Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Beads of sweat drip down Hannah’s face and back as she navigates the stone. Her crutches are firm but only because of her steely concentration.

The sun has hit us now and the humidity grabs with unwelcome hands. A fat, bristled pig rolls in a small puddle of mud. We are jealous.

“Want to buy guide? Only $1 dollar,” a local asks for the third time. No thank you.

“You come to my restaurant then. I give you good seat. My name Spider-Man.” Spider-Man points to a small cluster of plastic seats at least 100m away down a set of around twenty steps.

Hannah’s look burns through as she raises her crutches like two spears.

This time his Spidey sense failed him, and he retreats back into the shade of his umbrella.

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The sun rises over the moat and illuminates the remains

 

Tourist hot spot

After Thailand our next destination is Siem Reap, in the north of Cambodia.  We’ve come to take in Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire and home to many ancient and sacred temples, including Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is to many the pinnacle of sightseeing. Travellers rave about its vastness and spectacle. Crumbling ancient stone meets Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. Lonely Planet said in 2015 that it was the number 1 tourist destination in the world.

But this wasn’t the only thing that drew us in. Cambodian history from the fall of the Khmer civilisation to the more recent genocide of between 2 and 3 million people peaks a morbid fascination.

Me and Hannah want to know more and Siem Reap proved the perfect gateway.

Crossing the Thai border brings you head on with scammers, opportunists and hacks offering a visa stamp, for a fee of course. A strange no-mans land of casinos wandering children and phone shops.

We’re picked up by “Lucky” after our bus journey. He would be our driver for most of our in stayin Siem Reap and couldn’t have been more helpful in getting Hannah on and off his chariot of fire.

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Hannah puts her feet up whilst Lucky gets busy

We stayed at a small guest house next to the night market. Siem Reap isn’t a big city. Neon lights, street food, bad karaoke and western bars.

The town is built for tourism. It feels new. Westerners skip the streets sunning themselves on verandas with $1 Angkor beers, pumping their fists at dripping ceilings to trap music, or seeking shelter from the insanely irrational downpours.

Pub Street needs little explanation. Music competes for attention and blocks the senses whilst buckets and cocktails wash the throats of the wealthy. There’s fun to be had here but not by us.

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Bright lights, big city

Children caked in grit and grime carrying ragged toddlers target the tourists and ask for food not money. Lucky would tell us it was a scam but it didn’t take the sting away.

Our intention in Cambodia was to volunteer at a school or orphanage by teaching English, dance or maybe even how to be tall. Since being there though it’s not quite that simple.

Many NGO’s set themselves up as a way of attracting philanthropic tourists to their “orphanage” for a fee. Often the children come from rural areas and their parents are told they are being taken to a school in the city. Now they just pose for pictures with backpackers sitting on knees with painted smiles.

We visited a co-operative food venture called New Leaf whose aim is largely to bring awareness to the issue. If you find yourself in this part of the world please check it out.

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You Wat mate?

It’s hard to know how to begin describing the Angkor complex.

We chose to set of early (4am) to catch the sunrise over the main temple and with Lucky as our trusted driver we made haste.

The $20 entry charge seemed a little steep at first but once you enter the complex you realise that you could spend days getting lost and finding everything or nothing.

The main temple (Angkor Wat) was built in the 13th century by King Suryavarman II. What is unique about the temple in comparison to many other Hindu temples is that it faces the west as this is the direction associated with Lord Vishnu.

It was constructed to act as a physical replication of the universe. The central shrine is the centre point of the universe with the outer walls symbolising the mountains and the moat the seas and oceans.

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Now, the remaining structures crumble into the extremely well maintained gardens.  Faces of kings and gods, cracked and broken but still majestic and magnificent.

The visit involves a lot of walking and Hannah (still foot in cast) made it her mission to see as much as possible despite the numerous steps and sweltering heat. A few words of encouragement from other tourists egg her on.

After taking in Angkor Wat Lucky then drove us to its neighbouring temple Angkor Thom which has a much stronger connection with the famous Hindu parable “the churning of the ocean of milk“.

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Again we stumble the ruins taking pictures and sweating. Soon though I was time to call it a day. The afternoon sun was upon us and even Lucky was beginning to show signs of fatigue.

What I think we both took from being there was the overwhelming feeling that centuries ago this was the epicentre of South East Asia. A place revered by the rest of the world with technologies, architecture and ideas far ahead of its time.

Like standing in the frozen city of Pompei, Angkor Wat will hopefully remain a time capsule to remind people that Cambodia was not just the land of atrocity that it more recently became.

 

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Lucky’s hat says it best

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