Third day off the bikes today but a day of serious sight seeing at Cambodia’s biggest draw – the Angkor Wat temples. Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious structure in the world but the whole area consists of numerous temples dating from about 950 to 1200, being the height of the Khmer empire. 2 million visit each year so we knew it would be a real tourist honey trap.
The guide books rate going to see the sunrise over the temples but we decided we did not want to share the sunrise with thousands of others and left our little apartment as it got light. It was about 10km to the site via the ticket office. We arrived as many were leaving to have their breakfast after seeing the sunrise so our first couple of hours looking round the magnificence of Angkor Wat was cool and not too busy. Our previous temple visits had layered in quite a lot of knowledge and history already so we did not feel we were starting from scratch and just tried to take in the building and carvings.
Many headed serpents, dancing girls, lotus flowers were all motives we had seen before. We made out way up the 3 levels of the towers and up the steep stairs to the inner sanctum of the middle tower. Only limited numbers are allowed in at a time so it was peaceful with great views. Then looking around magnificent Bas Reliefs in the outer walls chronicling wars, battles, ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ and the 37 heavens and 32 hells of Hindu mythology, among other things.
Like so many of the worlds great buildings they are at the same time incredible places but also rather obscene in the extent they are usually individual vanity projects of powerful people. The stats were huge – 300,000 people worked on the construction. Over a million people living in the temple complexes and surrounding area. It probably also contributed to the demise of the empire that was already waning – imagine if those 300,000 were engaged in constructive economic activity! So there was something monstrous about the temple edifice as well as being hugely impressive.
As the day began to heat up we retreated for our second breakfast and then headed to our next area, cycling on a few km under shady avenues to Angkor Thom – in effect a walled city.
At the centre was the temple of Bayon – 54 towers with (nearly) benignly (but possibly menacingly) smiling heads looking in all 4 directions. It really was spectacular.
We were beginning to wane but thought we would try and take in one more temple before retreating back to our apartment for the afternoon. Ta Promh was billed as a shady site that was good to see in the middle of the day as it was shady.
Unfortunately a multitude of tour groups also had the same idea and the place was gridlocked! The forest has encroached here and tree roots entwine round some of the walls and the complex was full of little alley ways and corridors that were heaving with people. This as the temple used for Lara Croft – Tomb Raider but, as we had never seen the film, that did not do anything for us. We quickly had enough and departed. There is only so much you can do in one day!
You could spend days or even weeks exploring the place but we had decided on just spending the day. We felt we had built on the temples we had already seen and got a really good feel of what the region meant. So after resting until the day began to cool we did not feel an urge to try and ‘tick off’ any more temples. We did though decide that would go and see the sunset , having missed the sunrise, that was also billed a ‘must do’ in the guidebook. This was spectacularly unsuccessful! We got there just after 5.30pm, about half an hour before sunset, but the gate had just closed and everyone was being turfed out. The sun was hidden by the trees and no sunset was seen. Hey ho. Back on the bikes to pedal back into town.
We needed to go into the centre of Siem Reap to find provisions (although there are a lot of small shops they carry few provisions – crisps and snacks but little substantial). As we paused to adjust the bag, 2 cyclists passed us – “they are touring cyclists” said David (clue – dusty bikes, numerous water bottles, handlebar bags) “let’s catch them up”. We met Sam and Matt who had in fact just met themselves cycling on the road. The 4 of us therefore went of a beer (toasting our friend Pat who has a significant birthday today) and a meal on the infamous ‘Pub Street’ (in fact food was very good) and swapped travellers tales and had a very enjoyable evening.
All in all another memorable day. Back on the road tomorrow.