Or “Gnarly Octopus Fingers in the Jungle”
We had arrived in Siem Reap to a power outage that lasted for a total of five days. Five days where the rich had enough power to light Christmas decorations, the middle class a barking generator that would enable for enough AC to not want to kill someone and the poor to sit under the stars in candlelight as they did not even have enough money for a generator. In a country that has one major tourist vein which is Siem Reap, it baffles me how the government didn’t make fixing those electricity poles their number one priority. But after having spent almost 2 weeks in this country now, I am starting to think that the corruption that flows through the arteries of the government is too thick to penetrate.
It was this power outage that made us lazy and stay pool side for the first day, the coolness of the water much more attractive than any temple could ever be. This was also how we met Tony and Heidi, which would lead to a lot of margarita drinking that evening, but since the accompanying food was Mexican it just fit the mood perfectly.
So it was with a slightly thick head and tongue that I woke up the following morning when we had planned to visit Angkor Wat, the main reason Cambodia had made it on our list. We had opted for the 3-day pass, assuming that we would take half day tours of the site and then return in the afternoon for a refreshing dip in the pool. We set out not as early as we had planned which meant that we would arrive at Angkor Wat just a little before midday, under the scorching eyes of the Cambodian sun.
A long walkway crossing a river leads towards the gate of Angkor Wat which is the most known of the temples and the one that appears on every postcard of the country. Being a UNESCO Heritage site and I think one of the New World wonders it brings in millions of tourists every year. It was the fact that we had started later than everyone else that made it possible for us to move around the site quite easily and without pushing aside thousands of tour groups. That of course did not mean that we were alone, far from it. But it did mean that our first encounter with the Cambodian heritage turned out to be a relatively quiet and serene one.
Mural carvings fill the outside wall, ancient stories of battles past. Horseback riders on their way to fight the enemy, all in the name of the king, all in the name of the country.
Maybe my future self would look at very similar mural paintings or carvings that would depict our wars, our battles, and think to himself that they were glorious and necessary in order to bring peace to our people.
But as we walked amidst the vast ruins of Angkor Wat I did wonder whatever happened to that mighty kingdom. What had become of them and how come that these people, these descendants of almost gods, were now living in a poverty that could only be beaten by the poorest countries of Africa. What had happened that these once mighty, skilful people had turned into lazy ones that preferred a day time siesta over working hard? We had seen the same in Mexico and in Peru, where once developed kingdoms reigned over the country. But what we had felt in those countries , was the hope , the need, the motivation to pull themselves up from the bottom and try to get back on top. It was these kinds of thoughts that wandered through my head as we walked amongst ancient passageways and great courtyards, that had once housed thousands of people.
As we left the ruins of Angkor Wat we looked back one more time and caught a glimpse of the wondrous architecture that had so many people drawn to it and fill the canvasses of hundreds of artists.
Although the site of Angkor Wat was impressive I cannot say that it fulfilled my expectations. Maybe it was the fact that we were not green-eared and blue-eyes anymore and had seen both the beautiful history of the Mayan’s and the Inca’s. Maybe it was just the fact that Machu Pichu, Uxmal and Chichen Itza had raised the bar so high, or maybe it was just the fact that I had expected to wander around in jungles and see the same images I had seen as a kid watching Indiana Jones or a couple of years back when Lara Croft was hunting for treasure. I was looking for that sense of adventure, for that unique glimpse into the life of a treasure hunter and the ruins that kept those secrets well hidden. Angkor Wat was a well manicured site that had nothing to do with any of that...
It was on our next stop that my heart suddenly skipped a beat and I felt a rush of adrenaline course through my adventure seeking veins. We had entered Angkor Thom, a great walled city by all standards. And in its midst was the temple of Bayon.
The light fell just right, painting the ruins in such a warm glow that made them seem more alive, as though if I just blinked the right way I would suddenly see a hubbub of people rushing about their daily life, thousands of years ago. I was transported back in time and could envision the life that had been led by a culture that is long extinct.
Fallen pillars, broken stones, ancient steps that had been eroded by time and nature – it was a clear sign of the detereation of the Cambodian people, but it was still mesmerizing to look at!
It was afternoon by the time we reached the temple of Te Phrom, one of the major highlights we had come to see and also one of the most visited ones! Main reason for the influx of tourists were the gnarly tree roots that had come to claim back some of what is rightfully theirs, spreading their fingers along the walls. Slowly but surely they were spreading over the ruins, their massive roots cascading from above like waterfalls.
Unfortunately this was also the time that most tours arrived at this wonderful sites, so after we had gotten a little grumpy and fed up with the surging crowds, we decided to visit this site again the following morning, when hopefully people would be...well, elsewhere!
After another somewhat alcohol shaped night out with Tony and Heidi, this time red wine (my personal kryptonite!), we woke up a little later, having a better plan of what we wanted to do with our day.
As we had discovered that the site of Te Phrom would probably be the most interesting one visually, we headed there first, whilst the blood was still pumping through our veins. Instead of entering through the main gates though, we decided to walk along the outer wall, enjoying the fact that we were almost alone and the beautiful scenery around us. Again we saw crumbling walls, stones lying one on top of the other, trees and bushes spreading out their tentacles as they reclaimed their rightful place. The place burst with an enigmatic feel, as if there was a hidden treasure somewhere in its midst, below the rubble, below the trees, below what could be seen with the plain eye. This was exactly what I had come to see and I must say that it exceeded my expectations. The lively jungle around us, with the orchestra of animals and the lack of people (at least where we wandered) gave us the sense of walking in the footsteps of Indiana Jones and that any moment now we would find ourselves in a deep cavern filled with ancient treasures!
And by the way, this might give you an idea of how huge these trees and their roots where!
No, I didn’t shrink myself!!
Immersed in the surrounding my imagination already had hundreds if not thousands of images playing themselves out in my mind, all of which could be used in the sequel of my book (which I ALMOST finished by the way!!).
It was with a content heart and buoyancy in our steps that we left the site and started our way along what is called The Big Circle, in order to see two more sites before we returned back to our hotel.
We visited the site of Ta Som mostly because it came recommended by the “Internet” :-) By itself Ta Som isn’t as unique as Ta Phrom, but it does feature some remarkable statues and carvings in its stone walls that made our trip there worthwhile.
Another interesting feature was a live show of my ample strength...and posing, of course!
We rested a little and had ourselves some crackers and coke (our usual “safe” lunch ever since we travelled in Mexico :-)), with some of the most beautiful surroundings we had ever ‘lunched’ at...
We had the place almost to ourselves and were disturbed only once by a little girl who had started to eye our crackers, so we gave her one and she ran off into the distance, content to have gotten a small bite of Western cuisine before her lunch :-)
Our last major stop for the day was Preah Khan, one of the larger sites on the route. By now we had gotten a little tired and needed more resting places than at the beginning of the day. Especially since the day had turned from slightly overcast to brightly sunny and although I was wearing a bandana, I could feel the sweat accumulate beneath it!
After walking amidst the ruins for a while we found ourselves a quiet corner, away from the main vein of people, close to the trees and the surrounding wall, munching our crackers and spicy nuts, enjoying the silence, the view, the serenity and the small breeze that cooled our backs.
I realized that this might be the last “big” thing on our trip, this place, this time, this scene. And whereas before the thought of ending the trip would have freaked me out and sent me spiralling into the dark abyss of depression, I had gotten a certain calmness about it, content with what I had seen so far, knowing that this was not the end, only the beginning of something else. But the ruins, the tranquillity, the peace of the place and the cute little dog that sat next to us, nibbling some of the cookies we had given her, all made for the perfect picture, which, although not captured by camera, will remain in my memory for a long time.
It was time to leave Preah Khan, as even here the tour groups had arrived and started to disturb the silence around us. We had only two more little stops en route, one of them being the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom.
I think together with turtles, the elephants are animals that we have grown very fond of on this trip, realizing just how intelligent they were and how vital it was to respect them and their needs and not exploit them as a means to an end for human pleasure. This is why we were so taken back by people riding the elephants on the street on their way to one of the temples. Now that we had seen what these carriages do to their backs all I wanted to do was to throw those ignorant people off the elephant’s backs. But, alas, I cannot save the world by myself, so I hope that at least the readers of this blog will always say ‘no’ to elephant rides...
We did a small pit stop at the site of Prasat Bai, mostly because after seeing the elephants I needed to vent a little and that meant that something had to be conquered, and the top of the temple was just the thing for it!
Leaving my fear of heights at the bottom of the staircase I slowly made my way up the narrow steps. Although the view from above wasn’t anything interesting, my sense of accomplishment was fulfilled and I could enjoy a few more poses for the camera :-)
An amazing day can only be finished with an amazing picture, and since I have given you quite a lot of temples to digest, this one is different...but still beautiful!
After our friends had left and we were left to wander by ourselves through the streets of Siem Reap. The town itself is made up of one major tourist block, which encompasses Pub Street and the Old Market. Here you can find anything from high end restaurants to $1 Tacos and $1.50 Margaritas (my other kryptonite!), souvenirs and whatever else your heart desires.
Little alleys hid smaller restaurants and shops and even if there had been no temples nearby, there was so much eating and drinking one could do in Siem Reap to keep you busy for at least a week.
“Ladieeeee, you want somesssiiiiiiing” or “Ladieeeeee, we have your siyyyyyze”– this was the general approach of the sellers as we wandered through the markets in search for a souvenir and to have a look at the arts and crafts of the local (and Made in China) tradesman...
On our last day in Siem Reap we decided to join a cooking class, something we had wanted to do since Mexico I think, and we now finally had the time and opportunity to experience. Our chef was a little lady called Sevoun, who, luckily for us, had a great sense of humour and was willing to suffer through 4 hours of my jokes... :-)
We visited the local market in order to get some last fresh ingredients for our choice of lunch. To say that it was a somewhat unique experience would be an understatement, as this was our first visit to a local Cambodian market and believe me, it’s not for everyone’s stomach! Chicken legs poking at you from the side, the toes clearly visible, live fish escaping from the butcher’s knife and landing next to your feet, pig’s head staring at you with its identifiable snout. All of that and much more was what awaited us at the market and seeing the hubbub of the locals as they bought their meat, vegetables, spices and fruit was an interesting clash of cultures (with our almost sterile supermarkets and all...).
We then set out to prepare our meals, little Sevoun dashing between us, helping when needed, explaining what fruit and spices we would add and what flavour we could expect, all the time happy and in good spirits.
As you can see, work was hard, especially grinding the spices, which needed some extra work from my tired muscles!
Ronni had herself some Mango salad to mix, and what better way than to stick your hands right into it and do it with gusto?! :-)
In the end we made some delicious meals, with Ronni’s mango salad refreshing, my papaya salad spicy and our main dishes of cashew chicken and pineapple pork tasting soooooo good!
After a good time and some excellent food it was time to say goodbye to lovely Sevoun and return to our pool and to what we do best – Margaritas... :-)