Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Effort and Reward

The beautiful, friendly, staring children of the roadside food stop

Sharing and laughing with Tara - Photo courtesy of Tyler Kellen of Going Slowly

While being a huge tourist attraction the temples of Angkor are also holy Buddhist sites - these guys have a lot of flesh to try not to look at!

The Khmer Bayeux Tapestry, beautifully carved ancient stories in stone

The classic photo of nature reclaiming what is hers

The ancient and the modern in a different form

Friendly young monks

The 3 monkeys, my Angkor companions

Two tough days of riding have landed me up in Siem Reap (or Siam Defeated), the city base for the Temples of the Khmer Empire, SE Asia's premier tourist attraction (besides the place in Laos where you bar-float along the Mekong in a rubber ring getting steadily drunker).

Day 1 out of Phnom Penh ended up at 103 miles and 8 hours, my second longest day of the trip so far. It was flat and the temperature never rose above the mid-30s but keeping up even a modest average of 13mph on a 60kg bike whilst waving at all and sundry took it out of me - I stopped at the first hotel I'd seen all day by 16:30 and devoured all the food I could find in my bags, before dinner and sleep. The children here have to be the friendliest of anywhere, the constant barrage of hellos makes the Vietnamese seem positively antisocial - more fool the person who doesn't deign to respond to even one, as the hello gets louder and more aggressive until it is finally answered out of fear from 200 metres further down the road. It took some effort to emerge from my hypoglycaemic stupor and interact with the 10 children staring at me shoving banana after banana into my face (they're so small here you need about 10 for the potassium content of 1). Emerge though I did, eventually, and the maturity, self assurance and consideration of these 4-12 year-olds melted my heart. I have no trouble believing that the lives they are forced to live, and these are the lucky ones who get to go to school, makes them far more grown-up than many twice their age in other more privileged societies.

Day 2 was a tad shorter than the one before at 93 miles and just over 7 hours, but with a headwind most of the way it required Coke stops every 25/30 miles. I hate how much I depend on it to keep going but it's better than petrol I suppose. Surprisingly Cambodia seems to be a bit more expensive than Vietnam, and with the relative scarcity of food and drink stops 3 meals of bread and peanut butter were devoured - the food here is great but sometimes an empty stomach wants more than rice or noodles. The final 10 miles into Siem Reap were whizzed along at 16mph on a high of having reached the place that 2 days ago was 200 miles away, and with the prospect of meeting up with some friends made back in the first few weeks of Vietnam.

Friday was a rest day and I allowed myself to do nothing more strenuous than turn the pages of my book and raise a coffee cup to my lips. I didn't actually feel too bad - my legs are used to it and the rest of me can cope, but I enjoy guilt-free laziness the most. That evening though I was lucky enough to meet up with Tyler and Tara from Going Slowly - I started following their blog in 2009 as they set off on their bikes from Scotland (having flown there from the US) to ride the World and it helped me to overcome the fears that I had before setting off myself. They've since visited 20 countries including Russia, Mongolia, Finland and Tunisia, and through some incredible stroke of luck we found ourselves in the same town at the same time 18 months later. They are just as nice in real life as their excellent writing leads you to believe, and it was interesting to swap experiences and compare thoughts over dinner - we have done things very differently, traveled in different directions at different speeds and with different mentalities, but the bond between people who have immersed themselves in the world and realised they love it was clear. Sadly the non-stop nature of the ensuing days meant we didn't get the chance to meet up again, but hopefully we will find ourselves sharing time and space again one day.

The following day was Temple Day 1 of 3. Having heard some negativity on the splendidness of Angkor Wat (you know who you are!) I was worried the place would become a victim of over-hyping, but that wasn't to be the case. Along with Romy, Sonia and Courtney, the 2 lovely Aussies and 1 lovely Canadian I'd met in Vietnam and again in Phnom Penh, we explored for the next 3 days, first by bike and then by tuk tuk. It is certainly possible to get templed out but the majority of them are incredible places to be. Facts such as the Khmer Empire, at its height, being a million-strong community while London was a village of 50,000 (so it's thought, anyway), and the simple sight of such incredible buildings, intricate carvings and signs of complex civillisation make it more than just a visual experience. At points we found ourselves trapped by hoards of happy-snapping Japanese tourists which, while still entertaining, detracted from the experience, but in the moments where we had a temple to ourselves it was easy to feel the past. Sitting on an ancient carved stone watching the warm light of the setting sun to no other sound than the birds chirping was pretty cool.
While the attraction of so many tourists is doing wonders for Cambodia's recovery and general overseas appeal, the greedy hands of corporations are again taking advantage. Our $40 fee for a 3-day ticket sees $4 going to the maintenance, preservation and restoration of the temples, while $7 goes to to hotel chain-cum-petroleum conglomerate who have signed a deal with the Cambodian Government, who themselves take control of the remaining 73% or so - to spend on social care for landmine victims and the elderly, I don't think. Having had a look into this it seems the deal has recently been renegotiated with more favourable terms for the temples, but as always someone is waiting in the wings ready to take a nice fat slice of someone's cultural heritage.

Anyway. For the final day we decided to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat itself. Being awful at dragging myself out of bed at 4am it seemed sensible simply to not bother sleeping, so following a lovely meal inside a not so lovely swarm of light-drunk bugs, a bunch of banana daiquiris (so manly, I hear you say), a jug of gin and tonic and, thanks to the enthusiasm of Kerry, Hayley and the embodiment of happiness and fun in human form that we shall call Canada, a good few hours of dancing like a loon in a Cambodian nightclub, we made it through to 4am - just enough time to ride home (look, no hands!) and charge my camera battery for what is going to be one of the world's most beautiful sights, while trying to stop my head from lolling into the wall. Back on the bike for 5am and sat on the grass at Angkor Wat by 05:45 - of course it was cloudy. By this point we were all more concerned with sleep so following the dejected walk away from nature's failure to comply we found some hammocks for an hour or two's nap before a solid 7 hours of tuk tuk riding (far from relaxing) and 3km of mountain hiking. On second-wind number 4 and no sleep for almost 2 days we eventually made our way back into town, the girls refreshed after a quick pummeling under a cold waterfall and me by sweating out the gin in the jungle. Still not time for bed though - finally, come midnight, my head hit the pillow and that was that until the following midday.

After 1 and a half days of idleness I'm just about recovered but still not ready to move on. I want to make the most of the good company and nice vibe here (the hotel has a garden courtyard, good food and is only $5) so will wait a few more days before departing for Bangkok. Thanks are due to Courtney, Romy and Sonia for some of the best days of my trip so far : D


  1. Brilliant blog!!
    So interesting, sounds like you are having a great time!!!

  2. The best part of travelling alone is you always meet new people. They refresh you, bring a new view of the world. Congratulation for your great trip.Impressive scenes, crazy nights,fresh air, lovely friends, dancing, drinks... i can not think of any thing better than that. Cheer for that and Enjoy.