Friday, 11 February 2011

Angkor Wat has been discovered!

Thursday 10th February 2011

MP3 track of the day: Tomb Raider – Tomb Raider

Weather: Hot and humid with a very bright sun (When I looked at my photos, back at the hostel, I found that most of them had a bleached white sky … which was rather annoying)

The day didn't start as well as it could have done. Firstly I was up at 4am, which can never be a good start. Secondly someone within my dorm had locked the bathroom door from the inside, therefore I had to get ready in the communal bathroom downstairs. To make matters worse I didn't have a room key therefore I couldn't lock my dorm door as I wouldn't be able to get back in. Finally, due to the room being pitch black, I had trouble collecting my things for the day and locking the rest of my stuff back up. Eventually I was ready and waiting downstairs at 4:45am. My driver turned up, bang on time, however Carolyn hadn't been seen. The hostel owner and I were contemplating knocking on her dorm door however, two minutes later, she appeared walking down the stairs. We sat in the tuk-tuk and off we went.

For 5am in the morning there was a lot of traffic, all of it being tourists heading to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. I was glad that I hadn't gone with the bicycle as firstly, the ride was pretty long and secondly there were no street lamps lighting the way. Before entering the park I had to purchase my ticket; I had two options of either a one day pass at $20.00 or a three day pass at $40.00. I had already decided on the three day pass however I then had to decide whether I wanted those three days consecutively or dispersed (I could opt for the dispersed ticket which allows me to visit Angkor Wat three times within a week). As I didn't have long I decided to have my three days altogether. I looked into the web-cam, had my photo taken, and was presented with my three day ticket with my photo on it. This was all very professional for South East Asia, where's the coloured sticker I thought to myself.

Once purchased I was back on the tuk-tuk; we were driven to the back of the ticket office, had our tickets inspected, before being allowed to enter the park. What I didn't realize was that I had purchased a ticket to the 'Angkor Archaeological Park'. As I found out later there are hundreds of temples within the park and Angkor Wat, though the largest of all temples, was only one of them. In fact, going on the knowledge I've gained within South East Asia, 'Wat' means temple. Therefore 'Angkor Wat' must mean something like 'temple of Angkor' … Angkor being the area. Interesting that.

I was glad that I had decided to wear a long-sleeved shirt (to protect against sunburn) and trousers (they're zip-off trousers so, when it gets hot, I can zip off the bottoms and make them into shorts. I decided to wear these to protect myself against mosquito's) as the tuk-tuk ride was pretty cold. We eventually stopped and Carolyn told me that we were outside Angkor Wat; as it was pitch black I just took her word for it. I hopped off the tuk-tuk, followed the millions of tourists who had got up at this insane hour, and went to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

We walked for a little while along an ancient stone footpath, through the outer gate, and into the main courtyard. Carolyn said that the most beautiful view of Angkor Wat (I love the way the French say beautiful, sounds great. I also like the way they say stupid) was down to our left, by a pool of water, where most of the tourists were. She said that the view wouldn't be that spectacular as there was a lot of renovation work taking place. I stood and waited, trip pod erected with camera firmly attached, and I stared into the darkness all excited. At first I could just make out the outline of the famous five towers of Angkor Wat. I tried to take a few photos however it was still too dark. I waited. Eventually the sun began to rise, in doing so it triggered a fury of photo taking from all around me, including myself. Being honest I would say that the anticipation of seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat was more exciting than the actual even itself. Firstly the scaffolding, from the construction work, did spoil the view; secondly the amount of tourists around the area made it seem a bit like a 'show' but most importantly the sunrise was a little cloudy, which didn't allow the full colours of the sun to come out.

At 6:30am Carolyn and I both agreed that we had probably seen the best of the sunrise and so, instead of heading for breakfast like most other tourists, we decided to head to the temple as it would hopefully be pretty empty. It was. Carolyn had been around Angkor Wat yesterday and so she acted like a guide for me, instructing me which way to go. However, unlike yesterday, Carolyn had brought her French guidebook with her. It had information about the stone carvings located around all four sides of the outer-wall. Each side told a story with key important figures; Carolyn translated what her French guidebook told her – with, I'd say, a 80% success rate of me understanding what she was banging on about – and both of us scoured the carvings for the key characters. I have to say that I found this part a little dull. I've always liked the outside of buildings more than the in and I was glad when we moved to the inner-part of the temple.

Angkor Wat's famous five towers – each of them designed like a lotus flower – were pretty stunning. I took hundreds of photos however with the sun being so powerful, even this early into the day, most of my shots had bleached white skies. It was hard to think that, something this huge and impressive, was built within the 12th Century. At this time the Khmer race was one of the most advanced nations on the earth. We both searched all of the temples 'nooks and crannies'; it felt like I was in one of the 'tomb raider' video games (I must admit that I did fancy playing the 'tomb raider' after my visit). We finished our sightseeing tour of Angkor Wat around 9am and headed out of the temple to have breakfast before meeting our tuk-tuk driver.

As we were walking back the way we had come, back to the car park, Carolyn warned me that I was about to be surrounded by hundreds of women and children trying to sell me this and that … and she wasn't half wrong. “...Excuse me sir...” and “...Excuse me...” were the first cries I herd, then came:

“...want to buy scarf...”

“... want to buy guidebook, pretty pictures...”

“... want to buy bracelets, four for $1...”

They wouldn't leave us alone; children as young as six were walking with us trying to sell us as much tat as they possibly cold. I replied no thank you and both Carolyn and I headed into a restaurant for shelter from the bombardment. I had brought food with me for the day and so I just ordered a small plate of fruit, much to the annoyance of the restaurant waiter. We ate and then we found our tuk-tuk driver ready to drive us to our next destination.

Today we were taking the 'grand tour' which was supposed to be completed in a clockwise circuit. Last night, with the advice from the owner of our hostel, we had decided to go counter-clockwise to avoid the tourists. It didn't work. We arrived at our next destination, 'Prasat Kravan', with a battle bus load of South Korean tourists. The South Korean tour guide was waving an orange flag enthusiastically with all these tiny, and old, South Korean men and women following eagerly wearing their orange 'tour' baseball caps. On closer inspection each 'battle bus tourist' had an ear piece so that they could hear their tour guide, even from far away. A bit serious that.

We raced in front of the tour group, knocking over a few oldies as we went, so that we could get a few clear photos of the five towers that loomed in front of us. Just like at Angkor Wat there was a lot of construction work, however this renovation work was being headed up by 'Ze Germans'. Carolyn told me that a lot of temples are being renovated internationally with the French, Indians, Japanese and Chinese all in on the act. Looking at the temple in front of me I thought that the Germans had got a good deal as there was little to renovate.

The only brick based temple within the Angkor area, 'Prasat Kravan' was built in the early 10th Century and consists of four small towers, with a larger fifth one in the center, all standing in a row … and that was it. There wasn't much to see at this temple and so both Carolyn and I were back in the tuk-tuk pretty quickly, trying to race the 'South Korean orange baseball cappers' to the next site.

'Banteay Kdei' was our next destination. Not to far from 'Prasat Kravan', 'Banteay Kdie' has been left largely unrestored, which has given it a certain character, charm and feel of it truly being a lost temple. This temple was built in the late 12th – early 13th century and was used as a Buddhist monastery under Jayavarman VII. Poor construction methods, and building materials, were the cause of such deterioration. Carolyn and I made our way through doorways, corridors and courtyards encountering trees, lotus flowered temple roofs and very detailed stone art work. The temple was pretty amazing and it took quite a while to make our way through photographing every corner as I went.

Just across from the temple of 'Banteay Kdei' stood 'Sras Srang', a picturesque baray which Carolyn pointed out would be a great place to see the sunrise. Before reaching the baray we, yet again, had to deal with the 'selling women and children'. By now I had stopped saying no and started playing a long. I told one woman that I had 2ltrs of water in my tuk-tuk, another that I already had a t-shirt and the third that I had just purchased three paintings from the chap inside the previous temple. They knew I way lying but I think they enjoyed a different answer to just 'no'. One woman was trying to sell me a scarf. I have to point out at this time that the sun was beaming down and I was pretty sweaty. My answer to her was a look of confusion plus I pointed at the sun. She laughed and said “... buy scarf as souvenir for mother...” to which my reply was that my mum already had fifteen scarfs and she didn't need anymore. Not taking no for an answer the lady replied “... they aren't like this scarf...” to which I said that they were exactly like that scarf. And so it went on.

Once upon the baray I looked out onto a big pool of water and concurred with Carolyn that sunrise would be good here. There wasn't much else to see and so we headed back down, again through the 'selling women' to which I told one lady selling cold drinks “... I'll buy one tomorrow...”. She said that I wouldn't be back tomorrow but I disagreed telling her that I had a three day pass so I will be here tomorrow. She said “ honest...” which made me laugh a lot as I haven't met an honest retailer, within South East Asia, yet. Back in the tuk-tuk I was thinking about more answers I could give the 'selling women' … this was fun. I thought about counter selling; for example they ask if I want a bracelet and I reply trying to sell them my bottle of 'lucky water' for $3 … I could even do the South East Asian voice “... three dollar, for you good price. Lucky, you will be lucky...”. My other favorite was telling the retailer that I had lost my wallet somewhere in the previous temple, just to see if they race off to find it.

I was thinking of new phases so much that I didn't realise we had made it to our next temple 'Pre Rup'. Constructed in the 10th Century 'Pre Rup' is a temple mountain with elephants located at the four corners. It was at this stage that the heat had got too much and so I zipped off the bottom of my trousers and cast upon the world my bright, slightly white, legs. I than began to climb. It was hard work however the view from the top was worth it. I could see the surrounding area but bizarrely I couldn't see any other temple due to the trees. Previously I had wondered how the 'lost temples of Angkor' had become … errr … lost. However here I am, surrounded by them, and I can't see a single one. I spent a little time at the top of temple before climbing back down, tomb raider style.

Taking the tuk-tuk was a great idea. Sure it had cost a lot however the distances between the temples was great, the sun was hot and I could see cycling not being much fun. Another plus was that, once the tuk-tuk got moving, a cool breeze would filter through the vehicle de-sweating me. It was actually a shame when we arrived at our next destination – East Mebon – and I was tempted to as the driver to go around the block one more time. Maybe I'll fork out and get a tuk-tuk tomorrow as well.

East Mebon was another temple mountain built in the 10th Century. Originally it was located on an island however the waters have dried to leave a small moat that was hardly recognizable. This temple had three levels, Carolyn and I explored each level before climbing to the next and again the view from the top was pretty good. Again no other temple could be seen. We made our way back to the tuk-tuk where I had a long drink before we continued to our next site. The time was around 11am.

Built in the late 12th century, and dedicated to the Buddhist religion, 'Ta Som' is a small, Bayon-style architectural temple, that has been left to fight with the elements. Mother nature has swarmed over the remains of this temple with the result of huge trees forcing their way through the walls and rooms of the 'Wat'. The eastern gate has a particular photogenic spot with a huge tree growing in the middle of the gate, near to what remains of a Buddhist face, made of stone, perched on the top of the gateway. It was very beautiful and no too crowed, which made a change.

'Neak Pean' was our next stop and the most disappointing. We approached the temple at noon; our driver inquired if we wanted to stop for lunch here however neither of us were hungry. We got off the tuk-tuk and went down the long wooden walkway to what appeared to be five large squares in a '+' shape. On closer inspection each square was a deep pool however, due to this being the dry season, the pools had little water. In the center square was the temple, which you couldn't get to. It must have only been eight meters squared and so Carolyn and I walked around the edge of the '+' chatting. My tomb raider head was on and I was constantly looking for leavers to push to fill said pools to retrieve some ancient artifact. I didn't find any leavers … some tomb raider I am!

On the way back to the tuk-tuk I met the two Aussies from the coach two days ago. We chatted for a little while before I gave them the $2 I owed them. We parted company and Carolyn and I headed off to 'Preah Khan'. Built in the late 12th Century 'Preah Khan' is a huge, highly explorable monastic complex full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities. As we approached said temple we had to cross a bridge; on each side of the bridge there were rows of Buddhas holding onto a giant snake. Each and every Buddha had it's head cleanly chopped off, which could only come down to a change in faith or a conquering nation removing said heads when victorious.

The temple was massive; being the middle of the day Carloyn and I made many stops, taking on water, before exploring another section of the temple. Once out on the other side of the temple we told our tuk-tuk driver that we were stopping for lunch. I had a noodle soup, which was very nice, though the noddles had the same texture as the ones from a 'pot noodle'. As we sat we had the constant sound of the 'selling women and children' shouting at every passer by to purchase a cool drink, food or a stapler.

It was now around 3pm and we were on our way back south towards 'Angkor Wat'; Our next stop was the big one. 'Angkor Thom' is a 3km squared walled, and moated, royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. Built in the late 12th – early 13th Century 'Angkor Thom' is more like an enclosed area with smaller temples inside. As there was so much to see, and only two hours to see it in, Carolyn suggested that we focused on the west side of 'Angkor Thom' as that was were most of the interesting stuff could be found. First of all we visited 'Tep Pralilay' and 'Preah Palilay' which kind of rolled into one. Apart from a ruined main tower there wasn't much to see and so we moved on quickly into the Royal Palace area.

For the first time Carolyn and I were alone; no other tourist could be seen and so we made the most of it by taking photos of the north royal palace wall. Our exclusion was short lived as we approached the Phimeanakas, a giant squared temple with great views from the top. The stair case was long and, due to Carolyn having climbed up yesterday, she waited at the bottom. I went up the stairs with ease and looked at the view from the top. Coming down as a little more of an issue as I didn't realise just how steep it was. I could see Carolyn smirking a little at the bottom.

We then headed east to the 'Terrace of the Leper King' and the 'Terrace of the Elephants', the latter being the bigger. A long, thin walkway running all the way along the easten wall of the Royal Palace area, the terrace looked a lot like one in a Tomb Raider game. We walked along the bottom of the terrace, viewing the stone carvings, before walking along the top and taking in the view. This lead us to the Baphuon.

The Baphuon is in two parts; a main temple sits to the west with a smaller temple on it's eastern boundary. There was a large heightened walkway running between the two. The restoration of this temple was down to the French. Carolyn told me that restoration began in the 1930's. A plan was made of the temple before a lot of the stone was taken our of place to be treated. World War Two broke out in 1939 and the plans to the temple were lost forever. Restoration only started again in 2003 and now the French have piles and piles of stone with no guide to help them put the pieces back in the right place. I suppose it's like having a jigsaw – where all the pieces are similar – and loosing the box lid. The temple was impressive but most of it out of bounds due to restoration work. I did not envy the French at all on this one. On the west wall of the temple is an image of an reclining Buddha; it took Carolyn three goes to point it out to me until I eventually saw it.

We were now near the southern wall of 'Angkor Thom' however the best had been saved for last. The 'Bayon' emerged from the trees and the instant I saw it, I knew that it would be my favorite temple. The giant stone faces of 'Bayon' have become the symbol of the Khmer art and architecture. 'Bayon' has thirty-seven standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces orientated toward the cardinal points. 'Bayon' was Jayavarman VII's state-temple but to some degree it appears to be an architectural muddle. This is because the 'Bayon' took about a century to complete and it was done in a piecemeal fashion. The thing that makes this temple stand out from the rest are its many pillars and the giant stone face towers, I loved exploring the temple, walking this way and that through the many pillars. It would appear that the 'Bayon' wasn't just my favorite temple as there were hundreds of people there.

Time was getting on and the sun was going to set within the hour. Carolyn and I boarded our tuk-tuk for a short ride (stopping for photographs of 'Angkor Thoms' southern gate) to the foot of 'Phnom Bakheng'. Located up a huge hill 'Phom Bakheng' is one of the earliest temples to be completed within the area, being built in the late 9th – early 10th Century. Every guidebook stated that this was the place to see the sunset, therefore the world and her husband was climbing up the dirt track to the top. Once at the top of the hill 'Phnom Bakheng' could be seen; it was okay however, having just spent time at 'Bayon', it wasn't on the same level. There were already hundreds of people at the top of this mountain temple waiting for the sun to set. Carolyn and I went to join them but first we, and thousands of others, had to climb three sets of very dodgy steps. Again tomb Raider style climbing was involved before making it to the top.

Carolyn and I walked around the top of the temple before choosing a seat where we could see Angkor Wat, in the distance, to our left and the sun setting to our right. I unpacked my tri-pod, re-zipped my trouser legs onto my shorts and waited. It had been a long and tiring day, but what a day it had been. I thought about all the temples I had seen and I planned my trip for tomorrow. I also worried about getting down from this temple as the stairs were dodgy and we had no torch. The sun was setting, I took a few photos and it was okay. Again there was a lot of cloud and so the sunset probably wasn't the best ever seen. What was interesting was seeing all the people poised to take photos of the sun setting … so I took a photo of them. Both Carolyn and I were worried about climbing down the temple in the dark; we stayed until we reckoned the sun wasn't going to get anymore beautiful and then left reaching our tuk-tuk before complete darkness. As we drove away I thought about the infrastructure here within the park. For the first time within South East Asia it would appear that some thought had gone into the road layout, with multiple exits to prevent congestion. What's more parking was prohibited at certain key areas, which again is unheard of within South East Asia (tuk-tuk's normally just park where they like). Also the whole site was very clean due to thousands of bins being located almost everywhere, even on the top levels of temples (which was a little annoying photo wise).

Once back at the hostel I hired the tuk-tuk driver for tomorrow to complete the 'small tour circuit' starting at 8am. The price was reduced from $18.00 to $15.00 however I thought it should have been lower than that as I reckon the route that I wanted to do would only take half a day. The driver had been great all day today, he had spotted us leaving temples before we had spotted him. To save us from walking he always drove to meet us at the entrances. I was tired and so I couldn't be bothered to argue. I agreed to pay $15.00 and said I would meet him at 8am. I then retired to bed.

Tomorrow was going to be another long day; I needed as much sleep as possible.

Toodle Pip!

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