Sunrise over Angkor Wat

3 12 2010

I managed to heave my somnolent carcass out of bed so that I was ready in the lobby for 5am and stepped bleary-eyed into Jim’s trusty tuk-tuk. I was rather hoping for a quick 15 minute snooze before we got to the temple but it wasn’t to be. Without the sun and with the wind of movement whistling around my ears it was too cold in the back to even begin to doze off. Jim dropped us off at the front gate and we were nearly overwhelmed by the steady stream of tourists pouring into the temple. Why weren’t these people in bed at this ungodly hour? I guess they were asking the same question of us and the rest of the horde.

Jean and I found ourselves a favourable spot on the side of a temple overlooking the main attraction and waited for the sun to come up. And come up it did – with all the fanfare of a silent fart on a space walk – there was barely any red or orange to be seen, just a steady lightening of the sky. It was profoundly disappointing. I was able to make the picture look good with a bit of jiggery-pokery in iPhoto but it does belie the reality of a silhouetted temple replete with scaffolding against a navy sky.

*Slightly* doctored picture of Angkor Wat at sunrise

After the sunrise was up we headed off to the temple itself. On the way we ran into Grethe and Megan (South African), who I’d spoken to briefly at the hostel the previous night. Grethe had been there for a few nights and had greeted Megan’s arrival the night before with a huge shriek that resounded around the hostel bar. Apparently she’d been delayed in Addis Ababa for 24 hours but had then managed to secure an earlier flight from Bangkok: making her arrival earlier than Megan expected.  We walked around the temple with them and it proved to be a lot of fun: despite the early hour, Grethe was bursting with energy and kept running around all over the place. It was very infectious!

I was, it had to be said, slightly disappointed with Angkor. Having first seen the model of it in the Grand Palace in Bangkok many, many years ago and then hearing some many travellers raving about it ever since I think I’d set my expectations too high. It was still an impressive building but couldn’t quite live up to my over-hyped imagination. We also had to keep moving to keep ahead of all the tourists coming behind us and we weren’t able to ascend the temple (either due to the building work or the early hour).

Angkor Wat

On the way out of the temple we walked against the flow of traffic into shed loads of Japanese and Korean tourist groups. One of the groups had matching red caps on and I remarked to Megan, “I’m surprised there aren’t any with matching T-shirts”. My surprise lasted all of 2 seconds, the next wave included a group garbed in matching yellow T-shirts. It’s moments like these that make me glad I’m an independent traveller and not trucked around en masse with a massive group.

We decided to go for some breakfast inside the temple grounds. It wasn’t as hideously expensive as might be expected; although the South African girls were complete suckers for buying items off the constant stream of touts that headed our way so theirs was probably more expensive than it should have been. We were quite late getting back to the car park – our tuk-tuk drivers had been expecting us back an hour beforehand – but Jim didn’t seem too perturbed by our tardiness.

We set off next to Bayon temple inside of Angkor Thom. I found this infinitely more impressive than Angkor Wat, there were carvings everywhere and faces staring in all directions of the compass; but there were also throngs of tourists blocking the walkways and irritating the hell out of me. I couldn’t bear to spend too long there. After wandering around for a bit trying to find a tourist-free stretch of temple to admire and photograph we ran into Megan and Grethe again and wandered around the rest of the temple with them. They had to head back to the original drop-off point but we continued through the remaining ruins in Angkor Thom until we met up with Jim on the other side.


Bayon temple

After we waited for ages to Jean to get back from the toilet (she arrived there the same time as coachload of Korean tourists) we set off towards the highlight of the day – Ta Prohm, the temple used in the first Tomb Raider film. En route we stopped at a few more temples – one of which had stairs that were more like a ladder. It reminded me of some of the staircases in Amsterdam, except made of stone and heavily worn by the passing crowds. The temple was constructed in the 12th century just as Cambodia was converting from Hinduism to Buddhism so it had never been finished off and lacked any ornamentation and decoration.

Ta Prohm was also full of madding crowds of tourists but we were often able to turn a corner and find ourselves in a more tranquil spot so it didn’t grate on my nerves like it did at Bayon. The temple itself was awesome. It was left in quite a heavy state of disrepair; there were trees growing out of the top of buildings all over the place; fallen, moss-shrouded rocks lay in random piles on the ground. I could really imagine myself as Lara Croft scrambling over boulders and facing down a jaguar or a T-Rex around the next corner.


Me at Ta Prohm

We could have gone and seen some more sights or temples after this but we were both quite tired after our early start so we got Jim to drop us at Pub Street so we could grab some lunch. By now, I was used to being permanently assailed by tuk-tuk drivers as I walked down the streets of Siem Reap with their cries of “You want tuk-tuk?”, but I was in a state of shock when we stepped out of one tuk-tuk and immediately got asked “Tuk-tuk?” by some overly optimistic chancer.

After a much needed disco nap back at the hostel I checked availability for the next day but they said they were full. I found this hard to believe – my dorm was only at half-capacity and everyone else I spoke to said that their dorm was empty too; also pretty much everyone was checking out the next day – in any case, I decided to book an onward boat trip to Battambang. After packing my rucksack in readiness for my 6am start I headed into town for dinner with Jon, Jean, Jens, Dennis and Jorge. We decided to eat at the Temple bar but the longer we sat there the louder the music got. I began to feel very tired, not helped by the fact that you could barely hear each other converse over the music – sometimes it makes me feel old! We decided to find somewhere a bit quieter but the Irish pub, Molly Malones, was at the other end of the scale, so we found a pizza restuarant that was still lively enough but where we could actually chat. On the way there we ran into the South African girls and arranged to meet up with them later.

Most of the boys decided to head off to the night market and weren’t going to come out but we somehow managed to persuade Jon and Jorge to stay. It may have been the presence of Megan, Grethe and, eventually, Maria that gave them an added incentive. At one point, Jon completely lowered the tone and we ended up discussing the most disgusting sexual acts that we knew of. Eventually we decided that we probably should go out properly and went back to Angkor What? for a few buckets before braving the louder dancefloor in Temple. It was quite foolhardy of me to keep drinking so late into the night with such an early start ahead but such thoughts rarely cross my mind when I’m on a roll. At about 3am I walked back to the hostel with Maria and Jon and turned in for the short night.


Out in Angkor What?

Aching Temples

2 12 2010

My stint in Central America meant that by the end of it I struggled to sustain interest for pre-Columbian ruins but I didn’t expect temple fatigue to set in on the very first temple day in Asia. Part of that fatigue was physical (there are only so many ill-paved temples you can clamber over before you get a tad exhausted) and part was mental. Jean and I purposefully saved the most-rhapsodised temples for the second day and plumped for the Big Circuit route of temples on day 1. We left after a leisurely breakfast at 10:30 and organised a tuk-tuk through the hostel where we met our friendly driver, Jim.

We trundled along for ages past lots of temples and through the main gateway of Angkor Thom before we arrived at our first temple of the day: Preah Kahn. Jim told us he’d meet us at the other side of the temple a kilometre or so away and we ambled slowly through the ruins admiring all the ornate decoration and marvelling at the trees growing out of the buildings. Immediately inside the entrance, a local boy had decided that the temple was the ideal place for a little nap.

Little boy sleeping at Preah Khan

After that we went to a temple that was completely surrounded by foetid water called Neak Pean.

Water temple

From there it was on to Ta Som from the west side and made our way to the east gate where a fig tree almost completely eclipsed the monument.

Ta Som

After Ta Som we went to visit another temple where big elephants adorned each corner of the outside wall. We walked up and around this for quite a while before heading off to get some much-needed lunch. Jim told us to go to the first restaurant on the left but we’d been sitting there for a while before we noticed that Jim hadn’t joined us. He was sitting at a small wooden bench with a load of locals. We’d walked straight past this, thinking it was just where the staff had their lunch or something, so we were in a touristy restaurant after all rather than experiencing more authentic local food. Still, the food was good and reasonably cheap.

The remainder of the afternoon included another four or so temples including Bantay Kdei and Sras Srang. At Bantay Kdei we knelt down by a local guy, lit a stick of incense and let him tie a cheap piece of red cotton around our wrists for “good luck”. I think the luck was weighted in his favour, since we then felt obligated to put some notes in the donation box. Some of the last temples were very small but when Jim offered to take us to yet another one of the way back we declined. It was getting to the point where we’d seen so many temples in one long day that we really were bored with them.   Back at the hostel we arranged with Jim to meet the next morning at the horrendously early hour of 5am so that we could make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise. I initially took it easy and despite being in the bar from around 4pm just updated my blog and stayed off the beer. Jean headed off with some of the girls from her dorm, Annie and Emma, to go and see some local kids dancing but they were too late leaving so they abandoned it. Jean went off for a disco nap; something I really wish I’d had the foresight to do but I fully expected to have a quiet evening and an early night. I should really know myself better than that by now!

I grabbed some food at the hostel and chatted to Tom and Maria for a while. Eventually I put my laptop away and joined Annie, Dennis (Germany), Tom, Dave and Jon (UK) for a few drinks. At 9pm, Jean got up from her disco nap, and after hanging about for a bit longer in the hostel we decided, against our better judgement, to head out. Once again, we ended up in Angkor What? bar and danced and drank the evening away. I eventually got back to the hostel at 3am or so; not exactly primed for my 5am start the next day.

Easing In Slowly

1 12 2010

For my first full day at Siem Reap I decided to take things easy and went to the local museum with Jean, the Irish girl from my hostel that I met at the airport. We paid the pricey $12 entrance fee and then spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking at countless statues and trying our damnedest to learn everything we could about Hindu mythology. It would come in handy when going around the temples over the next few days but, although I can now identify some of the gods by sight, the proliferation of alternative avatars with their own unique and difficult names makes is nigh on impossible to remember them all.

After the museum we wandered back into town and started to familiarise ourselves with the layout. Our first stop was to The Alley, a narrow street filled with restaurants. Some of them were quite expensive ($8) but we managed to find a cheapish joint ($3.50) with a two for one offer on beers and cocktails. It was one of those restaurants where the whole menu was an array of photographs – most of which only served to dispel hunger pangs rather than ignite your appetite. Back home I’d avoid such an establishment like the plague but here it seemed quite fitting. So I immediately started on the Anchor beers for the day to accompany my Khmer chicken curry (wasn’t like different to a mild Thai curry really).

After our leisurely lunch we wandered over to the neighbouring Pub Street so that we could familiarise ourselves with the location of all the nightspots and then it was back to the hostel to chill. Most of my chilling involved more beer consumption at the hostel bar and by 8pm, the time I’d arranged to meet Kieran (who I knew from way back in Quito) at Angkor What? bar I was already feeling a bit tipsy. Jean came along too and later on we were joined by Maria, Dave and Tom. Kieran got a bit bored with the beers and ordered a couple of buckets of Cuba Libre. They tasted strong as hell – I’m not sure if it was just cheap rum or if it really was that potent. Maria and Jean left just as Kieran ordered two more buckets: so we were pretty much on a bucket each. Eventually I decided I’d had enough and headed off home.

On the way a prostitute decided to tag along with me. It may even have been one of the lady-boy persuasion: I tried not to pay her much heed but after she’d  doggedly followed in my footsteps for 5 minutes said, “Where are you going?”

“I’m coming with you.”

“No you’re not. I’m going back to my hostel and I’m in a dorm anyway.”

“Oh I have a flat. We can go there. This is my flat,” she pointed as walked past a building on the way.

“I’m not paying you for sex.”

“No pay, you good-looking, just fun,” she said. Just before I arrived at the hostel she practically dragged me to a darkened doorway next door and said, “We can do it here.” I wrested myself from her grip and walked into the hostel alone.

Taking Flight

30 11 2010

The road to Siem Reap was paved with 3 flights and a lot of hanging around airports. The start of my trip was exacerbated by the tube strike so to minimise the risk I took a taxi. Of course, everyone else decided they were also going to take the car that day too and their cars seemed to be plagued by flat tyres and a wilful need to crash into the back of other vehicles; tendencies that were not conducive to smooth-running traffic. It took me an hour and a half to get from south east London to Heathrow: luckily I’d left in plenty of time.

After a short hop across the channel to Charles de Gaulle, I waited about 7 hours for my next flight: fortunately there are an abundance of plug sockets and I was able to while away the hours chatting to people on the Internet and watching Mad Men on my laptop. I also indulged in what I hope will be my most expensive meal for many weeks at Flo. I was really chuffed when I boarded my flight to Bangkok – apparently the airmiles ticket that I’d booked was some kind of economy plus ticket so I settled down in my super comfy seat; got to watch Inception (from the beginning this time and in a more attentive state), and took advantage of the champagne aperitif and good menu choice. Was I really setting off on another backpacking adventure?

At Bangkok airport I had another five hours to wait but these were quickly eaten up with long queues at passport control; checking in for my new flight and then having to get a replacement boarding pass when I lost my original.

My promised airport transfer failed to turn up but luckily there was one for another girl at my hostel, Jean (Irish), so we both got in the tuk-tuk and set off to Siem Reap Hostel. At the hostel I quickly met lots of fellow travellers in the relatively deserted bar – an Aussie couple, Angela and Tim, AJ (US), Maria who was doing some volunteer work in the area (US), Tom (UK), Dave (UK), and an Aussie couple, Chris and Tialani, who had just been jamming with some of the locals in a bluegrass band. Although jetlag should have been setting in by now, I somehow managed to stay up into the wee hours chatting away and having the occasional shot of Khmer whiskey along with my Anchor beer.