This time I want to celebrate New Year's Eve somewhat extraordinary. Therefore I decided to take a side trip to Cambodia's main attraction: Angkor Wat. Since long it has been listed as one of my "to see" places of the world. Finally today I'll be able to get there. I took off, early afternoon with a propeller airplane to Siem Reap, not so long ago occupied by the Red Khmer and inaccessible to foreigners.
These days, life is easygoing here although you'll be coninuously confronted with living reminders of the genocide. I've never witnessed so many people, missing an arm or a leg, in such a small area (picture). This as a result from the thousands and thousands of landmines, still these days throughout Cambodia.
I have been warned not to go off the walking trails when visiting temples or other places. That in mind, I decided to make a short exploration of Siem Reap town after I'd checked in at the convenient Angkoriana Hotel. The '40-USD a-night' hotel offers a spacious room with all the amenities as airconditioning, fridge, tv and so on. After I'd arranged a private guide and aircon car for the next three days, I charged a motorbike taxi to the nearby town for half a dollar.
Siem Reap is a typical world-travellers meeting point. Accommodation for all budgets, cold drinks and cheap but delicious food prepared for western mouths. Immediately I fell in love with this small sandy town. Although there's little nightlife to join-in, I was advised by another motor-driver to check out the Martini club, located across the river on the other side of the town. Although, few western faces where inside, I had lots of fun just sit and watch the locals dancing with their typical Asian movements - hands in the air, turning with there fingers getting around in a circle. It has to been said that the disc jockey, will play western music too. However, the biggest surprise came when I noticed two beer-promotion ladies. One of them was promoting Heineken beer -which is not uncommon of course- but the second girl wearing a miss-world alike strap around her waist and shoulder with "Stella Artois" on it ! A few years ago when I was in Taipei, I've seen a promotion seal of this Belgian beer. But here, remotely away from my country I can drink our own Belgian delicious beer ! That was such a surprise, that I rewarded the lady with some Stella's. A half-liter bottle arrives with the promo-lady who seems to be amazed to serve me. A table further away, I mentioned another group of about 5 or 6 young ladies who were contionuously staring at me. What I thought, it was for was later been confirmed as an older lady came to my table, offering female company for a drink to one of the girls. I was able to choose the one I wish for, to get her company and more services. I kindly thanked the woman, drank my glass empty and moved on.
The best way to get your entry pass (40-usd for a three-day visit) to the Temples of Angkor is at the official entry booth on the road to Angkor Wat. Buying your entrance pass here, assures you that it is genuine and that the money is going to the right place. After your visit, it is best not to give your entrance pass to your taxi driver, guide or any other people. They will be re-sold to next tourist and are false, while the money disappears of course in the seller's pocket. By the way, the entrance pass is a great souvenir as dates of visit are being printed on it.
That being said, you need to have a passport-sized picture which will be sealed on your personal pass. Don't worry if you have'nt brought one. At the entrance booth, you'll be able to have an instant passport picture being taken at no extra charge.
Of course, the main attraction of Cambodia is without any doubt the great Angkor Wat, besides Angkor Thom (principally the Bayon) and Ta Phrom, which this last one was my favourite place.
Angkor Wat is the largest and most breathtaking of the monuments of Angkor. It rewards repeating visitors with previously unnoticed details. The average visitor is impressed by its grandeur and extensive bas-reliefs. The temple complex is surrounded by a moat, 190 meters wide, that forms a rectangle around it.
A bottle of water is probably your best investment since the sun is doing there best to provide you with a headache. Perhaps it is not a bad idea to bring along a hat.
While the guide is explaining about every historical detail, which I don't really need to know, I am fascinated by the many stone-carved relief and wonder how people were able to staple these huge heavy concrete blocks on top of one another. The real method will remain history. Nobody seems to be able to answer my question.
After an intensive visit to Angkor Wat, we continued to our next stop, The Bayon, a collection of 54 gothic towers, decorated with over 200 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara. While walking around, dozens of faces are visible at a time. Some at human-eye level, others peering down from on height.
The Bayon, built by Jayavarman VII shrouded in dense jungle, took a long time for researchers to realise that it stands in the exact centre of the City of Angkor Thom. There is still mystery associated with the Bayon. Until today, nobody knows its exact function and symbolism.
Some of the mysteriously looking smiling faces are partly covered with jungle.
The Bayon has really carved a memorable part in my mind.
I found it not a bad idea to visit the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants used as a giant reviewing stand for public ceremonies. Use your imagination as you stand on top of the 350-meter long Terrace of Elephants. The grandeur of the Khmer empire with infantry, cavalry, horse-drawn chariots and elephants parading across the Central Square in a colourful procession.
Crowned with a golden diadem and shaded by multi-tiered parasols, attended by mandarins and handmaidens, the God-King was looking on it.
To end the last day of 2002, I decided to watch the sunset of Angkor Wat as a way of saying goodbye to 2002. Some 400m south of Angkor Thom, the sunset view has brought crowds of people gasping up the steep slope of the hill. It is also possible to get up the hill by an elephant ride.
As said earlier, I came here to celebrate New Year's Eve in an unusual setting and so it will be. In front of Angkor What? - one of the more popular ex-pat hangouts - people were already sitting on plastic chairs in the middle of the sandy road which has been blocked tonight from traffic. After some elbow work, we were able to sit down and get a 1-dollar draft beer from the barrel, placed on the road. A terrible sound system blew tape-recorded hits from the seventies in the air.
A few hundred foreigners, mixed with some locals where about to gone wild when the sky shows a decoration of fireworks as we entered 2003.
Soon it was clear that there were not enough barrels of beer but we did'nt care and drank all kind of bottled beers what was left available. Happy New Year !!
It takes a while to get from Siem Reap to Kobal Spien, more commonly referred to in English as The River of a Thousand Lingas. On arrival, it is yet another 30 minutes hiking through jungle -remember to stay on the track- before you reach the area of riverbed carvings and a refreshing waterfall. The first carvings include a large image of Vishnu. I have to admit that I did expected more of this trip, specially considering that it takes away a significant part of your precious time to visit the place.
The temple of Ta Phrom is another popular attraction of Angkor which has been left to be swallowed by the jungle. Ta Phrom is a unique out-of-this-world experience with towers, close courtyards and narrow corridors. Bas-reliefs on bulging walls are carpeted by moss and creeping plants, and shrubs sprout from the roofs of monumental porches. Trees of over a hundred years old tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene.
This makes the whole area even more abstract and the first impression I got when I walked inside was like being in a living Indiana Jones movie.
Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) is a good counterpoint to Ta Phrom. It is a place of towered enclosures and corridors. The temple is surrounded by a rectangular wall of about 700m by 800m, but Preah Khan covers a very large area all together.
Our next stop was the 12th century Buddhist temple of Phreah Neak Pean. It consists of a square pool with four smaller square pools arranged on each axis.
Water once flowed from the central pool into the four peripheral pools via ornamental spouts, which still can be seen in the pavilions. The pool was used for ritual healings while the the complex was originally in the centre of a huge 3km by 900m lake, now dried up and overgrown.
We had delicious lunch at a restaurant where the waitresses did'nt have to trow away much trash. Not because of the guests were completely eating the huge portions, but because of small lumps-dressed children request politely to have the food you have left. Everything goes...from rice to banana leaves and even empty coke cans. The will first try to get that last drop out of it before they push the can bare-feeted to a smaller size and collect them for some small Riels (local currency).
At the opposite of the road, we were within walking distance of Bantaey Srei (picture), another piece of art which should definitely excists on your itinerary. Bantaey Srei was for many years kept off from visitors by Khmer Rouge activity, but these days the site is possible to visit for no extra fee.
The temple is not particularly extensive but it is wonderfully preserved and its bas-relief are among the most beautiful of Angkor.
While I walked through this artistic jewel and kept myself busy with taking photographs, I was stopped by a well-built policeman who stood in front of me, looking me straight in the eyes and salutes me. His right heel stamping to his left at no further distance of half a meter between him and myself, I stood perplex. Thinking about the Khmer Rouge activity which I had been reading previously, I was afraid like hell.
The accompanied park ranger, or whatever his function was, explained me that there's not a problem with me but my private guide was in trouble.
Because of the boy was'nt wearing the right shirt to act as a guide plus the fact that he did'nt brought his tourist license, costs him a fine of some 175 US dollars, to be paid on the spot ! Of course the young man did'nt had this amount of money - comparable with a monthly salary - in his pocket.
I was kindly requested to continue enjoying my visit while my private guide disappeared with the policeman.
About 20 minutes later, my guide returned with an emptied wallet. The poor guy had to turn his wallet inside-out on top of the office table and got to hand-over the content. Unfortunately, he carried 70 US dollar which he received earlier from other tourists. Not 175 Us dollar because it was simply not available for the police but 75 Us dollars has now disappeared in the pocket of the khaki-clad gentleman. Because we were visiting the site at a less crowded time, policemen sometimes take advantage by this way of earning money. We immediately left the complex which is under government control.