Friday, 3 December 2010

Angkor - Words can't describe it

But I’ll give it a go anyway. If you’re into temples, ruins, ancient civilisations and cultures or any combination of the above, Angkor is a must see.

Parallels have been drawn with Ancient Egypt and the Incan and Mayan civilisations of Central/South America. And sure there are some similarities in terms of the scale of the empires, their architectural beauty and significant achievements made. But Angkor is certainly nothing like I’ve seen or experienced anywhere else.

It has an aura, it’s a special almost mystical place. A new wonder lurks around every corner, so many times you’ll feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise.

Make sure you take a few spare memory cards with you, if you’re a keen photographer you’ll take hundreds of pictures, it becomes an automatic reaction!

The Angkor historical park is located on the edge of the town of Siem Reap. I travelled here from Bangkok in the relative luxury of a Bangkok Airways flight (they operate a monopoly on the direct Bangkok – Siem Reap route so there are no cheap deals to be had). The alternative however is a particularly uncomfortable bus ride to the border crossing of Poi Pet. The hassle of the cross border bureaucracy and then transferring to a bus on the Cambodian side and carrying on the bumpy journey.

I stayed at the plush yet almost deserted Khmera Angkor Hotel on the main road from the airport into town. Breakfast was an awkward experience, there was only one other party in the hotel, I had about 6 waitresses hovering around me waiting for something to do. Never have I felt so under pressure to finish my breakfast! I even asked for some extra butter that I didn’t really want just to give someone something to do!

My guide and driver had dropped me at the hotel the night before, and true to their word they picked me up at 9am sharp the next day to begin the grand tour.

We drove to the park entrance to hand over the entrance fee and straight off to the main attraction, Angkor Wat itself. Awe-inspiring, majestic…you can apply any superlative you like and it won’t do Angkor Wat justice, you just have to see it. You approach along a long walkway, elevated over the surrounding moat into the temple itself. I was lucky to visit on a rare quiet day and was afforded many clear photo opportunities. We had a walk around the galleries on the ground level, which house the incredibly detailed bas reliefs (stone carvings in the temple walls) while my guide explained what they represented. Then he left me to attempt the difficult climb to the next level up. The stairs are so steep and narrow it makes it very hard to climb (designed that way on purpose of course!), and the searing heat doesn’t help! The views from the top are incredible and well worth the effort. The descent is rather more awkward as you’re always aware of the chance you might slip and fall down. There are handrails available to try and prevent this.

After the descent we had a walk around on the grass at the rear of the temple and I took lots of shots here. By this point a couple of hours had already passed and I suddenly felt my legs buckle. I hadn’t stopped in 2 hours or drank any water and the heat catches up with you before you know it. Always carry a drink with you, and drink it! You’ll need it.

My guide then read out the schedule for the rest of the day, which to my surprise didn’t include Ta Phrom. I had done some research beforehand and identified this as the one temple I couldn’t miss. It is famous because it was used in filming for one of the Tomb Raider films. I found it to be the most enigmatic of all the temples, because it has been left in the ruined state in which it was found, whereas many temples have now been extensively restored. So another temple was dropped from the schedule to make room for Ta Phrom and off we went.

Once you have gone through the main entrance gate your eyes are immediately drawn to the giant trees that have grown on the roofs of various temple buildings and walls. Many famous photos can be found of these. I felt like a kid in a candy store as I made my way through the various doors and passageways, squeezing through partially collapsed doorways and over piles of rubble. If you can only visit other temples (Angkor Wat is a given) then make it Ta Phrom.

We then took the drive “out of town” to Banteay Srei. In terms of size this is relatively minor, but it is famous because it is the best naturally preserved temple. The details of the carvings are impressive. If you have the time, visit here. If you don’t it can be easily left out.

We then took lunch, the best lunch of my stay, at a family home along the road back to Angkor. This was all tied in with the tour, but I always like to have some kind of contact with the locals when I visit another country, this was ideal for me!

Next on the list was the walled “city” of Angkor Thom. We entered through the famed south gate, after stopping off for photos on the bridge that crosses over the moat. Statues that line either side of this bridge depict the Churning of the Sea of Milk, Google will explain that better than I can but essentially it’s a part of Hindu mythology.

First stop in Angkor Thom is usually the impressive Bayon temple. This is most famous for the gently smiling faces, it is believed they are of King Jayavarman VII. Many believe they represent Buddha himself, many people at the time believed they were one in the same. There is certainly a likeness between the two!

There are many great photo opportunities here that any photographer can enjoy.

By this time we were hurtling towards sunset and I was whisked off to my final stop on the grand tour, Phnom Bakeng. This is a temple on top of a hill which is most famous for its sunset views and the view back down to Angkor Wat. This is the spot that most package tours pick for sunset views and so does get crowded, there are alternatives but I think this is the best place.

I wish I had had more time here but could only squeeze a couple of days in. Even in that short time I visited one of the most memorable and inspiring places on earth and can’t wait to go again.

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk

My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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