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Siem Reap

The Giant Ibis luxury bus may not actually be luxurious, but it does have air conditioning, reasonably comfortable seats and a small female person who makes totally incomprehensible announcements using a microphone.  Only by concentrating intensely can we distinguish when she stops speaking Cambodian and begins to repeat the message in English.

We travel for seven or so hours through rural Cambodia.  It is flat!  We must be in the Mekong River flood plain because all the houses are built on stilts.  The people all live close to the road with endless rice fields behind.  The rice was recently harvested, so the fields are brown, instead of the emerald green that you see in photographs of rice paddies.  Cattle and water buffalo graze on the rice stubble.  Actually, given the option, the water buffalo seem to prefer lounging up to their necks in ditches filled with muddy water. 

Curiously, among mostly simple houses constructed  of weathered boards, there will suddenly be a large, brand-new house with sparkling paint and fancy balconies.

Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, is tourist central.  There must be hundreds of bars, restaurants and hotels.  There is a thoroughfare called, appropriately, Pub Street. In the last decade or so, Angkor Wat has become one of the must-see tourist destinations.

We engaged a tuk tuk driver for the next three days to schlep us around the sites and make suggestions as to where we should go next.

The Xing Angor hotel actually has a swimming pool -- a cut above our usual accommodations.

 

Angkor Wat and beyond

The temples of Angkor are beyond belief!

Angkor Wat is the biggest and most impressive temple site and the best-known, but there are literally hundreds of temples within a radius of a dozen or so kilometres and each is spectacular in its own way.

This civilization began in AD 802 and lasted until 1432.  It was a sophisticated and civilized city of over a million inhabitants -- at a time when London was a small town of 50,000.

We engage Mr. Smey and his tuk tuk for a three-day tour of the major sites.  We stop at the entrance to buy our three-day passes which allow us access to every site and then we move on to our first stop:  Angkor Wat.

Lonely Planet says: 
     "The traveller's first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is simply staggering and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu and Petra."
    "The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors' structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world's largest religious building, the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat."
 
 
First glimpse of mythical Angkor Wat
 
The towers of Angkor Wat
 
The long wall bears a bas-relief carving depicting an ancient battle. The carving is more than 100 meters long.

 


Couple of tourists
 
Detail of the battle carving
 
Exquisite carvings adorn the interior walls


Beautiful carving

 
 
But it is only the beginning.  For the next two and a half days we travel from one awe-inspiring Angkorian structure to the next; each more impressive and amazing than the last.
 
 Angkor Thom, was a great city on an epic scale, occupying 10 square kilometres, and was the last great capital of the Khmer empire.  It is enclosed by a stone wall 8 meters high and 12 Km in length. and is encircled by a 100 meter-wide moat.

 
Bayon temple in Angkor Thom


 
Entrance to Bayon


Bas-relief carvings

 


One of 54 towers, decorated with 216 huge smiling faces

 

 


Ta Prohm is one example of the sites that has been swallowed by the jungle and looks much like the other sites would have appeared when discovered by the first European explorers.  The crumbling structures have been engulfed by the massive roots of huge trees. 

 


Inside the eastern entrance pavilion is the Tomb Raider Tree, made famous by Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft character.
 
 
 
In contrast to the large structures, we enjoy visiting Preah Neak.  We walk across a long causeway over a moat to a lovely small Buddhist temple situated on an island in the centre of  a tranquil pool.  A smaller pool is situated in each of four sides and water flows from the central pool into the peripheral pools.  It is peaceful and shady under the surrounding trees.
Moat around Preah Neak
 

Temple in the middle of the main pool

Bakong is the largest and most interesting of the Roluos group of temples  and has an active Buddhist monastery near the entrance.  The temple is a representation of the holy Mount Meru.  The central pyramid of sandstone is 60 meters square at the base and rises to five tiers.  (There are a lot of stone steps to be climbed to attain the summit -- and it is 30C in the sun).  The central structure is surrounded by eight towers of brick and sandstone.  On each corner of each level, are well-preserved stone statues of elephants.
 

 
Beautiful example of a carved stone lion standing guard

Carved stone elephants stand guard at each corner

These are only a very small sample of the dozens of sites we visit over a three-day period.  They begin to blur in our memory, but each one is magnificent in its own way.  We have well over 1000 photographs to help us sort them out when we get home.

Too many temples and too many photographs to include in this blog ... and right now there is a pool to sit beside and cold beer to drink!
 

Susan's Inpressions of Siem Reap

With a booming tourist industry thanks to the many magnificent temples that are the result of a complex history, Siem Reap is the ultimate party town.  Pub Street, right next to the night market, demonstrates the Cambodian understanding of tourism.  We are right where they want us and they offer anything and everything you could imagine and some things you simply couldn't.  Again the people are friendly and accommodating and many speak at least a few words of English.

The construction industry is thriving here.  New guest houses and hotels are going up everywhere although tourism is a bit down from previous years.  There is a growing middle class full of hope and optimism.  The atmosphere is positive and upbeat and if global warming is a manufactured problem and the rice industry continues to thrive, Cambodian will be an entirely different place in 10 years.

We note that we see more landmine victims in Siem Reap than we did in Phnom Penh. It may be that there were more victims in this area but more likely it is easier to find work of a sort providing services and entertainment to the throngs of tourists.  Whatever the case, it is troubling to contemplate what happened to them.  Part of our temple tour includes the very disturbing Cambodian Landmine Museum.  It's founder is a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who planted many landmines himself.  It was the only way of life that he knew.  I simply cannot imagine this.  He has devoted the rest of his life to removing the threat and did thousands of them at his own time and expense with a stick and a pair of pliers.  The very thought scares the bejesus out of me but I suspect the process of planting a landmine may be no safer than deactivating one.   Ari Ra has overcome a most heartbreaking childhood to become a globally recognized hero.  He certainly is my hero.  I was also proud to be reminded of the Ottawa Treaty initiated by Canada.  "The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty is a legally binding international agreement that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines and places obligations on countries to clear affected areas, assist victims and destroy stockpiles." Some 160 countries have signed this treaty.  It is interesting to note those who have refused to sign.  Some are unexpected:  the United States of America for example!

Our tuk tuk rides through the Cambodian countryside to and from the temple sites also provide a variety of strange, amusing and delightful sights to store in our hearts and memories.  As we are presenting our tickets for punching at the entrance to Angkor Wat, I am startled by movement in the pocket on the attendant's left hip.  The eyes, ears and nose are all that can be seen of  a wee baby rabbit.   'Way to MELT my heart!  The roadsides are crammed with vendors selling everything from green coconuts to 2 litre pop bottles of gasoline.  We stop at one such place to check out products made from the sugar palm.  The wood is used to make all kinds of kitchen utensils and the fruit is processed into various sugar products from syrups and pastes to a most delectable little fudge candy.

 
 Hand-wrought rebar utility wagons are pulled by motor bikes or a long-handled drive motor on wheels that puts one in mind of a roto-tiller on steroids.  They haul everything:  haystacks, recycled goods, logs, stacks of sugar cane, cement, rebar, rice, tin, dirt, coconuts, melons and even live pigs.  The pigs were tightly trussed and lay two across and three layers high.  Since their legs were kicking about vigorously we are sure they were still alive.  It was quite a sight!

 

Beng Mealea

On the advice of our friend, Adarsh, we make a special trip to the mysterious temple of Beng Mealea.  The site is 68 Km from Siem Reap and too far for Mr. Smey's trusty tuk tuk, so he arranges for a car to take us there and back.
 
 




 


 

Built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea is the ultimate Indiana Jones experience as the temple was utterly consumed by the jungle.  The growth has been hacked back to allow access but very little effort has been made to restore any of the structures.  More than any other site, it looks like it was when first discovered by Europeans.
 

 

We wend our way over piles of sandstone blocks, past collapsed walls, and through dark chambers.  A greenish light filters through the tree canopy and the stones are covered with green moss.  The central tower has completely collapsed but here and there are impressive carvings and a well-preserved library in one corner.  It is altogether a moving and impressive place.
 
 

 

Slow Boat to Battambang

The van picks up at our hotel over an hour late and after we have already phoned the company to inquire (seems the driver couldn't find our hotel???)

We bail out of the van at the docks on the river and scramble aboard our boat.  Chaos reigns as various river boats arrive and depart for various destinations.  The fast boat to Phnom Penh is leaving at the same time as our, rather smaller, slow boat to Battambang.  Our boat is about the size and shape of a large school bus with similar seats.  There is a canopy over head and a very noisy diesel engine in the stern.

 
River boats similar to ours
 
Very busy at the river docks

 
All settled and off we go
 
We head down the river a short distance to where it opens up into Lake Tonle Sap.  The lake is large enough that we can't see the far side.  Before reaching open water, we pass through the floating villages:  permanent settlements of floating buildings, including houses, stores, churches, restaurants and gas stations.
 
Floating restaurant

The voyage across the lake is pleasant and uneventful; we reach the other side and enter the Sangker River.  Our boat motors for miles up this narrow river, almost completely lined with floating settlements on both sides.  We literally pass close to the front doors of the people who live here.  There is steady traffic of boats of all sizes in both directions; everything from larger passenger boats like ours, to heavy freight boats to long narrow boats that zoom here and there at high speed.  We also see lots of tiny canoe-like craft being paddled by hand as well as large sampans that appear to have permanent inhabitants. 
 

 

 
 
 

Because of the shallowness of the river, all the boats have long-tail drive assemblies.  This is a long shaft that projects out behind the boat with a propeller on the end and a winch that can raise it up and down as required.  The small boats steer by swinging the engine like an outboard and are powered by an 18 hp utility engine attached to the long propeller shaft.  Of course, in the interests of better performance, the muffler is always removed from the engine, leaving a bare exhaust port.  Occasionally, to make the exhaust noise more resonant, a piece of chrome tail pipe is bolted on.  The boats are long and narrow, plane beautifully and travel at an immense rate of speed.  Fortunately, they are very manouvrable as the river is narrow and congested.
 
Typical long-tail boat

About four hours into our journey, we arrive at a village situated at the confluence of two rivers.  We disembark for a toilet break (although I use the term loosely) and we buy soft drinks and snacks.  Our course takes up the smaller of the two branches and this necessitates our transfer to two smaller boats. The river from here is much narrower, very winding and, in places, quite shallow.  We know this because several times the boat runs aground and has to be pushed off the mud by the deckhands.

The journey is impossibly scenic!  We travel literally through the heart of rural Cambodia and it is endlessly fascinating.  I use the term "endlessly" because by the time we pull into the riverbank in Battambang, some 8 1/2 hours after leaving Siem Reap, our butts are sore and our legs need stretching and we are glad to be off the boat.  But we wouldn't have missed it for the world!

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