Friday, December 12, 2008

The temples of Northern Cambodia

I have been home for over a month now but the memories of my trip are still very fresh. I still love looking at my pictures (which were thankfully spared from my hard drive disaster) and want to share some of them with you.

Let me give you a little background.

The BIGGEST tourist destination in Cambodia is a town called Siem Reap, located in the northern part of Cambodia. There really isn't anything terribly special about this town except that it is the gateway to the vast complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples dating back to the last millennium. The most famous of these temples is the Angkor Wat, although there are many more in various states of decay dotted around the countryside.

I am far from a Cambodian historian but I learnt a lot while I was there. The Khmer empire was very powerful a thousand years ago and encompassed parts of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. The capital was located near Siem Reap and the rulers were self-proclaimed god kings. The earlier temples were Hindu but as time passed and Buddhism became more dominant, new temples were built and the old ones were modified.

After the collapse of the empire, the entire area was largely forgotten for many centuries until it was "re-discovered" by a french man at the turn of the 19th century. During the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, all the restoration efforts came to a halt and it has only been during the past five to ten years that the area has once again become a tourist destination.

Although Siem Reap is still extremely cheap when compared to other "hot" international destinations, you can easily spend more if you wanted to. Our hotel cost $25 a night and was right in Siem Reap. The Amansara hotel which offered quite a bit more would have set us back $1000 for one night's stay.

We arrived late in the day on the bus from Phnom Penh. Of course, I couldn't wait to go to the temples so we hoped on a tuk-tuk and took the 1/2 hour ride to the gate. We purchased the $40 three day pass ticket and were even allowed to take in the sunset that night for free.

The best place for sunset viewing was apparently the temple called Phnom Bakheng. It was POURING out but this wasn't going to stop my desire to be a real life Indiana Jones.

At the top of the hill, I got my first glimpse of Angkor Wat. It was very far away but my camera captured it nicely.

Sadly, my first sunset in Siem Reap wasn't that impressive. The weather wasn't cooperating. The rainy season wasn't quite over.

Amazingly, everyone is allowed to climb and grope their way to the top of these ancient temples despite being VERY hazardous. In fact, the trip down from this temple was downright lethal in the rain. I fully expected to find a pile of tourist corpses at the bottom.

And to add to the general chaos, this temple is on top of a hill (Phnom is Khmer for hill) and after the sunset, everyone has to make it to the bottom in the complete darkness. For a more exotic trip (and probably safer one), you can also make the journey by elephant.

There is NO WAY people would be allowed to climb up these temples if they were located in the United States. Just too many hazards. I suppose if you killed yourself on one of them, you could always try suing the Cambodian government.

(Insert big laugh here)

The next day, our first stop was the Bayon. This is a large temple located within the even larger Angkor Thom. This was one of my favorite temples because of all the gargantuan faces staring out into the jungle. For me, these carvings symbolize the exotic beauty of Cambodia.

Our tourist guide (who charged a very decent $25 per day) gave us plenty of photo-ops. If you have a good guide, he'll make you sit on a ledge and take a picture of you touching noses with one of the statues. Kinda like getting your picture taken with Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.

It was still raining out the next day. We bought garbage bags (I mean, um, rain coats) for $2 a piece. The price doubled because it was raining when we bought them. Damn those Cambodian entrepreneurs!

I loved the Bayon so much that I was determined to go back when the weather was better and soak it all in.

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