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Angkor Wat: A 21st Century way to see an 8th Century Wonder

Cambodia is a country that has endured a huge amount of suffering, when it wasn’t being colonised and controlled by the French, or later bombed by the Americans (during the Vietnam War), the country was under the rule of the tyrannical Khmer Rouge; the nationalistic communist group, led by Poll Pot. After they had finished “cleansing” the country, it had lost the majority of its intellectuals and at least 25% of the population, and after the Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungle, Vietnam took control of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge conducted a vicious campaign that persecuted people for having an education or even the bogus “crime” of wearing glasses, under the grounds that they may be intellectual. The Khmer Rouge led a harsh autocracy that sent  intellectuals and urban workers to work in collective farms, with no former experience. These farms became forced labour camps, whilst the illiterate farmers attempted to govern the cities. All “western” medicine was banned, the education system was worthless with no qualified teachers, and the banks were destroyed; leaving a country that had taken an evolutionary step back to the dark ages, due to Poll Pot’s deep seated hatred of western ideologies.  It was not until the late 90s that this small country returned to peace and the first free election for decades was held.

However, this beautiful war torn country, had a prosperous, extravagant and deeply spiritual side to it. The side that people come from miles around to see. I am of course talking about the temple, Angkor Wat and the famous Archaeological site that preserves the legacy of the Khmer Empire. Something that I never realised was the sheer scale of the place, at a staggering 400km2, the site is beyond comprehension. Upon arriving and discovering this, my next thought was- I need some wheels! After a bit of research in the languorous heat of a local cafe, we found a rental place that seemed intriguing to say the least. The company was called Green e-bike, and the deal was $10 (because everything worth paying for is charged in USD in Cambodia) for a whole 24 hours. The bikes were neon green, and 100% electric, with a max speed of a moderate 30mph. To top it off, the whole package was sold to us by a ludicrously French man who couldn’t stop splicing his nasal English with soundbites such as ‘voila’ and ‘au fait’. He convinced us to get the bikes last minute at 5pm that day because with a 3 day pass to the archaeological site, you also get a free evening all for just $40. This is actually relatively expensive by South East Asia’s standards, but it is 100% worth it. Our plan was to see the sunset over Angkor Wat that evening, but we found out, to our disappointment that both men and women required clothing that covers their shoulders to climb the summit of temple Phnom Bakheng. BE WARNED that the locals try to sell tourists scarves so they can go up, only for them to be refused when they reach the beginning. If you want to go up, you need a T-shirt at minimum.  This was rather amusing, but only because it didn’t happen to us. We frugally refused to buy anything, and instead left with our dignity; all templed out for one day.

 

We stopped off at “Pub Street”, as they call it, for a drink and some noodles. After about 15 minutes, something quite unexpected happened. The power went off everywhere! Little did we know that the next 12 hours would be spent without electricity. It’s not like we just hired electric bikes or anything?! The power came back on for Pub Street after 10 minutes, but on the downtrodden  outskirts of the city, the people of Siem Reap were in the dark or relying exclusively on generators. After a sweaty night with no  air conditioning (which ironically we had splashed out and paid extra for that night) and some heavy lifting of the bike batteries from the 5th floor down (they weigh 10kg each), we set off. After a quick change of batteries (‘Voila!’), we actually headed towards the site.

 

The site had two main routes, put simply- the long route and the short route. The long route visits the less well known sites and spans about 40km, the short route covers only about 10km. Day one took us on the long route to:

Pr. Kraven

Banteay Kdei

Srah Srang

Pr. Prerup

Ta Som

Neak Pean

Preah Khan

Elephants Terrace (through the North Gate)

Baohuon

Royal Palace

Bayon

Elephants Terrace, Angkor Thom

Elephants Terrace, Angkor Thom

My top highlights for the day had to include the jungle temple of Banteay Kdei which had two colossal trees growing right the way through it and a rather impressive outer wall. It was abundantly clear that nature had reclaimed whatever it could in over 1000 years worth of growth. My other favourites for the day were Pr. Prerup, for its staggering height and Preah Khan due to its incredibly long promenade, moat and rugged condition. Giant trees can again be seen soaring through the complex, crumbling away the stone walls with ease.

Pr Prerup

Pr Prerup

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei Terrace

Banteay Kdei Terrace

A Tree eating its way through Preah Khan

A Tree eating its way through Preah Khan

Preah Khan Entrance

Preah Khan Entrance

Preah Khan Stone Terrace

Preah Khan Stone Terrace

We decided that 11 temples was more than enough for one day and began to head back from Angkor Wat, in which point that I realised to my dismay that my battery was running low. I had charged it at the designated charge point for lunch, because there are several on route, but it seems mine was faulty and I was still at least 10 miles from Siem Reap centre. Maybe you are thinking, that surely an E-bike can charge itself as you peddle, but this is not the case. It has no dynamo, and peddling actually triggers the motor to exert more power, not less. My only option was to go about 5mph as far as I could, with headlights that were only partly operational. I was being over taken by cyclists constantly, which was both demoralising and embarrassing. At long last after a good 40 minutes, I was on the edge of the city and my tether. I may have been closer to the end destination, but now things started getting really interesting. Just after finally coming off Charles de Gaule Street (yes, we are in Cambodia), which leads up to the site, I ran out of power completely. I found that the only way of getting home would be to peddle my ludicrous looking green bike manually. This took some doing, and now it wasn’t just cyclists overtaking, but a spralling mass vehicles and (sadly); pedestrians. All whilst I was in the dark. Luckily I had my electrically stable girlfriend ahead with fully functional headlights, but it was still dark from behind. After another exhausting 25-30 minutes we made it back to our tiny hostel after 9pm, and luckily the power was back on. We decided at that point, that day 2 had to me more relaxing!

 

Our second day took us to far less temples, after seeing 11 on the first day. We stopped at:

Ta Prohm (famous for its part in the blockbuster Tomb Raider)

Thommanon

Spean Thma

Bayon

Deads Gate (Angkor Thom)

Angkor Wat

Deads Gate, Angkor Thom

Deads Gate, Angkor Thom

It has to be said, the highlights for day 2 were mainly twofold. The first temple we reached was Ta Prohm with its stunning jungle setting and the magnificent Banyan trees that appear to come cascading down the side of the temple in a sprawling mass of tough tangled roots. What I would say however, is that Preah Khan is just as impressive, but is significantly understated, mainly because it was not featured in a blockbuster, but also due to its location, 2km further out from the main site of Angkor Thom. Now surely my 2nd highlight was Angkor Wat? Wrong. It was the monkeys playing gracefully and rather cheekily outside the wall of the temple, and after a brief bit of tomfoolery, sitting down to quietly watch the sunset.

Philosophical Monkey

Philosophical Monkey

Piggyback?

Piggyback?

Now this is the money shot- Ta Prohm

Now this is the money shot- Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm Front

Ta Prohm Front

Ta Prohm Roots

Ta Prohm Rear

I am not by any means suggesting to miss out Angkor Wat, but do bear in mind that the queues and the size of it, make it much less intimate than the smaller or more remote temples. Bayon is also a highly recommended temple, with a similar shape to Angkor Wat, but without the extra towers or wall around it (see first image). It is located in a very impressive place; right in the middle of the largest walled complex of Angkor Thom, and it makes for a great view around the area due to its height. It also contains stunning engravings throughout the walls of the god Vishnu or the Hindu dancers known as Apsara.

Angkor Wat in all its Glory

Angkor Wat in all its Glory

Buddhist Monks Outside Angkor Wat

Buddhist Monks Outside Angkor Wat

The bikes were by no means a failure and were a brilliant way to get around and I was admittedly very unlucky with the power cut. All in all they were worth the money, and they were 100% green, so you can feel self righteous and best of all, you can hear yourself thinking this very thought. I would also highly recommend the temple Banteay Srei that contains beautifully intricate carvings but is located slightly off the beaten track (15.5 miles north east of East Mebon- ask any Tuk Tuk driver). So after nearly 20 temples, gallons of drinking water, one memory card packed with photos and 72 hours of correcting my girlfriend saying ‘Angkor Wok’, we had gloriously ticked that wonder off the list with no battery to spare.

If you are interested in hiring my green companions, their website is:

http://www.greene-bike.com/

All routes and maps are provided.

Please also see the Cambodian Tourist Boards website for details on any of the places mentioned:

http://www.tourismcambodia.com/attractions/angkor.htm

By Dominic Rickard

 

 

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