Our third, and last, day visiting the wonders of Angkor took us to the furthest temple in the complex. The Ladies’ Temple (Banteay Srei) is small but beautifully formed. In contrast to the grey stone of most of the other temples, it is built of pink sandstone, so it glows softly in the sunlight.
And almost every surface is intricately carved. At over 1,000 years old, it’s incredible how well preserved it is.
It is called the Ladies’ Temple because, unlike the rest of the Angkor buildings, female figures here are representations of deities rather than dancers. It is also the only one to be built by an academic rather than one of the kings.
We arrived at about 8.30am. Even so, there were 5 or 6 coachloads of other tourists already there. In such a confined space, it was tricky to walk through the temple while trying to avoid people’s photographs and circumnavigate groups listening intently to their guide.
Run by a man called Aki Ra, the Landmine Museum is also an NGO which helps clear mines in the region and cares for children whose lives have been blighted by them. Some have been injured themselves, while others have lost their parents.
Aki Ra was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, then was conscripted to the Vietnamese Army when they invaded and, finally, fought for the Government forces in the civil war against the Khmer Rouge. His specialism was laying mines. He set thousands over the years, but has now dedicated the rest of his life to clearing them.
It was clear that this was a project that had grown over the last ten years – from a ‘rogue’ operation which had to battle government disapproval to an integral part of the community.
The Butterfly Farm was not as big as one in Phuket but open to the air, with just a net to keep in the insects, so it felt more like a garden. It was full of flowers and (luckily) butterflies, and our $4 entrance fee included a quick tour of their pupae-raising facility. They supply around 4,000 pupae a month to Dutch butterfly farms, where it’s too cold to successfully breed species themselves. Local farmers are also trained to raise their own butterflies to help meet the demand.
The most remarkable discovery was the gold and silver pupae of one species. I have never seen reflective metallic colours like this in nature. In case the photos don’t quite do them justice, these cases looked more like jewellery than caterpillar spit!
A friend of ours, Siobhan, put down her thoughts when she visited Cambodia five years ago and it certainly seems that the whole area has changed in that time. The main sites in Angkor are now completely mine free and you can wander without worrying. However, as she observed then, Siem Reap is certainly one of the most affluent parts of Cambodia, with millions of tourist dollars flowing through – and some of them even getting into local pockets. When she was here there were virtually no ATMs in the country, now there’s very little to get in the way of tourists being able to get to their cash!
A final pit stop for one last look at Angkor Wat found it packed with Saturday wedding parties. Dozens of brides, grooms, photographers, flower-decked cars, make up ladies and other associated entourage.
And to round off a great day, giant prawns and steak with Kampot pepper for Allan, Baileys and the Doctor Who Xmas Special for Chloe. Perfect.
Allan approaching with a little nervousness a group of silk-robed monks that included an older one, two younger ones and one potential new recruit. They seemed so relaxed, having a chat beside the small lake in Angkor Thom, that disturbing them for a challenge seemed a little petty and imposing on their serenity.
Cue huge smiles when I asked one of them for a photograph. First photo taken, all his monk mates wanted to get into the action and proceeded to pose, in various combinations and being very smiley and giggling for the next few minutes.
So Commander Agu, you get your photograph of a monk. Plus as an additional bonus, included in the photo is another younger monk who seemed to be reading the Khymer equivalent of Hello! magazine (Is it called Sues’day?) – but was probably Monk Monthly.
We started with Preah Khan, an ancient Bhuddist monastery and, possibly, university. It gave us a glimpse of what Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple) might have looked like if it were less ravaged by the invading trees. Corridors and carvings are more intact, so it was easier to imagine people living and working there.
Then on to Angkor Thom (literally ‘massive city’), the big brother of Angkor Wat. At 3km a side, this monster is as effective a display of power and wealth as we have ever seen. The face looming over the entrance gate can be seen for hundreds of metres as you approach, and the bridge leading to it is lined with seven foot high statues of gods and demons. An approaching subject would be left in no doubt that they were an insect in the home of the god-king.
It was incredible, but covered in scaffolding, so we left the main path and headed towards a dozen orange stone towers on the edge of the jungle.
Here, a transformation occurred. The hundreds of tourists, the guides shouting out in different languages, the cries of local sellers, all faded into the distance.
We wandered among the towers, behind which we found a large pool still containing some water, despite the dry season. At one end were a group of monks, on whom more soon. Other than them, we encountered just one other tourist and a lady on a bike.
Oddly, it reminded us of the far end of Kew Gardens, where the pagoda appears from among the trees and there is peace after the bustle of the main gate.
The Elephant Terrace, however, could not be ignored. A 300m long wall adorned with life-size carvings of, you guessed it, elephants. It seemed almost restrained after the riot of gods, five-headed snakes, demons and warriors in other parts of the palace.
We had planned to see sunset at one of the other temples but, once we saw that every tourist, driver, guide and seller in Angkor had exactly the same idea, we asked Mr Ratha to drive on home.
We had already seen more wonderful things in a few hours than we could properly absorb and, besides, Chloe managed to purchase the Doctor Who Christmas Special in town this morning…
Having politely refused the guesthouse’s offer of full Lara Croft and Indiana Jones outfits, Chloe and Allan somehow managed to get up at 4.30am for a 5am pick-up by Mr Ratha, the trusty tuk-tuk driver, to see the sights of Angkor.
For those who don’t know, Angkor is the old capital of this whole region of SE Asia, covering an area of over 1000 sqkm. It contains over 100 old temples all built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Apparently, it was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. All this is pre-empting us saying, it’s big, very big. And also Tomb Raider was based/filmed here.
We bought a 3-day pass and started with sunrise over the Emperor’s old swimming pool, a massive stretch of enclosed water that must have been 500m length and width. The sky went from black to red to crimson to orange to golden to, well, the usual blue colour. A spectacular start, with only a few people around. The peace was only interrupted by “buy postcards for a dollar?”, “get you a coffee sir?” from a few local kids. They delivered the best cup of coffee for quite a while, so Allan definitely got value for his dollar.
Next up was Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed. This is unique for the trees, which once covered all the temples of Angkor, that have been left in place. The tree roots have wormed their way into the whole stone complex with spectacular, but ultimately catastrophic, consequences. The walls covered in a greenish sort of moss, the only noise the squawks of birds and insects, lots of doorways and steps – the whole place had an eerie and, bizarrely, a video game feeling. Allan fully expected Angelia Jolie to appear from the shadows – or was that just a dream?!
Finally, for today, we then jumped in the tuk-tuk again and went to Angkor Wat. This is the centrepiece of the whole area, with a huge set of very well preserved and restored buildings including temples, 4 libraries and many others all surrounded by a moat 180m wide. Yes, 180m. The scale of this place is something else. Picture postcard vistas are available at almost every turn and no photos will ever do it justice, especially ones by us!
It was time to give our excellent guide a break to avoid voice loss and being too “templed-out”. Until tomorrow where more sights await us as they have awaited many others since the whole area was re-discovered by Westerners over 150 years ago.
Having the luxury of five days here, we don’t need to launch straight onto the Angkor Wat trail, and instead of opt for a half day tour of some of Siem Reap’s other sights. Mr Ratha, our tuk tuk driver, suggests the silk farm and War Museum and we are happy to be lead.
The War Museum turns out to be a patch of land off the airport road crammed with military relics dating back to World War Two, but turned with alarming frequency on Cambodia’s own citizens. A huge US helicopter and a small fighter plane sit outside, while beyond the entry gate are tanks, artillery, small arms, grenades and the ever-present landmines.
Our guide has only worked at the museum for 10 weeks but is extremely knowledgeable about the weaponry within. He should be. He joined the army in 1979, when he was just 14, and has scars, shrapnel and the loss of one leg to prove it. He survived the Pol Pot regime and years of civil war only to lose his wife and 4-year old daughter to a landmine in 2006. Just as in Laos, Cambodians are still dying as a result of a war fought years ago.
In contrast, the silk farm is part of Cambodia’s future. A research and training facility, built on the site of an old UN refugee camp, Cambodians now come here to apprentice as silk makers and weavers.
From growing the mulberry bushes on which the moths feed, to collecting the silk from their cocoons, dyeing, spinning and weaving, all parts of the fabrics’s life cycle are covered. Some stay to work in the project, others leave to start their own business.
It takes a few months to learn the basics and a full year to learn patterning. Many of the designs are dyed into the straight silk yarn before weaving. So long as it is then woven accurately, the pattern emerges straight into the fabric, a sort of medieval computer programme.
Chloe could not resist a blue and bronze wrap in the little shop at the end of the tour, which was a pavilion of shining, draping, glowing, jewel-like colours. Dazzling.
Prices: Having to barter the price for the same bottle of water with the same seller every day is tiring. And don’t get us started on dual pricing between Vietnamese and Foreigners…
Culture: Defeating the American imperial forces and everything they stand for, then embracing American culture with skyscrapers, pool and KFC.
Cuisine: Wonderful Vietnamese cuisine in London and other cities. In the ‘real’ Vietnam, Pho Bo (beef noodles) everywhere, sometimes the only option, and “would sir/madam like eColi with that?”
Customer Service: What seems to equate to customer service in Vietnam is far too many people working/watching when it would be quicker with half the number of staff.
Capital: Ha Noi is the capital but all newer buildings, business and most of the “sights” are in Saigon.
Overall Vietnam had some great places to visit – Halong Bay was worth this whole trip alone. It did however have the most frightening roads known to humanity, the dirtiest streets we have seen so far, some good food on occasions (but the least said about some of the food hygiene the better).
Maybe it was the timing of the visit, coinciding with missing certain home comforts, the almost constant rain and food poisoning in north Vietnam, but 4 weeks in Vietnam did sometimes seem a long way from home.
Click here for our photos – we still managed to get out and about to see some amazing sites. And still beats working for a living!
Whilst perusing the menu at our lovely cottages on the coast, we spotted a very strange menu item. Shrimp Salad and Dragon at a slightly expensive 80,000 Dong. Cue jokes amongst us (and the Cowleys) of’ ‘flame grilled’, ‘bet that’s served rare’, ‘bet it tastes like chicken’, ‘dragon wings’ and all sorts of other puns too rubbish to mention.
Allan simply had to order and found it was a salad of giant prawns and dragon fruit. For those who haven’t tried dragon fruit, which we hadn’t before we came to SE Asia, is a delicious, magenta, funny-shaped fruit.
So, Shrimp Salad with Dragon. Very good but still need to find St. George to taste the real thing.
It is not until the first evening in Mui Ne that realisation dawns. The prevalence of old pool tables. The strong preference for late 60s and early 70s music. We slowly realise that these are not evidence of some new craze for thirty-year old Americana but genuine relics from the US presence here.
The pool cues we are holding are certainly old and heavy enough to be from the 70s. Who else has held them? It’s like playing billiards with ghosts.
The next day, during a massage, Chloe can’t stop herself from looking to check whether the machine blasting out the Carpenters and Carole King is actually an 8-Track.
BBC World coverage was fairly low key and short-lived, but I suppose it’s a purely domestic story.
We speculated who had held onto the ‘new evidence’ long enough to ensure that it demoted Blair’s appearance before the Iraq Inquiry to second place news, but in the end just decided to savour the moment…