The temples of Angkor Wat.
The beautiful smiles.
Meeting the locals.
Ben embarks on a trip of a lifetime and is blown away by the mystery and magic of Cambodia.
Siem Reap means "Siamese defeated", and even though this sleepy but fast-growing town is not the nearest to Angkor, it is worth a visit. There is a good range of hotels, backpacker hostels, small guesthouses and restaurants, as well as an arts and crafts industry. It sits just north of the western extreme of the Tonle Sap Great Lake which receives rich sediment from most of Cambodia's streams and rivers after each year's wet season.
The lake swells from 3000 sq km to 7500 sq km after the wet, and it deepens from 2.2 metres to 10 metres. Around 40 percent of Cambodia's population makes a living from Tonle Sap which is one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish. The ebbing and flowing of the waters has always been important; several centuries ago the waters were channelled into temples' moats and sacred lakes.
Siem Reap has a population of around 200,000. It has a country-town feeling and the French influence is noticeable through some colonial buildings. There are many bridges crossing the river, so exploring for restaurants and markets is fairly easy. There's also a shadow puppet centre, a school for wood and stone carving, a silk farm and a crocodile farm. Or you could enjoy a massage while donating towards the education of local blind people.
There are about 100 Buddhist and Hindu temples in the Angkor region, some more than 1000 years old. Until the 1800s they were buried in thick jungle, and until recently were surrounded by landmines. They have been cleared, making the area safe for tourists, but a new threat has taken over bandits.
Pieces of the temples and their statues unfortunately attract huge amounts of money on the black market, and private collectors seem to have no qualms about the destruction being caused. In New York, stolen sculptures can command up to $100,000 a piece.
Angkor Wat is the largest and most impressive of the temples and it appears on the Cambodian flag. Its walls carry bas-relief depicting the way life was when it was constructed, most likely as a funerary temple honouring Vishnu, the Hindu god, for Suryavarman II who ruled from 1112-52.
Angkor Wat is unique, mainly because it is facing westwards symbolically the direction of death which led many people to believe the temple was a tomb. However, as Vishnu is associated with the west, it is now believed that Angkor Wat was both a temple and a mausoleum for the king. Its moat is 190 metres wide, crossed from the west by a sandstone causeway; the sandstone most likely quarried many kilometres away and floated down the river on rafts.
The second most popular temple is Bayon, a place of many corridors, steep stairs and 54 Gothic towers, covered with around 200 Gargantuan faces of Avalokiteshvara, and wherever you are, at least a dozen of them seem to be coldly leering at you. There's much mystery surrounding Bayon, and from afar it seems to be just a lump of rock, but the magic begins once you have entered it.
The Temple of Ta Prohm has been deliberately left the way it was when Europeans made the amazing discovery. It is covered with jungle growth and bird droppings and locals believe that if attempts were made to clear it, Ta Prohm would probably crumble away.
Car hire is available in Angor, but only with a driver, which is an advantage because if rules do in fact exist, no-one seems to obey them. Motorcycles can also be hired, but foreigners must hire one with a driver.