Feeling much better now, thanks to the drowsy flu medication which has got me knocked out for very much of the past few days. Its funny how medication not only affects your body but also the capacity for your brain to function. Felt like a slow vegetable the past few days... jokes were like stale fish, retorts to sarcasm were like 2 minutes late and responses were distorted. That much for a good break of holidays.
So how was Cambodia? We actually covered Seam Reap only, and having a 5 day tour meant that we had quite a bit of time to explore. Most people would cover Seam Reap in 3 days, but we decided to take things easy.
Day 1 - Flight was at 6am and we had to be there at least 1 hour earlier...so that meant that we had to be ready by 4am and travel to Changi airport by 5. Inclusive of the time to bath and prepare, and including a contingency of 30 mins, we had to wake up at 2.30am.
The flight was rather uneventful with the exception of an irritating guy who decided to sleep behind me and kick my chair multiple times. We went on Jetstar and touched down at Cambodia 2 hours later.
Reaching Cambodia we passed the checkpoint and changed USD100 to Riel.
Tip: Have with you lots of USD1 notes. Good for tipping and buying souvenirs. Its not really necessary to have Riel with you nowadays. Tourism is a booming industry in Cambodia and most of the time USD will do.
We checked in to Le Meridien Hotel. Its not the best or nearest to the city, but it is the closest hotel from the temples. We had a local tour guide and a car and driver arranged in advance with the hotel. We checked in by 8.45 local time and started our tour at around 9. Tip: Book the local guide, car and driver for one day....then extend for other days where required. The guide may offer you a better deal for the extension.
To visit the temples, you have to purchase a one day (USD20), three day (USD40) or 7 day (USD60) pass. Considering that the temple tours normally took 2 days, we got a three day pass each.
Day 1 Tour - Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Phnom Bahkeng, Angkor Wat
Day 2 Tour - Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Preah Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Preah Neak Pean, Preah Khan
Day 3 Tour - Lolei, Preah Ko, Bakong
And if you have time, Bantaey Srei and Bantaey Samre
Day 4 - You can either make an excursion to Tonle Sap (floating villages) or go up to Mount Kulen (Lychee Mountain) to see the Sleeping Buddha.
Day 5 - You may wish to visit the silk farm and the angkor artisan school. If you have the time, you may also wish to get souvenirs from Psar Chas (the old market).
Tip: Drink lots of water, bring a towel and an umbrella each. Sunblock and insect repellant is recommended.
First stop, Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom or Great City was founded by Jayavarman VII. Throughout the temple visits, the prolific rulers name will be mentioned probably more than a million times. We reach the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and already I was in awe. There at the gate, stood 54 (yes...its 54..I got it right..hehe) gods and 54 demons on either side of the entrance. The gods and demons support a naga (serpent) with nine heads. This according to the guide, was from the Hindu myth 'Churning the Sea of Milk'. Here is an article I found on the myth.
If you noticed, the heads above are both on the side of the gods. The rightmost head is the original. The 2nd right head of the buddha was replaced as Jayavarman converted to a Buddhist during his reign. That being said, not many of the heads are original. Most have been removed and sold to fund the civil war in Cambodia. Do notice the top of the gate. You'll see 4 buddha faces facing each north, south, east and west directions.
Most temples are surrounded by moats, rivers of water that prohibit access to the temples other that the 4 walkways towards the gates. The moats are dryed up in the hot season. During the raining season, these moats will be filled, and toursist would have to take different accesses or walkways to and within the temples.
From the South Gate of Angkor Thom, we headed to Bayon. This temple consists of 3 levels, the first 2 levels consisting of galleries whereas the third levels contain 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge faces of Buddha.
Perhaps one of the most interesting view in these temples are its sculptures and stone carvings. The word Apsara is also repeated tremendously by the guide. Apsaras are the dancers of the gods and carvings of these dancers are seen all over the temple walls.
If you are observant, you'd notice that the chest of the apsaras are either very shiny or badly damaged. This is not an act of nature, but caused by a phenomenon called young Cambodian men.
It was also mentioned that these apsaras in the temple had a total number of 103 hairstyles. (Seriously, I am not sure if it is 103...I didn't count)
Another popular item would be the Penis (Or Peace?) Symbol... thats how the guide pronounced it. The symbol was meant as an offering to Shiva, where people of all walks would say their prayers and wishes to the symbol, pour water on top of the symbol and drink the collected water. This practice is believed to heal the sick, grant wishes to the needy and clear bad spirits.
Leaving Bayon Temple, we moved on to Baphuon temple, which was under restoration followed by the Terrace of the Elephants a long structure meant for kings and generals to view entertainment across the terrace.
We then travelled to Angkor Wat (Angkor meaning City, Wat meaning temple). This was the reason for our visit. As per most of the temples, Angkor Wat is also surrounded by a moat. The sheer size of the temple creates awe in its vastness and glory.
From a distance, the 5 towers at Angkor Wat looks like a lotus flower. The five towers depict Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu as well as the Father and Mother of the ruler.
At a closer look, the carvings are of naga (serpents). The steps leading to the towers are steep. One reason that the guide mentioned was to deter normal people from accessing the temple as and when they wished. Under the scorching sun, climbing up the temple steps becomes a feat.
Tip: I'm not sure if its just our guide. The guide we had always found a spot for himself under the shade, while we were somehow always directly under the sun. When they do explain, try to find the shade, then listen.
Passing through the cruciform platform and going into the gallery of 1000 buddhas, you'd realise that the 1000 buddhas no longer exist in the temple. All have been either sold or is exhibited in other museums. At the boundary of the temple, carvings on the walls depict different myths and stories. The West Gallery, for example, shows the Battle of Lanka, from the myth of Ramayana. It shows the war between the human King Rama against the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, to liberate the wife of Rama from the demon king. Below are the carvings showing Rama with a bow, Hanuman's monkey army lending their strength to the humans, and Ravana, the demon king with its multiple hands and 10 heads. There are other paintings and galleries. If you have time, visit them all.
Past the galleries and libraries, we reached the inner sanctuary. The central sanctuary, which used to house the remains of the Kings father, is now just an empty tower. On each of the four side of the sanctuary, there is an area where pools used to exist. The four paths to the center now houses statues of Buddha.
Tip: If its too steep for you, don't climb up the third level. You would probably see similar structures in other temples.
The place is truly beautiful.
We headed back to the Hotel and ended our day with an Apsara performance at a local restaurant. Tip: If you don't know what to order and wish to try local food, try the Amok fish... it is serpent fish with Khmer spices and coconut milk placed in a coconut shell. Tip 2: If you prefer value for money, you may wish to visit popular restaurants like Red Piano, Dead Fish Tower and the Blue Pumpkin rather than following the guide's recommendation. As a tourist, guides will always refer you to tourist restaurants, which may not be that expensive, but would not have the ambience you'd get at the more popular joints.
Day 2....pant pant.. after Day 1, Day 2 was not forthcoming... we were tired and lethargic, but as usual, we had our breakfast and headed out for our next temple, Ta Keo. Ta Keo is one of those smaller temples with no carvings or patterns. From Ta Keo we headed to Ta Prohm, one of my favourite temples. The temple is relatively cooling with lots of trees covering us from the sun, you probably guessed why I liked it. This temple is dedicated to Buddhism and if you've seen Tomb Raider, part of the film is shot here.
If you have the time, you might want to look out for some of the intricacies of the temple, like the only dinosaur carving in a Cambodian temple and a hidden Buddha face.
From Ta Prohm, we moved on to Bantaey Kdei which according to the guide meant citadel of justice. This it seems was the place where punishment was meted on those that were guilty. Moving out of Bantaey Kdei, we head directly opposite of the temple to catch a view of a large reservoir, Srah Srang.
This is the Royal Bath, where Jayavarman VII used to wash himself. If you're wondering, this is a man made reservoir. Seems like buffalos to make use of the reservior to bathe in the late evenings.
We continued our journey to Preah Rup, Ta Som and Preah Khan. A temple worth mentioning is Preah Khan. There are two theories of its name; a) the temple got its name through its direct meaning of 'temple of the sacred sword' b) the temple was named after Jayavarman VII's father whose name was coincidentally Preah Khan. Like Ta Prohm, this temple is also close to nature, in that many trees form within the temple structure. One difference is that most of the trees here have been cut to prevent further deterioriation of the temple.
The Sacred Sword used by Jayavarman used to be stored in the second level of one of the libraries in the temple.
Another temple worth mentioning is Preah Neak Pean (Coiling Serpents). The temple consists of a central pool which is now dryed up, along with 4 smaller pools at each of the 4 directions. There are buildings in the 4 pools which house four heads. At the north, the elephant head, at the west, a horse head, at the south, a lion head and at the east, a human head.
At the central pool, there is a horse with human legs swimming towards the central shrine. It is believed that this horse is a manifestation of Buddha Avalokitesvara, who rescued a group of merchants off the coast of Lanka and brought them to this shrine.
We ended our day after Ta Som and East Mebon, when it started to rain at about 3pm. If you had guessed, yes, we were having withdrawal symptoms from an overdose of temple visits.
Day 3 - Our skins are scorched, I have a red face and am seriously dehydrated. Nope, we have not given up. We are still on the temple hunt. So on we go to Bantaey Srei, Bantaey Samre and the Roluos group temples Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong.
After our temple excursion, we went on to visit Tonle Sap or the floating villages. The roads leading to the dock is mudfilled and polluted. The guide mentioned that this was the poorer regions of Cambodia, where people who could not afford to live on land, had to live on boats in the rivers. When the water level was at 2m, boats and ships that consists of living quarters, schools, hospitals, churches and convenience stores stay close to shore. At the end of the year, when the water level rises up to 7-9m, these boats would have to travel elsewhere, where the water level is lower.
As the hospital was a few kilometers away from the floating villages, most of the kids who fall ill seldom make it in time for treatment. Such kids bodies are disposed in the sea after a consultation with fortune tellers and religious leaders in the floating villages.
In the morning, the men head out to sea to fish. The women take the fish caught and sell them at the markets.
Here is a picture of a serpent fish...the ingredient used to make Amok Fish...
Tip: Bring a face mask. The air is very polluted. If you intend to go to Tonle Sap, get a car. Don't go by tuk tuk unless you like mud all over your body.
After Tonle Sap, we headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner. For dinner, we decided to go to the Red Piano at Pub Street. This is one of those restaurants featured in Tomb Raider. You can see Angeline Jolie's picture beside the restaurant counter. The food here is really not bad. And it's been ages since I've had coke from a bottle.
Day 4 - Our last day before returning to Singapore.
Two of the last places we visited before going over to Psar Chas was the silk farm and artisan school. If you don't have time, or if you're visiting less than 4 days, I'd suggest you skip this. Otherwise, if you have the time, hop over to the silk farm to see how silk is made and to the artisan school to see how sculptures are carved. Those in the school obtain a diploma after 9 months to a year of appreticehood at the schools.
So, this is a brief summary of our trip to Cambodia. There are many more details I left out, but it'll be good for you to explore.
I'm back in Singapore, but not without a gift from Cambodia... a viral flu...