Sunday, June 1, 2008

Backpacking in Cambodia: Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh

Angkor Thom

There is no way these few pages can do justice to the wonder that is Angkor. Besides that it's huge (roughly 20 by 20 kilometers!), it's a 1000 years old, it lies in the middle of the jungle, it's mysterious (center of a lost civilization) and utterly beautiful. We took a three day pass and although you get a bit of "temple fatigue" after "another temple" we never got bored.

The main focus for the first day was to visit Angkor Thom. For starters our driver dropped us off at a "little" monument called Baksei Chamkrong near the Southgate of Angkor thom. It's build in the 10th century. It was our first monument so we took a lot of pictures and climbed like madmen to the top. Soaked from the sweat we walked to the southgate of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a fortified city, build in the 12th century. The wall that encloses Angkor Thom has five gates. These magnificent mansize faces stand left and right of the road leading up to the gate.

Three kilometres up the road lies the Bayon. An immense construction, almost Gothic with narrow corridors and 54 towers decorated with 200 smiling gargantuan faces. From a distance the Bayon looks like a big heap of rocks, but up close the building reveals its beauty. It is decorated with 1200m of bas reliefs depicting scenes of everyday life in the 12th century.

Ta Prohm

This temple-spotting is exhausting in the tropical heat. So we held a si보a at lunchtime to be completele fit for Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is one of the most popular attractions of Angkor. Unlike the other monuments of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left to the jungle and looks very much the way most of the monuments appeared when European explorers stumbled upon them.

Angkor was more touristy than I had expected, but compared to Western standards this tourism was still in its infancy. At every temple kids waited for you to arrive. They sold t-shirts, scarfs, postcards, bracelets, flutes and the much appreciated "cold drinks". Some of the temple buildings are crushed by the awesome powers of the jungle!

These are Apsara's, celestial dancers
So much for the first day. On the morning of the second day we did what is known as "the Big Circuit". Back in the early days of tourism (1920s) people underwent the Angkor experience on the back of an elephant following a standard route. Nowadays cars follow this route. The first temple is pre Rup, build in the 10th century. The second picture is of Ta Som, which is in a ruined state.

This is the centre of Preah Neak Pean, a late 12th century Buddhis temple. Around it are four square pools. The old Khmer probably had a great time swimming here.

Angkor Wat

View from the left of the sandstone causeway to Angkor Wat. All the other temple seem very small compared to Angkor Wat. It is the largest and best preserved of all the temples. Walking the 190m causeway to the outer wall of Angkor you are in awe of this overwhelming structure. When you're through the outer wall a 475m long avenue leads to the central temple passing two libraries and two pools. The experience left a lasting impression on me since the avenue was lined with begging landmine victims.

Just before entering the temple itself it was time to pose for "the holiday snapshot". Stretching around the outside the central temple complex is an 800m long gallery featuring bas reliefs. Imagine the time and effort it must have took for it to be made!

According to one scholar "the visitor who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through this into the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically traveling back in time to the first age of the creation of universe."

Well whatever it may be, you won't be untouched when you stand in one of the towers and look around the Angkor complex when the sun sets.

Angkor is still used by Buddhist monks.

Siem Reap

This guy in the middle was our chauffeur for three days. We met him on arrival at Siem Reap "airport". We flew from Bangkok directly to Siem Reap, which is only a few kilometers from Angkor. When all the American senior citizens where removed from the airport by luxurious touring cars we were alone with some 40 hysterical guest house owners who felt lucky that finally some stupid backpackers took an airplane to Siem Reap. We were practically attacked by these people when a policeman swung his baton around and called for a taxicab. A little amazed about the disturbance we jumped in.

The driver introduced himself as Leap. He and his family could do everything for us. We just have to ask and he would provide for it. Sure, first take us to a decent guesthouse, Leap and then we'll see. He dropped us of at the Mahogany, a very relaxed place with a nice veranda to lounge around. For three days he he drove us around the Angkor area in his own unique way (driving 30 kilometres an hour in 5th gear playing loud house music from Holland, the annoyingly catchy Vengaboys). He took us to the Tonle Sap lake for a boattrip to a Vietnamese fishing village on the water. We boarded a "Fish Farm" where they held pythons and monkeys among other creatures.

Another attraction was a crocodile farm.

After visiting the temples it was nice to rent a bicycle and drive around town. This market was the filthiest thing I have ever seen in my life. It seemed to me that is was build on the city dump. The sewage ran between the market stalls where produce and meat was sold. It was very dark and narrow. People looked at me with curious smiles as to ask what the hell I was doing here. I smiled back because I enjoyed it a lot. This picture is made at the side of the market. It seemed proper to see a dog take a crap on this place.


While enjoying Angkor, the Khmer hospitality, the great food and all the sights and sounds, you easily forget that you're in Cambodia, a country that has been hit hard by civil war in the recent past. During the bicycle trip I visited the "landmine museum". This guy Akira cleared a piece of land of landmines so that he could live there. He stored all the things he found in a shed, the landmine museum.

For an hour I listened to Mr. Akira tell me his life story. After that I felt numb by what I heard. You can see all the documentaries and movies about war and the atrocities that come with it, but when you see a glimpse of it yourself it really is a whole different thing.

Only a year ago this area was not save to live in. He was the first to settle and fight of people that tried to rob him. Now some other people and families settled in the area and it seemes that for this small part of cambodia relative peace and happiness is around the corner. But don't forget that still every year hundreds of people get killed or seriously injured by landmines.

Phnom Penh

In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison (S-21). Over 17,000 people held here were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek to be executed; detainees who died during torture were buried in mass graves in the prison grounds.

Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after being tortured. Now it is a museum displaying the horrors of the Khmer Touge genocide.

I immediately fell in love with the city with its broad boulevards and an amazing riverfront where you can see the Royal Palace. At night we drove through town on scooters. And we thought we were cool with three on one scooter. The Cambodians outdid us easily.

We splashed out on a luxurious hotel where they had hot showers and satellite television. We could acclimatise a little before going back to Europe.

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