2009, Jan 1st
Arrive at Siem Reap airport at 12.30 AM local time from Bangkok, flawless flight. The airport is small, and it seems quite new. The buildings looks more like big restaurants. We walk directly from the plane to the building. Some bureaucratic procedure and queues to buy the Visa, then we exit and we meet the guy from the hotel who picks up our stuff and drives us to our destination.
The Neak Pean hotel
looks nice from outside: swimming pool, vegetation, nature, fairly quiet. From inside, less nice: the room is big, completely covered with wood from corner to corner, but everything looks a bit old. The door is lousy, which brings me to feel more confident about safety (you don't need fancy hyper-secured doors here, do you?). The fridge is not working, the air conditioning is freezing cold and can't be tweaked - either on or off... Anyway, not a big deal.
With the hotel driver we plan a trip on the boat to the river and the lake at 4.30, in a few hours.
We put our stuff in the room and then we go out for a walk in the town. I believe Siem Reap is the second city in Cambodia, after the capital Pnohm Penh, and compared to the latter it's "safer" and more tourist-friendly - of course thanks to Angkor. But it's not anywhere "westernized", except only for one-two streets where the westworld people can do their fancy shopping and go in their fancy restaurants and clubs. The streets are not so big, the buildings have 1-2 stories and there are many wooden houses around.
The first impact with the city is... dust, sand on the street and in the air, tuk tuks and a lot of motorbikes, motorbikes... plus some sort of "monster-trucks", blue off-road lorries which look very solid and sturdy. I report also another sort of huge "caterpillar machinery" full of technical amenities, which looks like coming out straight from the "Aliens" movie.
The traffic in the street is organized chaos, no signs on the roads (they would be covered by sand anyway), very few if not any stoplights, continuous streams of motorbikes and few cars which move constantly, but they don't put the pedestrian in too big troubles. We get away with it pretty much well, everybody drives not too fast.
After 20 minutes Pat starts to suffer the sand in her lungs, we look for a pharmacy where we buy some anti-dust masks - we notice we aren't the only ones wearing them.
We then enter a big indoor market where they sell mostly clothes, bags, souvenirs and hand crafted goods. When we go out we face a uninterrupted sequence of booths selling fruits, food and so on.
We visit a modern temple and it's finally time to go back for the appointment with the hotel driver.
The guy drives us by the river towards the pier, we pass by a series of wooden houses and stilts where people live. We stop by a sort of "family-managed" office to buy the boat ticket. I have read on my guide that Cambodians use to make ridiculously high prices to the westworld tourists, expecting some bargain which will lead to a fair price for both. I start my shy try to pull down the 20$-per-person ticket price. No freaking way. 20$ is 20$. But at least I achieve to use a big boat (for about 20 people) instead of a small one. Deal.
We eventually arrive at the pier on the river . There are swamps around. We meet the boys who will sail with us and be our guides. All the three of them look in their early 20s. The sail begins.
The interesting thing, beside the dusky landscape (somehow similar to this) are the numerous stilts and houses of the locals. Those people live on the river, including the boys with us, they also got tv and electricity (powered by a combusion engine power supply). There are indoor football and basketball fields, even pools, and also a couple of christian churches. Some of them floating, some other on stilts. I make some joke about the supposed steadiness of billiard pools.
The trip destination is the lake Tonlè Sap, to see the sunset. We arrive to it, a pier surrounded by a small village of stilts on what seems to be the river's mouth on the lake.
The dusk rises, the sun sets... unfortunately behind clouds. The first lights turn on in the village. The guide buy invites me for dinner but as he showed me some sort of raw, peeled snake ready to be cooked, I kindly decline the offer.
It's dark now, time to go back. We sail away; the guide boy invites me sitting on the boat front for a beer (brand "Angkor") and we toast together.
The trip back is in the dark, I leave my - now useless - cameras in the backpack but the trip is equally fascinating. We can see only the dark trees silhouettes and some lonely fisherman, standing up on his boat and moving his torch on the water surface.
Once we arrived at the initial pier, we meet the driver and we get back to the hotel.
Dinner time: "We are in Cambodia, we must try the Khmer cousine" but in the end I don't give a damn about it, neither Pat cares too much, especially after I knew about one of the most famous Khmer dishes: the amok fish, a fish cooked with (something) and my hated coconut milk... what the f***... anyway we end up in a restaurant which looks like Khmer-ish and I get something like chicken curry which has a taste on its own, neither thai nor indian, so I consider myself satisfied, well more my conscience than my taste. At the restaurant they're projecting a documentary video about the temples in Angkor, and my hands are heating up already...
We go back to the hotel dead sleepy but satisfied. I ask Buddha to make the clouds that covered the sky today disappear tomorrow.
Wake up, open the window, Buddha listened to me: amazing blue sky! I smile, as my girls inside my backpack do.
Breakfast - which everywhere I go in the world doesn't change: tea, orange juice, bread and butter. Plus some mango (I've finally discovered today this excellent fruit) and pineapple.
Appointment at 9.30 with the driver guy, who presents us another guy who will be our driver today for the whole trip to Angkor.
Arrived at the ticket counter in Angkor, it's other 40$ each for a 3 days pass (we'll stay only two days though - but the price is the same as two single day passes).
We had a photo printed on our pass. The security is pretty much tight here, they must defend Angkor against the numerous relic thieves who had infested it since when it was discovered and cleaned up by a french archaeologist in the 19th century.
We make a simple plan for today, chosing as first destination the "most wanted" star of the whole holiday - since it's also the closest to the entrance: Angkor Wat.
Arrived at the parking, a little boy and a little girl reach us immediately and beg us to buy somethihg. The boy sells us a water, a coke
and two postcards. The girl fails but tells us "next time when you'll be back please buy from me ok? Remember me, Spider Girl. My name is Spider Girl!"
A few steps and here it is! Well, the external wall at least. Isolated in the middle of a big squared empty green peninsula, the "missing" temple in my repertoire, the number 1, the one which miniature at the Grand Palace in Bangkok brought it on the top of my most wanted list, on last April.
It's now finally before my eyes, and my lens. Its 5 towers (chedi) still far and barely visible behind the external wall with its 3 half-chedi, a huge square of something like 100 meters side, reachable after walking a long passage which links the square peninsula with the world.
First tons of photos, we reach the entrance at the wall, which is actually the exterior of a big square gallery surrounding the temple. We turn right inside the gallery, and we enjoy some sort of ritual in front of a statue of Buddha, original from the temple, dressed in yellow and red for contemporary worshipping. The ritual performer is an old lady who behaves like she's "possessed". Obviously I don't understand a word of what she's saying but to my westworld ears it all sound like a scaramantic ritual, heavily acted I'd say.
The spell which seem to possess the lady is sort of broken by the tourists who walk around her, and also by a stupid guy who was playing with a tape player placed on the statue stand. A quieter prayer, with a choir performed by the old lady and other ladies, follows.
We keep walking inside the inner area leaving the wall behind, in front of us there's a big open space, with the temple in the middle, surrounded by a second inner wall-gallery. In front of the temple there are two small artificial lakes, one of them covered with pink lotus flowers and their circular, floating leaves.
It would be a bit tedious and redundant here to go further into details about the visit to the temple, I just say we visited almost every possible corner of it. Not every corner was possible, unfortunately the temple itself, which entrance is reachable after "climbing" a very steep stairway, was closed. Many tourists but not a huge crowd, our visit lasts about 2 hours - with the lovely patience from Pat to whom I asked forgiveness in advance for the time spent taking photos.
The temple is not a "ruin" in itself, parts of it seem to be still "operative": like in the external wall, also in the inner wall there are Buddha statues
dressed and set up for proper rituals.
Finished the visit and shot the last postcard-like photo to the temple with the 12.30 sun not in your face anymore, and the reflection of the temple on the lake, we go to lunch. The driver brings us to a restaurant in Angkor itself. As we step off the car, here is again the "vendor children storm": to pat is "assigned" a little girl whose name I dont remember, to me a little boy called "Obama". Both of them leave us a small paper hand written in English, both with very similar (if not equal) words like "Hello, my name is ___________, I like you, I like your smile, I hope you'll remember me. This flower is for you" (drawn flower) etc. Lunch, Angkor beer, relax.
We leave the table and we decide to reward the insistence of the two children who distingushed themselves by giving us the papers, and we buy them 4-5 postcards for 1$ each. We reach the car, about to drive away, again all the children competing with each other (buy from me! no, from me! - including Obama and Pat's girl from whom we just bought 1 min ago), other two children desperately sell us two entire sets of 10 postcards... 1$ for each set. Welcome into the world where economy laws miserably fail.
Next goal is the second star of Angkor, the Bayon temple. Different from Angkor Wat, big and almost as majestic as its most famous sibling. One difference from Angkor Wat - which needs wide open space around that enhances the
visibility of its dominating 5 towers - the Bayon stays more hidden into the green, surrounded by trees. When we get off the car, we hear a constant hiss; for the first couple of minutes, I thought it was some kind of alarm... well not: I unfocus a bit from the visuals and focus on the sound, it comes from the trees, it must be some kind of crickets. Lots of them. This hiss will be our soundtrack for many times during our trip.
The temple looks more "ruined", lots of stones loose on the ground. We enter it, many corridors forming labyrinths covered with basreliefs, and between one tower and another you can see the divine faces sculpted on them, all the same, all smiling, looking in every direction. You feel like it's a god. Enigmatic, charming, relaxed, chilling, bigger than you.
Third goal, another temple called Baphuon, closed for renovation works. After the first two, we aren't much impressed by it... more interesting is the Terrace of Elephants, so called after the elephants sculpted on walls which raise the terrace of about 5-6 meters. A cambodian boy there
tells us that the King used to sit there to enjoy parades of elephants walking in march in the open space in front. He also tells us about the Royal Palace, not existing anymore since it was built in wood. He explains us why all the stones used to build temples and monuments have two holes on their surface: they were used to put wooden sticks in them for being transported by elephants.
Hearing those words, my imagination runs, putting myself in year 1150: parades of elephants for the King, hundreds of elephants walking in line transporting
stones assisted by hundred, thousands of men. While in Paris they were building Notre Dame, here they were building Angkor Wat, Bayon and the other wonders of a Khmer civilization at its pinnacle. And once built, fresh and new, how did Angkor Wat and Bayon appear at that time?..
We then walk over the terrace towards the Royal Palace area, the boy shows us two big ponds/swimming pools, one for men and one for women, and explains us why the women's is bigger: very simple reason, the courtisans, princes and kings had many concubines (hundreds of them). Easy life wasn't it?
After we visited the area, the guide boy, so informative, sells me some interesting drawings on rice paper, made by resting the paper rest on a bas relief and passing a brush over it.
Back to the hotel, tired but satisfied (Pat was veery tired), dinner outside. No khmer cousine today, we find an indian place, good but after that my stomach will have problems. Ghosts of the intoxication I had few months before not so far from here... But fortunately everything's gone the day after.
Same as yesterday morning, the sun is back, beautiful and unforgiving. Appointment with the driver at 9.30, we go back to Angkor.
This time is the turn of the Terrace of Leper King. Located aside the Elephants terrace, it's also raising 5-6m above the floor, and it has more corridors with beautiful basreliefs around it. I enjoy taking pictures with my wideangle lens at 2cm from the subject, with some sweet perspective distortion.
After that we go to the Preah Khan temple, located outside north to Angkor Thom. At the entrance we meet another guy who offers his help to visit the ruins. We gladly accept.
This temple is big, second to Angkor Wat only as for extension, and it's largely unrestored, lots of sparse stones everywhere and the vegetation still partially "owning" the whole place - which is one of the temple's main beautiful features. The guy looks at my gear hanging on my neck and leads me to interesting places to take photos. We came at the west gate but he leads us to the south gate which according to him is nicer. Entering the temple, we cross some narrow doors which are aligned and becoming lower and lower as you get close to the center. This is for making the guest bow as he walks in. The temple has a square plan, there are for lines of doors one for each side, and the only doors that don't shrink as long as you walk towards the center are the east side doors, which are reserved for the king - he didn't need to bow.
With the help of the guy we walk the narrow, dark corridors and we visit some hidden corners that would have slipped unnoticed otherwise.
Back to the gate where we came from, the guy kindly asks for a 10$ fee. It was worth, after all.
Lunch at another restaurant nearby, Pat choses the safe path and gets a classic fried rice with chicken and veggies, I want something more "local" and I order some fried veggies with boiled rice served separately. The oil in the veggies is stinky and the whole mix is pretty much untasty... "Epic fail" as we use to say in my business, I leave it there and get the same as Pat has.
Afternoon, another very nice mango taken from a woman along the path, our last goal for today is the Tha Prohm temple, located east to Angkor Thom. Similar to the previous one, but smaller, it became famous in the westworld thanks to a Lara Croft movie (some female Indiana Jones like coming straight from videogames) which was recorded here.
It's actually very similar, here too the trees have took ownership of places once considered sacred.
End of visit, we decide that we've had enough of temples and we plan to devote the rest of our afternoon to leisure and lazyness, planning to call back the driver if the sky should become clear again (clouds appeared again in the afternoon for the 3rd day in a row) so we can go to Angkor Wat to enjoy the sunset. To the temple directly, not upon a far hill.
But so it's not, the sky remains cloudy. We stay by the swimming pool in the hotel for a while, but too cold for a bath.
The sun sets, shopping time follows, we go to the night market which was advertised to us by our driver.
I'm looking for a ring for my thumb, I want one with tigers but can't find it. Only elephants... I get one. After half a minute a guy appears "Here's the tiger!" and he shows me a sort of keyring shaped as a tiger with a huge penis, bigger than the tiger itself. We laugh loud... thanks, not for me. After a while I notice a nice painting of a woman playing harp. It's mine, I decide to record the time of the purchase just for fun. The purchase is longer than I expected... the painting hook seems to be "jammed" onto the grid where it's hanging, after a couple of minutes of useless tries she calls another guy. The guy succeed, but makes another painting fall straight into safe Pat's hands, few centimeters from her nose.
Finally I discover a fine wooden miniature of the Bayon tower with the divine smiling faces. The hell with the weight, I'll buy another bag so that I can lighten my hatred stone-heavy bag. The miniature is mine too. While Pat, for some reason, buys nothing.
End of shopping, it's dinner time: walking around, we chose a kind of "italian plus others" restaurant. With all due respect for the Khmer cuisine with its coconut fishes, as an old italian movie
scene: "spaghetti did you provoke me? Gonna eat you, gonna destroy you!" Stomach purification, pizza margherita. Pat choses a khmer salad and some spring rolls, not so satisfying to her taste.
Dinner is over, we take a walk around for our last evening there. We are in the most touristic street, a lot of foreigners. In an english book store, reading covers here and there I become more familiar with those facts that forecasted a very dark shadow on this country's history, the events in 1975-1979 which I was hearing about on tv when I was a child and only know I realize what they were. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party, the new "agricoltural democracy", the purge of all the citizen in posses of a study qualification, people forced to leave their homes, people sent to work in rice fields. A 4 years long holocaust which caused the death of 1.7 million people, a quarter of the entire population. This country has seen everything... fortunately those times are now far, although most of the people's living standards are well below to what we're used to.
So, with a quiet walk to the hotel, our short trip and my holiday come to a conclusion, full of very nice memories, from the daily life in Bangkok and Salokbat streets, to the boat tour on the lake, to my first experiences in totally not "westernized" lands, to the glory of Angkor monuments.