So after several unanticipated stutters, I have finally made it to Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor.
The hurdles faced were various.
First up there were the devastating floods back in November, which accompanied by a serious Dengue fever outbreak in this part of Cambodia, caused us to postpone our plans for visiting the country.
Next, as we travelled North through peninsular Thailand, we made a last-minute decision to forego the usual Bangkok-Siem Reap overland route due to the scams and delays which nigh on everyone we had spoken to had experienced. Instead we headed into Cambodia on the seaboard route.
Then last week, with the buses to Kampot a post New Year kind of full, we opted to fly immediately to Siem Reap.
As we reached the newly opened airport in Sihanoukville in god time for the single scheduled flight of that day, we were taken aside by the travel agent who had arranged our tickets (the carrier’s website seems to be permanently down for maintenance). She sympathetically informed that the flight was overbooked and that we had been bumped from our seats.
It was a serendipitous moment.
The previous day, when asked by Miss March, I had been explaining the meaning behind the name “Serendipity”, the beach resort at which we were staying for one night following our return from Koh Ta Kiev.
“Serendipity” relates to a fortunate outcome that happens by chance, a “happy accident” for want of a better description.
This chance occurence was serendipitous indeed.
Upon reflection, we were disturbed that in our desire to get to Siem Reap quickly, avoiding extensive and tiresome overland travel on Cambodia’s rather inadequate roads, we had paid a total of nearly £200 for one-way tickets for the three of us.
Instead, we would now revert to plan and visit nearby Kampot and its pepper plantations before slowly make our way to Siem Reap for a total of £14
Still, we were set upon reaching Siem Reap that afternoon, and were obviously disappointed.
The way our agent managed the situation can only be described as brilliant.
Showing genuine upset at our upheaval, not only did we receive the full, expected refund, but she also reimbursed the cost of our taxi ride to the airport.
Then, after we had informed her of decision to visit Kampot, she arranged for her brother to drive us there free of charge and arranged for us to stay in a guesthouse of our choice.
Now that is what I call customer service.
Siem Reap itself is a nice enough but unremarkable town. It has plenty of bars and restaurants selling dirt-cheap fayre (the cheapest yet) but the main events lie outside the urban area in the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Stretching over some 400 square kilometers this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the crumbling remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire including the largest pre-industrial city in the world at Angkor Thom.
Primarily constructed between the 9th – 15th centuries, one could spend weeks exploring the scattered ruins though the average visitor will no doubt be suffering “Temple Fatigue” after a couple of days.
Most tour groups zoom round the key sites in a day, but a $40 ticket allows 3-days open access to the sites over the course of a week, so we opt for a triple whammy worth of templemania, negotiating a Tuk-Tuk driver to guide us for the duration.
On our first day we discuss the options with “Jack”, our driver and he advises we plump for the Grand Tour, saving the main draw cards for another day.
Jack proved wise counsel.
As today is the 7th of January, a public holiday when Cambodians celebrate the fall of Pol Pot and their liberation from the rule of the Khmer Rouge, He rightly predicts the main draw of Angkor Wat (the iconic image of Cambodia with it’s recognisable corn-on-the-cob towers) will be over run with tourists, both foreign and domestic.
I have never seen a historical site so busy. Any photography would be pointless.
A sea of heads can be seen extending right the way from the approach road, across the causeway that bisects the moat, and up the steps of the wide entrance gate.
Tour buses, minibuses, oversized golf-carts and hundreds of tuk-tuks carpet the parking areas, bored drivers snooze whilst waiting for their passengers to finish scrumming their way around the complex.
We complete our drive-by and head for the temple of Pre Rup
Known locally as “The City of the East”, the 127 x 116M temple-mountain of Pre Rup dominates the irrigated plains surrounding it, built as it is upon an artificial mound in laterite with soaring brick towers.
As we pile out of the tuk-tuk, Pre Rup brings into perspective the scale of the Angkor ruins as though this site would be a huge draw in itself anywhere else in the world, here at Angkor, it is a mere sideshow overlooked by many visitors.
The huge blocks with which the base of the temple are hewn of what appears to be porous red sandstone, whilst the upper temple is built of a more solid grey stone whose decaying columns sometimes teeter at near impossible angles.
Artists sit in shaded nooks brushing considered strokes on order to capture its grandness in the soft morning light. Local children rest their backs upon massive stone doorways awaiting a chance to pounce upon a potential buyer of their souvenirs.
Our climb to the top of the structure was rewarded with views across the plains and the chance to inspect the masonry work at close quarters in the soft morning light.
After jumping back in the tuk-tuk, our next pile out is at East Mebon, a structure similar to Pre Rup in its general appearance, before a third pile out at the atmospheric Ta Som.
Constructed during the 12th Century, Ta Som has been left in a largely unrestored state with numerous trees and other vegetation growing and twisting their way amongst the ancient stonework.
The central temple structure was reached firstly via a gopura (entrance) guarded by a gigantic, yet delicately perched stone face, and then via a seemingly endless, partly collapsed corridor whose series of stone doorways stretched into the distance as though in a scene from the Bohemian Rhapsody video.
The child vendors here were possibly the most persistent we have encountered on our trip, and the crocodile tears encountered would have fooled many a less-hardened tourist.
The kids were able to count to ten in a surprising number of languages (including Portuguese, Swedish and Hindi) but there was an epic fail all round when challenged to count in Welsh.
To be fair, a few of the girls gave it their best shot so we bought a bunch of bracelets for $1 off one of them.
Cue begrudging tears of despair from the unsuccesful.
Our first pile out of the afternoon at site of Neak Pean was probably the least impressive of the day.
Consisting of a boardwalk across a swampy lake the centrepiece a small Buddhist temple surrounded by shallow water, we walked in, looked at each other knowingly, and walked straight back out.
Always keep your powder dry, that’s what I say, so instead of dwelling at Neak Pean we headed for a pile out at Preah Khan, an extensive city ruin that once housed over 100,000 officials and servants.
Built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII to celebrate a victory over the neighbouring “Chams”, and spanning 800 x 700 metres, one cannot fail to be impressed by the scale of his victory memorial.
It’s the middle age equivalent of triumphing at Waterloo and deciding to build London to commemorate the event, covering it (as you do) with 1500 tonnes of decorative bronze plating.
With the bronze long gone, like Ta Som before it, the Preah Khan site also appears to still be deliciously neglected with huge masonry collapses leaving angular architecture of an unplanned nature.
Similarly as per our earlier visit, the central sanctuary is accessed through an elongated sequence of part collapsed corridors whose axis cuts through a series of rectangular galleries.
At the centre of this sanctuary stands a plain stupa reaching phallic-like towards the collapsed ceiling area.
The scale of the whole thing is immense, but as we exit the site across a broad moat bridge whose stone demons appear to be tugging at looks like a giant serpant, we recall the need to constantly tell ourselves that todays giants are merely the supporting cast that are little visited in comparison to the headline sites.
Over the next few days, we plan to visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and The Bayon, three sites that together make this the stand out archeological diamond of the region.
Its a tall task with a lot of stonework to get through.
I wonder which of us will succumb to temple fatigue and pile out of the tour first?