Sunday, November 27, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Temples and tourists

Cambodia is our destination for two and a half weeks, and our first stop has been Siem Reap, home of the Angkor complex and at least 296 temples. Don't worry, we're not visiting all of them! But we have had our share of temple-hopping the last five days along with the thousands of other tourists who are doing the same thing. I haven't counted them (the tourists or the temples we've visited), but I think we've explored at least a dozen, some huge and some quite small, some pulsing with visitors and some where we had the place basically to ourselves.

John and our guide, Chamrong, head off to a small temple

We've heard about the beauty and mystery of Angkor Wat for years, and it's been high on our list of must-see destinations for a long time. We have not been disappointed. The setting, with a wide swath of grass and a large moat surrounding the five towers of the temple, is stunning. It's on a par with the pyramids and (I imagine) the Taj Mahal for sheer impact.

Angkor Wat at mid-day

No shouting!
We visited Angkor Wat in the middle of the day, not an ideal time in terms of the heat but a great time in terms of lack of crowds. Most people were at lunch while we were enjoying the peaceful temple (marred only by one Korean tour guide who was SHOUTING at his group--guess he didn't get the message on the sign telling people not to yell). We're going back tomorrow at sunrise for another look.

There are tons of tourists here--many Westerners from lots of different countries, but the largest number are from Asia (as our guide said, the Koreans visit in the morning, the Japanese in the afternoon, and the Chinese all day). But despite the crowds, it's possible to find some quiet spots and enjoy the awesomeness of the buildings and the bas-reliefs that decorate them.

The stars of the show, besides Angkor Wat itself, are Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Bantei Srei. I think Angkor Thom is my favorite, with its wonderful causeway over a moat, lined with sculptures of gods (on one side) and demons (on the other) holding a giant snake, and the Bayon with dozens of huge, surreal faces staring out in all directions. The theory is that these are a combination of the face of King Jayavarman VII (the first Buddhist king of the Khmer empire, who lived in the 12th century and had many of the temples built) and Buddha. Or maybe just Jayavarman himself. Lonely Planet calls him the Donald Trump of Cambodia. The faces are all similar, wearing an enigmatic smile that rivals Mona Lisa's. We spent about four hours at this temple alone, and by the end of our visit I was about ready to pass out, even though we started fairly early in the morning.

The heat is just relentless! Every chance I got I gravitated to a shady spot, and I was extra happy to have an air-conditioned car to go back to for a break. We had prearranged a guide and car for the first three days so we could get an overview and some detail about the temples, and we are happy we did that. The rest of our time here we are using tuk-tuks and no guide. Riding in a tuk-tuk (a two-wheeled, covered cart pulled by a motorbike) allows you to enjoy a cool breeze and a close-up, slower-paced view of the countryside and the many villages that line the routes to the temples. Two dollars gets you a ride anywhere in town; to get to Angkor Wat for the day is $10 (plus $3 if you want to be there at sunrise).

Tuk-tuks waiting for passengers

Another great temple is Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider temple, thanks to Angelina Jolie's movie of the same name, which we avoided previously but will have to rent now that we've been there. Here the jungle trees share a symbiotic relationship with the crumbling temple. A crew of workers sweeps the tops and sides of the temple, keeping the intruding foliage at bay.

Temple vs. jungle at Ta Prohm

The other really outstanding place is tiny Bantei Srei, about 45 km from Seam Reap but easily reached by car or tuk-tuk. We took a car there for our first visit (visiting older temples of the Rolous group along the way) in late morning but returned by tuk-tuk this morning just after dawn to see the intricately carved, red sandstone reliefs that decorate the walls in better light. The ride through the countryside to the temple is beautiful. Cambodian houses in this area are mostly wooden and built on stilts, which makes for a beautiful scene. Observing the villages come to life, including many kids on bikes going to school, was a real pleasure.

Intricate carvings at Bantei Srey--love the 3-headed elephant

Visiting one of the highest temples for a sunset view over the countryside and Tonle Sap in the distance seems to be a requisite stop on the tourist circuit. We shared the top of Phnom Bakeng with about 500 other tourists for sunset the other night--the sunset was nice but really not that great (we've seen a lot of sunsets in our xx years), but it was fun to observe the scene around us. Recently the authorities instituted a policy allowing only 300 people to enter the top of the temple after 4:00 p.m., but anybody who is already there at 4 is not included in the count, so there were plenty of people. After the sun sets everybody has to climb down the really steep steps and walk down the hill in the dark to their waiting cars and tuk-tuks. Fun to do once but I wouldn't make a habit of it!

Wonder how many tourists lose it on this descent after sunrise

Most people in the countryside are farmers, working the flat rice fields. Siem Reap, however, has proven to be a great draw, with more and more people moving from the countryside to take advantage of money-earning opportunities provided by the constant flow of tourists. There are over 100 hotels in town, and there seem to be enough tourists to fill them all. Our hotel is the Golden Temple Hotel (not to be confused with the Golden Temple Villa). For $58 a night we get a big room with all the conveniences one would want, an excellent small restaurant (free breakfast), a beautiful small swimming pool with the requisite lounge chairs and gazebo areas as well as a waterfall at one end, and a lovely staff dedicated to serving their guests. Can't ask for much more than that, though there are lots of hotels around that raise the bar (and the price) even higher. We really enjoyed the free one-hour massage, starting with the layer of cucumber strips they masseuse lays on your face, and a day relaxing at the pool and hanging out in town.

Next: on to Battambang by boat

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the lovely tour ... high on our list as well.