Angkor Wat's What

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ten hours of uneventful but leg-numbing bus ride from Shianouk Ville is the north western town of Siem Reap, a city famed for its proximity to one of the marvels of the world: Angkor Wat. I had hoped to escape the rain but arrived in the middle of a deluge that had flooded streets everywhere in ankle to knee deep water. The poor soul who drove me in his tuk tuk from the bus station was shivering in the rain and soaked and, wouldn’t you know it, we broke down in the middle of a giant puddle. He jumped in the dirty water and fiddled and played with his bike as the rain fell from the blackness above and traffic swerved and honked around us, but finally got it going again and drove me to the Garden Village Guesthouse. It was recommended to me and indeed, wasn’t too bad, but as I didn’t make any friends there or even use their restaurant/bar, I think I would’ve been better off at my first stop, Green Inn, paying $1 for a beautiful room not much further distant from town. I arranged to meet my tuk tuk driver in the morning to check out Angkor Wat after finally settling and sheltering from the rain.

It had been a long journey, and I was hungry. I was also hoping to meet some people, so I wandered back in to town (a tuk tuk driver heading that way gave me a free lift to the ATM) and found a cheap restaurant with some friendly staff to grab a bite. While there, I ran across Beth, an English girl I’d run across any number of times as far back as the slow boat to Laos, and two other guys and joined them. The four of us went out for a beer or two at some of the pubs on Pub Street, the Khao San Road of Siem Reap, and called it a night – or so I thought. Walking back towards the guesthouse I heard “Katsiris!”. Well, it’s pretty rare I know someone well enough to have them know my last name, and I turned and looked and there was James walking towards me. James is a friend I’d met in Vang Vieng, Laos, rock climbing and we’d talked about doing a rather adventurous kayak journey down the Mekong. So another few beer and he told me all about his journey and that he had indeed done the boat trip about a week after I continued on. And it sounded amazing. He talked about being taken into villages and fed and sheltered, some rough spots on the river, and it all sounded rather epic. If only he’d been willing to leave sooner, I would’ve been on that trip, too, but I have to say that even knowing I wouldn’t have wanted to wait a week to depart I still regret that I missed that.

The next morning came all too early but I was speeding off to Angkor Wat with my tuk tuk friend by 8:30 that morning. I’d checked the weather forecast the day prior and today was the only day with a low probability of rain, so I took it. The sky was overcast but it wasn’t too hot nor raining so I was thankful even if I knew my pictures wouldn’t be too fascinating. A good excuse to use black and white, I decided, though I kept colour where I liked it. Angkor Wat is just one temple among many around Siem Reap, most famous because of its size, or perhaps for its art surrounding the outer walls. Or rather, the outer inner walls. The complex is a giant moat with a stone bridge crossing to the temple and then some gates and walls – some sized for elephants others just for people. It was originally a Hindu temple, and thus reminded me a lot of Prambanan in Indonesia, but had been converted for Buddhist usage years later (16th century), so there was evidence of both religions all over. And though it was indeed impressive, and I spent a lot of time admiring the building, frescos, ruins, and spires from inside and out, it was not my favourite temple.

Rather, I found myself drawn to the others more so. I really liked the hundreds of faces carved into stone at Angkor Thom, and the promenade up top around the central spire. And best of all was a fairly ruinous temple called Ta Phrom, which had mixes of volcanic stone, green moss, vine, and tree overrunning everything, and white rock. The ruin added something indescribable to the temple’s mystique; you felt like you were uncovering something rather than visiting a tourist site. And there is a beauty in nature’s slow reclamation of mighty ancient human efforts, of seeing a building of stone, so solid and immovable, being infiltrated by an army of tree roots seeping into its pores. Or perhaps it’s that the two, man and nature, are coexisting at the moment. In either case, the temples around Siem Reap offered many rewards and far surpassed my own rather skeptical expectations. I returned home mid-afternoon with my legs absolutely exhausted. It was not so much the walking that got to me as the stiffness from the previous day’s cramped bus ride. I even contemplated a massage and in retrospect it would’ve been the perfect time to get one but instead I relaxed for a while.

Later that evening, I went out and had dinner at the noodle markets. I was sitting next to some Americans and wound up joining them for drinks afterwards and having a great night out. I showed them some of the local bars, we got a deck of cards and had a good night of it. One – Nick - was a Navy SEAL, Evan an ex-Canadian (from Winnipeg) living in California, Gabe a Californian through and through, and Kerri, yup, another Californian. They had come from Vietnam and gave me some pointers and I am pretty sure I sold them on Laos but aside from that it was a pretty travel-free conversation for the bulk of the night and that is a very nice thing when travel plans and history have replaced the weather as primary topics for small talk. My final day in Siem Reap was rainy so I didn’t go out to the Floating Market. I think this was probably a mistake as I have since heard people raving about it, but I didn’t make it. To be honest, I think I needed a change of scenery. While I’d love Angkor Wat, I just wasn’t excited about Cambodia. I think I was still trying to work out how to fit the Philippines into my itinerary, and so I did the only logical thing. I went and booked a ticket to Vietnam for the next morning. Once I entered Vietnam on my visa I would be forced to see the country before I could go elsewhere and that meant it would be too late for the Philippines. That meant I wouldn’t have this nagging “every day wasted is a day I could be in the Philippines” feeling. And so, with a few last Khmer dishes under my belt and, finally, a quiet night, I was off to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) on a plane the next morning.

Siem Reap Photos

No comments: