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Carry on through Cambodia

The plane to Cambodia was a small 48 seater Franco/Italian job and had propellers. You know, the kind that crash a lot – “24 tourists died in a plane crash today…” That kind of thing. But nothing went wrong of course. It was 45 minutes from Bangkok to Siem Reap. As we flew over Tonle Sap lake, we could see it was flooded. In fact most of the country was flooded (there was a typhoon of the coast of Japan at the time, and since then the Mekong river has flooded and both Vietnam and Cambodia have been declared disaster areas). We were a bit worried. As we flew over the town I recognised a feature from my Angkor map that had puzzled me for some time. It was an enormous rectangle simply called “West Baray.” The guide book did not explain what it was. Was it a national park? A forrest? A lake? From the air, all was explained. The Baray was a water reserviour, seven kilometres long, by about two kilometres wide. Nothing extraordinary about that. But what is extraordinary about it is it was built in the 10th century and it is still functioning today, a millenium later. It holds about 123 million litres of water. On the eastern side of Angkor is another Baray, but it has silted up. The West Baray was only the first of many incredible ancient engineering marvels we were to see over the next two days.

At the airport, a conveyor belt of seven customs officers issued us a tourist visa. – US$60 pp. Then a team of four immigration officers checked our passport and stamped the visa. Then we stepped from the tiny Siem Reap airport into a scrum of taxi drivers. Every one was waving a hotel or guest house sign. We saw our guy and made our way to him. He was little chap, about 25 and his name was Sop Kur. He was to become our driver and guide over the next two days.

Since the civil war ended 18 months ago investment has flooded back into the country, especially into Siem Reap. It has, after all, the premier archaelogical attraction in south east asia on its doorstep, but the country remains desperately poor. The roads were dirt. Cars were rare and shared the potholed roads with cows, carts, waterbuffalos, pushbikes and motorbikes. All along the airport road tourist hotels are being thrown up. We had pre-booked accommodation, as we had a few concerns about arriving in Cambodia without a place to stay. However, for future travellers, I would not be concerned. There was an abundance of accommodation in Siem Reap. Bangkok Air has started flying to Angkor from Phuket, Sukhothai, and Bangkok, and is looking to extend services (there were six flights a day from Bangkok). In Khao San road travel agents were offering bus trips to Angkor from Bangkok for as little as US$30 – however, the safety and comfort of such a trip is highly debateable.

Shelly wanted to take a tour, rather than use a guide, as she wanted to feel safe. Sop was pressing us to make a decision – would we employ him as our driver? We dithered and he dropped the price from US$30 to US$20 per day. We checked in to the hotel. Shelly asked about tours to the ruins. The hotel staff (who all spoke english) laughed. Tour? What about your driver?? It seems there were no tours to be arranged in Siem Reap. And with that we employed Sop.

It was 11.30 and we headed straight out to the ruins. We had to stop on the highway to obtain a three day pass. It costs US$40 and you need a passport photo (to stop illegal trafficing in passes). The laminated ID card with the ruins of Angkor in the background make a great souvenier.

The first ruin you pass is Angkor Wat, and it is magnificient and the first view of it is breathtaking. Surrounding the temple is a moat 300 metres long by 900 metres wide. Across the moat is a fortified wall and beyond that – jungle. As you drive along the road around the moat, slowly, over the trees, the enormous towers of the Wat come into view. As you pass the western gate you get your first clear view – a stone causeway, lined with broken statues crosses the moat. A gatehouse, a minature Angkor Wat blocks your view, and beyond that, the soaring towers. You can tell, even from this distance, that the scale of the building is enormous.

But we drove on past. Angkor Wat was being saved for the late afternoon. Shelly and I scrambled around in our seats, reluctant to pull ourselves away from the view. Then we were back in the jungle. The roads are bitumenised now, but ancient in origin. The new roads have been built over the original royal roads which never stopped being used, even when the cities fell into ruins. Here and there we could glimpse other monumental ruins off to the side. It was all very exciting. Then, suddenly, in front of us was the south gate of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was a fortified city and one time capital of the Khmer Empire (there are the remains of three other capital cities in the region of Angkor). The city is nine kilometres square and surrounded by a moat. On each side of the bridge was a series of statues illustrating a scene from a Hindu epic that is also repeated on a number of other buildings – the Churning of the Sea of Milk. On one side are arrayed the Gods pulling on the body of a great serpent God – the Naga. This forms the railing of the bridge. On the other side are arrayed the Demons, also pulling on the body of the Naga. The story (told in its full illustration at Angkor Wat) tells how the Gods and the Demons co-operated to churn the Sea of Milk (the primordial sea) to create the elixir of immortality. Pulling from each end of the great Serpent God, whose body was looped around Mount Meru (the centre of the world in Hindu mythology) the Sea is churned. The spirit of co-operation was quickly lost, however, once the elixir had been created. And the Gods and Demons have been fighting over the prize ever since (quite a nice story that). This scene is observed impassively by the great stone faces of the Lokevistra, the four faced God who serenely smiles down from the top of the gate.

The Gods, the Demons, the giant gate and the enigmatic smiling face were pretty awe inspiring and Shelly and I went a little crazy, taking photos from all angles. The size of the faces and the height of the gate, and the darkness of the jungle make you feel small and insignificant in the face of an eternal timelessness. We got back in the car and drove to the centre of the city. The Bayon. The Bayon is famous for its four sided face towers. There were 54 of them, but only 37 remain standing. From a distance the Bayon looks like little more than a pile of grey/black lichen encrusted rubble. But as you get nearer you can make out the faces staring, smiling, just like those over the gate. It is amazing. Sop dropped us at the south gate and told us he’d wait at the north gate. We stepped out into a light drizzle and wandered inside.

It is amazing to think that this building has been sitting here for almost a thousand years, and at that particular moment we were almost the only people in it. There were no “stay on the path” or “do not touch” signs. The only sign of any description said “Please place your litter in the bins provided.” The fact that we were completely free to roam amongst the ruins made it all the more amazing an experience. There were times when we would be climbing up precipitous stairways, when we would have to reach out and grab something to steady ourselves, or we’d lean back against a wall before realising “My God, I am leaning on thousand year old artworks!” And that is very bad.

There are approximately 1200 Khmer ruins in the Angkor region. No one really knows for sure. Satellite imagery has suggested that there are other large temples – some possibly even as big as Angkor Wat buried in the jungle, waiting for some archaeologist to stumble upon. But the jungle, the isolation, and a quarter of a century of civil war have prevented a thorough survey. The sheer number of known temples in Angkor is also a problem. There are too many to police effectively, and the police are both poorly paid and under equipped. Thieves have plundered many temples of their most precious artwork. Ta Prohm With so much artwork uncataloged and lying around it is inevitable thefts occur. In Bangkok, unscruplous antiquities dealers have catalogues of artwork photographed in-situ. They will arrange for the item to be stolen to order. When we climbed the Pimeanakas temple our seven year old ‘tour guides’ showed us the site of the original Buddha statue – stolen only 18 months ago by Khmer Rouge guerillas. The statue was carried off to Thailand and exchanged for guns. Fortunately many of the perpetrators of this cultural rape are now being prosecuted, but Cambodia is a poor country and it is western dollars that finance the theft.

There was almost no one in the Bayon, except for a couple of old nuns living like hermits in the towers. We went a bit crazy with the camera, but it was hard not to. Everywhere you looked the serene faces staring impassively at you. It is a bit disorientating, like being a maze. After ascending to the upper level, we came out on the north side. Around each temple is a little shanty town for the hawkers. The locals were at least kind enough not to disturb you when you were inside the buildings, but once you stepped outside – they pounced. Normally, I’m pretty resistant to the pressures of local hawkers, but in Cambodia it was really hard. The hawkers were invariably children – almost universally between the ages of 6 and 12. They were cute, precocious, persistant, and their english was extremely good. We asked Sop about the predominance of english as a second language; after all Cambodia was a French colony. Sop told us Cambodia abandoned the french language as is was considered too difficult a language to learn. English was much easier and had no difficult grammar. Everyone now learns english as a compulsory subject at school – which explained why the children were working the stalls. Their parents would never have learned english during the war years (when the Khmer Rouge executed anyone who knew foreign languages), and this would keep them out of the tourism business. But the children… they had learnt a profitable skill. And so, as soon as their children were proficient enough to speak to tourists and sell them things, their parents whisked them out of school and set them to work. On the one hand, this is a tragedy. None of those kids would have had more than a second grade education. But again, they were earning money for their families – probably more than their parents were making. I consoled myself with the belief that these creative and energetic children would be the next generation of entrepenurs in Cambodia, and at least their children would have a better chance.

Weighed down with a few sets of postcards and cool drinks we wandered to the Bapuon, another temple mountain. It is being reconstructed by a French archaeological team and was closed off. We picked up a 14 year old boy who attempted to guide us, but we didn’t want to be guided and brushed him off. Like the tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok, he had a formula introduction that was obviously learned by rote by would be guides: “Hello, where are you from? Have you come from Thailand? Do you speak Thai? Sawadee krap, kop kun krap (hello, thank you), Did you fly? Do you like Cambodia?”

Angkor Kids From the Bapuon we pushed north, through gateways and walls, through overgrown grass (we later found out we were in the ruins of the Royal Palace – nothing much left now) as much to get away from the pestering hawkers as to do any sightseeing. The ruins from here become something of a blur, impression after impression of enormous stone mountains, covered in moss and overtopped with jungle. One after the other they begin to blend into one another. At the Phimeanakes, in the centre of the Royal Palace enclosure, we climbed to the top of the ruin. The building itself can only be described as Aztec in style and proportion – a mighty artificial mountain of stone. One notable architectural feature of the Khmers came to the fore on this climb – the steepness of the stairs. Each step was only about three inches wide – barely wider than the width of a human foot. Each riser however was over a foot and a half. The angle of ascent was around 65 – 70%. It was like climbing a very steep ladder. The climb was intended to increase the anxiety of the believer, and believe me we were anxious! Two little kids, six and seven joined us, bounding up the stairway like mountain goats. We never caught their names but they had decided to become our guides. From the upper level, rose another sanctuary, higher and steeper still. I climbed with the children, Shelly remained on the first level. Sitting there, in the sanctuary, gazing across towards the other ruins, they told me the story of the temple, who built it, when and why, what it was made from, how long it took. And they told me about the Khmer Rouge who had come through, defaced some of the shrines and ripped out the statues. Sitting there, in the jungle listening to these little kids speaking dispassionately about terrorists was rather disconcerting. And it had all happened so recently. Peace in Cambodia was only 18 months old. It was a scary thought. Later, as the kids led us down winding paths in the jungle towards other ruins I began feel a little uneasy. We could easily ‘disappear’ and no one would know for ages. And what about land mines?? I didn’t mention the story to Shelly until much later.

When I came down from the sanctuary I found Shelly had aquired two guides of her own. They were younger and parrotted everything the older boys said. They led us off to another temple, Preah Paliley. The boys took our photo and we took theirs. They climbed up on the ruin and posed, like kids everywhere – big cheesy grins, monkeying around, acting tough. We were at the end of their patch and paid them A$10 for their service. Walking past buddhas and cows, we headed east.

I would have to admit we were lost. Once the kids started escorting us I had lost track of where we were the map. We settled down to rest on a large terrace cut by a bitumen road. Across the road twelve brick towers – the Prasats Suor Prat stood, some straight, some crooked, some covered in scaffolding. It was hot. The sweat was dripping off us. We sat down, opened our water bottle and slaked our thirst. I consulted the guidebook and discovered to my surprise that we were sitting on the Terrace of the Elephants. It was an apt name, as carved elephant figures were all around us. It was from this terrace that the Khmer Kings reviewed their armies as they marched off to war with the Thais or the Vietnamese. Now all we were reviewing was an occasional girl on a bicycle or a wandering water buffalo. But the setting was such that it wasn’t very hard to picture in ones minds eye a vast army in parade finery marching past. Again, the view was ours alone to enjoy.

Angkor To our left was the Terrace of the Leper King, renown for its magnificent carvings. From where we stood it looked no different to the Elephant Terrace, and besides, we were exhausted. We began to walk along the front of the Elephant Terrace back toward the Bayon and the comfort of the car. I made a note to return later to look at the Terrace of the Leper King, but we never made it back.

Sop drove us to a few minor temples, the Thommanon, Ta Keo, Pre Rup. We walked around the Thommanon, which was beautifully encrusted with green moss (attractive against the grey stone). Once again, we were completely alone, except for a policeman guarding the temple. He was sitting in one of the sanctuaries, idling his boring day away. He saw us and began to follow us from a distance. Unlike the children, he could not really speak english, with the exception of a few words of greeting. He made a vague attempt to check our passes, then took out his police badge. “Souvenier.”, he said. He was offering it to us for sale. Undoubtedly it was a fake, but still. We politely said no. He smiled and nodded and wished us a “good day.” I noticed that he bore a vicious tangled scar across his throat. Someone had once slit his throat, but he had survived (this fellow could be an analogy for the whole country). Deep down I wanted to ask him about it, but how does one ask such a question?

There are three must see sights at Angkor: Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is one of the older temples and unlike the others has never been restored. Enough of the jungle has been hacked away to allow visitors to explore, but it is pretty much left as it was found (that isn’t quite true really. The jungle on either side of the path leading to the temple was so thick it would be virtually impossible to climb through without a machete). Ta Prohm was probably one of the most impressive sights we saw. We entered through another four faced gate, this time overtopped by huge trees and walked down a very long path through dense jungle. Hawkers tried to sell us their services and film but we pushed past them. Through the tumbled down inner gate house, we entered the temple proper. The buildings were mud red and grey, but everything was covered in green moss. Walls and roofs had collapsed. Trees wound their roots through the rubble, or climbed up over the tops of standing buildings. Everywhere you looked was ruin and lushness. It was an amazing experience. However, the humidity within Ta Prohm was overwhelming. My shirt was soaked in sweat, and sweat was running across my face in rivulettes. We took heaps of photos. It was a busy site, with at least 30 other tourists wandering around, but it was still empty enough to be able to sit down and feel like you were miles from civilisation.

We stopped at Angkor Wat on the way back to town. We were both exhausted and this was more a photo stop than a opportunity to explore. We crossed the causeway and stopped inside the first gate house. From there we sat and viewed Angkor Wat. It was magnificent – probably best viewed from a distance. I could barely restrain myself from rushing on and walking up to it, but Shelly was adamant. She was going no further today. As the sun set, blurred by an overcast sky, we climbed back into the taxi and drove back to town.

Sop suggested we drive to Banteay Srei the next day. It was a long drive and he would have to charge us US$30 for the trip, but it would be “very beautiful. You see the villages. You see the paddy fields. You see the traditional way of life. Very beautiful temple.” We said we would think about it. “You must look at your guide book.”, he acknowledged. “You tell me tommorrow.”

I already knew Banteay Srei was one of the most beautiful temples. The carvings there predated the other Angkorian ruins and had escaped much of the destruction of recent years. The reason we were reticent however, was that since 1997 two tourists have been killed there. In 1997, an American woman took a trip to the temple and was killed by Khmer Rouge guerillas. In hindsight, it might be said she was putting herself at risk. The Cambodian government had banned travel to the temple (which is only 25 kms from Angkor!) at that time as it was unsafe. A special permit and an armed escort were required (but neither proved much use to her – would you risk your life to save a tourist for US$10?). The Khmer Rouge may have gone, but armed bandits subsequently moved into the area after they left and another tourist was apparently robbed and killed sometime later (details about this incident are vague). Indirectly we quizzed Sop on the safety of the trip. He was a bit confused by the question. “Yes, it is safe. But the road is very bad.” He made a bouncing gesture with his hand. “Is very bumpy.” He added, “Me, I do not like the drive. It is very hard. But it is good for tourist. I think you will enjoy.” “We will let you know tommorrow.”, we said. “Tommorrow, yes.”, he replied. “We will go.”

As we drove through the town (and Siem Reap is very small) Sop pointed out the best restaurants. There were two nice ones on the opposite side of the river. We decided to head down there later. After freshening up we visited the market, which was right next to our hotel. We were soon so bombarded with requests to “buy, buy, buy” that we almost fled. In the end we bought a bronze statuette of an apsara – a celestial dancing girl – for about US$12. We recieved our change back in US dollars, which rather surprised me. US is the second (some might say first) currency of Cambodia. But because it circulates so widely, and is stable, and all the tourists carry US dollars, Cambodia is not as cheap as it perhaps should be. A false second economy exists in which the minimum price for anything is US$1. Our dinner that night in a simple Indian restaurant cost us as much as if we’d been eating in Bangkok. Unfortunately, we did not make it to the nice restaurants across the river as sundown brings utter blackness to the unlit streets of Siem Reap and taxis are rather thin on the ground at that time and there was no way we were going to walk.

Angkor The next morning Sop was waiting and pressing for an answer about Banteay Srei. We pressed him again. “Is it safe?” “Yes.”, he replied. I know Shelly was uneasy. She had been adamant we would not go the night before, but we now agreed. And so we began an adventure that we both rank as one of the highlights of our whole trip.

Considering Bantaey Srei is only about 30 kms from Siem Reap, it sure took us a long time to get there. The road, as promised, was bad. Appalling would not be an understatement. Besides, it had just rained overnight and in many places the road was little more than mud filled potholes. But the scenery! Most of Cambodia is flat, and this was no exception. But on either side of the road stretched emerald green rice paddys. Patchs of jungle and palm trees interspersed the scene to provide some variety. Like an idiot, whom one might have thought had never seen green fields before, I was driven to repeat endlessly the phrase, “It’s so green.” When the road wasn’t too bad and he could take his concentration off the road, Sop would take about Cambodia, his life, tourism, and Australia. Sop quizzed us about Australia: how big was it? how many provinces did it have? did we live in a village or a town? did we have water buffalo? what were our paddy fields like? did we grow wet rice or dry rice? When we tried to explain that Australia did not really grow rice, he became confused. He could not grasp the concept of a country not having rice paddys. The idea of desert was new to him too. We compared the temperature and rainfall of our respective countries, the population, business opportunities, cost of land, history and ethnicity. Sop admitted that many Cambodians had moved to other countries, including Australia. “Do all Cambodians live in one part of Australia?”, he asked. No we told him, they were scattered everywhere. “Are they successful?” A bit of a hard one to answer that. “We have some Australian’s coming to live in Cambodia.”, he said, “But they mostly come for business. To make money. They do not come for farming.” No, not many Australians chose to migrate to Cambodia.

We passed through a number of small villages. The house were all made of wood and on stilts. There were pigs and chickens and water buffalos in the yards. Everywhere were vignettes of village life. A naked two year old boy ran out onto the road being chased by an ancient, bare breasted old nun (his grandmother). She scooped the little tike into her arms and then turned to us and laughed a gap toothed laugh, giving us that look that says, “Kids!” Five and six year old kiddies walking cows down the road. A six year old girl carrying an infant that is almost as big as her out to the roadside to wave at the car. Everyone stopped and waved, from the oldest woman to the youngest infant. A baby, not more than 9 months old, in its mothers arms, flings out its arm uncomprehendingly when it saw the car. A very early learned response.

We asked Sop to stop the car every couple of kilometres to take photographs of the houses, the children, the pigs and goats and water buffalo. Some kids would run and duck behind bushes when you approached, but come out again when you waved. A lady in the village gave Sop a bunch of bananas. We later offered them to some children we photographed. It was great.

The villages got fewer and fewer the further out we got. Ahead there was a solitary mountain (and I use the term loosely as it wasn’t very big). It was once the source for much of the stone used in Angkor. As the fields got fewer and jungle began to take over we passed a number of army trucks – little more than green painted lorries. In the back slovenly looking soldiers sat, looking bored. We began to feel a little nervous again. Then, suddenly, there were stalls ahead. To the left, a low red brown wall – the temple fortress of Banteay Srei. Sop pulled over and we disembarked. A park guard checked our pass and we walked in.

After the other temples and all the hype, Banteay Srei was a bit of disappointment. It did have the most fantastic and intact carvings of any temple we visited. Their colour and high relief made them stand out and the photos we took looked great. But it was very small. And, surprisingly, there were plenty of tourists around. More than at any other temple except Angkor Wat, and in such a small area, it was very noticable. Actually, there were only about 30 people there, but that is a lot for Angkor. Now, I know this is going to sound totally hypocritical, but tourists can really piss me off, especially when they are rude. Being avid photographers, Shelly and I are always keeping an eye out to ensure we aren’t stepping into someone else’s shot, or blocking a view. Like orderly human beings we will step aside and wait for someone to take their shot, before stepping up and taking ours. There is nothing I hate more than having some selfish prick step up in front of you as you’re about to take a photo, block your shot, and then stand there for half an hour. Yes! Look at it, enjoy the view, then… MOVE ON. Several times we stepped aside to let someone take their photo, only to have them step straight in front our camera a moment later. Without wishing to discriminate against certain nationalities – namely the French, Italians and Germans – the culprits were invariably French, Italian or German.

In the end, the drive was worth more than the destination.

On the return journey (which took over an hour) we stopped at Banteay Samre. There were few hawkers at this site, which is a little out of the way. In fact we shared the temple only with a four year old girl. After the ‘crush’ of Banteay Srei, the Samre temple was blissful. The temple itself is very attractive, well preserved and quite underated. Strangely I never photographed it from the outside (at least not from the front), something I always do. With our little follower in tow, we completed a circuit of the outer gallery. At the far end, came the sound of cow bells. We stepped outside as a band of children walked a herd of cows past. When they saw us some came over and asked us for money (the sad destiny of Cambodian friendliness). We didn’t have any Cambodian riel so we waved them away. As we left the temple, two more tourists arrived. It was becoming rush hour!

We visited one more temple before returning to Siem Reap for lunch. Pre Rup. Sop did not want to stop, but we insisted. Shelly was tired, and stayed on the ground, but I climbed the temple. The view was pleasant – a villager walking three cows past. Rice paddy was being cultivated right up the the foot of the temple. And then we left.

Lunch was bread from the market – 500 riel for two loaves. That is 25c. Cheese, water and diet coke cost US$2. The tiny amount of riel change in my pocket quickly disappeared into the hands of two land mine victims I met on the way back to the hotel. Landmines disable thousands of people a year in Cambodia, mostly children. Despite international assistance with landmine clearances, it is estimated there is approximately four million landmines still buried in Cambodia. Waiting…

After lunch Sop dropped us off at Angkor Wat. The walk along the causeway to the temple proper seemed to take forever. Although the building is magnificent, it really looks best from a distance, where it’s size and scale can be properly appreciated. Once inside, it is easy to feel oppressed by the cement grey walls and lose all sense of perspective. Inside the Wat there were tourists galore. Big groups of Italian, French and Japanese package tourists, but it was still pretty much the preserve of the independant traveller. As we entered the first level the skies opened up in their full tropical fury. Cascades of water poured over the towers, across the roofs, and into the court yards. The rain drowned out all sound. We walked around the passage of the inner enclosure. It was all rather plain actually. After circumnavigating the enclosure we were left with the prospect of heading back out, or climbing up the central sanctuary to the upper gallery. A French couple had just climbed the stairway carrying their four year old son. He screamed all the way up and with damn good reason. It was still raining and although it was lighter now, it looked as though it would not let up for the rest of the afternoon. We steeled ourselves to our purpose and set off to the base of the sanctuary.

I said before that the steps to these temples were steep, but the stairway up Angkor Wat was steeper and more terrifying than anything we had yet encountered. A loosely attached steel hand rail offered token support on the left hand of the side of the southern stair case. After Shelly had gone up about ten steps (and that was not an inconsiderable height) she turned to me and said, “I can’t do this. I have to go back.” I understood completely and let her go around me, back down. No sooner than I had set off again, a little voice in my head began telling me this was a really bad idea and I should go back too, but other people were coming up now, and there was nowhere to go but up. As I clambered over the edge at the top I met an Australian girl, who was looking to go down. “How was that?”, she asked knowingly. “I think I know why I’ll never take up mountain climbing.”, I replied. And I looked back down. Jesus Christ!!! I had no idea how I was going to make it down again. A man, in his seventies, climbed up after me.

kids at angkor After all the terror of the climb, the view from the top was only average. Perhaps if it hadn’t been raining? But the gallery was a mirror image of the one on the previous level, with little decorative carving. It was, to be blunt, somewhat dull. I descended again in a light drizzle. It was terrifying! What made it worse was a young Cambodian guide decided to come down with me at the same time. I went down backwards, placing each step carefully. He walked down, his feet always in my face – very offputting. To make matters worse, the french bastards with the child decided they would come down too (couldn’t anybody wait?) and muttered and complained to each other in french about my slow progress. Their child, as on the climb up, screamed in terror the whole way down.

Shelly had been having her own fun and games while she was waiting for me. A large Thai family had come past. They stopped by her and began talking amongst themselves. Then one lady came over and asked if she could have her photo taken with her. Then another. And another. Soon the whole family was posing for photos with Shelly – group shots, individual shots, ‘here’s grand dad with his arm around a blonde westerner…’ kind of thing. It was like being a celebrity.

Back on the first level, we walked around the outer gallery. The outer gallery, unlike those inside, has elaborate carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology (Churning of the Sea of Milk, Heaven & Hell, the Mahabararta) and military scenes from the 12th century. There scale (length) wears you out (it is over a kilometre in circumference. We gained another little guide – a small boy who could not speak english but who earnestly followed us and explained in Khmer what was going on. We told him repeatedly we did not understand him (and he obviously didn’t understand us) but he kept following us. Eventually he asked for a pen, which we gave him, and he left us in peace.

As the light began to fade we left Angkor Wat and Sop took us to Phnom Bakheng. Bakheng is situated on the summit of a small hill just to the north of Angkor Wat. In summer the temple becomes packed with tourists who come, not for the temple, but to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. The dark thunderclouds had washed out any chance of seeing a sunset from the Bakheng, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Sop dropped us off at the base. Ahead of us was a gully cut in the side of the hill, strewn with rocks and boulders. It looked more like it should have water cascading down it that us climbing up it, so we took a side path that the elephants use to take tourists to the top. It was a long zig zag walk through the jungle. We could feel the light dimming as we climbed. From the last turn we caught a glimpse of Angkor Wat below. It seemed so far away.

Bakheng temple is very attractive, and in hindsight one of my favourite small temples. But we had to rush now. The light was fading fast. We had completely lost sight of Angkor Wat, so after walking around the summit I climbed to the top of the temple. The view of Angkor Wat was somewhat disappointing – it was so far away and virtually consumed in the blackness of the jungle. I took the obligatory photo (which turned out better than expected) before having a wander around. The view to the north west was still good and I could see the Western Baray, shimmering in the fading light. Then I climbed down the steep staircase, past stone lions and garudas and other mythical creatures. We began to rush down the track. With each step the light faded. Half way down we became just a little concerned as the forest around us had become a black wall and the track was barely visible. When we arrived at the base, the only light was from Sop’s taxi’s headlights. It was now completely, impenetrably black. As Sop drove us back through the park, we could see lights in the forest. “Do people live out here?”, we asked. “Yes.”, he said. “Many people still live in the jungle. They work at the stalls during the day but they live in the jungle.” So there was still life in the dead city.

We ate that night at a flash cafe/bar that would not have looked out of place in any modern city (but certainly seemed out of place in Cambodia). The food was excellent – all Khmer cuisine. As we wandered home, a band at a restaurant across the river played loud local pop music to an audience of no one.

Our flight to Bangkok was due to leave at 3pm. We planned to travel from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the former capital. As we began to do the maths, we realised we would not be getting in to Ayutthaya until late 6ish. I’ve never been comfortable arriving in strange city at night, with no accommodation booked, so we decided to bring our flight forward. Sop had been pestering us about our plans for our last day. He was going to take us to more ruins and drop us at the airport in time for our flight. When we went down for breakfast, he was waiting in the lobby. We told him we were waiting to hear from the airline if we could move our flight. We ate while we waited. The answer we got was not one we had prepared for. Yes, the flight booking could be changed – we could leave right now. There were no other times available. This threw us into a quandry, but in the end we decided to go. We told Sop, who was a bit put out. “I’ll take you to the airport.”, he muttered. We rushed upstairs, threw our stuff in our bags and left.

It was a sad drive out. Sop was quiet. He would not make his US$20 today. We didn’t get to see any more temples. At the time that was okay. We were a little ‘temple’d out’ by then. But back in Thailand I picked up an excellent guide book for Angkor (as always too late!). It is more a glossy coffee table book than a guide book – “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques. A quick flick through was enough to highlight how little we had seen and how much we had missed. If you ever intend going to Angkor, I would seriously suggest buying this comprehensive (rather expensive) book.

But despite the regrets, we made it to Ayutthaya in good time, found a hotel, and began our trip touring the archaeological sites of central Thailand. It was a fair exchange and the beginning of a whole nother adventure.

Wanna see Cambodia but can’t afford tailor-made tours? Try [1]Cambodia Unlimited, a new company taking tours using motorbikes, boats, trains and cars to explore the country in depth. Or get in email contact [2]directly.

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