Monday, March 25, 2013

Siem Reap Cambodia and the temples of Angkor Wat


 Langkawi is a convenient spot to head off for land based travel. You can fly to Shanghai for 299RM on Air Asia which is about a hundred bucks Australian. India is only 2 hours flight away but it’s not an Air Asia destination. We had our 500 US prize money tucked into the frame of our one and only painting and it needed spending. One morning, up popped an email from Getaway selling 5 nights in Siem Reap Cambodia at a 5 star brand new luxury resort for 100 dollars a night per couple. Perfect! We got online to our favourite airline and soon had flights from Langkawi to Siem Reap with, however, an unfortunate over night stay in KL. Shae, our youngest daughter would be holidaying on the boat in Rebak marina while we were gone and doing a bit of cat sitting as part of the bargain.

are we there yet? in tk tuk on way to resort

Travelling is a buzz and that buzz comes from the sheer joy of heading off to somewhere you have never been before while comfortably accommodated in the lap of luxury. My youth hostel days are over and we have decided post Siem Reap that if you have to walk more than 20 paces between room, pool and restaurant then we find another resort. You will be greatly relieved to learn that Navatu resort and spa came in a comfortable 10 paces. Ahhhhh, there’s nothing like the comfort of home after doing it hard on the yacht.

The plane landed and after a slightly grumpy welcome from immigration we were met by Perome, our tuk tuk driver who would take us back to the hotel and then become our personal driver. Tuk tuks, Cambodian style, are motor bikes with a small carriage attached to the back of the bike. The resort is about 7ks out of town and the last stretch of road is dirt that desperately needs a grader. Our buzz was beginning to fade as the carriage bounced its way along the dusty track passing water buffalo, open drains and packs of dogs lying in whatever shade they could find. Then we came to a T junction. Left was out past rice paddies and into Cambodian jungle. Right was just a stone’s throw into the stone covered courtyard of the resort and the smiling faces of our Cambodian hosts. They politely offered a bamboo tray of chilled face towels and a cup of sweet ginger tea and the dirt track faded from our memories. We had arrived. The resort is only 8 months old and it’s called a boutique style because it’s small and intimate. All rooms are built around the two pools, one “fresh water” and the other salt. In between the pools is the open sided grassed roof restaurant. We were early for check in so we had breakfast while we waited. It was a selection of pastries, cereal, juices, home-made jams, bacon and eggs of your choice and it came complimentary each morning. Rest assured dear reader, I took up the offer with gusto. They sorted our room very quickly and before 10 am we were in and settled. 
another G&T dahling???

What to do in Siem Reap?

Well it pretty much boils down to Temple gazing and saying no thank you to street vendors... You probably know about the famous Angkor Wat temple built around early to mid 12C and how it’s made from sandstone floated down the river from far away or pulled by weary elephants. It’s easier than wood to carve and these massive constructions that comprise outer walls, moats, inner walls and intricate passages are covered in tiny detailed carvings and repeated patterns on every available surface. They are a sight to behold and there is no shortage of temples if one temple is just not enough. It was hot and it was dusty so it made for a long day climbing up and down sandstone steps trying to avoid the army of Chinese and Korean tourists who are never far behind and who will walk through you if you dare to stall. Our resort hosts told us about a 3 day temple pass for 40 dollars as opposed to the 20 dollar day pass and yeah........I think we’ll leave it at the day pass. You enter the temple sites as you would the MCC on grand final day. Steel barricades direct the flow and then once in “friendly guides” offer their services. We grabbed one for 15 dollars and while it was good to get the local goss he only stayed for about an hour. You can hire guides for 30 dollars for a full day!!!!!

Angkor Wat

So, this is really tourist trauma and like all world famous sites you need to remember that this is an industry and you are the oil that keeps the cogs turning. It is possible to get off the path, leave the queue at the base of the ladder and find a cool sandstone alcove that looks out over the expanse of Angkor Wat and to take in the enormity and engineering miracle that lies at the heart of these buildings. I haven’t seen the pyramids....yet, but there is something pyramid like in the sheer size and endeavour that exists here. The temples were built when Hinduism ruled throughout and they have since been “converted” to Buddhist worship. We were done by about 3 o’clock and after staggering down the last flight of steps there was Perome waiting with ice cool water bottles and a tuk tuk ready to take us home to air conditioning and cool dips in a pool of your choice.
tourist free temple splendour

Cambodia is a poor country and it is still recovering from years of war and conflict. There is money pouring in from the temples and it is going to help the poor but my lasting impression is of a kind of desperation deeply embedded in the psyche of the people. The town of Siem Reap has sold its soul to tourism and it’s full of westerners. Pub St is where you go for all night bars and restaurants. Beggars are common and we had one girl dressed in a very flash soccer uniform tell us she had come from soccer practice and didn’t want money, just clothes for her 8 orphaned brothers and sisters. She spoke good English and when we tried to explain why didn’t buy her story, she walked off in huff. There are many scams operating here and one of them is to buy clothes which the girl then takes back to the shop and girl and shop owner split the proceeds.

nature meets man made object and they seem to accomodate each other

Still, we gave to the organised craft and carving workshops and we probably gave out tuk tuk man more in tips than he would earn in a week. We visited the floating village just out of town and it’s a lot like a busy anchorage full of live aboard yachties. OK there are some differences. I’ve never seen a crocodile farm attached to a yacht and the floating basketball court is very novel. Oh, and I’ve never seen a yachty paddling up to the tourist boats in a 1m diameter washing tub begging for money. The idea of the tour was to take a look at life on the lake but it turned into kind of rice donation set up for the floating orphanage. Our guide kept going on about visiting the floating orphanage but first stopping at the floating market. OK....we thought, can do. Then he started on this spiel about buying some rice to take “if we felt like it”. The rice was 35 dollars US for a 10 kg bag and 65 dollars US for a 20 kg bag. Incredibly expensive rice you might say but a slice goes off to a local boss man and you have no alternative. Once we had given over our 10 kg bag and had a look at a floating school full of screaming kids (my personal vision of hell) it was like the deal was done. Tour guide plugged in his ipod or whatever and we motored back to the jetty.

our contribution delivered

Tourist towns are not my favourite places. This might sound a bit dramatic but I liken tourism to a kind of plague, an infection that robs people of their dignity and their humanity and, sadly, stains the very wonder that you come to see. I suppose, however, dignity and humanity don’t count for much if you are hungry and homeless. Fortunately, there is in Angkor Wat and the other temples something so marvellous and so heroic that they have a certain immunity to the crass “give me, give me” atmosphere that surrounds them.
school room at floating orphanage (recess!!) 4 teachers and 250 kids???

a nice spot to come back to
The resort was fabulous and as a break off the boat it worked a treat. Till next time, Cheers Rob




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