Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Temples of Doom

One thing that I would like you to know if you're travelling to the temples of Northern Cambodia ...

It isn't safe. 

I think this is the only sign that I saw warning tourists of potential dangers. 

Overall, the temples are treacherous; they are very steep, the steps are very narrow and in the rainy season, you are one missed step away from a broken leg.  And there is very little limit as to where you can go.  If you have a burning desire to climb that ancient statue of the elephant, then there is usually no one around to stop you. 

But I really think that is a GOOD thing.  I like the temples to be wild and dangerous.  I want to feel as if I'm one of the early explorers discovering these ruins for the first time.  I want to feel excited about what might be around the next corner and if that might be a huge boulder rolling straight at me, then so be it. 

For the most part, the Cambodian temples are still like this but on my second visit to Cambodia, I noticed a disturbing trend.  They are trying to make the temples "safe" and "photo friendly".  They are obviously catering to the abundant middle-aged to elderly tourists who want their smiling faces in front of as many temples as they can visit during their three day tour.  I guess it would put a damper on the trip if your sixty year old fat wife broke her neck while falling down 100 stone stairs but maybe if you're out of shape and sixty, you should have considered the Caribbean instead. 

One of my favorite things to do at the temples is to see the sunset from the hill temple of Phnom Bakheng.  What I didn't know on my first visit to Cambodia was that after the sunset, you must descend from the temple with a horde of other tourists IN PITCH BLACK DARKNESS.  This was quite amusing because very few people had flashlights and there were no guides to show you were you were supposed to go.  When descending the temple stairs, you just prayed that some Korean tourist coming from up above was not going to miss a step and take you with him on the way down and when descending the hill, you hoped that the tourists you were following knew where they were going.  In the end, the exhilarating feeling was worth the risk of potential bodily harm.   

On my second visit, things had definitely changed; the guards did not let you watch the sun set.  While it was still very light out, they cleared the temple and made you head back down towards the road.  This was the last photo that I took before I was told to get the hell off the hill. 

Yes, I know they are doing it for the safety of the tourists.  Dead or maimed tourists don't spend any money so I suppose there are economical reasons for doing it too.   

Ta Prohm is a must for every tourist travelling to Northern Cambodia.  The giant fig trees holding the crumbling temple in their grasp is a photographer's dream come true.  The first time I saw this site, I was in pure bliss.  

Here is one of the photos I took. 

A year and a half later, they did the unthinkable.  They installed a platform where you can pose with the tree.  Now it is impossible to take the above photo because there is a freakin' rope in front of it!   So much for capturing the natural beauty of the scene.  

Instead they have made it like Disneyland.  Stand here.  Smile.  Yay!  I've been to a Cambodian temple.  Wish you were here, mom!  

Did I take one of these photos?  You bet your ass I did.  I couldn't help it.  I'm a tourist at heart but on the inside I was really disappointed.    

This photo shows more of the fenced off area and the platform.  So much for leaving the temple in its "natural state".

Here is another example, once again at Ta Prohm.  This is the famous doorway which, on my first visit, was taken from a fair distance away. 

Well, you can't get that shot anymore.  Unless you take down the rope fence and viewing platform, you are going to get that in the shot and for me, that completely ruins the picture. 

The only way to avoid the modern additions is to do a close crop.  The shot is definitely not as effective. 

If you are on a three day temple tour (which is the most common type of tour), you are going to miss one of the more interesting temples:  Beng Mealea.  I didn't see it on my first visit because there was just too much other stuff to do but I vowed to see it on my return visit.  This is the description in the Lonely Planet guidebook, "Beng Mealea is a spectacular sight to behold.  It's one of the most mysterious temples at Angkor, as nature has well and truly run riot.  Built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, exploring this titanic of temples is Angkor's ultimate Indiana Jones experience." 

Doesn't that sound great? 

On my return visit, I fulfilled my promise to myself and made the trek out there to see it.  Most of it was in a destroyed, crumbled state.   

But, you guessed it, they put wooden platforms and walkways EVERYWHERE.  In fact, you didn't need to climb over any giant blocks if you didn't want to because the whole place was apparently made handicapped accessible!

What kind of Indiana Jones crock o' shit was this???  Hmmm, in my mind, they kinda ruined the whole experience of exploring this temple.  It was a very different temple but I'm not sure I would go back.  

Don't get me wrong.  I do enjoy posing but I prefer to be a little more creative. 

Thankfully, there are still locations where you you feel as if you are taking your life into your own hands.  Ta Keo is a huge temple that was abandoned after it was struck by lightening (apparently a bad omen during temple building) but they managed to build most of it.  Climbing to the top of Ta Keo is a little daunting.  In the rainy season, one slip and you're gonna see heaven pretty quickly. 

And the other crazy climb was to the top of Angkor Wat.  They have installed stairs to make it safer but it still isn't all that safe.  Those crazy Korean tourists think they can climb anything at any age and I was constantly worried that I was going to be flattened by grandma Kim on the way down. 

Cambodia is changing and fast.  I am sure they will continue to modernize the temples to make them safer and to accommodate more tourists.  I strongly feel that this is a bad thing but I'm in no position to halt the progress.  It is what it is.  I just hope the extra money goes towards the Cambodian people and not the Japanese conglomerate who looks after the temple tickets.

Wishful thinking, I know.  

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