Photo Friday -Motionless Monster at Seven Spirit Bay


Croc at Seven Spirit Bay

At first I don’t see it – although it is big, it is very well camoflaged, lying motionless and sun-dappled in the mud, in the  mangroves on the edge of the small stream. It’s length is more than twice my height, and longer then the little three metre tinny with outboard motor that we are putting along in. Our guide kills the engine, and we float in place, watching (and photographing) this crocodile who doesn’t move, although his eye seems focused on us unblinkingly as we slowly cruise by.

He is only about ten metres away from us, and we are sitting about a foot above water level. “Do they ever attack boats” I ask the guide, “given that he is almost bigger than our boat?” “Yes, not often but sometimes that happens if he thinks you are a threat, we’ve known them to come in and bump the boat, try and take a bite out of it.” No doubt seeing the look on my face, the guide adds “But see how his legs are stretched out behind him like that, that means he’s relaxed, if he starts pulling them forward and up, to position them to give himself a powerful push-off to launch at something, thats when you want to get out of there.” He still hasn’t moved a muscle, but I am happy when the guide decides its time to restart the outboard and chug a bit further along the riverbank.

The remote Coburg Peninsula, far north Australia

We are in the tidal estuaries, on the northernmost edge of Australia, the Coburg peninsula, looking north over the Arafura sea towards Indonesia. To get here I took a small plane ride from Darwin for forty five minutes to a tiny airstrip, where I am picked up in a jeep and driven through to Seven Spirit Bay Resort, an amazing luxury eco-resort in an almost completely unpopulated remote tropical area.

On the first evening, I am sitting on a bench on the top of a small cliff, watching the sunset over the sea with a glass of champagne in my hand, watching three shark fins circle in the bay below, near the large crocodile track where a local inhabitant supposedly drags himself in and out of the sea. So no beach walking or swimming for me then! – this is a national park in Far North Australia and there’s a lot more danger in the water here than there is on Bondi.

So a couple of days later I find myself drifting through the mangroves in this little tinny, looking for big crocs. Its only when we find them that I start to realise how much I don’t like them close up, all that prehistoric power is quite a chilling thing to see when its not behind a fence in a zoo. A hundred metres past the big motionless one we find a couple more, one even larger and older, sunbaking on the bank.

When one of them slides forward into the water and starts to head toward us quite quickly, I am glad that the guide moves us out of there, and also glad that the river is a lot wider here as it starts to merge into the sea. The bit I like the least is when the one in the water sinks completely below the surface while heading towards us, so I know he’s under there somewhere but we cant see him. I don’t completely relax until back at the lodge enjoying a degustation dinner under the stars.

Holy Toledo Batman!

Holy Toledo alright – all I can see around me are rows of steel knife blades, glinting in the light – am I going to need Batman to save me? Happily no, I am in a shop, a shop proudly displaying the centuries old tradition of superb steel blade-work, originating centuries ago with swords and now supplying quality knives to the world.

I am in the medieval city of Toledo, Spain, about an hour outside Madrid. And its a stunning place, an old walled city perched on a hilltop, circled on three sides by a river. This town has been here since the bronze age, and has seen off the Romans, the Visigoth and the Moors. For centuries it has been a melting pot of Muslims, Jews and Christians living side by side, and this has created a feast of beautiful old castles, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and monasteries around every corner, most built between the 10th and the 16th centuries.


Toledo, Spain

Toledo, the Zocodover, the Alcazar and the Gothic Cathedral

The central square, the Zocodover, is as beautiful as any old european city square, and is a great ( but not cheap) place to nurse a coffee and take in the sights. I can’t help but think about how this square has seen everything from markets to executions over the centuries, and wonder what the previous inhabitants would think of the expresso takeover now?

The Alcazar is a must visit, a massive fortified palace-castle dominating the skyline, but inside it’s all pretty columns, courtyards and staircases. Its been rebuilt quite a few times since its first iteration in the 3rd century. And you can’t help seeing the large gothic Cathedral soaring over the rooftops, it started life in the 5th century as a church, then a mosque, then a cathedral from the 13th century.

I also really like the walk around the remaining ramparts of the old wall, seeing the old stone bridges over the river – only parts of it still exist and are accessible but the views are brilliant.

Toledo – Arts, Crafts and Food

Toledo has always been an artistic centre, and there’s lots of art museums to explore, including El Greco’s house, and his paintings also hang in many of the other public buildings. El Greco was so named as he was a Greek, who travelled to Spain in the 16th century to see if he could win the patronage of the King of Spain, and ended up in Toledo for the rest of his life.

While the city is most well know for its steel (a specialist knife makes a great souvenir but don’t put it in your hand luggage), but has a long history of ceramics. I have never been a Lladro fan (and Lladro started in another part of Spain anyway) but when I spotted one small piece in the big flash Lladro shop in Toledo, with a soft matt finish instead of the usual high gloss glaze, I had found my souvenir – and I still have it 22 years later (although my mother did “borrow” it for a long time).

My other favorite memory of Toledo was their Manchego cheese – as a backpacker, the delicious cheese and a big slab of bread made a fantastic meal or two. I was much less impressed with their local marzipan, why have that when you can have cheese? Toledo, Spain

Franco’s Fascist Monument

A very different but intriguing place to visit, also just outside Madrid, is the Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen. It is a grandiose and controversial monument to the fallen from the Spanish Civil War, built by the victor and Marxist dictator General Franco.

I start to realise just how grand a scale it was built on as we approach it through huge carved statues at the gates, the road sweeping a further 5 km through more countryside to the esplanade, a large paved terrace the size of several football fields. There is a gigantic basilica carved out of the mountainside, and it is topped by the tallest memorial cross in the world. The scale is overwhelming – the esplanade is 30,000 sqm, the nave in the basilica is 262m in length, and the grounds total 3,300 acres.

Apparently a bit of the structure had to be sectioned off before it could be designated as a basilica, otherwise it would’ve been larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, not something the Pope was going to be happy about. It now also contains the tomb of Franco, as he was interred here after his death, and many believe that it was always his intention for this to be his lasting memorial. The scale and design of the whole place does suggest a certain size of ego. Today the majority of Spaniards are not comfortable with the idea of such a grand memorial to fascism, and there is a lot of controversy about what to do with the monument to make it more politically neutral.

In recent years the government has banned any fascist political rallies from the site.  The valley in front of the esplanade contain tens of thousands of buried bodies from both sides in the war, with a debate still raging about the how many of the losing side were used as prisoners and forced labour for the construction and died during the build. Its one place where I would recommend hiring a guide, as I found the history and ongoing debate much more interesting than the architecture is, once I got over the sheer size of the place, and the debate has increased dramatically since I was there.

The Bondi Beach Drag (Queen) Races – Photo Friday – Stand Out


Bondi Beach Drag Queen Races

In a sea of bright spandex and stiletto heels, the competitors prepare for the main events of the afternoon – the handbag discus, the 3-legged stiletto race, the feminine posing section, and then the big finale (for any contestants that haven’t already twisted their ankles wearing stiletto’s in wet sand) the Dainty Dune Dash.

The Sydney Mardi Gras reintroduced the Drag Queen Races for 2010, and a crowd has gathered to cheer on their favourites. Unusually for this summer’s day on Bondi Beach, the grey clouds have rolled in and it has started to rain, which may make a mess of the carefully applied makeup. I can’t help but think that running in stiletto’s in wet sand must be even more difficult than in dry powdery sand, not that I am likely to try either. But these are professionals, and they are not going to let the weather interfere with their plans to outlast their competitors.

It looks like the contestants’ favourite event is the feminine posing, as they each get their 60 seconds of fame in the spotlight, posing and voguing as only Madonna fans can. So who ended up winning? I have  no idea, as the skies opened and the mild rain turned into a torrential downpour, the audience sprinted for shelter and the contestants sprinted for the after-party.

Marrakech – seventeen years between tagines

Marrakech first seduced me when I visited in 1988. So it might seem surprising it took me over seventeen years to get there a second time – what can I say, so many countries, so little time! And it just confirmed to me all over again, how much Marrakech enchants me. So what makes it so special? Marrakech

The colour pink.

How can you not love a city where all buildings are required to be an acceptable shade of pink. A dusky pink that mirrors the earth it is built on, the sand that blows through it. A shade of weathered pink that I imagine has survived hundreds of years, many sandstorms and a good few camel trains. In 1988 there was a lot more dust coating the average pink dwelling, by 2005 there is clearly a lot more renovation and repainting going on, but both create a feeling of being in a different time and place, a romantic vision of old explorers.

The food ( and drink )

Tagines – both the classic cone shaped lid and casserole, and the delicious melt in the mouth meat (or vege these days) stews with mouth watering spices, perhaps some softened dried apricots, soaked up with a good couscous. In 1988 I bought a solid terra-cotta glazed pottery tagine and have lugged it around every country I have lived in since, still using it regularly every winter.

Marrakech

BBQ’d garlic snails – this may not be the food most people associate with Marrakech, but it is for me. It’s partly the French influence – it also means the coffee is great and there are surprisingly good croissants and pastries. Like many towns, the night markets in Marrakech have all sorts of interesting food stalls.

I remember watching snails being grilled in their shells, and being dared by one of my fellow travelers to try one. Bear in mind this was a guy from England who had strong views on food – he would only eat meat and potatoes, no other veggies, and hated any herbs or spices, only salt – he wouldn’t even add tomato sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to let him win a food bet. The stall owner showed me how to fork the snail out of it shell, dripping in garlic butter, and savor it as it slid down my throat. Not expecting to like it, I found myself demolishing a dozen and coming back again the next night.

Oranges, dates, apricots and pistachios. Morocco is a fruit bowl slightly at odds with it’s reputation as a dessert destination, but I guess that where the oasis’ come in. The selection is much wider than I have mentioned but suffice to say, I have never taster sweeter dried apricots or dates, more delicious fresh orange juice or more moreish pistachios before or since. My mouth is watering just remembering that five years later.

The Souks of the Medina

You may have figured by now that I love a good market, and the souk in the walled old town in Marrakech is a good one indeed. It’s a maze of crooked alleys lined by stalls, occasionally opening onto a small square open to the sun, before you dive back into the covered alleyways again. The range of things to buy is endless, embracing tradition and more modern interpretations, and yet stays definitively Moroccan. It rarely falls into the generic “backpackers market craft” that turns up in so many markets around the world.

There are literal aladdin’s caves of bright multicolored and bejeweled pottery, while another stall is all minimalist pottery designs available only in bright red. There are traditional carved and punched leather belts and buckles, and studded punk inspired versions. There are stalls selling centuries old (dodgy) medicinal remedies along with chameleons and scorpions and bugs I don’t want to identify, and there are stalls of organic soaps and lotions worthy of any five star spa.

There are still donkeys carting in the market supplies, but vastly outnumbered by mobile phones for communication with suppliers, and credit cards are readily accepted.

On this trip I buy two kilims, strongly colored in the reds and blues of the land and sky, woven in intricate traditional patterns. Although new, they smell strongly of old dust and camel piss, a marketing trick I suspect, to make the whole buying prices strangely more evocative. Sealed tightly in thick plastic bags for the rest of my trip, to try and avoid stinking out my bag and clothes, I have to hang them in the sun for a week and then leave them on the garage floor for six months when I get home, before they can be safely brought inside. I think they look fantastic in my hallway.


Marrakech

The Djemaa el Fna

The famous central square of the old walled city is no square, it’s a huge crazy zigzagged open space, surrounded by buildings with great rooftop vantage points, usually on the third floor, many cafes, and the start of dozens of alleyways into the souks which surround three sides of the Djemaa el Fna. The open space fills up with stalls no more than a blanket on the ground and food stalls with tables and chairs to accommodate the local families who congregate every evening. Rows of juice stands are all arguing that their wares are the best, and for the tourists there are snake charmers and watch salesmen in equal quantities.

Every night the square is full of locals promenading, it’s like Edwardian England crossed with Arabian nights, it’s fantastic people watching. It’s a delicious and very cheap place to eat a wonderfully fresh dinner, and of course it’s where I originally experimented with snails.


Marrakech

The Riads and the people.

Accommodation options were a lot more limited in 1988, although given that usually we were sleeping in bunks in a double decker bus, the plain square room with a roof terrace overlooking the markets was a real luxury back then.

But now the old city is brimming with restored riads, the traditional housing, often three stories high around a central courtyard, which might hold a fountain or even a pool, and a roof terrace with billowing fabric overhead to give shade while lounging on the day beds. Most have been painstakingly restored, with beautiful mosaics of tiles, wrought iron and plush fabrics. They are some of the most glorious B& B’s I have found anywhere, and there is wide price range for just about any budget. And they are found in all the hidden lanes of the souk, but are cool and quiet as soon as you close the door to the street.

There are no vehicles in the medina, so your riad will send someone to meet your taxi at the medina gate, and wheel your bags through the medina to their front door, which gives you instant immersion into the culture. Don’t even think about staying in a hotel outside the walls of the old city, get online and book yourself a riad and ensure a unique and relaxing experience.

And as true here as anywhere, what ultimately makes the experience for me is the people. The Moroccans I encounter are friendly, shy, intriguing, hospitable,enthusiastic, and charming, and they make Marrakech great.

Sydney Biennale -brilliant or bore?

The Sydney Biennale is on again, but what is it and should I bother? You’ve maybe seen the features in the newspapers but still not sure exactly what it is? Well I went and checked out the core part of it, the art walk, to help make your decision easier. So cutting to the chase, what is my conclusion? It’s BRILLIANT! And here’s some of the reasons why.

10 reasons to go do the Sydney Biennale art walk -even if you are completely uninterested in art.


Sydney Biennale

  1. The Free Hop-on Hop-off Ferry trip. It’s free, it uses three lovely old restored deck timber vessels, it’s on beautiful Sydney harbour, and it runs in continuous circles around three stops. Even if you hate art, its worth it for this alone. Leave from Circular Quay at a special spot just in front of the MCA, see the opera house on your right and then pass under the harbour bridge and cruise past lovely harbourside suburbs to Cockatoo Island and disembark at it’s delightful wharf building. When ready, reboard and continue to the second stop at the historic old pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay, a burgeoning area of renovated historic finger wharves and an ever improving food and cafe scene. From here take the ferry for the final leg back under the harbour bridge and return to the starting point, or alternatively it’s a ten minute walk with great views around the point, under the bridge and into The Rocks
  2. The Sydney Weather. A chilly winter day with clear blue skies – this is the perfect time to explore Cockatoo Island, just rug up and go. The biennale runs til 1st August so you still have one more month to get there.
  3. Cockatoo Island. If you haven’t visited this gem in the middle of Sydney harbor yet, this is just another reason to do so. This is no pretty beach island, this is grittily industrial and seeped in its history as a former imperial prison, an industrial school, a reformatory and a gaol. It was also the site of one of Australia’s biggest shipyards during the twentieth century. So we have a mix of dozens of art installations scattered around and in tunnels under the hill, old warehouses and remnants of old machinery. And all for free.
    Sydney Biennale
  4. The cafe on Cockatoo Island. As well as great coffee you can get fare as good as any sydney cafe – including gourmet pies through to intriguing and healthy salads and treats for the sweet tooth – I am very impressed with how good a range of food they have in such an out of the way place.
  5. The MCA Biennale exhibition. If on the other hand you are here for the art, then don’t miss the MCA as well, where the majority of the space is turned over to about 48 different artists. You will have your own favourites. I was fascinated by the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, who paired photos of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong with their backs to the camera, with a photo of their place of work – and had the workers insert a toy grenade into the photo of the house where they worked as well. Intimate and impersonal at the same time. I found the life and death masks of Fiona Pardington haunting, and the photos of stunning small Greenland villages by Tiina Itkonen made me put Qaanaaq and Kullorsuaq on my travel to-do list. And thats just a tiny taste of the volume and variety of work here.
  6. The AES+F russian collective’s large scale digital video installation on Cockatoo Island. I walk into one of the exhibit spaces in an old warehouse, blacked out, and sit back with others on a large circular sofa in the middle of the room. Its mesmerising. In a circle around us is a circle of nine giant screens, three sets of three. Each of the three sets are showing a different film, but all part of the same story. And each of the three screens in any one set are showing three different views of the same story thread. In the words of the program, “with panoramic, immersive, sumptuous colour and a loud symphonic soundtrack, this depicts an orgy of consumerism reflecting on the contemporary state of the world”. Your teenager will be besotted by it, and you will be too, the hyper-real colour and shine is addictive.
  7. If you like bright shiny lights and fireworks, and who doesn’t, then you’ll enjoy the Cai Guo-Qiang work, also on Cockatoo Island. Bodies of identical old cars are hung throughout a hangar sized building in a sequence depicting the sequence of an explosion, named as detonation, blast, launch, tumbling, gravitational return, and rest. Each car is pierced with rods through which light pulses and fades with the imagined explosion sequence. Its eye catching and on a spectacular scale.
  8. I am not normally a big fan of digital and video art but there are a few such installations on Cockatoo Island that hook me in. Another one was the work of Isaac Julien. This time I ascended a staircase into another blacked out floor, find myself a seat on one of the many stools scattered around the floor, and then watch a beautiful film that entwines historic and modern china. The twist is that the film is played across another ten or so screens scattered around the space, but with a different perspective of the scene showing on each screen, and each view flicking around from one screen to another. So you could follow the main theme on one screen while there might be a closeup of a character’s shoe on a second screen, a view of the background behind the character on a third, and so on. Yes, hooked again.
  9. Also on Cockatoo Island, in another small blacked out room, is an unusual film of an old man performing tai chi, but the film-maker has morphed this into a stretched version where all the consecutive movements have flowed together as occur at the same time. It hard to describe but beautiful to watch
    Sydney Biennale
  10. The Royal Botanic gardens. Its always a beautiful walk on a sunny day from the opera house, around the harbour and through the gardens. This time I have a further reason for wandering, as I try and find the two installations in the park. I find these are not as well sign posted as the other areas, but maybe that’s the plan, as it succeeded in making me wander through many paths and gardens trying to find the right spots. It is well worth the effort, particularly Janet Laurence’s ethereal piece.

Nursing a broken toe means a fair bit of limping so I haven’t yet completed the entire walk. But i have plans to go back to the bits I missed, at the Opera House, the NSW Art Gallery, and the Artspace set up in Woolloomooloo on the other side of the botanical gardens. The Artspace, in addition to its gallery, has a big programme of live performances from around the world every night, as well as movies, talks and anything else that takes their fancy. So if you prefer your art to include a late night bar and lounge, this may be the part for you.

And don’t forget pretty much everything is free, except your food and drink – now thats a pretty good deal. I can’t think of any reason not to go and enjoy it.

Return to the temples of Angkor Thom – part 2

Surrounded by hundreds of mysterious serene faces carved on massive stone towers, scrambling through the rubble of a temple whose walls look like they would have fallen over if they were not intertwined with the massive root systems of ancient trees, these are the memories of the Cambodian temples that I loved the most on my first visit. Sure, Angkor Wat is the star attraction, and it is breathtaking and impressive and unmissable, but it is a couple of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom and nearby that worked their charm on me the most, and I am looking forward to seeing them again five years later.


Bayon, Cambodia
The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads all smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa -I am told they are all images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, although some claim the faces also have a passing resemblence to the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur including the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII. To me however, each head, each smile, seems subtly different. I find it easy to start attributing each of them a personality, a story to fit their expression. They adorn the four sides of all fifty four towers on the third and top tier of the pyramid, facing due north, south, east and west.

The bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three layers of big blocks of stone, with quite a few fallen to the ground around it. Its only on close inspection that the walls on the outside and on the first level reveal a series of bas relief carvings to rival those of Angkor,depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus. Its easy to miss these in the rush to the top to see the heads, but it is well worth stopping and circling these picture stories for a while. Even for these levels, if I look up I find it very hard to spot the carved heads just above. I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the top level, and finally find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile. Some are in good condition, some very worn, some have parts missing, so every direction I look is a different vista, and I find it almost meditiative to circle around and around the top tier, watching different faces spring in and out of view while I circle. The effect of the light at different times of the day here is quite compelling, as different faces and profiles are highlighted as the sun moves through the day. My favourite is first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, when the early morning light throws some carvings into bright light and some into dark contract.
Bayon, Cambodia

This is how I saw them the first time. On this trip I will visit them twice. First I see them about 9am, after seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This seems early but already the sun is higher and harder, reducing the early morning contrast. Its also a lot more crowded, as many people come here after their Angkor Wat sunrise, whereas the previous couple of hours are much less crowded, more tranquil. Two days later I return at 7am, just after dawn, but the clouds roll in for the first day of the rainy season, so there is no soft dawn light picking out faces, its a much darker and sterner picture today.

Ta Prohm – The myth of the overgrown temple held together by the roots of the trees growing over it.

Maybe not completely a myth, but also not completely true. My other favourite temple is a photographers dream (except for the crowds), and any quick google search will reveal thousands of atmospheric black and white photos of old trees towering over a tumble of old stone blocks on weird angles, tied together by hundreds of exposed tree roots. But if you arrive thinking it will look like you have just stumbled upon a long lost temple hidden in the bush, you will be disappointed. It has been cleared of much of the growth, leaving in place just the biggest and most spectacular mergers of trees and ruins, making it more accessible, and no doubt easier to photograph (except for the crowds). In spite of that, it is still fantastic to wander through, finding odd corners with no apparent restoration work or clearing out at all, and yes, fantastic to photograph. I may have mentioned the crowds – its not only my favourite, it is a fav of just about every visitor to the area, and its quite a small temple compared to its neighbours, so I just have to grin and bear it, its popular for a reason. Its a great challenge of both my photography and patience to frame up my shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot, looking as though the place is actually deserted – its not unusual for it to take me ten minutes or more to grab one shot.

Ta Phrom, Cambodia
Five years ago I remember there being a boardwalk path through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds (but when scrambling around it was easy to miss the sign), where we could feel a real sense of possible risk and danger as we crawled over and under precariously leaning structures. I notice a marked difference this time. There is now a very extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, taking away the risk of twisting your ankle or having stones fall on your head, but also handling the volume of visitors better. As part of this, viewing platforms have been built for most of the iconic ruins/trees vistas, some even have roped off queueing areas to ensure everyone gets to the front of the line and gets a clear view. Remaining dangerous areas are completely roped and chained off, no chance to claim “I didn’t see the sign”! This is both fantastic progress and completely ruining my ability to put my superior ‘photo-grabbing” skills to the test. Using the walkways to navigate the site, I also notice that many of the walls and trees have substantial support structures built behind them, to shore them up without having to go to a full renovation. I also see one wall which had completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree above it looking very unstable and ready to topple over itself, which reinforces to me just how hard it is to walk the fine line of keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was. It looks like they are doing a fine job of balancing all those concerns, I hope I get to go and visit again in the next five years and see what else has changed.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?

Photo Friday: Aqua


Ningaloo Reef

Snorkeling in Turquoise Bay, Ningaloo Reef

With its clear turquoise water contrasting with its red sand beach and cliffs, Turquoise Bay is a beautiful landscape, and thats before you even get in the water. The secret here is to  start at the southern end of the bay, and drift with the current which will carry you gently over the colourful reef, shallow sandy bottom and abundant fish life which makes up a breathtaking underwater landscape. After about 45 minutes you will have floated around the crescent of the bay and its time to head back inshore before the current takes you past the end of the sand bar and out to sea. In this photo the school of silvery fish appear almost transparent against the sandy backdrop and clear turquoise waters. This is one of the bays on the West Australian coastline that butts right up against Ningaloo Reef, making the reef exceptionally accessible from the beach, but infrequently visited due to its remote location, truly a hidden paradise.

Return to the Temples of Angkor Wat part 1

I get off the plane at Siem Reap at 7am into a wall of heat, and a wall of paper-pushers (literally). In a charming homage to colonial bureaucrats everywhere, the process to get a visa on arrival in Cambodia goes like this:  I hand over my visa form and cash, walk twenty metres to the other end of the long desk, and watch a row of nine uniformed officials – the first one stamps my passport and then tosses it nonchalantly to the person to his left, and so it continues, from hand to hand, person to person, flying freely through the air, via all nine people, and then passed back to me.

I am impressed by such a successful job creation scheme, and the great hand-eye co-ordination they have all achieved. It’s good to see they are taking me seriously now. When I visited five years ago,  I was greeted by a mere one immigration official.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Siem Reap – has it changed in five years?

Fast forward 4 hours and I am feeling the heat. Five years ago I was here in January, the coolest month, which I thought was very pleasant at up to 30 degrees during the day and cooler overnight. Now its 35 degrees during the day with about 98% humidity, and virtually the same at night,  except I can at least avoid the intense burning of direct sunlight then.

After exploring the town on foot I am melting with every step, so I retire to the pool and order an iced lime tea and settle in the shade. I have an added excuse, my friends aren’t arriving til early afternoon so I may as well hang around the pool and wait. Initially I thought that Siem Reap hadn’t really changed in the last five years,  in many ways it looks exactly the same, but the more I wander around the more I notice the differences. It’s like all the original bars, shops and hotels are still here, but then has been a lot of new ones added and they are all much more upmarket. There are also dozens of ATM’s, last time there was one, which generally didn’t work.

And perhaps the most noticeable change is the one I feel most conflicted about. Last time I was here, there were a huge number of beggars, mainly limbless people or really young child beggars who would grab onto your leg and hang on desperately as you walked by. On our arrival that time, we decided we would give money to every limbless beggar we saw, as their need seems so obvious and genuine. After giving to about ten in the first block from our room, we realised how unrealistic our plan was, and how overwhelming the need here really was.  Now, there are very few beggars on the street. I would like to think that the general increase in wealth and well being here has led to more orphanages and help for the needy in general, but I have a horrible feeling that it just means the government have moved them on to somewhere else, so that they don’t upset the tourists.

When Travellers J & K arrive we choose to take to the pool for the afternoon to plan the next few days. We head out late afternoon to go and catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. The passes for the temples are sold by no. of days, and the neat trick is that if you arrive at the office to buy your pass after 5pm, you get that evening for free and then get the next full three days as well.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat is not going to be a bright red sky, as the sun is actually behind you, but it means the temples glow softly in the lovely evening light, so much better than the harsh light in the middle of the day. There are two large pools, man made ponds, in front of Angkor Wat, and the classic photo to get is a picture with the temple reflected in the pool.

The better photo is the one from the right hand pool. Unfortunately it has no water in it this time, so the left hand side it is, although somehow the angles just aren’t as good here. It’s also a great time to walk through the levels of the temple as most people have left already. We do a random wander until the guards chase us out. The only level not open at this time of the day is the very top (third) level.

Last time I was here I did the sunset from Phnom Bakheng but its definitely something I would only do once. It was so crowded, everyone elbowing for room, and the only nice part of the view was seeing a tiny looking Angkor Wat surrounded by jungle, in a pinkish evening glow. Its something you need to experience for yourself, but I doubt it is anyone’s highlight of their visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

We return to Angkor Wat again before sunrise the next morning, travelling by tuk tuk (a 5am start). I find an unexpected advantage of the tuk tuk is that as it moves it creates a breeze through the open sides, which helps to slightly cut through the clingy heat – it can be more effective than the air con in a car, although rather less comfortable for a long trip. It’s another pretty but pale pastel sunrise.

Dawn is a great time to visit Angkor Wat. Although a lot of people arrive for sunrise, most head back to their hotels for breakfast without venturing into the temples themselves, and then come back later in the day, so this is relatively uncrowded in between. Instead of stopping for breakfast we grabbed pastries from one of the bakeries in town the night before, and of course plenty of water.

The temple is a huge pyramid structure, the largest religious structure in the world, if you measure it from the large moat surrounding it, which is full of water and is 1.5km by 1.3km in size. When I walked through the first gate on my first visit, I thought I was entering straight into temple buildings but I quickly realised that I was in a vast walled field surrounding the temple, with a long causeway  to the temple structure and the two large ponds on either side. The temple is a complex of terraces rising in three stories, topped by five domed towers.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010


Most of the structure is covered with bands of finely carved stone sculptures and bas relief carvings of exceptional detail. We explore the lower tier, following the bas relief that circumnavigates the walls of the corridor that encloses this whole level, telling Hindu fables of Vishnu is amazing detail and beauty. Once the 2nd tier opens at 7am we progress around that level, and rest in a shaded corner until tier 3 opens at 8am (we have already drunk and sweated out at least a litre of water by then).

Tier 3 is still an active temple, which is why it has more restricted hours, and has a dress code, one that in my heat exhaustion I almost mess up. I remember to bring trousers to put over my shorts, but forget that I am wearing a sleeveless top, however a bit of stretching quickly turns it into a wide necked, cap sleeved top and I pass the inspection.

The stairs up to the top level are the steepest in the complex. I remember five years ago climbing up the old narrow stone steps almost like a ladder, and feeling extreme vertigo when having to climb back down them in a large crowd of people all moving at different speeds. Now all the sets of original stairs are locked off, and a new set of robust wooden stairs has been built in one corner, floating over and protecting the original staircase, while actually accommodating feet longer than 4 inches in length. I feel both relieved and disappointed that I don’t get to experience the fear and excitement of the more dangerous originals this time. Its now 8.30 am and we are ready to move around the inner circuit of other temples.