Monday, 11 August 2008

Return to Angkor

I have a few rather lasting memories of my first trip to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor in 2002. Firstly I don’t think I’ll ever forget the 10 hour bone shaking ride in the back of a pick up truck shared with around 15 other foolish and ripped off backpackers (this was however much better than Nicole’s ride which I think took her nearly 20 hours in the rainy season). I also remember the 2 days of showers it took to remove the dust that managed to get into just about every orifice. I remember the fact that Olivia and I were rather foolhardy in thinking that us 2 unfit ladies would cope with a 27 kilometre bike ride around the temples in 36 degree heat (not to mention the hiking round of 4 temples on route). However, I think the things I remember most are how amazingly cheap all the shopping was and the vast selection of great restaurants and bars this small town has. Oh yeah, and the fact that you can buy freshly baked, warm crusty baguettes on the street and red wine is dirt cheap (I often wish the French made it here!).

Returning to Cambodia was no disappointment. It is still just as good a place to chill out, eat and relax, and with all the stuff to look at you can’t help but feel cultured while you’re at it. While Seam Reap is quite developed though, it’s a real culture shock to go into the Capital city of Phnom Peng. It still shocks me just how different Cambodia is from neighboring Thailand. As you drive through the country you see that the majority of people are still living in straw huts or even just stringing hammocks under a tin roof.

Siem Reap had changed quite a lot, but only in good ways as far as I could see. There are so many small restaurants that have opened, with the most popular being the local style ones. Even the street food stalls were really busy with tourists so it seems like the wealth is at least being spread around a bit. The market was as bustling as ever, and haggling is slightly tougher, a sure sign that people are becoming less desperate.

This time we were a little bit more sensible when arranging our tour of the temples. We had a really good driver take us out in his tuk tuk the first day to the local temples. The next day he took in an air-con car to the waterfalls and the distant temple of Bantey Sri. This was definitely a good move, as much as I liked the tuk tuk, I was really grateful we splashed out extra on the car, we arrived quite cool and fresh from our journey and watched people climb out of tuk tuks after there 40k ride completely covered in dust. The road got so bad at times it was like driving through a sandstorm with only 10 metre visibility. You really felt for the kids who have to walk or ride bikes along it every day to get to school.

I'd like to say the temples were just as spectacular second time around, but when you first see Angkor and the Bayon the wow factor is all in the grandeur and the scale of it. Having seen it before, it didn't quite hit me as much. And, sadly, a few of the better areas to see are now out of bounds. What was really nice though, was the fact that it wasn't absolutely swarming with tourists. It was nice to have the chance to explore in relative peace. The Bayon is still one of the coolest temples I've ever been to. The king who designed that must have been slightly vain, it has over 200 images of his face carved into the towers all around.

As always with our weekends away, we were a lot lazier than we should have been. As it was the rainy season and the clouds role in around lunchtime, we had the perfect excuse to call it quits by lunchtime. I know we should have been taking the time to learn all about the history of the place, but in all honesty, it's all about the photos! We did make one attempt at seeing sunset, made it back out to the temple just in time for the rain to start, so quickly gave up on that idea. The other reason we were so lazy was the fact that we managed to find a really nice little guest house with a pool. Place had only been open a month so for around $10 each we got a nice big room, breakfast and to chill in the beautiful garden by the pool.
Apart from being stinking hot, Cambodia is always an amzing place to visit. The people are so nice even though the country is still struggling to right itself. Hopefully, if I can get my butt in gear, we will be going back to Siem Reap in December for the half marathon. Maybe the thought of more French bread, cheese and wine will be enough to drive me to getting fitter....

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