In the early 12th century King Suryavarman II ruled the Khmer Empire, a very rich reign of a kingdom which took in a large amount of South East Asia, but not a peaceful one as there was always threat from the neighbours, particularly Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand). The Kingdom was ruled from the area of Kambuja called Angkor, and being a proud ruler the King built a magnificent capital city, with a huge temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, this temple was called Angkor Wat. Some fighting ensued and Kings came and went, eventually moving the capital to nearby Angkor Thom. The King Jayavarman VII converted the Angkor Wat and several other temples from Hindu to the more in vogue Buddhism. All this time building work on magnificent temples and shrines had been continuing like crazy, and continued to do so until suddenly, possibly because of a Thai invasion, they were all abandoned and the capital moved south to Phnom Penh.
For hundreds of years the temples were left to be engulfed by forest.
During this time the French had turned up in Camboge to bring culture to the heathens. It was not a comfortable rule, with them being kicked out a couple of times, but in the late 1800’s they did rediscover the forgotten Angkor area and attempt to excavate it, bringing life back to the area and the rapid expansion of a small village called Siem Reap. They brought tourism to the area, hotels and restaurants, in a Colonial French style for the visitors flocking to see this forgotten wonder.
We arrived in Siem Reap only to discover that a motorcycle had been sent to collect us and our 40kg of luggage. No problem though as the trailer that the bike was towing could easily propel us and our luggage down the road at a jaunty 5 miles an hour. Eventually we arrived at our hotel, the Golden Banana, it was a real surprise. We had been thinking the worst for Cambodia, it has had a turbulent time and is definitely in a state of development which makes India shine, but our hotel was a real gem. In fact the whole town is a bit of a gem, just as the French had intended it caters for millions of tourists a year (though it appears to be millions a day), and with most businesses being foreign owned they tend to hit the right notes. This is still a country where a family home can be built for $900, and car batteries are the most common source of home power.
We explored the town which really does have some nice places to eat, drink and make merry all for a ridiculously low price (our average meal cost has been about $12 for the both of us – pizza, pasta, mexican, khmer, you name it). The market did leave us gasping for air, definitely not the freshest food – people would pick up an uncovered lump of meat to look at before deciding on it – not to mention the flies on the pigs heads (and thats not mentioning the mere presence of pigs heads).
The currency here, for the purpose of tourism, is the unsullied US dollar (a torn or crumpled one is worthless). This makes it easy to rationalize the cost of things, and because of the general low prices I have found myself scandalized at the prospect of parting with more than $5 – should be fun when I get back to Horseheads.
We have probably had our most packed time to date, here is a brief summary of what we got up to on the following days
Day 2: Up at 4am to go see the sun rise at the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. We hired a driver and a guide to take us around, so we packed in another four main temples including Ta Prohm, which was made famous by the Tomb Raider movie. The biggest problem was we were constantly surrounded by THOUSANDS of Asian tour groups, although I manages to get a load of pictures which make it look atmospheric and tranquil, the truth is far from it. It is especially popular with Koreans – North Korea note, you should invade the south tonight, the country is empty!!! It was a sunday so that night we went for a traditional roast dinner at the Funky Munky British pub – it was fantastic!
Day 3: We hired the same driver, and headed well out of town (about 2 hours) first to Banteay Srei which is a temple famous for its carving. Being so far out it is not quite so busy, but it is small so it appears that way. Which brings me to something Sarah and I have spent a fair amount of time discussing – the temples are ruins, which were taken over by forest. Why do so many really old people think it’s a good idea to come here? It’s not an ageist thing, but you really need to be quite sure footed! Even more unfortunately, to cater for this demand, the private company which profits from conserves the temples, is boarding over everything to make it easier to get around. Is this really necessary???
On the way to the temple I had seen a de-mining crew clearing a field close by. The driver took us for a closer look, it is really quite tragic to see something so devastating play a part of everyday village life. Every mine cost about a dollar to buy and lay, and about $1000 to find and deactivate (unless you are a child or an unfortunate farmer), and there are an unknown number, in the many thousands, strewn over the country. Later in the day we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, an organization started by an ex-soldier responsible for laying mines, who now spends his time educating people on the dangers, taking care of children injured by mines and unofficially de-mines (he was frustrated by the official de-mining charities longwinded administration and approach, so he walks up, plucks them from the ground and removes the detonator under the cover of darkness).
We also went on a trek to the top of a hill to see some carvings in a river bed. It was quite the serious hike, but the path was clear. Of course it started to rain HARD and our clear path returned to its other purpose of being a river bed. It was hard work, but well worth the effort, especially as it is very lightly visited, we were almost alone.
Day 4: A visit to a really far out temple, Beng Mealea. This is like Ta Prohm but hardly visited, and hardly touched since the day the forest was peeled back to reveal it. It is still over grown and unrestored, and with the help of a villager it is great fun to clamber over and under the now fallen structure – this is as close to the real Tomb Raider as you can hope to get, and this is not visited by the geriatric buses.
We then headed out to a couple of boat trips, one to the flooded forest and the other to a floating village.
They are pretty much what they sound like. In each case we took a little floating thing with an engine out into the lake. The flooded forest is a haunting place which spends half the year submerged to varying degrees, and you can float through the trees without a care in the world. The floating village is not so haunting, an entire community mainly of Vietnamese immigrants, consisting of schools (courtesy of Japan, every child can go to school for at least a few years), hospital, catholic church etc. Depending on the season the whole town moves to where the fishing is!
We returned to find Jack Johnson’s Upside Down playing merrily, but repeatedly in the hotel bar – we were too exhausted to care, we supped our local beer and considered the gecko. We did manage to make it out later to a bar which had a show of traditional Khmer dance (and a juicy burger)!
Today was relaxing. We wandered around town, visited the brand new (few days old) National Museum of Angkor, and undertook the never ending task of packing our bags. We leave Siem Reap in the morning in search of turkey in Phnom Penh (which we have now learned to pronounce), and I for one will be sad to leave. Touristy though it is, the people, despite the obvious hardships and corruption they face, are truly wonderful, and make this a very enjoyable place to be.
Coming in the “A Short History of Cambodia: part 2”, Phnom Penh and how to reset your country to year 0 without wasting a single bullet! And if he can slip away from Sarah long enough, Andy hopes to review an AK-47.