Angkor What?

Cambodia could not be ticked off the bucket list without seeing Angkor Vat and the time came that we went to Siem Reap. We were procrastinating for a long time, finding any excuse for not going there just yet, but our visa was not unlimited and time started to shrink. The only reason we were not overly excited about Siem Reap was its huge popularity. Coming there from peaceful Battambang was a little shocking. There were tuk tuks, hotels, souvenir stalls, food, music and people people people all around. The town was overflowing with the Chinese, Russians and a mix of the rest. I don’t think I have ever been to a place with a bigger density of tourists per square meter.

On our first of three days in Angkor we got up at 4am and cycled 10km in dark to get to Angkor Vat for sunrise. We thought we may not be the only ones with the idea, but we didn’t expect the numbers that we saw. It was like waiting for Metallica to appear on stage, thousands of people shoulder in shoulder staring in one direction afraid to move and lose a good spot. In the end the awaited by thousands sunrise was almost non existent as the sky was partly overcast and visibility was poor. There was something mystic and intriguing in the colours of it, but one had to look carefully to notice it. I am not sure how many of the people appreciated it, but they for sure were taking one photo after another.

Arriving there so early gave us plenty of time to visit Angkor Vat and enjoy its magnificent architecture. The only nuisance there and in other popular temples were local people insisting on making us buy something from them. Women and children were especially annoying as they didn’t take no for an answer. “Pinapple ladieeeeeeeee?! One dolla!,”Guidebook misteeeeeeeeer?! One dolla!”. It took patience and indifferent resilience to remain calm and polite. The visit to the temples was in a constant contrast between majestic peacefulness of ancient ruins and restless attacks of the local sellers.

To avoid tourists and the sellers altogether we went to the most popular templates such as Bayon and Ta Phrom (the Tomb Raider temple) with the first morning light – 6-7am was the best time. It was a little hard to wake up and get on bicycles when hens were still sleeping, but when we got there, it was like stepping into a world of fantasy. So mysterious and grand, squashed by enormous trees, almost forgotten by the world and swallowed by the jungle before it was rediscovered. Full of history and proud sadness, the ruins seemed to be telling stories of prosperity and good health, now long gone, only stones and broken walls remaining.

In two days we managed to see the most important temples of Angkor and on the third day we went back to the ones we liked the most. Bayon style architecture (City of Bayon, Ta Phrom, Ta Som and Preah Khan) were our absolute favorites and we would go back there again and again if time permitted.
After three days of cycling our legs were pretty strained. We did an average of 30-40km a day. We could have taken a tuk tuk and it was in fact the most common means of transport, but a three day pass to Angkor was quote pricey and we had to limit our expenses. Riding bikes to the temples was lots of fun though. We were independent, small enough to manouvre in heavy traffic and ecological.

While in Siem Reap, apart from Angkor we also visited Les Chantiers Ecoles, art and craft school for disadvantaged young people where they learned sculpture, painting, metal work and silk weaving. Even though it all looked very pretty my strong impression was that they “used” the students as cheap labour to make template artworks that were then sold for a lot of money in the very chick souvenir shop on the premises of the school. When we asked our guide if the artwork was sold outside the school too he said that there was no need because the school made much more money selling the goods in their shop than it would anywhere else. The same applied to the silk farm that we went to visit on a free tour organised by the school. It was a very informative trip that opened us the doors to silk making factory, but I couldn’t help the questions in my head: How much did the students have to produce before obtaining a qualification? Did they get any percentage from the profit of the goods sold?

In Cambodia it’s best not to ask serious questions. They want tourists (especially in places like Siem Reap) to come, leave their dollars and go. “Cash splash” is what they want to see from visitors and the Chinese are most likely to satisfy that wish. Europeans, we heard, are much more careful about what they spend money on and where that money went to.

Even though Siem Reap was not our dream destination it was big enough to deliver good entertainment for New Years Eve and so we stayed there to celebrate. We started the evening with circus show of Battambang circus school graduates (yet it was not as good as the students’ show we saw in Battambang). Afterwards we went to dinner and ended the evening dancing to rock tunes at a live music venue. At 2am outdoor party on Pub Street was rolling and we joined it for a while. We just couldn’t resist dancing Macarena with a mixed crowd of young Khmers, travelers and tourists. It was a good night.

We only got 2h of sleep that night because we had a bus at 5am the following morning (genial idea right?). While other people were still on their way back to hotels, our 15h long bus drive to Stung Treng begun.

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Waiting for sunrise, Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Waiting for sunrise, Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Vat, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Bayon, Angkor Archeological Park

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Ta Phrom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Ta Phrom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Ta Phrom, Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Angkor Archeological Park

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Les Chantieres Edicoles, Siem Reap

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Circus Performance, Siem Reap

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Circus Performance, Siem Reap

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