We woke up to our first day in Siem Reap, the final stop on our Grand Indochina tour of SE Asia. Leaving at 0830 prompt (lest we have to dance and sing for the group in penance for being late!), we were soon on our way towards Angkor Wat. It wasn’t far away from Siem Reap (where our hotel was based) but before we could enter we had to buy a three day pass and holder. Apparently there had been issues with passes being passed between individuals and therefore we had to have our photos taken to include on the front. Once suitably ID checked we were in to the site which covers 400 square kilometres and off to the main “attraction” of this UNESCO World Heritage site: Angkor Wat.
Our guide took us round Angkor Wat pointing out the carvings that existed and the stories that they told. She spoke to us about Hindu and Buddhist religion which were those that had been followed here at Angkor Wat. We also learnt that the temple had survived intact for so long due, in part, to the moat that surrounded it which hadn’t dried up as it had with some other temples that weren’t so lucky. When we reached the ‘front’ of Angkor’s outer ring – which includes a long stone path leading down to the moat and a series of ponds – we then entered the inner section, beginning to rise up towards the higher, more sacred parts. As we passed by several courtyards of what appeared to be dirt, Channa explained that these were originally ceremonial pools, used as part of the worshipping that took place here, which had been drained to preserve the stability of the temple. Within the inner section, there were various interesting features pointed out including Buddhist shrines (still used today) and an ‘echo’ chamber where worshipped would venerate themselves by beating their chest. Finally, we reached the inner tower and were able to climb and explore this, traversing an extremely steep staircase to get unparalleled views of the temple from all directions.
After a good 20 mins of exploring the tower and taking dozens of photographs, we carefully climbed down the staircase and made our way back to the front to the pond to get “the money shot”, the image of Angkor Wat reflected in the pond that adorns postcards and books the world over. Again, another dozen photographs ensued, none of which could do justice to the beauty of this place – it is easy to understand why some call Angkor the 8th wonder alongside the Pyramids of Giza. With the Sun beating down upon us, we retreated to the refuge of a nearby woods that housed a toilet area and water/drink stall to relieve and refresh ourselves before completing the full circuit of Angkor, posing for some jump shots with Angkor in the background and returning to our bus to move to the next temple on our agenda.
Our journey to the Parat Bayon temple took us into the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom. Fabled to have a population in the millions, the causeways across its moats are intricately adorned with statues to dominate and greet visitors. Gods stand on the left whilst demons on the right, requiring visitors to the city to pass along a path between Heaven and Hell (a microcosm for life). Having walked through the gates and stopped to take some pictures of the monkeys relaxing in the shade of the tree-lined avenue, we returned to our bus again to journey to Parat Bayon, positioned at the centre of the ancient city. Built almost a century after Angkor Wat, the Bayon comprises many towers adorned with hundreds of faces carved facing in every cardinal direction. Inside the temple, a maze of passageways exist as you climb within and see the structure and it’s intricate detail from every direction.
After about 45 mins of exploring, we were all thoroughly exhausted from the early afternoon heat and retreated back to our air-conditioned bus to take us to a nearby restaurant for some lunch. Claire and I opted for a Khmer/Western mix to try some of the local specialities (delicious as always) but also boost our salt levels. Then it was back on the bus and back to town for a free afternoon until 1700 when we would return to the temple complex to see the sunset. We opted to spend the time relaxing in and around the pool and were joined by about half the group in doing so. Before we knew it, we were back in reception and boarding the bus to go out for sunset scenes. For this, we visited another temple, Prasat Pre Rup, which we climbed to the upper level and sat, legs hanging over the ledge, and watched the Sun dip below the horizon (along with hundreds of other tourists!).
Climbing down the temple carefully (as it was now dark!) we got back on the bus and headed back to town. En route, Channa made some suggestions for evenings entertainment, one of which we opted for: Phare, the Cambodian Circus group (as Claire is a big fan and student of circus skills and I am an enthusiastic supporter of Claire!). Having dropped the rest of the group at the hotel, Channa took Claire and I along to the big top tent (very cliche) located about 10 mins walk from our hotel. Having purchased our tickets, we took our seats – back row (row 10) and centred to the arena waiting for the show to start.
Having attended many circus shows before I was not sure what the evening would hold in store and I was trying not to get too carried away as images were displayed of the group on flat screen TVs. However, I needn’t have worried and was right to be excited as the show blended modern circus skills (club and ring juggling; seven ball bounce juggling; staff; acrobatics including aerial display; and fire displays – to name a few) with traditional Cambodian culture. The show followed a young man as he was ostracised from the group and the curse that nearly destroyed him. The music that accompanied the show was also superb being played non-stop throughout on traditional instruments and really added to the ambience. At the end of the show, the director of the performance came out to explain the work that Phare do within the country, explaining how all the performers were graduates from their education programmes that give them access to skills in performance, art and graphic design. Additionally, all the performers earn money for their shows (performed seven days a week) and the international tours that they go on, raising the profile of the local culture and plight of Cambodian youth.
Getting back to the hotel and very tired, we opted for an early night given our last day (no!!!) in Cambodia would also be an early one – 0445 departure to see the Sun rise above Angkor Wat. Definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity and one we weren’t going to miss!