Wednesday 3 March 2010

Siem Reap and Angkor

The Angkor complex of temples is the must-see manmade site in Cambodia, Asia and probably the whole world. The most recognisable images of Angkor might be of the enormous trees that have grown over some of the temples and now actually support them, or from King Louie’s city in Disney’s The Jungle Book, for which Angkor Wat provides the setting, apparently. It’s practically against the law to visit Cambodia without going to Angkor.

Siem Reap is the closest city to Angkor. It’s touristy and, let me say frankly, so what? I don’t care if a place is touristy (partly because there’s nothing more ironic than a bunch of tourists complaining that somewhere is touristy) as long as it’s nice. As far as I’m concerned, Siem Reap’s tourism is, overall, quite lovely. There are some extremely tempting touristy restaurants in the network of lanes behind the market, and some lovely tourist items in the tourist section of the market and the atmosphere in the bars made me feel like a French Colonialist (a nice one).

One thing I would say: don’t sit on the street front of a bar or restaurant because tourists don’t blend in and you’re cannon fodder for those lovely Cambodian kids. They are gorgeous, cheeky and smarter than you. They will try anything. They sell everything from photocopies of Lonely Planet Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, Brother Number One and any other Cambodia-centric literature to postcards and jewellery for those not into reading. Some follow you down the road with their best pathetic face on, whining “One dollar, one dollar” (they can switch their tone in a second when they see a friend). Others are more enterprising and will promise to leave you alone if you beat them at Noughts And Crosses (I’m a particular sucker for this, the best I managed was a draw and we hadn’t established the rules for that). The general consensus seems to be that buying stuff from these kids is wrong: they should be in school, the money most likely goes to their suppliers rather than them and by buying their stuff we are maintaining a bad status quo. Then there are the landmine victims with awful tales to tell. My personal strategy is to buy something I want from someone I like, and then sit inside the restaurant.

You need at least three days for Angkor, preferably with days in between (such passes are available, we found out too late) because it’s all too easy to get templed out. We didn’t do it, but I’d recommend hiring a bike to get to the temples closest to the main entrance, including Angkor Wat itself; it’s a lovely, easy ride that somehow reminds me of Virginia Water. If you were to compare the entire Angkor complex to a Christmas dinner, Angkor Wat is the turkey, the grand centrepiece that pulls everything together and provides the central meaning to the entire thing. All the other temples (Bayon, Tha Phrom, Banteay Srei and so on) are like the accompanying dishes, each one someone’s favourite, and all being necessary to complete the meal. Tha Phrom, with its Alien-like organic mess of trees growing over, around and through the temple is, arguably, the most iconic; the haunting stone faces at Bayon seem alive and watchful with a serene benevolence; Banteay Srei offers the most intricate and time-weathered carvings and a peaceful but pregnant atmosphere… these are my personal favourites. Sunrise and sunset were not the tranquil images I expected; I joined a thronging crowd all jostling to take exactly the same picture, which was a picture in itself.

On the third day of our tour, it absolutely chucked it down all day. My camera started steaming up, Alex did his best to manoeuvre an umbrella over it while I tried to take pictures but it was no use, the sides of our tuk-tuk were zipped up so we couldn’t see anything, our waterproofs proved yet again that they were anything but waterproof and our poor driver was out front bearing the brunt. So, we packed it in early. It rained for the rest of the day. It rained all night. I woke up at about 4 in the morning to find Alex and the night porter in our room clearing up a flood on the floor from a leak in the window (I would have helped if I hadn’t fallen straight back to sleep), and it was still raining. When we woke up in the morning, the rain had stopped. We walked down the drive of our guesthouse to the road and were met by water. Lots of water. It ran all the way to the roundabout by the bridge and down all the roads near it. The water was actually flowing round the corners like a river. The actual river had burst its banks in spectacular fashion. We watched in awe at cars, trucks and coaches attempting to go round the roundabout, the wheels entirely submerged. Water lapped around the tables and chairs of the restaurants. And then it started raining again.

This was the calmer end of a cyclone that also hit the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand leaving death, destruction and homelessness in its wake – 66,000 families forced from their homes in Cambodia alone. The rice hadn’t had enough water during the year and now it was getting far too much so poor harvests would ensure that the impact was felt for many months to come. It was bad news all round. But people also found opportunities. A woman had taken a remote control boat out and it was whizzing up and down the riverside road that was now part of the river, kids were leaping into it from the bridge with tyres and lifejackets and floating off to who knows where and parents pushed their toddlers down the road in inflatable paddling pools. Everyone knew it was bad news, but that wasn’t going to stop them having a little fun. And at least the water levels in the crocodile farm next door to us didn’t get high enough for the crocs to escape.

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