Sunday, October 5, 2008

The ethereal majesty of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Nick Claxton has never ventured outside of Europe before but a combination of too many years in London, a lack of proper responsibilities and an unhealthy admiration for Michael Palin now means he is spending a year travelling the globe. A terminally-disorganised 24-year-old taking on the world - solo. Here is his 19th blog entry: 

Anyone making a list of world wonders has to find space for the Angkor Wat if they want to be taken seriously. Built as both a religious monument and the thriving hub of a capital city, this hulking grey structure was the crowning glory of the Angkor Empire. 

But one of the most amazing things about this site is that it was forgotten for centuries - only when the French colonial troops took over Cambodia in the mid-19th century did the world discover this string of temple complexes hidden under the green foliage. 

Now of course, it is Cambodia's main tourist attraction - bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year - and this has seen the nearby town of Siem Reap transform into a traveller-friendly base camp for trips to the Angkor ruins - even including an international airport. 

As much as I'd have loved to get a bird's-eye view of the Angkor Wat, the slightly costly flights (around £85) helped convince me to take the leisurely option of gliding through tight waterways to reach Siem Reap by boat (£7 per person). 

Six hot hours of cutting through the Cambodian countryside waving at kids was followed by two hours skimming over the lilies and waves of the stunning Tonle Sap Lake. 

It was as if our little ferry had been cast out to sea since the blue waves bobbing us gently along continued out as far as the horizon - I hadn't realised that the Tonle Sap comes close to rivalling Lake Ontario in size. 

But luckily, our plucky wooden boat had no need to tackle that empty expanse as the dock for Siem Reap was only a few miles further up the same bank. And as ever, the arrival of a group of Westerners sparked the salesmen and tuk-tuk drivers into frenzy. 

Eight hours on the river had proved gruelling by the end, so when Charlie and I plunged stubbornly into the calls of 'look here!' and 'buy something?' we grabbed the nearest sensibly-priced tuk-tuk and motored out of the mayhem. Ahead of us lay the promise of peaceful days nosing around temples. 

Base camp for our excursions into the jungle was set up at the Angkor Riverside Hotel (twin room for £15 a night) - a clean and mostly forgettable place, apart from the experience of opening the curtains next morning to see forty pairs of pointy teeth grinning back. Having a crocodile farm just outside our hotel room window is definitely a new one on me! 

Thankfully, we weren't breakfast so we went to get some of our own and poke around Siem Reap. The town's foreigner-friendly vibe was a departure from Battambang's countryside charms - it has more than everything to make the hordes of visiting tourists comfortable. But even though it's a small town, I never felt like it was chock-full of people. 

Only during late nights on Pub Street did it become clear just how many people were visiting, even in low season. We rarely found the energy to pack out the bars till the wee hours after hours of clambering over temples in the hot sun each day, but if you can manage it, the photos and graffiti from bleary nights at the Angkor What? bar tell a tale of Siem Reap that differs from ours, that's for sure. 

Instead, we focused on the temples and our chosen guide Mr Lim helped us out despite his stutter when speaking English. Probably it would have been better if we'd shopped around the tuk-tuk drivers a bit more, but we got the gist more often than not as we trundled between temples, clambered over the ruins and had our heart-strings pulled all over the place by the kids selling souvenirs. 

My abiding memories of those few days are of the atmosphere of calm around the temples. We tried not to rush things and just drink it all in - as much as we could before all the temples started merging into one. 

Of course, that couldn't happen to one particular temple. We left the iconic Angkor Wat till last (even driving past it with my eyes shut) so we could get up at dawn for the sunrise. Although the crowds and clouds made it slightly disappointing, the stillness and anticipation created something magical in the air for that half hour. 

Its sheer size compared to the other sites was its most impressive feature. It may not have the most striking motifs (Bayon's faces claim that one for me) or a lost paradise vibe (head out to Beng Mealea) but looming presence dominated the whole area. 

They were originally built to symbolise the Hindu belief in the five-peaked mountain of Meru - home to the gods - but the influence of Buddhism spawned newer murals, sculptures and carvings that have kept the Angkor Wat close to Cambodian's hearts as the iconic symbol of their country's past glory. 

Following the Killing Caves in Battambang, it was cheering to see the people's pride in Cambodia has survived the Khmer Rouge. However, my next stop in Phnom Penh would provide no such escape from the recent past. 

Nicholas Claxton

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