SIEM REAP: Angkor Archaeological Park
As the pastel colours begin reflecting off the pond in front of me I check the settings on the camera and bang off another couple of shots. I’ve been up since four am with the hope of getting into position early enough to get the “sunrise shot” of Angkor Wat. It’s now 5.15 am and the crowd is beginning to swell in dawns first light. A good mate, and fellow photographer, told me to get here by five otherwise I wouldn’t get a front row spot. He was right. I arrived a few minutes before five and most of the best positions were already taken. I swooped when a bunch of American pros moved off the embankment and down onto the sand at water level. With my miners headlamp in place I set up the camera tripod right at the edge of the drop to the water with the front leg leaving barely a thirty centimeter gap to the edge. A narrow enough space to keep out any intruders; or so I thought. Things were going well until a bunch of twittering mainland Chinese ladies decided to squeeze themselves in a long that thirty centimeter space between the front tripod leg and edge of the embankment. Five of them wriggled themselves into position and immediately began tearing open packets of crisps, and talking without interruption, while they banged away on their I Phones at the same time. If this is the future of humanity; we are in trouble.
Unfortunately, in the short period of time I’ve been here (2 days) I’ve developed a healthy dislike for mainland Chinese tour groups. One word describes these hordes; loud. I don’t what it is about them but they seem to have a much smaller area of personal space than western people. The average westerner is comfortable with a one meter distance between him/her and another being. When another being moves within that one meter radius we become less comfortable; even guarded. The mainland Chinese don’t seem to have any comfort zone or, if they do, it’s at an absolute minimum. How else would one explain the fact they can be within ten centimeters of each other and still be shouting at the top of their lungs in normal conversation? Perhaps many mainland Chinese suffer from acute hearing loss due to being bellowed at constantly by others at a ten centimeter distance?
As the sun inches towards the horizon the pastel hues of dawn dissipate and the dark shadows give way to a whiter light. The early soft light of the day reveals a crowd which has ballooned to at least three hundred and there are still more arriving to get the “shot.” Unfortunately for them the “shot” has already gone. As yellow rays flash into the skies above I put on my shades and begin packing up the camera gear. There’s a carnival feel to the crowd as people can be seen eating and making merry. On the stretch of land between the pond, and Angkor Wat, a group of Japanese is busy organizing the latest fad in Japanese action photography. While one guy faces a line-up of friends, with his hands thrust forward supposedly using magical powers to ward them off, the line-up jump in the air, in unison, and touch their toes. It takes a few goes to get it right but eventually the timing is correct as everyone, on the count of three, jumps up and touches their toes simultaneously. According to my Tuk-Tuk driver this is actually the low season and the numbers would be even greater in the early months of the year when temperatures are cooler. I don’t think I’d really want to be here in the high season as the crowds, at all the sites I’ve visited so far, have been a pain to say the least. It’s not so much the individuals, or couples, one sees about but more the hordes of mainland Chinese and Koreans. They go to every site en-masse and their modus operandi seems to be “been there, got the photo,” and onto the next spot. They have an infuriating habit of blocking up the access ways and footpaths in pursuit of their “proof that I’ve been there for the folks back home photo’s.”
I bought a guide book at one of the sites I visited the previous day which mentioned the eastern side of Angkor Wat at first light being a great spot for some wide angle photography. As I make my way over there a bunch of Koreans, with umbrellas already up, is heading in the same direction and being led by one of those flag waving tour leaders. I speed up to get past them and as the sun clears the horizon I’m already dripping in perspiration. Whatever you may think, or be led to believe, about the seasons in Cambodia I can assure you that the month of May is not the rainy season. It’s the last week in May and, to use a bit of good old Aussie lingo, it’s absolutely redders out there mate. The hotel staff informed me that the mercury would be above forty degrees Celsius for this time of the year. I don’t doubt it. I’m still feeling a bit fried after my previous afternoon in the heat at Angkor Thom and the Bayon. I arrive at the eastern side of the site and it’s all good; the troupe of umbrella wielding Koreans have decided to go into the temple. I spend an hour moving about getting shots with different lenses and then decide it’s time for some shade and a bit of breakfast. Back on the western side – back behind the pond – there’s a line-up of thatched roofed, roadside noodle restaurants under a swathe of trees. As a sit there enjoying a strong Cambodian coffee, and a banana pancake, I consider my next move for the day. I’ve already got two sites – Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – out of the way; the next stop, later in the afternoon, would be Ta Prohm. I was planning to rest up during the heat of the day and conserve a bit of energy for my trip up to the remote temple sites of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea the following day.
The hotel I was staying at, the Indochine Pavillon; http://www.pavillon-indochine.com/ was one of the closest to the Angkor Archaeological Park and, as such, provided a very quiet night’s sleep due to the fact that it was a good fifteen minutes, by tuk-tuk, out of town. The free tuk-tuk service, provided by the hotel, also included runs into the town center. At the end of each day of temple exploring I’d head into town for a decent meal and a cold Angkor. The town of Siem Reap has developed into the bog standard tourist melee that one sees throughout this part of the world. Think of Patong Beach, twenty years ago, and you’ll get the general idea. Even though supposedly the low season; tourist central was still packed with Barangs (foreigners) drinking, dining and wandering about in the warm evening weather. Tourist central is actually a couple of blocks, at the town center, which is packed with hotels, bars, restaurants, travel agents, massage outlets and trinket sellers. The majority of the foreigners, seen on “Pub Street” tend to fall into two categories; the Barang traveler/backpacker type and or the Asian package tour type. As I sat there tucking into my delicious street side barbecue at the Golden Coconuts restaurant I considered something which, prior to arriving in Cambodia, I’d been told of the place and, now that I was there, was very much the case. Compared to what one encounters in Thailand, the English proficiency level of the Cambodians seems to be much better. This is quite surprising considering the economic disparity between the two but not wholly unexpected given the historical background of both countries.
This will probably upset a few of the “rose tinted glasses brigade” in Thailand but here we go anyway. It is my experience after being in this region for the past twenty years that, regardless of what you may think of it, the main benefit of colonization is an expanded appreciation of larger world beyond one’s own borders. The Thais regularly boast that they’ve never been colonized but the fact remains, compared to the mindset of the peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia, they are a rather insular, and inward looking, nation. Being exposed, over a long period of time, to another culture, language, cuisine will eventually develop an expanded way of thinking amongst the population. A way of understanding there’s a bigger world out there – beyond one’s own borders – with plenty to offer in terms of ideas, and ways of doing things, which can be beneficial. Okay, I know that Cambodia was colonized by the French but what I’m really getting at is the thought processes involved; the idea of understanding a bigger picture in life. Some may argue that Cambodia has no choice but to collectively embrace the English language; they’re behind the eight ball economically and need to do everything they can to maximize the opportunities afforded to them. This maybe so but the fact remains you can’t force the man on the street do anything against his own free will. For the general populace to embrace English language skills, to the level we see in Cambodia, there has to be something else going on there. I see an openness of thinking leading to a willingness to embrace ideas, and ways of doing things, which emanate from beyond one’s own borders. In Thailand, sorry to say, I don’t see the same openness of thinking. For the average Thai person Thailand is the center of the universe and, as far as many are concerned, there’s no need to learn English to any reasonable degree. The prevailing attitude seems to emphatically be “why should we learn English? If foreigners come to Thailand they must learn Thai language.” And that, as they will eventually find out, is an insular and xenophobic approach that will see their neighbor and rival, Vietnam, zoom right past them.
Something else which, over the past two decades, has been synonymous with any mention of Cambodia is landmines. A few years ago a lot of the country was unsafe to roam about in due to the fact that there was a very high likelihood of stepping on a land mine. According to the driver, Phan, who took me up to the remote temples site, the majority of the country is now land mine free and quite safe for travel. During the short time I’d been in country I’d seen a number of limbless victims of the dreaded landmine scourge. It’s quite sobering when one sees these people and the way in which they seem to “take it on the chin” and get on with trying to earn a living. It makes one realize that living a life with all limbs in place is a bonus. The fellow in the picture following was sitting along a dimly lit side street just away from the main tourist area. He was playing his accordion when I first saw him so I stopped to see what his story was. In the small amount of English he spoke he told me that he was a soldier, and veteran, of the civil war (I didn’t ask him which side he was on). He made it right through the war, unscathed, only to step on a land mine after hostilities had stopped. Talk about bad luck.
Note: A big pat on the back to the Australian government who, according to Phan, were the largest contributors in terms of funding, personnel and training in the effort to rid the country of land mines.
After 5 days/4 nights in Siem Reap it was time to move on to Phnom Penh. I’d covered all the main sites and also done a one day trip to the remote temple sites of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. A few observations for those planning a trip to Siem Reap:
There’s an entry fee for Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s USD 20 for one day or USD 40 for three days. The three day option is obviously the best if you want to have a good look around.
I visited in what was apparently the low season – May – and even though it was as hot as Hades, there were still plenty of people about. According to most of the locals I spoke with the cooler moths of Dec, Jan, and Feb see a significant increase in the numbers of sightseers; beware the dreaded Korean and Chinese tour groups.
If you are after a dawn photo; get there early – before 5 am. The eastern side, just after sunrise, is also a great spot for some wide angle photography. In the upper levels of Angkor Wat you are required to wear a shirt which covers the shoulders. Singlet’s and tank tops aren’t permissible for entry into the upper levels of the temple.
ANGKOR THOM AND THE BAYON:
This is the largest site so allow at least 3 – 4 hours for a decent look around. Start early (8 am) at the Preah Pilaly end then work your way back along the Terrace of Elephants to finish at the Bayon. A lot of the structures, particularly the Bayon, have no trees providing shade so the afternoons can be stifling as well as crowded.
This site is one of the most interesting due to the entangled tree growth amongst the ruins. It’s also a bit further away than Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and, as such, tends to be a spot which is popular in the late afternoons. Buck the trend and go first thing in the morning to avoid the package group hordes.
A small site with ornate red coloured stone work. This site is 37 kilometers from Siem Reap Township. If you travel out in a tuk-tuk be prepared for a run time of an hour each way. Due to the distance this also tends to be an afternoon site so, once again, buck the trend and go early in the morning.
PHNOM BAKENG (SUNSET HILL):
A good spot for some sunset pics but get there early as the place is packed by 5.30 pm. Be in position by 5 pm otherwise you may need to wait on numbers to leave before being allowed up onto the temple at the top. Apparently, it’s 300 maximum allowed up on the structure at any one time.
THE REMOTE SITES OF KOH KER AND BENG MEALEA:
These two sites are on the same route with Koh Ker being the most distant (130 km) from Siem Reap. Visit Koh ker in the morning and Beng Mealea in the afternoon, on the way back. Allow a full day; car hire with a driver was USD 70 for the day. For those who are interested; follow this link to my travel blog http://www.megaworldasia.com/2013/06/06/off-the-beaten-track-in-siem-reap-the-remote-temple-sites-of-koh-ker-and-beng-mealea/#more-1420
To be continued in the trip report about Phnom Penh.