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Monday, 5 January 2009

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

3rd – 5th January

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.

The sister guesthouse of Okay in P.P. is called ‘Hello Paradise’. Not wanting to trawl round looking at different places, the $6 room was nice enough so it took little persuasion for us to take the room. The guesthouse was located slightly north of the town centre, which was good for us as it was closer to Angkor Wat. Normally this wouldn’t be a concern, but we had decided to do our own temple tour by pedal cycle, and being closer to the entrance would be very beneficial at 5am the following day when we would need
to leave!

An early night was in order, after arranging with the guesthouse to pick up the bicycles at 5am. We ate in a local restaurant outside the town centre and hit the sack, with a big day ahead of us.

By cycling, we had no timetable to adhere to, or guide to follow, so we could spend as little or as lo
ng as we wanted at each of the sites. We wanted to get somewhere nice for sunrise, and had been told that it would be at about 6am when the dawn broke. Leaving the guesthouse gave us around an hour to get our tickets, and find somewhere to stop. There was a fair bit of traffic on the road to Angkor, mostly tourist tuk tuks and taxis. Not many bicycles! Our dynamo lights were working a treat along the poorly lit main road, and we found our way to the ticket booth easily. After paying $20 (and not even getting a leaflet or map to show for it!), we set off into the night to find our sunrise.

The poorly lit road soon turned into a pitch black unlit road, and the surface deteriorated from tarmac to dirt and gravel. It was more and more difficult to keep our speed up, but if we slowed down, our only source of light would fade! It was a balancing act between going fast enough to see where we were going and slow enough to avoid the potholes and being thrown into the trees! Not what you need at 5.30am!

We had planned to go to Ta Prohm to see sunrise, but on the way there we spotted a lake with some large statues of lions. We later determined from our m
ap that this must have been Sras Srang; definitely worth a visit for the beautiful sunrise. There were quite a few people hanging around, so we figured it would be a good spot to wait. As soon as we got off the road, we were bombarded by local children trying to sell us cups of coffee. They didn’t seem to understand that it was possible for a westerner not to want coffee in the morning. When we said no, they said ‘you buy later’. It was only 5.45am - we had the feeling that it was going to be a very long day!

After sunrise, we jumped back on our shopper bikes, and pedalled furiously towards Ta Prohm. Our effort was rewarded as the site was deserted, and we felt like Lara Croft and whatever one of the blokes from the film might have been called. After running around for half an hour, we found another person and decided to start heading back to the bikes. The crowds were now arriving thick and fast!

Several temples later, we found ourselves in the centre of Angkor Thom, near the terrace of the elephants. After a bite to eat, we took on Bayon along with thousands of others. We still managed to take some cool pictures using the height of the place to our advantage, cutting out the majority of other people. This, along with Ta Prohm were both favourites of ours – Bayon in particular is highly recommended at sunrise or sunset when the long shadows are supposed to distort the faces of the gargoyles peering down on you.

Top Traveller Tip #13 – If you are visiting Angkor Wat, head to the main Angkor Wat temple at precisely 12:00 noon. You should find it very quiet, as most of the organised tour groups are at lunch, and relatively few people are around the site at this time. We even managed to get a picture of Sam at the entrance with no one else in the shot!

We’d saved Angkor Wat until the end of our day, by that we mean 12:00 noon. Being on the road since 5am meant we were already tired, and getting close to being “templed out”. The largest and of course most renowned of the temples, Angkor Wat covers a huge ground area and is the tallest religious site in the world. We gave it our best shot and wandered around for what felt like hours, but to be honest, we were both a bit underwhelmed. Yes, the scale of the place is really impressive, and the carvings over all the stone amazing, but it wasn’t the magical place that we had expected. Perhaps this is when a local guide is called for, or at least some background reading beforehand. Again we were a little annoyed at not having received any handouts from the ticket booth!

At around 2pm, we arrived back at our guesthouse feeling completely exhausted. Personally, one day was enough to see the area, but some people spend a whole week wandering round each of the temples for hours at a time. That’s not for us I’m afraid, perhaps it’s a maturity thing and maybe a deeper interest in history and archaeology is required. Pleased to have seen the famous heritage site we were, all the same, looking forward to seeing more of Cambodia that isn’t quite as tourist focussed.

The town of Siam Reap deserves a mention – we spent the late afternoon and evening looking around. There are many bars and restaurants serving the tastes of westerners. You could be in any small European city or town with the variety of things on offer. Only the occasional passing amputee in a makeshift wheelchair, selling books for a living, brings you back to reality.

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