Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cambodia - Siem Reap

My Take On the Classic Angkor Wat Photo
I have been occupied re cataloging some of my 30,970 photographs lately and the process has brought back many memories of past travels.  One such trip was our journey three years ago to Cambodia.  Since I have also been stirring up some people on Facebook and on some of these Blogs regarding current events and personal responsibility as well as accountability, I will revert back to a blog or two about travels to exotic locales - for the time being.

In August 2007, I needed to exit Thailand and then reenter to obtain a Visa to remain in Thailand until I was scheduled to depart for work in Vietnam in early September.  Taking advantage of this requirement along with a long time desire to see Angkor Wat, I decided that rather than take a bus across the border to Cambodia, enter Cambodia for all of 15 minutes and then returning to Thailand, we would visit Angkor Wat.

Travel to Siem Reap, the city that is the hub for Angkor Wat tourism, was not difficult.  From our home in Pattaya we drove to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport about 1-1/2 hours away.  At BKK we took a morning flight on Bangkok Airways directly to Siem Reap - about 70 minutes flight time.  We arrived in Siem Reap around 10:00 A.M. 

We did not have a Visa prior to entering Cambodia so we, like most of the other passengers, stood in line at the Siem Reap Airport to obtain a "VOA" (Visa on Arrival).  I had researched ahead of time so we had the required passport photographs and US dollars ($20 each) to obtain the visas.  There was no problem with getting a VOA, and when we return to Cambodia we will do the same again.

I had used the Internet to make reservations at a hotel in Siem Reap so we grabbed one of the many freelance cabs waiting at the airport.  The vehicle was in fairly good shape.  The driver spoke English rather well and he seemed to be a safe driver.  These three qualities were sufficient for me to inquire about hiring him for transportation during our entire stay.  It turned out that he could not be hired but he knew of a good guide and driver that he could recommend.  Once again I relied upon my and Duang's intuition and accepted the taxi driver's recommendation.  This is contrary to what guide books recommend for tourists, using freelance transportation and taking recommendations of locals, but Duang and I are "travelers".  Using our intuition we rely heavily local experts rather than foreigners for suggestions and recommendations to enjoy their city.


Our Cambodian Guide
After settling into our room - dumping out two carry-on bags and using the bathroom, we went downstairs to wait for our "guide" and "driver".  After 15 minutes, as promised by the taxi driver, our guide and driver arrived.  Our guide was a young man who spoke excellent English and was a government licensed guide.  To be a licensed guide a person must demonstrate an extensive knowledge of the temples and sites in the Siem Reap area.  I strongly recommend hiring a guide.  There are so many temples, ruins, and history in this area that to just to start to develop an appreciation let alone an understanding of Angkor Wat and other local ruins requires the assistance of a knowledgeable guide.

Our guide came with a vehicle and a driver.  The vehicle was in good shape and most importantly - it had a very good functioning air-conditioner.  Siem Reap is always hot and humid. Having a car with an operating air conditioner for refuge from the sun, heat, and rain is well worth the cost. Knowing what you are looking at as you travel from point to point is a bonus.  Not having to watch out for ox carts, cattle, tourists, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and pedestrians while trying to read a map as you drive is a sanity saver.  Being able to have someone take you to sights and scenes that meet your identified interests makes a guide's services invaluable.

I believe that you can tour Angkor Wat on bicycle or motorbike on your own.  The area where the temple and ruins are situated is about 14 miles by 12 miles - 168 square miles!  I always recommend that people do not rent and drive a motorbike here in Southeast Asia - it is just too dangerous.  If you were to be involved in an accident, matters are unduly complicated by the fact that you are a foreigner - unfamiliar with the language, "rules", customs and practises of the local area.

Siem Reap is a boom town.  Hotels and restaurants seem to be opening everyday.   After the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Cambodian Civil War ceased fighting in 1998.  Angkor Wat and the Siem Reap had been the scene of fighting. As we flew into the Siem Reap Airport low over the flooded rice paddies glistening in the bright August sun, I could see remnants of bomb craters scattered all over the countryside.  Now that Cambodia is stabilized and a magnet once again for tourism, many hotels and restaurants are being built.  There are also some renown cooking schools, many of them French affiliated, located in Siem Reap.  The schools provide training for the Cambodians and support the large international hotels in the area.  The result is the availability of fine and sophisticated international dining in a locale that is somewhat primitive in infrastructure.

The streets and roads of Siem Reap are crowded with all kinds of vehicles with a heavy smattering of pedestrians.  There is the energy, excitement, and noise of a boom town which adds to the over all ambiance of the area.  We drove through town and headed out to Angkor Wat on the afternoon of our first day.  Just outside of the entrance to Angkor Wat we stopped to obtain passes for the area.  To tour or visit the temples and ruins you need to possess a pass. You wear your pass on your clothing  so that it can be readily checked by authorities and security guards.  A one day pass is $20 USD.  A three day pass costs $40 each. A one week pass is $60 US dollars.  You need a passport size photograph and US dollars to obtain a pass.  I was able to withdraw US dollars from my bank account in California using an ATM machine in Siem Reap - Cambodia has changed  and changed rapidly in the past 12 years!  I do not know why anyone would visit Angkor Wat for just a day other than to be able to claim "I was there!"  At a minimum I recommend three days to tour the ruins.  Five to seven days is not unreasonable and most likely would be easier on your body.  We spent three days and with all the climbing, heat, and humidity, we were exhausted as well as sore at the conclusion of our trip to the ruins.


Children Playing At Angkor Wat - Sandstone Causeway Is To the Right

The first stop was the Angkor Wat Temple.  It was magnificent even with parts of it covered in scaffolding and tarps.  The temple as well as all the others in the area are built from sandstone.  Sandstone is easy to carve but does not weather well.  The temples were built from 800 A.D. to 1400 A.D. and have been subject to the ravages of the jungle, the environment, competing religions, wars, some well intentioned but technically misguided restorations attempts and now hordes of tourists.  Many of the ruins are in danger of disappearing into mounds of rubble in the near future.  International efforts to correct previous restoration attempts and to slow the effects of tourism and weather on the sites are continually underway.

Khmer Worker At Entrance to Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a man made moat.  We walked across a large sandstone causeway to enter the temple.  The combination of the multi tiered temple, out lying structures and large moat surrounding the temple has been interpreted as being the recreation of the Hindu universe.  The central temple represents Mt Meru, the home of Lord Brahma, with the moat representing the cosmic oceans.

We entered through the main entrance and continued along the causeway towards the central temple.  Inside of the walled area, two libraries flank each side of the walkway.  Past the libraries are identical pools flanking the walkway. Balance is a strong theme in the architecture of Angkor Wat.  There is a symmetry along the main axis of the site. The symmetry adds a sense of order and balance that one would expect or at least hopes would exist in the universe.  The scale of the temple is massive.  Contemplating the resources and commitment required to create such a wonder gives an hint at the power and glory of the Khmer Kings of the Angkorian Period.




A Nun Peers Around A Bas-Relief Column




Angkor Wat and Surroundings From Above

Hindu Diety Vishnu Inside of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is believed to have been constructed as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II who had unified the Khmer people and spread Khmer influence over Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand.  King Suryavarman II was devoted to the Hindu Deity Vishnu.  He dedicated Angkor Wat to Vishnu.

The bas-reliefs throughout Angkor Wat depict many scenes from the Hindu epics, "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana".  There are many "Apsara" (heavenly nymphs, celestrial maidens).  The Apsaras were very proficient at dancing and today a very graceful style of dancing in Cambodia is referred to as "Apsara Dancing".  Despite the efforts of the Khmer Rouge during their reign to wipe out Apsara dancing, the art has been revived and is now flourishing.  Unlike their ancient cousins, today's Apsara dancers are not bare breasted - or at least none of the dancers that we found during our visit to Cambodia.





Angkor Wat Apsara Bas-Relief

Bas-Relief - An Apsara

Angkor Wat Bas-Relief

Visiting Angkor Wat is physically challenging.  In addition to the sun, heat, and humidity, accessing the ruins involves climbing many heights.  Access to the higher portions of temples and ruins is made by climbing wood stairs but mostly by climbing up the narrow and extremely steep original stone steps.  The Khmer believed that the upper reaches of their temples represented heaven and since attaining heaven is difficult for man, reaching the upper portions of their temples was consciously made difficult as a reminder to mankind.  Having attained the upper reaches of the temples I can attest to the difficulty and value attained through the struggle.
Angkor Wat Courtyard Viewed From Above


After touring Angkor Wat all afternoon, we returned to our hotel to refresh ourselves and rest prior to going out for dinner.  Based upon the recommendation of our guide we went to a restaurant that in addition to a large international buffet had a cultural show.  The food was excellent and more importantly the entertainment was fantastic.  Performers played traditional Cambodian music and traditional dances.  After viewing so many Apsara dancers carved out of stone, it was a welcomed change to finally view some Apsara dancers and dancing in the flesh.


A Khmer Musician During Cultural Show




A Khmer Classical Dancer Performing

An Apsara Dancer


 

 



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