Monkeys, Elephants and Thunderstorms
21.04.2011 - 24.04.2011 -39 °C
After spending two weeks in Vietnam, we tagged on a few days in Cambodia to see the Angkor Park and its temples. The flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia was just one hour from Ho Chi Minh City and we arrived on time at the most attractive little airport you will ever see. Opened just one year ago the new terminal building is of an architectural style in keeping with this part of the world. We made our way into immigration where we had to complete different paperwork from that that we had been told we needed and had completed whilst on the flight. Oh well, what can you do? With the paperwork completed and the visas firmly stuck into the Passports, we were then faced with a long counter behind which there were probably a dozen uniformed officials. They were a process! You queued to hand your Passport into the first officer and then went to the last officer and queued there while your Passport made its way along the line to each in turn individually through a variety of checking and stamping routines to the last officer who would apply the final stamp and hand it back to you.
We collected our luggage and found our way to Arrivals. Sootea would be our guide during our stay in Siem Reap and he was there to meet us. Cambodia is 95% Buddhist and is a democracy with a monarch, unlike Vietnam which still operates under Communist rule. Sootea welcomed us to Siem Reap and explained what we would be doing over the two and a half days that we were staying in Cambodia. He was a lovely, softly spoken man who continued to build on the favourable impression that we had gained of the people in this part of the world.
The Somadevi Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap was another quality hotel with great facilities. Our main problem with the hotel facilities on this trip had been having the time to use them. However, this in reality was a minor setback. Our main purpose for coming here was to visit the Angkor Park and see the various temples. But that would have to wait until the morning as there was just enough time to have a drink at the bar before grabbing some sleep.
It was Friday morning and Sootea arranged to meet us at 8 a.m. in the hotel lobby. It was a warm morning and had the potential to be hot by the middle of the day but Sootea came armed with a cold box filled with ice and bottles of water. The Angkor Park was only ten minutes from the hotel and our first glimpse of it was of the South Gate and the huge moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. We skirted the moat and quickly reached the entrance where we were kitted out with lanyards and ticket holders that would be regularly checked as we moved from temple to temple. Sootea wanted us first to see Angkor Wat and he had devised a cunning plan to see the main temples in such an order and at such a time so as to avoid the coach parties. To say that this suited us was a huge understatement.
We extracted ourselves from the air conditioned car and launched into the Cambodian heat before quickly retreating into the shade provided by the trees. The sounds of parrots, cicadas and monkeys confirmed that we were in the jungle. In the distance, at the end of a long straight drive, you could see the familiar towers of Angkor Wat and as we got closer the entire landscape unfolded with the distinctive palm trees flanking the main building. We were approaching it from the less picturesque side – the pools that sit to the front of the temple and which provide the reflections captured in most photographic images of Angkor Wat were on the opposite side, and we would see those later. But for now, we entered the temple and proceeded to climb the narrow, steep steps to gain access into the main corridors. There were a few people about but it wasn’t really busy which was good.
Sootea explained some of the history as he took us around; something he told us he had been doing for ten years now. And he explained that he really liked his job as he pointed out two freshly shed snake skins. He was clearly and obviously more acclimatised than we were, walking casually around in 39 degree heat while we slowly melted. Buddhist Monks, also visiting, wandered around the grounds in their vivid orange robes which provided an attractive contrast against the grey stone of the temple.
From Angkor Wat, Sootea took us on to see the ancient city of Angkor Thom and in particular, Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom with its towers displaying a stone face on each of its four sides. Bayon is another of the ‘must see’ temples in the Angkor Park along with Ta Prohm which would be our next stop. Ta Prohm, famous for its role as a location for the Tomb Raider movie, is renowned for the fact that it is being consumed by the jungle around it. The roots of the enormous surrounding trees are literally clawing at the walls of the temple and suffocating it to the point of collapse. Sootea explained that some of the trees would soon be cut to prevent further growth but would be left covering the temples for visual effect (for the tourists). Other temples within the Angkor Park were suffering the same fate as Ta Prohm but the movie with Angelina Jolie had shot this particular ruin to fame and in fairness it probably was the most amazing of the examples that we were to see.
It had been a long, hot, energy-sapping day and we had seen an awful lot but, according to Sootea, we still had one or two smaller temples left to see including the Terrace of the Elephants before eventually setting off back to the hotel. The journey out of the park took you past elephants and monkeys; the elephants being used as taxis and the monkeys just being monkeys, coming down from the trees to greet the tourists and grab whatever food may be on offer. In the evening we were driven to yet another nice restaurant for our first taste of Cambodian food.
Day two in Siem Reap saw us venture once more into the Angkor Park to see some of the other lesser known temples and then, after lunch, we travelled into the country, away from the park, to see Banteay Srei, generally rated as one of the best examples of a temple from the same era as Angkor Wat (circa 11th/12th centuries). It was certainly the most colourful with it’s well preserved carvings and its distinctive orange/pink colour walls; a stark contrast to the greying skies overhead which hastened our walk back to the car which we luckily reached just before the rains came. And they came with a vengeance. Thunder, lightning, wind and rain. And as we approached the outskirts of Siem Reap we joined a short queue of vehicles whose progress had been stalled by a large tree that had succumbed to the storm and fallen across the road, luckily missing any of the oncoming traffic. Eventually, there was room enough for cars to squeeze past one side of the tree and we were able to complete our journey back to the Somadevi Angkor Hotel but sadly at the expense of a visit to a Sugar Farm and the prospect of seeing the sun set on Bakeng Hill, close to Angkor Wat - both of these items on the itinerary having been ruined by the weather. So it meant an earlier than planned return to the hotel but there were things to do and there were far worse places to kill a couple of hours before dinner.
Dinner was at a bamboo restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and tucked away where you wouldn’t have known. Our waiter was carrying a clipboard with a list of English words on it and it soon became clear that he was working hard at his English language skills. So much so that he asked if we could spare five minutes after we had eaten to go through the meanings of some words that he didn’t know. Of course, we were happy to do it, and it wasn’t the first time that we had noticed the eagerness of young Vietnamese or Cambodian people to improve their English in this way.
Sunday morning was going to be fairly leisurely until we had to depart for the airport. Sootea said that he would pick us up at 10:30; our flight from Siem Reap to Singapore was at 12:45. Therefore, after breakfast we took a short walk close to the hotel and in a way it was a shame really that we didn’t have a bit longer to explore as Siem Reap looks a neat and tidy town.
Sootea was early as he had been every time he was due to pick us up. We were organised, checked out as required by 10:30 and very sadly on our way home - but the consolation was that we were going via Singapore!! Sootea thanked us for visiting Cambodia and said that he had enjoyed the two days with us and it was a shame that it hadn’t been longer. We felt the same way and Sootea, along with Chung, Thoun, Dung and Lu in Vietnam was somebody that we had quickly connected with and enjoyed their company.
Sootea's parting shot was to ask us to tell our family and friends that Cambodia is a good place to come to and that it is safe. I can confirm that it really is.