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.
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.
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.
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.
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.