Again in Bangkok after 5 years. Finally some holidays. I had a wonderful reason starting my trip around the countries of Indochina in Thailand. My friend moved here 3 months ago. She decided to leave Barcelona, her former living and working point, and Europe for good. In Bangkok she started her new life as a lecturer at Siam University. How lucky for her and good reason for me to visit her now in the new environment.
We started our girl’s day with a spa visit, some shopping – Bangkok is still a great place for shopping addicts (not me!), lots of chatting and ended it with delicious Thai vegetarian food.
The next day I got into the bus to Cambodia, starting my Indochina adventure.
The idea for this trip came from my editor. I discovered the countries of Indochina for the first time in 1996. Out of this several months trip then came my first book, called “Unterwegs am Mekong” (only available in German). “Why don’t you go there again for renew it”, he asked me. Why not? I still had great memories of my trip there and therefore I ended up in South East Asia again. Already after some days I decided against that idea of renewing. After reading my travel blog you will get to know why.
Money makes the world go round
Crossing the border at Aranyaprathed into Cambodia. Long queue at the Thai border. Waiting for about one hour to pass the controls. Same at the Cambodian entry. Putting some Thai Baht into the passport helps. Corruption speaks everywhere the same language. They just waved me through, I entered the new country in a couple of minutes. I got into a shared taxi and after three hours I arrived in Siem Reap, the gateway to the stunning jungle world of Angkor Wat. People drive here at least in 3 on their motorcycles, some even with the whole family.
My taxi driver touched a bike and the people on it landed on the street – man, woman, baby. Luckily nothing happened, the bike driver just didn´t look back when he turned. His fault, after looking in the rear mirror my driver continued. Cambodian traffic rules!
It was already dark when we got to Siem Reap. Thanks booking.com the hotel was already settled. A clean, family owned hotel, called “Tropical breeze Guesthouse”, located very close to the city center. For 4 nights I paid the incredible amount of 36 US-Dollars – 9 Dollar per night.
In Thailand you call them TukTuk, in India Rikschas, in Vietnam Cyclos and in Cambodia Remorque-motos: Those sweet little motorcycles with carriages are the best way to move around. My first day driver George was still new in that business. He almost managed to touch a car on the other side of the road and to fall in the river – including me. Sorry, but I didn´t want to risk my life, so I decided for another driver. Na, which I had for the next 2 days, drove carefully.
Angkor Wat – the jungle miracle
The 3 days at Siem Reap I spent at the temples of Angkor Wat and its surroundings. The temples of Angkor, capital of Cambodia´s ancient Khmer empire, are the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. They are the heart and the soul of the country, as well as a source of inspiration and national pride to the people as they struggle to rebuild their lives after years of terror and trauma by the Khmer Rouge.
The Angkorian period spans more than 600 years from AD 802 to 1432 during which the temples of Angkor were built and the Khmer empire consolidated its position as one of the great powers of Southeast Asia. This era compasses periods of decline and revival, and wars with rival powers in Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
Since I saw Angkor the first time I never forgot the site. Coming back here had been always my deep wish. Before I could not visit all temples as now, because at that time there was still the terror of the Khmer Rouge and Pailin, not too far away from Angkor, was its stronghold.
I could not believe what I was seeing today: Thousands of Chinese tourists frequented the ruins. It seemed as the whole of China transmitted here. From the morning till the evening busloads of noisy tourists! One Chinese man told me, since Siam Reap has an international airport Angkor is a very popular holiday destination for some days. I also did not recognize Siam Reap, once a sleepy town, again. On the outskirts are big modern hotels, where all Chinese groups stay in thousands by themselves. In case they come in the evenings in town to visit a restaurant, they do this only in big groups for not mixing up with other travellers. My illusion of a quiet relaxed jungle atmosphere was gone …
Far away temples
Though I tried to get back some of the atmosphere of then. Finally Na had to drive me to the far away temples in order to get some peace and quietness. The temples far away haven´t been in the schedule of the tourist groups – not yet – so I enjoyed being there.
Indeed, I visited lots of temples, but I don´t want bother you with all of them. Therefore I will introduce you my 4 favorite temples, 2 of them still covered by jungle. Of course, I have to start with Angkor Wat itself, the mother of all temples. In case you know about Angkor, than you have that picture in mind: Angkor Wat replicates the universe in miniature. The central tower is Mount Meru with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents and the ocean. It is surrounded by a mout, which makes the mouts around European castles like kid´s play. That temple is simply unique, a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of man´s devotion to his gods. It is famous for its beguiling Apsara, which means female temple dancers. There are more than 3.000 carved into the walls of the temple, each of them unique. Many of them were damaged during Indian efforts to clean the temples with chemicals during the 1980s, but they are now being restored by the teams of the German Apsara Conservation Project, which belonged before to the German Development Service (DED, now GIZ). This was my first encounter again with Angkor Wat. I just was sitting in a quiet corner, avoiding the hordes of tourists and remembering the quiet days I had long time ago …
Sunset at the mountain of Phnom Bakheng was another disappointment. 17 years ago I shared the fantastic views with some visitors, today I had to stand in the queue to get on top and all what I saw of the sunset were the heads of hundreds of visitors …
The temple of Banteay Srei is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian Art. A Hindu temple, dedicated to Shiva, is cut from stone of pink and includes some of the finest stone carvings. It is one of the smallest sites at Angkor – maybe for that I am fond of it. The temple is wonderfully well preserved and many of its carvings are three-dimensional. Banteay Srei means “Citadel of the women” and it is said that it must have been built by a woman, as the elaborate carvings are too fine for the hand of a man! I always knew: Women art are better art, haha!
Construction on Banteay Srei began in 967. The classic carvings include delicate women with lotus flowers in hand and traditional skirts clearly visible. I don´t tell you more, just look at the pictures …
“Tomb Raider” at Ta Prohm
My favourite temple many years ago was Ta Prohm, covered by jungle. At that time I could not further go, because landmines and the strong impact of the Khmer Rouge hindered anybody to discover that beautiful country. I just did not want to loose a leg or my life due to a landmine, so Ta Prohm was for me the most distant temple I could go. Today this wonderful site – still has its magic like before – is overrun by tourists. Its appeal lies in the fact that it has been left to be swallowed by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them. Well, I saw restauration work going on, which means the jungle is pegged back and only the largest trees are left in place, making it manicured rather than raw like beautiful Beng Mealea, which I introduce later in this chapter.
Still, Ta Prohm is another world experience. It is cloaked in shadows, its towers and walls locked in the slow embrace of vast root systems, it was built from 1186. Just look the pictures and enjoy the jungle atmosphere of that stunning site. By the way, part of the movie “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie was made here!
Preah Khan – another jewel of jungle temple. I discovered it in the late afternoon, when tourists were gone. I got back some of the feelings from before. Yeah, this temple is with Beng Mealea my favourite one. The central sanctuary of it was constructed in 1191. It was a centre for worship and learning. The temple was dedicated to 515 divinities and during one year 18 major festivals took place, requiring a team of thousands just to maintain the place. Preah Khan, which means “Sacred Sword” is one of the large complexes at Angkor. Photos will give you some impressions. Enjoy it!
The ultimate Indiana Jones experience
The third day I spent completely at Beng Mealea. TukTuk-Driver Na just drove me there in a two hour trip one way, each way about 80 Kilometers. Indeed, Beng Mealea is one of the most mysterious temples at Angkor and it is something like the ultimate Indiana Jones experience. Build in the 12th century the temple has been utterly subsumed by jungle. A young guide there showed me the hidden secrets, climbed with me over piles of masonry, through long dark chambers and between hanging vines. She showed me hidden impressive carvings as well as a well preserved library. The movie of Jean-Jacques Annaud´s “Two Brothers” has been made here.
Coldly smiling faces
Just to add another temple, which is for many visitors the highlight: Bayon: A collection of 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 coldly smiling enormous faces that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king Jayavarman himself. These huge heads glare down from every angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – this was precisely the blend required to hold control over such a vast empire. Look at the heads and have a tiny glimpse into the mysterious empire of King Jayavarman.
Angkor Wat forever
Back to Siem Reap I had an interesting encounter with the US-photographer John McDermott in one of his galleries at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. His pictures of the ancient, forgotten world of Angkor Wat are timeless, real beauties he makes by infrared film. “I wanted my pictures to be timeless without tourists, motorbikes and baseball caps in it.” With his collection of those photos, real treasures, he became a well known artist. Some of his work is exhibited in the National Museum in Phnom Penh and in many galleries around the world. If you like to read more about John McDermott, just see my new art blog sl4artglobal.wordpress.com.
Needless to say that he had chosen for his gallery the best place in town: The Grand Hotel d’Angkor welcomed guests like Charlie Chaplin or Jackie Kennedy since 1929. When you stroll around through the lobby and the corridors you get a glimpse what it was like to be a tourist in colonial days. After the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime it reopened in the late 1990s.