New Year’s Day was predictably a write-off. We used the opportunity to recover in Blue Pumpkin, an amazing cafe-bakery which had some fantastic cakes, even better than Cargo in Hoi An (in my opinion). We lounged on huge white sofas eating banana chocolate mousse cake and marble chocolate cheesecake whilst our hangovers thought about leaving. Just to make sure they did, we opted for some western grub in the evening at the superb Cafe Central, where a divine cheeseburger soon made me feel a little more human.
The next day we were feeling more ready to tackle some temples, and we certainly crammed a lot of them into one day. Sam took us up to Preah Khan to begin our tour, a sprawling palace temple which incorporated a lot of imagery we’d end up seeing in other temples in the coming days. Highlights included huge guardian statues, a tree growing out of one of the temple walls, and a reproduction of the “churning of the sea of milk” crossing a bridge. This last legend told the story of gods and asuras (demons) who worked together by using a huge naga (snake) wrapped around a mountain to churn the cosmic sea in order to create an elixir of immortality, before fighting amongst themselves once it was actually made. It basically looks like a tug of war using a huge snake.
From here we made a short stop at Neak Pean, an island temple with a large walkway on approach, but not much we could actually get up close to due to a barrier.
At Neak Pean we decided to buy a guidebook for the temples. I didn’t think we were getting as much out of the visits as we could be, and a lot of the depictions in the carvings and bas-reliefs were nice to look at but with no frame of reference, they were basically just that – nice pictures on a wall. You’ll find guidebooks being sold everywhere at the temples, mostly by young kids, although we opted to get one from an older teenager due to the amount of child exploitation going on in the area. You will get hassled at every single temple from 4 – 10 year olds selling bracelets, books, scarves, coconuts and other fruit, water and cold drinks, paintings, toys and postcards. On top of that, you’ll get shouted at and pleaded with by a variety of stalls manned by older women selling pretty much the same stuff. On a side-note, one of the scams in Siem Reap (and possibly elsewhere in Cambodia) is a woman who approaches you in a tearful state, clutching a young baby and begging for milk. You’ll go to a shop with her to buy milk for the helpless child (about $10-15), and be on your way feeling better about yourself as the kid won’t be going hungry. What you don’t realise is that the woman then takes the milk back to the shop and sells it back to them for the cash. Mr. Why Not told us that they can pull in a relative fortune each day with what is a pretty sick scam. One of the girls at our hostel got stung with this one.
Guidebook in hand, we moved on to Ta Som, a small temple of little note other than a strangler fig embracing one of the external buildings, and a huge smiling face carved into the side of one of the towers, which we’d see better and more numerous examples of at Bayon later on.
East Mebon followed. This is an “island” temple (the baray or artificial reservoir surrounding it long since dried up), and it’s built in a sort of pyramid style with various levels to explore, mostly out in the open. There are plenty of stone elephants dotted around too.
Next up was the impressive Pre Rup, another large complex with 5 central towers, built in a pyramid style again. Pre Rup means “turning the body” which is a cremation rite, and there is a cistern in the temple grounds which is apparently where the name originated from.
Banteay Kdei was the next destination, an interesting complex with face towers at the entrances and an easy route through to explore. The stone colours were more interesting too, with red and green breaking up the greys, browns and whites we’d experienced so far:
The landing stage of Srah Srang was outside; not a temple, but quite a peaceful baray.
We were flagging at this point somewhat, so grabbed some lunch from one the many temple restaurants dotted around. Well-nourished, we visited the last three temples on the circuit in the afternoon: Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Prasat Kravan.
Ta Keo was first: a temple mountain which was lioke a smaller version of Pre Rup. This one is unusual as it wasn’t finished, so looks fairly stark and forboding without the decoration afforded many of the other temples. The views were excellent, but it otherwise compared poorly to some of the other places we’d seen.
I was looking forward to Ta Prohm most of all during the day. It is the “jungle” temple monastery which featured in a couple of scenes in Tomb Raider, where the trees out-acted Angelina Jolie. Even with this infamy, the temple itself is superb. Trees have ravaged it from the inside and it has basically been left in a natural state aside from some walkways and barricades in more dangerous areas. A combination of strangler figs and silk cotton trees have pushed their roots through walls, floors and ceilings, and in some cases completely enveloped parts of the temple. Tourists aside, the place is very atmospheric and has a definite Rick Dangerous feel about it.
Our final stop of the day was Prasat Kravan, a 5-building sanctuary which doesn’t look particularly exciting from the outside, but in the central building contains excellent brick bas-reliefs which are the only known examples of their type in Khmer art.
We were exhausted by the end of the day and I had got through two camera batteries, so we were looking forward to a shower and a decent meal. The pizza craving hit us, and we visited Kholene for two excellent (and huge) pizzas, and a couple of good cocktails.
Thus ended the second day of our three-day temple ticket; we’d decided to space out the days with a break in between each tour, for fear of being “templed out”, and I think this was a wise decision. It also allowed us to spend more time in Siem Reap, which I was very happy about – it’s an excellent little city.
The following day, short of things to do, we asked Mr. Why Not what he could suggest. He said that we could take a tuk-tuk to some rice fields, help harvest rice and visit a village and school. This sounded like a great idea. However, it turned out that all of the rice fields had already been cropped, so the trip didn’t actually happen. Certainly something to remember if we come back here at a different time of year. Instead, we bummed around the town, catching up on our emails and blogs. We met a great group of people in the hostel including Ed from Shropshire (no matter where I go in the world, my fellow Salopians will find me), Josh from Perth/Darwin/Melbourne (he moves around a lot), Michael from Yorkshire and finally Papa Tom, a retired English gent who has been volunteering in an orphanage school nearby. Mean Mach, one of the hostel’s tuk-tuk drivers took us to the Cambodian version of Pub Street in the evening, where we enjoyed beers from huge kegs at very cheap prices. In the mood for more of a party, Mr. Why Not then picked us all up and took us to the western Pub Street, where we stayed in “Angkor What?”, enjoying cocktails, writing on the graffiti wall, and doing bad dancing until almost 2am.
We had, unfortunately, booked a tuk-tuk for 5am to head to Angkor Wat the following morning to see the sunrise. We decided to knock that on the head, as three hours sleep followed by 13 hours of temples would not have made us particularly happy the next day.
Instead, we slept in and after some great Khmer food at Traditional Khmer Food Restaurant which had the nicest amok and curry we’d eaten so far, we jumped in a tuk-tuk in the afternoon with Tom and a couple of other teachers to visit the orphanage school where the hideously underpaid teachers ($100 per month) battled valiantly to give kids of a wide range of ages and backgrounds lessons in English and computing. Only a few of the kids were orphans, but all of them came from very poor backgrounds and none of them had the money in their family to go to public school. Some of them wore pyjamas as their day clothes, most of them had holes in their clothes, yet all of them were happy and smiling. We helped out in class with English lessons, and doing my best teacher impression I wrote exercises for the class on the whiteboard. The teacher was 27 years old, and had only been at the school for 3 months. Her English wasn’t bad, but needed a lot of work; her determination to give kids a decent education, however, was admirable. This is in spite of the fact that the textbooks were all American, so you had things like Independence Day, Thanksgiving, “fall” instead of autumn, and so on, which would add to the confusion during teaching. None of the textbooks were in dual-languages, purely English. That’s one hell of a learning curve for kids to overcome. Added to this was the fact that one of the laptops had been stolen a couple of weeks ago, possibly by another teacher who was attempting to set up a rival school.
The school is helped by volunteers like Tom and operates solely on donations. Staff salaries, books, stationery, even food for the children and their families – all is covered by the school. The afternoon was an eye-opening glimpse into the daily lives of the under-privileged in Cambodia, and we came away with our wallets lighter and feeling more than a little humbled.
We resolved to get an early night and make Angkor Wat for sunrise the next morning, for the beginning of our final temple tour day.