We were picked up by tuk tuk at 07:30. It’s a strange quirk of South-East Asia that each different area seems to favour it’s own style of tuk tuk. Bangkok has traditional rickshaws, whereas Ayutthaya has tiny vehicles that are like a cross between a songtheaw and a rickshaw. Go north to Chiang Mai and you’ll find rickshaws and songtheaws, but each city seems to have a favoured variation of the tuk tuk which prevails in number over all of the other forms of transport. In Siem Reap they have little carriages that are attached by a pin to a motorbike, and the drivers tow you along at a maximum of about 30mph. The dust blowing up off the road is constant, and though you might not notice it during the drive, you’ll probably end up having a sneezing fit at some point during the day. When we arrived in Thailand we noticed that a lot of the drivers seem to have nasal and phlegm issues, and this dust seems to be the cause of it – many of the Chinese tourists come prepared with dust masks.
One of the most common plans for visiting Angkor Wat is to go while it’s still dark, jostle with about a hundred thousand other tourists for a spot by the lake, and try and snap a picture without another human being in it as the sun rises over the temple. We didn’t really fancy this, so we decided to go there a couple of hours after sunrise, to coincide with all of the big tour groups going back to Siem Reap for breakfast. After travelling along a straight road lined with thick forest for about a mile, we swung a left at a junction and began driving alongside a huge body of water lined with flagstones. This in itself was impressive to me – a huge moat, about the width of the Thames, almost entirely surrounds Angkor Wat. At this point you have no view of the temple which is concealed behind foliage on the island, but it’s possible to see the human labour that must have gone into digging out this enormous pool. After a month of being away and having seen elephants, gekkos and snakes, we finally saw our first monkeys. Intelligent creatures, they know that they’re never far away from a good meal around these parts, so they sit on the flagstones surrounding the lake sunning themselves, scratching their arses and waiting for someone to throw food in their direction.
It took a full ten minutes from first pulling alongside the moat before we were at the front entrance, such is the size of the place. A stone causeway spans the water and leads you to the outer gate, outside which a monkey sat eating an orange. A tourist attempted to take a selfie with the monkey, who bared his teeth and hissed, pushing the bloke away in much the same way a drunken lager lout might push away a rival for a taxi on a saturday night. The panic on the man’s face as the monkey struck was priceless – I wonder whether he’d saved a bob or two on not having his rabies jab, and in that second saw his life flashing before his eyes. After passing through the outer wall the causeway continues to bear you towards the picture-postcard bit of Angkor Wat. Though the years have ebbed away at the symmetry of the temple, it’s still pleasing to the eye to see that everything is set very deliberately – perhaps the Kings of the Khmers suffered a kind of megalomaniac OCD, which could ony be treated by forcing hundreds of thousands of their subjects to build temples in pretty patterns. We were able to go up into the main tower which afforded amazing views over the temple grounds and the dense jungle beyond. From here it was possible to spot the sea of tourists charging towards us like tiny ants below, and we realised that it was probably time to move on. Amazing that these walls saw the vanquishing of the Siamese, the Burmese and the Ancient Vietnamese, but have now been over-run by a far deadlier foe – Chinese tourists brandishing selfie sticks. Of all of the international tourists, the Chinese are the most formidable when it comes to asserting themselves. They arrive in Blitzkrieg busloads, twisting their SLR cameras over your shoulder or through your legs to get the scoop, and then disappear as quickly as they arrived, not to be seen again until you develop your photos and find the backs of their heads on an otherwise perfect picture.
Angkor Wat is undoubtedly an amazing experience and doesn’t look like ever being challenged as the largest religious building in the world. It is widely regarded as a “Wonder” of the world but I’d argue that it’s not Angkor Wat on it’s own, but the whole historical park that’s worthy of being called a wonder. For Hollie and me, it was the second temple that we visited that impressed us the most. Ta Prohm might have been like any other of the dozens of temples scattered around if it weren’t for the vegatative onslaught of the jungle, which has claimed the temple as it’s own and turned the whole place into a scene from “Day of the Triffids”. Over the course of a millenium huge trees have stretched out their tentacle-like routes around the masonry, first wrapping themselves around the arches of doors, then constricting them like a python would it’s prey. In some parts it seems that flower power has caused bits of the temple to collapse entirely, and other bits are propped up by wooden beams. Ta Prohm was used as a setting in the movie Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why – why spend billions of pounds on sets and special effects when you can have something that’s stranger than fiction?
By the time we’d poked around these two temples we were knackered. It was getting towards mid-day and the sun was beginning to become an issue. We went to see the last of the “Big Three” temples; Bayon. Bayon’s special feature is 36 gigantic stone faces designed to bear a likeness to the man who ordered their construction – King Jayavarman VII. Now, there was a bloke with an ego. Each face is as big as a a car, and there is something quite creepy and impressive about being stared out by 36 faces that have gazed unerringly at their beholders for the last thousand years. These temples were constructed by various Khmer Kings in the belief that they would achieve immortality through the scale of their gestures of worship to the Gods. I’m not sure about the God bit but in a way they’ve certainly achieved a kind of immortality, which is more than can be said for the labourers that no doubt perished during the construction process.
We wandered along a couple more temples then returned frazzled to Baphuon Villa. We took an afternoon nap then got our gladrags on to attend a cello concert by a Paedeatrician – no, you did not read that incorrectly. In the evening we found ourselves sat with a load of other Europeans in the lecture hall of a university hospital, facing a stage on which a chair and a cello were placed. A portly gent with glasses and wild curly hair marched on and introduced himself as Dr Beat Richner from Switzerland. Dr Beat had been a young paedeatrician working with the Red Cross in Cambodia before the civil war broke out in 1975. When the war started he was forced to move back to Switzerland, but he returned after the fighting died down in 1992. Since then he has dedicated his life to providing the kids of Cambodia with medical care, raising millions of pounds and overseeing the construction of five hospitals around Cambodia. Inbetween playing short pieces of Bach on his cello, he would talk for ages about the dreadful plight of the Cambodian people, and in particular the children. He was an eccentric, passionate modern day saint who spoke well about his cause, but went on to labour the point quite a bit. Cambodia seems to be crammed full of benevolent expats and their charities, which is just as well really because the government seem to have little interest in helping their own people. Dr Beat talked about the rampant corruption and the complete lack of a healthcare system, and it made us feel humbled and grateful for being born in a country where education, healthcare and safety are taken for granted. Though the doctor provided little humour and plenty of harrowing information about his work, it was a privelege to be in an audience watching such a charismatic and dedicated man – apparently a bit of a legend in his native Switzerland. At the end of the free concert he asked us to contribute “Our money or our blood” for the children of Kantha Bopha – the name given to each of the five childrens hospitals. The name Kantha Bopha is a tribute to a daughter of the King of Cambodia, who died in infancy.
It’s taken me three days to get round to writing all of this up, and I’m all out of sync now. Sorry there’s no pictures of Tah Prom – the wi-fi doesn’t want to play ball. We hope you enjoy it, sorry for the delays in correspondence but the days are just too full of discovery!
Have a great day, whatever you’re up to.
Tommy and Hollie x