|Monks on a local truck (no cab)|
|Sharing lunch with the villagers|
|Not sharing his lunch with anyone|
|Hundreds of Buddhist nuns at Angkor|
Our suspicion that our hotel was mainly geared towards the Asian market was confirmed at breakfast as we were the only non Chinese, Korean or Japanese people at breakfast. It’s weird how you can tell when you walk into a place what its target market is even though there are no visible signs to pre-warn you.
Beuk met us as arranged at 8:00am and took us through town to the main ticket gate for the Angkor Sites. They are a World Heritage Site but seem to be run and managed by an overseas hotel chain. From what we learned over the next few days very little of the money you pay to see the sites actually ends up being used for their conservation and restoration. The local political machine seems to get its cut, the managing group will obviously take their cut and not a lot else seems to be left over.
As we drove through Siem Reap we started to get a feel for what it was like. You can tell that it used to be just another small town with not much going for it but that this has all been changed with the discovery of the temples and them being turned into the country’s main tourist attraction. Now the town centre is laid out on a grid pattern with new buildings going up all over the place. Most seem to cater for the tourist trade being either hotels, café’s, bars, tour agencies or travel agents. The streets are all being dug up presumably (hopefully!) to lay new water or sewage systems. I would imagine that the local people who used to live here have now been well and truly pushed out of town.
On the edge of town we drove along wide tarmaced roads through large empty tracts of land enclosed by a wire fence. A roundabout came out of nowhere but a sign of the fence next to it explained all. This whole huge site has been earmarked as a new tourist village and soon there will be luxury hotels and all the trappings needed to keep foreign tourists happy. Beuk explained to us that the Angkor sites are already suffering damage due to the current volume of tourists and that within the next two years he anticipates that they will control the number of visitors to each site. It seems at odds then that on the outskirts of town they are planning a massive new development to attract more tourists to the area.
Most of the tourist infrastructure also seems to be foreign owned so although the sites bring in high levels of tourist dollars not much stays within the local economy. The tour guides, hotel staff and vendors obviously get paid but the real money goes out of the country and into the coffers of the international chains that own the hotels and most of the infrastructure. I’m sure that even all the Angkor tourist tat that you can buy is probably made in China rather than locally!
Tourism is Siem Reap’s biggest industry but if you come here hoping to find romantic lost temples hidden away in the dark atmosphere of the jungle you will be disappointed. The temples are fabulous but this is now a mass tourism site which is being well and truly exploited by a wide range of commercial outlets. Everywhere you look there are tour buses packed with Koreans, cyclos with western backpackers, mini vans from the luxury hotels and the odd couple of people who for some mad reason have decided to rent bicycles and cycle between the temple sites, a very hot way to travel.
Running through the centre of town is a river, a small brown trickle at this time of year but one which looks, from the height of the river banks, as if it changes character massively in the height of the rainy season. A large portrait of the king hangs in front of the Royal Residence in readiness for the King’s visit in the next few days. There is a major Buddhist feast day coming up and the king always comes to Angkor to pray and give donations.
With our temple passes in hand we turned around and headed south of town to the Roluos group of temples. Along the way we passed a huge cart being pulled by a couple of Oxen. Hanging off the cart from both sides was a wide selection of different pottery items – pots, bowls, dishes, and moulds for cooking. One of the villages in the west of Cambodia is renowned for its pottery and its people set off with their carts fully laden plying their trade all over the country
Beuk is easy to chat with as we go along and he combines the official tour guide facts, figures and information with his own insights, opinions and local family history. It was so good to have a “real” person as a guide rather than a guide who sticks to the rule book. We had had one of those in India, we nicknamed him Fred, and the contrast is huge. Beuk caught our attention and just the way he relayed information to us had us hooked. And then he would make a joke and burst into laughter with a childlike chuckle that was incredibly infectious.
Finally we made it to the Roluos group of temples, one of the oldest groups of temples which lies to the east of Siem Reap. I won’t even try to describe the temples in detail never mind the history and the stories that accompany them as there is so much history and symbolism in each building. Beuk pointed out to us the various different features – carvings on lintels and pediments, the architecture, building techniques use, purpose of the building, positioning of shrine for men compared to women – as well as telling us about the person who had commissioned the temples to be built.
Temple building was a major industry here for many years and the end results are some pretty incredible feats of engineering. The building materials themselves were hauled long distances with volcanic laterite being used for the main walls and an outer layer of sandstone, bricks or plaster being used as a more decorative layer. One of the reasons that temple building seemed to cease was that they had exhausted the supply of raw materials.
Today most of the temples are echoes of their former selves and are not actively used for their original intended purpose. They still exude an aura of mystery and charm which is only diminished by the number of snap happy tourists with cameras at the ready. Unfortunately some, mainly Korean, have no awareness of other people and they simply walk in front of your line of sight and into your photo. We had many chuckles and shared jokes with Beuk over the next few days about tourists from different nationalities and which were the better ones to work with. Koreans were not near the top of the list of preferred clients!
Each of the temples had its collection of vendors waiting to sell you much needed cool drinks as well as scarves, bracelets, t-shirts, books, bags etc etc. We tried to spread our money and but a little from a couple of people, also opting where we could for what looked like locally made products so we had coconuts to drink rather than coke. We were both glad that Beuk had fixed our itinerary so that we would avoid the usual crowds at the popular sights. The drawback is that we didn’t get to see the temples in the best light for taking pictures but at least we were able to create the illusion of near solitude with most of our pictures.
The three temples in the Ruluos group are Preah Ko, Bakong and Lo Lei. We started at Preah Ko, a small site with three towers used as burial sites. Bakong was larger, the first of several temple “cities” we were to visit and the first of several places where Beuk deciphered parts of the old script carved into the walls. To the right was a small temple which is still in use today. Beuk told us how during the Khmer Rouge time the temple was taken over and turned into a prison and place of torture. Yet again another building of peace, calm and innocence was diverted from its use to become a house of horrors.
At Lo Lei there was one tower still standing but evidence points to another tower having formerly been on the site next to it. Now there is an active Buddhist temple and as we approached we could hear singing and chanting inside. Beuk took us in to have a look. On a low platform a group of monks were sat with the people from the local village on the floor in front of them. They had come together for some sort of special day and offerings of money were on display to the right of the stage. I added to the collection and received some sort of blessing from one of the monks.
We were invited to stay for lunch and, wary of the hygiene of the food, we opted to stay. I found it interesting that Beuk appeared in some ways to be as wary as we were about the food. I’m not sure if that was just his tour guide’s protective instincts kicking in or if it was a genuine concern on his part. Nevertheless we joined the groups of women sitting on the floor and soon had bowls of rice, fish and vegetables laid out before us. This was definitely not part of the standard tourist trail.
In the afternoon we carried on to Angkor Thom, a huge complex back on the north side of town. It is a complete city surrounded by a wide and deep moat which is now overgrown. We entered through the south gate, the bridge over the moat to which is lined with enormous serpent statues one on either side of the road, a recurring feature of many of the temples. One serpent represents demons, the other represents gods. The site is far grander than the temples we saw this morning and Beuk again gave us detailed explanations about the site.
A central piece is the Bayon, a large temple with many different towers with a face carved into each side. We had timed our visit well as the Bayon is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks and nuns at this time of year. Every where you looked you could see shaven headed nuns in white robes and monks in yellow. It created a very special atmosphere but somehow seeing the occasional one with a camera or mobile phone shattered the illusion that we had stepped back in time.
This temple must have been a really stunning sight in its day. Balustrades surrounding the edge of each level and intricate carvings lined the walls. Some of the cloisters had tiled roofs, now long since gone, and the large walkways leading up to the entrances ensure that the temple dominates your view. Beuk drove us down a leafy lane to one of the smaller gates into the Angkor Thom site. This gate had seen better days and the stone elephants that act as the corner supports have started to crumble away. Its most recent claim to fame though is that it is one of the locations used as part of the Lara Croft film, not that you would necessarily recognise it if you’ve seen the film (which I haven’t). It sounds like it was dressed up and changed quiet a bit for the film so you wonder why they didn’t just use a film set instead.
From the gates Beuk took us back into the centre of Angkor Thom and to the terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King. This tall terrace stretched the length of the Phimean Akas, a large open space used for sporting events and competitions. On the terraces would have been large pavilions for the king and high ranking officials to watch the proceedings going on below but now they are empty. The towers that are dotted in a line behind the parade ground were used to resolve disputes with the disenfranchised parties being put separately in a tower. The one that survived the longest without food and water was declared to be in the right!
By this stage in the day we were both well and truly at saturation point. We sat and watched the locals enjoying an afternoon’s picnic in the sun before heading back into town. At the Bayon the ceremony that the monks and nuns had gathered for was now well under way. Rows of orange clad monks and white nuns were sat on the floor in quiet contemplation, each with a small candle burning in front of them.
It had been a very interesting day but a long one too. It had been really hot and sticky throughout the day and we were both feeling pretty knackered. We had a refreshing shower, relaxed for a while in our room and ate in the hotel again, both too tired to go out and explore Siem Reap by night.