop, slapping for the last week, especially whilst visiting temples, or as we like to call it, "templing".
4) You need to stay strong while visiting temples. There are number of reasons for this. As I mentioned just before, it's bum-crack-saturatingly hot, everyone is trying to sell you something - the calls come in thick and fast from the stalls and merchants. "SIR! LADY! You want to buy ......(insert anything from "cold drink" to "guide book" to "postcard" here)", to which you must calmly, confidently and continuously say a polite "No, thank you". If you show any sign of weakness or linger for but a second the 10 year old Cambodian girl will follow you for the next 200m repeating " you buy, 3 for $1!" ... "You buy. Good price!" ... "Mr, you buy?!". This gets old, but I found that we got better and better at this and it almost becomes a game to see how quickly you can get past the vendors and into the next temple site.
Ah, this is when is can become a bit embarrassing... Remember I said earlier? So often at the end of a long line of shops and stalls there is a man or woman who is there to check you Temples of Angkor pass. However, this person does not have a uniform, does not look typically official in anyway, and often resembles those purveyors of wares that you encounter not but a moment ago. So many times we would stroll straight past him/her, "No thank you, no thank you" until you realised they weren't trying to sell you "the kids", but their strong Cambodian accent was camouflaging "tickets". It was at this point we started to apologise profusely and hand over our passes for inspection. It was fun watching other foreigners fall into this same trap and it became part of the game to get past the merchants AND successfully recognise the ticket inspector!
With all that other stuff put aside, the temples are absolutely incredible! The scale and attention to detail is completely unlike any other place in the world. Every single wall, pillar, archway, door, window or roof was decorated with ornate stone carvings that were meticulously constructed to show a deity or depict a scene from a religious parable. Seriously, everything was carved. Even the piles of destroyed blocks at the unrestored sites contain these intricate details. It's awe-inspiring. The amount of time, skill and resources that went into creating just one of these temples, such as Angkor Wat surely would far exceed any modern day engineering venture. And to think, they accomplished this all with ancient technologies and tools.
On the first day of templing, we visited Angkor Wat and about 5 temples in Angkor Thom. We foolishly started our day at 10am so found ourselves doing the majority of our exploring in the heat of the day. On day two we broke up our templing by visiting the Landmine Museum and Butterfly Sanctuary (see Sam's previous post), as well as visiting a temple about 40 minutes further away from Siem Reap called Banteay Srei. Then watched the sunset atop a small but extremely crowded West-facing temple. Any romance was destroyed by the 150 other tourists continuously taking photos and talking at obnoxiously loud volumes. However, the fading light of sunset was a true spectacle as it created a warm glow and accompanying shadows amongst the temple and surrounding ruins. I would recommend that if you are here, you stay at least once for a sunset.
On day three we returned to Angkor Wat for sunrise, starting our day 4.45am (ouch). Apparently, all of Siem Reap decided to do the same. We had the sense to position ourselves on the opposite side to watch the sunrise to the mobs of your groups, but many others followed our lead and we ended being with about 75 other people. However, we were much more spread out, so this was more romantic than our sunset experience. The sunrise, to me, was not as spectacular as the sunset. Nevertheless, I digress. By day 3 we started to get foggy temple vision, and they all started to merge into one big grey bundle of enormous, partially destroyed buildings. We stayed strong, pushed through for 5 more smaller, much less busy temples and it paid off. Some of these sleepy, less touristy temples had a more intimate feel and it was totally worth it. A big thanks to Mr. Smey for planning our itinerary, he really gave us an authentic and rewarding experience!
I want to finish off by saying that I, in my very average writing style, cannot truly convey how awesome this wonder of the world is. I strongly suggest that you add the Temples of Angkor to your bucket list. This is a testament to the ancient history of this region and the awesome capability that we, as the human race possess.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 27th February 2015)