Posted by: rob | August 10, 2007

Temples of Angkor

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Wow! This was our first reaction upon seeing the jawdroppingly stunning Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap in Cambodia. To see the temples, and there are actually dozens of them, you need to decide in advance if you want to visit for one, two, three, or seven days. We chose the three day ticket ($40) which was just enough time to see all but a few of the smallest temples. It allowed us to tag rest days before and after the temple days for some well deserved R&R.

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The temples and buildings date from around 800AD until around 1200AD. Almost all fell into disrepair or obscurity before 1400AD, not until the mid 1800s did a French explorer unearth the sites and realise he had discovered structures that rivalled the pyramids or great wall for their importance, architecture, and purpose.

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As far as accommodation goes, the only real option is to base yourself in Siem Reap, just 3km away from the temples and in the throes of escalating tourism. Sadly but not unexpectedly the town itself offers almost nothing in the way of showing what real Cambodia is like. It has a ‘Pub Street’, a ‘Grub Street’, and not much else. However, this matters very little as visiting the temples is literally a dawn until dusk affair as thousands congregate to watch the sun rise or set over the magnificent spires and time spent in Siem Reap is minimal.

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While Angkor Wat is the most famous of the complexes and the site in best condition, there are half a dozen other major sites that can be explored for many hours. Angkor Thom is a walled city several times the size of Angkor Wat, and it houses the mysterious Bayon temple, famous for the many staring Buddha faces carved into rock. And Ta Prohm is an almost alien experience. Here, the jungle is taking back the temple and huge trees wrap themselves around whole buildings. You might have seen this in the Tomb Raider film. (I’ll have to watch it myself one day …)

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Unless you are travelling in a tour group, nearly everyone hires a tuk tuk driver for the extent of their stay. You can see what the Cambodians call a tuktuk below, which is different form a Thai tuktuk. The first haggling question a tuktuk driver will ask you is “Where are you staying?” in order to surreptitiously gauge your ability to pay. For anyone else headed this way, we managed $12 a day, but I’m sure you could haggle a few dollars lower, and we found out going directly through our hotel would have set us back $46 a day, though this included a guide. Your driver takes you between the sites, which are each a few kilometres apart. and justs waits from you to return at your leisure. During this time you form something of a friendship or loyalty with the driver. One the first day, you learn his name. On the second, about his family. On the third, where he lives and how he slept last night. Good thing we didn’t get a seven day ticket.

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Don’t imagine that seeing the temples is all about chaffeur driven luxury, though. While you can get a basic experience walking up to the front entrances, there is a huge amount of walking involved if you want to get full value. The is also a good quotient of climbing to do as well, and at times it appears quite dangerous. Even in Angkor Wat, the central citadel can only be reached by climbing up very very steep slippery rocks without handrails. One slip here and you’d end up in hospital at best. That is nothing compared with the skills you need to avoid the touts. Literally hundreds of times a day you will be asked to buy a book, water, Tshirt, or postcards. Usually by gaggles of cute 10 year old kids. Kim has some funny videos of the touting (“Mister long hair, you buy shirt! Lady Pink [shirt], you have look?”).

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The only down side to our trip was that it was our first steady rain for more than two months and it rained everyday. It wasn’t such a problem especially in the covered temples like Ta Prohm but it was not always good for photography. I seem to have collated several dozen pictures of Kim standing next to humongous trees!? And at times, you’d find a tour group of fifty South Koreans descend just as you had found a peacful place to explore.

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