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Discovering Angkor

Siem Reap

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For most foreigners, Siem Reap exists for one reason: as a base for the Angkor Archeological Park, the official name of sprawling complex of temples spanning several centuries of Khmer imperial history.

Having survived the minibus I spent my first full day chilling out as it was raining and I thought it best to defer my visit for the better weather forecasted for the following day. I used the time to see the Angkor National Museum, which although extortionate ($12!) was beautifully laid out and a great introduction to the history of the area. The afternoon improved enough to allow some time by the gorgeous pool at my guesthouse.

The next morning, as much to my surprise as yours, I got up at 5am and cycled to Angkor Wat on the pink bike I had hired the night before for the princely sum of $1.

The sunrise was slightly marred by a bank of dark clouds that appeared at exactly the wrong time, but still provided a decent photo or two and ensured I was there early enough to beat both the heat and the Chinese tour groups.

Angkor Wat is the best known temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally Hindu but was gradually converted to a Buddhist site when the official religion of the Khmers changed and has been in constant use since construction began in the 12th century. It is suitably impressive and contains some truly spectacular bas-reliefs.

Next came Angkor Thom, the ancient citadel. Most of the buildings were wooden so long disintegrated, but what remains are several temples and terraces. Bayon has many faces of Buddha hidden in its towers.

Baphoun has been painstakingly pieced together from stone blocks scattered in the forest, a process that only finished in 2011 after over 50 years of work and was described as the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle.

After refuelling with fried rice and fresh coconut water (and joined by a British girl and her Nigerian friend who I'd bumped in to at every temple before lunch) I cycled the couple of kilometres to Preah Khan, which was the first royal capital. It is undergoing work to stabilise it but remains largely untouched.

Continuing my circuit I visited Neak Pean, a man-made island on one of the reservoirs that has an ornate at its centre (see Instagram for a view of the walkway) and Ta Som, one of the smaller temples.

By this point the temples were blurring in to one, but a highlight of the day was cycling along the beautifully maintained flat road, not another tourist in sight, catching glimpses of ruins between the trees with the sun glinting off reservoirs and paddy fields.

The late afternoon light provided the atmospheric Ta Prohm with even more character. Known as the Jungle Temple, this is where some of the adaptation of Tomb Raider was filmed. Whilst some restoration is being undertaken, much of the temple has been left at the mercy of the trees, which have grown through and around the stonework creating some spectacularly eerie visuals.

12 hours and 45km after the start of my day, the sun set over the moat at Angkor Wat.

Posted by arianemeena 20:25 Archived in Cambodia Comments (5)


"She actually thought Sean Penn was the capital of Cambodia!"

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After a painless trip over the border from HCMC (the Russians could learn a thing or two) I pitched up in Phnom Penh, the dusty capital of Cambodia. In the evening light the river and temples glowed.

On the advice of my guesthouse I went for Mexican food (every now and then you just need something different) which was fantastic, as good as anything I've had in London. I ate with a Kiwi lady who had come over for dental treatment- it seems PP is the dentistry capital of SE Asia and increasing numbers of health tourists are making the trip from the Antipodes to take advantage of the low costs.

The next morning I went out to Choeung Ek, the most well known of the Killing Fields. I'd been in two minds about visiting as I didn't want to participate in morbid rubber-necking tourism. I needn't have worried, the site has been presented in a sensitive and informative way. The audio guide is excellent and included personal testimonies from survivors and those who lost love ones during the tyranny of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime.

On the way back I stopped off at Toul Sleng, known as S21, a former primary school that was appropriated by the state and used as a prison during the crackdown on anyone considered an enemy of communism. After liberation it was left virtually untouched (the 14 bodies they found were buried in the playground) and is a visceral reminder of the horrors that took place less than 40 years ago.

As an antidote to the grimness of the morning I spent the afternoon at the Royal Palace. This is still home to the king and as such is immaculate, with beautiful temples and gardens.

The next day I visited the National Museum, where there are many of the heads of statues from the Angkor temples that were removed soon after its rediscovery. I also saw Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in PP and a peaceful escape from the city.

I had planned to take the boat up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap, but recent flooding had created whirlpools and it was considered too dangerous to run the service. So I made do with a minibus and tried to avert my eyes as lorries careered towards us, tuk-tuks veered out the way and the driver attempted numerous 'double overtaking' manoeuvres.

Posted by arianemeena 07:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

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