You go to Kenya to see Lions, Zambia for Victoria Falls, New Zealand for the national parks and to Thailand for the beaches. Cambodia you visit for the temples of Angkor. This is the only stop for some people coming here and sometimes the only stop for those coming to Asia. Apparently over two million people come here every year to sweatily clamber up the steep staircases, squeeze through the narrow hallways and to admire the ancient carvings and architecture.
There are hundreds of temples and buildings, many complete ruins, across this part of Cambodia representing what one used to be here; the headquarters of a 800-1200 year old empire whose monarchs loved building magnificent temples and cities. I spent the last three days exploring those in the most concentrated area, near to the city of Siem Reap, including the huge walled city of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, still the largest religious building in the world today.
The quality of the remaining temples varies greatly due to a large period where they were 'forgotten' about, after the empire collapsed and the people moved from the cities the jungle advanced and covered many of the temples with huge forest, causing walls and complete temples to collapse. Since re-discovery in the late 19th and early 20th century, teams have cleared the jungle and attempted to restore some of the temples. They didn't manage to stop a lot of theft from the area though, so headless statues are not uncommon at all. The temples are, of course, a World Heritage site, and have a lot of funding from various UN monument and history funds.
At $20 per day for a temple pass, its expensive here compared to the rest of Cambodia and this doesn't include the ridiculous amount of water that you drink whilst exploring. There are hundreds of stalls and small kids selling everything you could want- water, food, hats, guidebooks etc at the temples. We bought a guidebook as I wouldn't let Kelly pay for a proper guide, although this certainly would be worthwhile if we could have afforded one. You get around the temples via tuk-tuk a motobike with passenger seats in tow, our driver was a young Cambodian guy.
We started off by taking advantage of a 'free' sunset at the temples (tickets sold after 5pm are valid for the next day), and we went off to on of the smaller temples to watch the sun go down from the top. By smaller, the temple walls were still probably 50m by 50m and the temple about 25m high!
The first temple we visited on our first real day was one of the main ones and probably my favourite of the lot. Bayon. This is the centre point of the great walled city of Angkor Thom. The scale is amazing, the four city walls are each 3km long, with huge gates on each side. The whole city is surrounded by a moat that is over 100m wide and used to contain crocodiles- it makes our castles at home look tiny! We stopped off at the south gate that has the most intact statues either side, in its day it would have been simply amazing. Driving through the old city where hundreds of thousands would have lived and traded, we got to Bayon that is unique because of the carved faces everywhere, of a god but apparently similar to the king that built the temple and most of the city.
We also visited other places in the city, such as the terrace of elephants- an old parade terrace that is beautifully carved with a lot of animals. This took up a large part of the morning and we went off to a few of the smaller temples in the north of the area. Each is notable for something (or many things), whether it is the architectural style, particularly good carvings, different materials or a strange shaped tree growing out of a wall!
In general, we did well to stay away from the big crowds on our first day until sunset when it got ridiculous at the only hilltop temple. Quite how they managed to get the huge bits of sandstone up the hill is amazing.
We knew we were in for crowds the next morning, even though we were up at 5am. We went for sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most popular temple by some distance. Seeing the silhouette of the temples becoming clearer as the sky turns red behind it is an unforgettable experience though, and at times like that you don't really mind if there are 300 Japanese tourists around you.
We went into Angkor Wat and started to explore but the top part, the most important part, was closed for cleaning for some reason. There is also a bit of renovation going on so we were quite limited to what we could see. We decided to head somewhere else and return the next morning when it should be open (and nice and clean!).
The highlight of the second day was visiting Ta Prohm, a very atmospheric temple as the huge jungle advances meant that a lot of the trees couldn't be cleared and there is a lot of odds pieces of sandstone around from collapses. various huge trees are growing out of the 5m high walls. A lot of the temples were used for filming 'Tomb Raider' (with Angelina Jolie), but this one features most as when walking around you get some idea what it would have been like for the explorers that found these temples in the jungle. We arrived just as about 10 tour buses descended on the temple though, very annoying! There were queues of people waiting to take pictures next to trees!
The following morning we got what we wanted, which was access to Angkor Wat. The place is just huge, built over three levels with five amazing towers as the centre piece and a large moat around it. Everything is perfectly symmetrical and the building is in great shape- it will still be there in hundreds of years time even without much work on it! The ground floor has amazing carved walls depicting various battles, of real wars and between gods, with each scene being about 300m long and of amazing quality. Up the steep steps to the top there is the main tower and a feeling when you are up there greater than being in any cathedral or mosque. The temple is actually built to represent the entire universe from the view of Khmer beliefs. The temple was nominated as one of the twenty finalists for the new wonders of the world voted on last year and is really the pride of all of Cambodia- featured on the flag and on the money notes.
I was just attempting to put my pictures up of the temples but the internet cafe I'm in just wiped my pen drive as there apparently was a virus on it. Kelly has a backup of the pictures though so I'll have them when I get home! That will be it for pictures for the blog as the new camera I bought is no longer working, but in good camera news I have received word that the camera I lost in Melbourne has actually turned up in a random room in the hostel meaning I'll have all my pictures from Australia (and my better camera)!
I've now returned to Thailand but far away from the beaches in the south. I travelled by bus and night train to Pai, a small town near the northern city of Chaing Mai, near the border with Burma (or Myanmar, depending on your political views). I will spend a few days here and then to the city of Chaing Mai before going back to Bangkok.