Sunday, March 05, 2006

The many, many temples of Angkor

Arriving in Siem Reap the bus was surrounded by about 100 taxi-touts screaming for our business. A policeman was keeping them back with a baton, but being the first off the bus Katie and I found ourselves immediately surrounded and separated in the sea of desperate yelling. Someone had previously recommended the Smiley Guesthouse and I caught sight of a man holding a big placard with a yellow smiley face on it and I only had to make eye contact and give the slightest nod for him to disappear into the scrum and reappear next to me an instant later. With a few sharp words to the mob he extracted me and Katie and our bags and deposited us in his tuk-tuk.

Considering ourselves lucky to have gotten away as easily as we did, we leant back to enjoy the ride through town. About halfway there, our driver pulled into a deserted street and stopped the engine and turned around with a slightly apologetic look on his face. Our spirits sagged as we anticipated some additional financial complication. Our man explained that the ride to the hotel was free (the hotels pay drivers a fee for delivering guests), but he hoped that we would consider him to be our driver for our tour around the temples for the next couple of days (he was trying to secure our business before we got to the hotel where all his buddies would also be competing with him). His face was sympathetic, his English wasn't bad and he was asking the going rate in 'The Book'. Our hearts wanted to say yes, but our travel instinct was hoisting red-flags about the selling tactics.

In the end, we told him we would think about it, and after we saw our room and conferred a little we decided to go with our man - without pitching the drivers against each other in a price war, without bargaining, without looking for alternative forms of transportation. I think we both were yearning for a positive experience after everyone trying to rip us off for the last month, and this gentle soul seemed to offer the greatest hope that not everyone is out to get you.

I'm happy to report that our faith is somewhat restored, and we had a pleasant couple of days wandering around the temples of Angkor, and listening to our driver tell us stories of his life coming of age during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, living in the refugee camps in Thailand, rebuilding a life in Cambodia and now trying to get his children started in their lives with an education and decent prospects in the tourist industry.

Angkor Wat has a big reputation to live up to, which tends to make me apprehensive as I am so easily disappointed. I have to say, I wasn't stunned by the main temple, but it was impressing nevertheless. I think we were lucky to still see it while one can clamber all over it - I can imagine that 5 years from now, much of it will be cordoned off for protection.

It didn't help that we had to share our experience with hundreds of other tourists, some of whom gathered in large groups of 30 or so with their guides lecturing past each other in different languages so at times it was like visiting the tower of Babel.

I actually prefered the unrestored carvings as you could at least marvel at the original craftmanship. In my opinion, much of the restored work lacks artistry. But I guess they have their hands full just keeping the place from falling down any further.

After Angkor Wat we escaped to the relative calm of some of the smaller temples where we had a more intimate experience. Many of these temples have received very little restoration and they sit in the jungle all a tumble, forlorn but retaining their air of majesty.

In places, nature has the upper hand.

Here you can see some local people coming to pay homage to the white godess...

We visited the so-called women's temple, which although small, is ornately carved.

Each temple had its own delights.

The most visually alluring, is Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex, which contains 240 serene faces gazing down upon you from all angles.


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