On the road to Phnom Penh

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we set off to Phnom Penh with a small detour to Sambor Prei Kuk… We had explored many different options and had particularly liked the idea of taking the boat down the tonle sap. However once we realised that Sambor Prei Kuk is not located at the shore of the lake, but rather 80km inland, we realised that as tempting as it sounded, it was just not feasible. So in the end we decided to use the same taxi driver that had driven us around the Northern part of Cambodia once more.
One of the first thing to notice, when driving over longer distances in Cambodia is that the street don’t belong to the cars but to everyone. Indeed, we were mostly driving in the middle of the road as the local villagers used about a meter on each side of the road to dry their roots and beets outside of the villages. Inside a village things got more even more creative. It seems we visited at the prime wedding time and since a wedding is a 3-day affair in Cambodia, every village we passed sported one or more weddings. The weddings had built large tents onto the road to house the guest. These varied in size from just bordering the road to being tall enough so that you could drive through underneath it. There was music and celebration everywhere and we realised that what had kept us awake the previous days had been a wedding as well.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Unfortunately not everything is sunshine and happiness on Cambodia’s roads and we crossed a number of quite horrifying accidents on the 300km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: Turned over trucks, cars and more. Extrapolating the amount of accidents that must happen each day on Cambodia’s roads gave me a chill. They had all just happened shortly before we came through and large groups of people were amassing around the scene. First I thought that these were the same typical “gaffers” as we would see on our streets, but I quickly realised that these people all stopped to help as best they could. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was only afterwards that I realised that these people were the only help that was going ti cine. There’s no number to call an ambulance or the fire fighters that’ll come with all the necessary heavy equipment.. So you try what you can to free someone from within a truck or car. No matter how unlikely the happy ending.

Luckily our driver drove us safely to Sambor Prei Kuk, where we were greeted by a local villager that told us all about the communal project they had set up around these ruins. People from different villages in the surrounding area were trained to become guides, the kids were allowed to sell scarves and other items after school or on the week-ends. We were happy to take him as our guide and he told us much about the history of the place, which pre dates Angkor Wat by some 100 years. But he also told us about how the project taught them to preserve the ruins and the environment. I’OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAm a sucker for these type of projects, especially when the local people are as enthusiastic as our guide was. He was very hopeful that Sambor Prei Kuk would become as famous as Angkor Wat and that they would be able to live off of the tourism. While Sambor Prei Kuk can not compete with Angkor Wat, it has some very lovely statues and interesting, octagonally shaped temples. It was also by far the cleanest site we visited.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
While a lot of the temples are completely overgrown, there was one item that remained completely spotless. It was the most surprising cubic building, if I had had to date it I wouldn’t have guessed that it was older than 50 years. It was though, by some 1000 years. We learned that this cubicle was previously inside a temple, a temple of which we couldn’t even see the foundations any more, and that for many years this temple had kept the natural forces at bay. This explained the condition it was no in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An hour into the visit we ran into a group of local teenagers climbing the ruins and causing some (minor) noise… Our guide ignored them at first, but we could see that he was bothered by them. After a moment he asked us if we could excuse him for a moment, so that he could go and explain the kids why they needed to take care of those ruins. Of course we agreed. We always like to do some exploring on our own and so we let him set off in their direction. When we eventually caught up with him some 15min later, they were sitting around him, listening intently to what he had to say. Such a beautiful thing to see happening.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When we crossed paths again with the group at several of the other temples in Sambor Prei Kuk, we did not see them climb any of the statues or temples again though.

We took our time in Sambor Prei Kuk and it was past noon when we reached our car again. Our driver was impatiently awaiting us and told us that we needed to go now as we were late. We were a bit surprised by this, as we’d already covered half of the distance. Nevertheless he got very queasy when we started talking with our guide again and after 30min he insisted we leave NOW. As we were not all that familiar with Cambodian customs and we didn’t know the road to Phnom Penh, we followed him to the car and he set off at top speed. We were a little uneasy, thinking back to the accidents we had seen and the speed we were travelling and resolved to ask him to slow down once we reached the large streets. This turned out to be unnecessary.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We rejoined the main road in Kampong Thom and could see our driver relax almost instantly, after another 3-4 minutes he stopped and told us to “go drink a coffee or something”. We were a little surprised, but since we had stopped near a market and said market was selling some fascinating food items, such as fried spiders and cockroaches, we went to take a look (but not a taste). When we returned we saw our driver sitting in a small restaurant fried fish in one hand and a huge portion of rice in front of him. I’ve never seen him happier. After the threat of instant starvation had been eliminated, we regained the road and the drive was much more relaxed and enjoyable from there on. Even if the road became much worse.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon and if the smile of our driver during lunch hadn’t been enough, the arrival time in Phnom Penh made it obvious that lunch had been the reason we so urgently needed to leave Sambor Prei Kuk.
We settled into a nice little hotel in the center of Phnom Penh for our last two days and enjoyed the relaxed vibe the city has.

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Back to Angkor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA              We returned to Siem Reap in the evening and stopped at a new resort outside of town, that was renting out their high-class rooms to very low prices. It was gorgeous, there was a swimming pool, sunshine, flowers everywhere. After 48 hours of almost non-stop sightseeing, we decided to have a lazy morning the next day, sleep in and relax at the pool. Unfortunately we had made our calculations without the neighboring villages.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Some major celebration was going on and after the music had finally stopped at 2am, it started up again at 6am… Cambodians really value their parties, we could hear people singing along, laughing and chatting. There was no way we could sleep in under these circumstances. So we resigned and got up, trying to make the best of the situation. Apparently not everybody was as mellow as us and we instantly got excuses from the hotel staff and their sincerest apologies for the noise even though we hadn’t even planned on complaining. As we were up we decided to plan out the remaining days in Siem Reap, there were a few temples we would like to revisit after seeing them already before such as Bayon and the terrace of the leper king. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were other that we hadn’t seen yet, such as Phnom Bakeng and Phonm Krom and there was a very old Buddhist temple in Siem Reap we wanted to see: Wat Bo.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Coordinating and grouping these sights proved to be more of a challenge than expected, but we made it and the next day we set of to enter the Angkor Park one last time. We headed straight for Bayon, the temple with 216 faces. It was built by Jayavarman VII in the 13th century and is widely considered proof of Jayavarman’s egomania, as all the faces are supposedly his. Whereas the gigantic faces are Bayon’s defining characteristic, they weren’t the most impressive part of the temple. The temple’s outer gallery (and the inner one as well) is completely covered in bas-reliefs showing historical events and mythological stories. We spent over an hour just walking around the temple to see the reliefs. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the bayon we walked on the elephant terrace and the the terrace of the leper king. The name stems from a statue discovered there in the 15th century which was overgrown by moss giving it the typical aspects of someone who has leprosy. We would be seeing said statue in the national museum in Phnom Penh later, but it has since been cleaned and restored and gives no impression of leprosy whatsoever anymore. The terrace is most famous for the reliefs surrounding it, hidden behind another wall. Why they were hidden is unclear, my personal favorite is that since the reliefs are depicting the underworld, they needed to be fenced in and cut off from the real world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After having revisited the places that we had seen too briefly before we turned to the many small temples remaining. We saw almost all of them, or rather we saw very little of them, as most are more or less collapsed. Among those the Northern Kleang and Preah Pithu, directly opposite of the terraces stood out. They are quite well maintained and very isolated even though they are easy to reach. The Preah Pithu group contains a Buddhist temple where a few of the Buddhist reliefs have been conserved. A rarity in Angkor.
We finished that day on Phnom Bakheng the famous OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsacred hill in Angkor. However we stopped by way before sunset, as the platform gets very crowded then and access is restricted. The views were very nice, one could see the Western Baray and, obviously, Angkor Wat in the distance. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnfortunately a fire had been lid somewhere between us and Angkor Wat, so that we almost couldn’t see it.

The next day we set out to climb Phnom Krom, another sacred hill close to the Tonle Sap. The most amazing thing we saw there OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas the migration of a village.. On our way up, we stopped to enjoy the view and came to realise that people were lifting up their bamboo houses by the stilts and carried it over to greener pastures. It was one of the most intriguing things I’ve seen. The larger and heavier houses were lifted onto a truck and driven over to the new location of the village. We stayed to watch this move for a while, I’d never imagine a whole village could reallocate with such ease. Finally we climbed on to the top of Phnom Krom, which wasn’t very high up, all said. At the top remain a few small Prasats which are still used today by the Buddhist temple next to it as places of worship and must be housing about a million bats. The noise (and smell) coming from the Prasats was almost terrifying. From the top we could also see the famous floating village Chong Kneas. They were building an enormous parking lot there, that could easily hold a few hundred buses and even more cars. Khompong Phluk OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmight not have felt entirely authentic, but just from what we saw from our hilltop we were very happy we had gone there instead of Chong Kneas.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We spent our last afternoon in Siem Reap, first in the impressive and peaceful Wat Bo, then doing some shopping and a good bye dinner. Wat Bo is one of the oldest pagoda’s in Siem Reap and is about 400 years old. The central hall has paintings that are over 200 years old as well. We were expecting it to be one of the typical Wat’s we’d seen so often in Laos and in a sense it was, but totally different. The entire pagoda was decorated with mythical animals and creatures I couldn’t have come up with in my dreams..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Everything was decorated in this fashion giving the temple a shamanic appearance in parts. The backyard was completely filled with golden and silver stupas and groups of monks, that were curious enough to come and talk with us and unlocked the pagoda for us to go take a look at the drawings inside. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShortly after we  entered the pagoda, the drums started beating, calling the monks to their assembly. We took a final look around and left as we did not want to disturb any ceremonies.

Banteay Srei & Kbal Spean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our way back we stopped in Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei. Kbal Spean is a very intriguing place, some hermits chose this place to live their secluded lives in the 11th century. It is next to a river that flows through the Angkor plain and provides much of the water used there.  During their time there the hermits “sanctified” the the river by carving numerous symbols and reliefs into the river bed. This makes kbal spean a quite unique place to visit nowadays. The river now flows over thousands of small lingas and several very large one, with different gods thrown in the mix. Unfortunately, we’re not the first one to visit them and the river bed has seen much damage from “explorers” that tried to take home one relief or another. It looks sad enough where they succeeded, but the central piece used to be a large rock with multiple gods. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomeone tried to steal it, broke the rock into several pieces, destroying some of the reliefs and giving the river another road to flow. Eventually he gave up. So that today, you can still see the large rock with its relief, but it’s all in pieces and the river is running underground at that particular spot. It’s really a pity.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe arrived in the parking lot for Kbal Spean very early in the morning and set of on the 2km hike to the place where the hermits lived. To my surprise we ran into a group of people sweeping the path. I would never have gotten the idea that a hiking trail might be swept daily to remove leaves, stones and such. Looking back, however, it is true that a lot of the paths we have walked in Cambodia were suspiciously free of any kind of “natural debris”.
When we reached Kbal Spean, we were greeted by a man we’d seen walking ahead of us a few times and we’d already expected that he would want to show us around. Unfortunately he had been bitten by a snake and while he assured us that the snake was very dead and that we could take as close a look as we wanted, he got very agitated when his little son tried to do the same… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently the snake wasn’t quite dead enough to be safe for his sun. He didn’t let himself get stopped by one tiny little snake bite, but he didn’t show us around either. So while his elderly colleague showed us around, he was manning the shop with obviously no intention to cut his work day short just because of a tiny snake bite. We just hoped that he knew what he was doing and the snake’s venom no threat to a grown human.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The guided visit was fun and very useful. Many of the reliefs are small and hard to find on your own, so I would definitely recommend taking up the offer of being shown around.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From Kbal Spean we went on to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor area and, unfortunately, it’s also more or less the smallest. Add to this that a lot of parts of the temple are actually roped off and you get a very crammed experience where you can not really make out any of the details of the temple. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you may tell I didn’t particularly enjoy Banteay Srei. I can’t deny that it is absolutely gorgeous and it did get emptier once we reached lunch time, but it just wasn’t for me. If I had been able to get closer to the individual elements of the temple I think I would’ve fallen in love too, but the way things were, the nicest part was to sit outside at the moat and watch the temple at a distance. That really was, very nice!

Preah Vihear

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVery early on in our planning we had decided we wanted to go to Preah Vihear, even though we knew it would prove difficult to organize. In the end we admitted defeat and rented a taxi for two days to do the trip, with stops in Beng Melea and Koh Ker on the way to and Banteay Srei & Kbal Spean on the way back. EOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAven though we were willing to throw money at the problem, we knew it might still not work out as Preah Vihear lies in an area that’s part of an on-going border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. Luckily, at the moment, everyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthing is calm and you can visit the temple. We reached Preah Vihear in the early afternoon and decided to ride up to the top immediately. The temple is located atop a mountain with cliffs surrounding it on three sides. The views of Cambodia & Thailand are spectacular, even though it was slightly misty when we were there and it is supposedly misty most of the days. The temple itself is built as a long temple. It is similar to some of the temples at Koh Ker, but much much larger.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is currently no entrance fee for the temple, however you still need a ticket. This is due to the territory it’s in, we were told only Non-Thais are allowed to visit. This is checked at the bottom before you are issued a ticket. Then you need to buy a ride to the top. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt first we thought this was just another way to make money for the people in the area, but the ride up to the temple was already an experience itself, on the back of a four wheel drive we went up some steep steep roads at a quite impressive speed. I’m not sure your average car would reach the top, especially since halfway up we started seeing soldiers. WOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe already knew that there were a lot of soldiers stationed in the area, but we didn’t expect them to be carrying bazookas and heavy artillery around. Poor guys were quite far away from the top too.. It was still a long way up for them!
We reached the top shortly after passing two soldiers sitting in plastic chairs. They looked like a personification of being bored out of their mind. Obviously the danger of the Thais suddenly attacking Preah Vihear from the Cambodian side isn’t very real. We walked the final stretch to the entrance of the temple. The atmosphere was quite surreal. SOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoldiers sitting on the rocks chatting, bunkers on every side and overgrown sand sacks stacked in semi circles as a defense against the Thai filled the landscape. The soldiers were all very friendly, offered us to take pictures of them if we wanted to (we didn’t really) and showed us around. Nevertheless there’s still something intimidating about a group of armed men whose language you don’t understand at all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe tried to stay clear of them as much as possible, as we weren’t sure whether their barracks were off limits to us and if those even were barracks or something more secretOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. It wasn’t too difficult, most of the temple itself is free of military buildings, though I think I did see a few bunkers and hideouts. There were quite a few soldiers who were showing friends or family around the temple though and one guy told me he was the toilet inspector and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the toilet with him. I politely declined.

The teOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmple is huge and incorporates the natural topology into its design with each level of the temple being higher than the previous one. There are a total of 5 levels, each of which is entered through a magnificent gate or gopura. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany of them have very well-preserved reliefs depicting the typical scenes such as the churning of the sea or Vishnu getting a foot massage. The central courtyard is surrounded by a completely intact covered corridor and is still a holy location to this day. According to archaeologists and historians the temple was built over a long time from the 10th to the 13th centuryOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. The first gate is from the Koh Ker time, while the second gate is built in the Baphuon style and so on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In total the temple measures 800m in length from north to south, but you can not see it in its totality because the large gopuras are blocking the view of the next lower level. Today, there’s a lot of green grass and vegetation between the individual gates and some isolated trees as well.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A huge set of stairs is leading from the bottom of the mountain up to the temple itself. At one point in time it had been our plan to walk down those stairs after visiting the temple, but we stayed up at the temple far too long. It was already getting dark when we started going back. So we rode back on our 4WD and then on to Along Veng, where we made a point of not visiting Pol Pots tomb or anything else for that matter.

Beng Melea & Koh Ker

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter exploring Angkor in some detail we set off heading north. The temple of Preah Vihear was tempting us and we had decided to do several stops on the way. The first stop was Beng Melea, a long temple from the beginning of the 12th century. It has not yet been restored, so ir is overgrown by large trees and in a state of beautiful decay. A set of wooden bridges lead around the temple to the main sights.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had set off extra early and reached Beng Melea around 8 am. Not surprisingly we were the first ones there. Well except for the security guard at the entrance. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThings are a little different in Cambodia. We had assumed the security guard was there to ensure that we kept to the wooden tracks, but not so. We had barely climbed the first set of stairs, when the security guide showed us where you can easily get off the wooden tracks and explore the temple on your own. Continue reading

Angkor Wat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally! After only three days in Siem Reap we finally managed to visit the most important site in the area: Angkor Wat. We had already had the occasion to watch the sunset on Angkor Wat the evening before and now we wanted to see the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. While the sunset hadn’t been completely overrun, we were baffled by the amount of people running into Angkor Wat at 5:30 AM. It seems everybody had the same idea as we did. We decided to sit at the less populated lake on the right side where we could see a lovely reflection of Angkor Wat in the lake as the light started to appear. TOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe left-side lake is filled with water lilies, while this is a great picture as well, it means you can’t see the reflection in the lake. In any case, the masses of people standing in front of the lake make it quite impossible to get a nice picture of Angkor while the sun is rising, so our lake was much better. Shortly after sunrise though, the place was virtually empty. Most of the groups had either rushed into Angkor or, another popular choice, on to Bayon to get the place a little less crowded during the first morning light. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stayed outside of Angkor Wat a little longer until the sun was really up before moving on to the first gallery and the amazing relief surrounding the temple. Each side tells of a different mythological or historical event. Most of which are battles that I found hard to tell apart, but there are a few more: One shows the churning of the sea, part of the creation myth: Vishnu suggested the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgods and the demons to work together to churn the sea of milk for a thousand years and if they did this, the elixir of immortal life would appear. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo they used a Vasuki, the famous snake, wound it around Mount Mandara and started pulling. The gods on one side, the demons on the other. The side on which the elixir appeared would become immortal. As it happens, the elixir appears on the side of the demons, but the gods were clever and asked the asparas to dance and their dance so enthralled the demons, that the gods could steal the elixir and drink it themselves. I think it says a lot about the gods. 😉 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother relief showed the afterlife with a number of very realistic torture pictures of the 32 hells of hindu mythology. The 37 heavens are also depicted, but are at the top and much smaller than the hells. It seems clear that the wall should have a deterring effect on the subjects seeing it. We walked around the bas-relief for over an hour, always seeing something new and curious before finally, really, heading into the temple. Angkor Wat is both a pyramid-style temple and a long temple. With the bas-relief we had reached the inner core that consisted of a three level pyramid. The bas-relief is on the outer wall of the first level, which we were now entering.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The interior is similar to a cloister: 4 small ponds (that are currently empty) surrounded by covered corridors and almost perfectly preserved. We really enjoyed this level and it is probably my favourite level of the pyramid.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The second level is an open terrace on which two small libraries have been built and in the middle arises the final level of Angkor Wat, the most holy center of the temple. On each of the four corners of the third level there is a PrasaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAt. Counting the one in the middle you have five Prasats, representing the five mountain tops of the Mount Meru, home of the gods. We started walking around the third level and, to our surprise, ran into a looong line. A little baffled, we walked on to enquire what the line was for. As it turns out, Angkor Wat is now so visited, that they have had to put restrictions on the number of people allowed into the top level at one time. This means, that you have to wait for your turn if you want to go up and, as we would find out, also to go down. Highly annoying. If we’d known beforehand we would probably have started the visit of Angkor Wat at the very top to beat the lines and moved down as time went on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA After having stood in line we reached the very steep stairs up and finally entered the highest level of Angkor Wat. It was crowded, we were being pushed around by pesty groups and there was always someone walking into your picture… I’d have willingly waited another 20 minutes if they’d only allowed half the number of people up at a time. It would have been so much more enjoyableOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA! In any case the highest layer of Angkor Wat closely resembles the first level, just in smaller. You have again the four pools and the covered corridors and in the middle is now a big Buddha statue. We left again after a short wait to be able to go down the steps and spent some more time on the first level and outside the central pyramid. The temple is decorated with dancing asparas in different stances and hair dresses, all with smiles and some with teeth. They are all dressed the same, but have different postures, hair dresses and jewellery, making everyone unique. There are over 1600 of them!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs mentioned Angkor is also a long temple. In its entirety it measures almost 2km in length and 1.3km in width. Walking back out the official entrance took some time, but was highly enjoyable as it is a well preserved ceremonial way flanked by nagas and with lots of small ponds and libraries on the sides. Once we’d reached the entrance again we set off to visit another gigantic project of the same time:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The West Baray. A huge artificial water reservoir with 8km and 2km side lengths which is still full today. Quite insane. It was built in the 11th century with dams. I had always naively assumed that they had dug the barays into the ground, but they are all above ground, the water being held in by the dams. There is a viewing point near the airport, which allows you to see most of it and gives you an impression of just how huge it really is.

Kompong Phluk & Roluos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we decided to take a break from the temples, well almost. We wanted to see the huge lake Tonle Sap and the famous floating villages and stilt houses. We had done quite some research on these beforehand, the most famous town is said to be completely overrun. We saw the parking lot built for it a few days later from a nearby mountain and it was gigantic. It was easily decided not to go there, the next chosen location is Kompong Phluk, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa little further away and less visited with the added benefit of being close to some of the oldest ruins in the Angkor area. However, what was once an isolated village has already started to turn into the next big tourist magnet and it shows. Our research showed that a 20$ entry fee would be levied from each person wanting to visit the village. There were many extra charges, eg when you were asked to take smaller boaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAts to tour the mangrove forests. 20$ is quite some money, but it’s not the real issue. The real issue is that of these 20$ about 1$ goes to the village you visit, while the remaining 19$ disappear to go somewhere else.
We had seen reviews saying one should drive directly into town, as it was accessible in dry season and have a local person drive you around… So we thought aboOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAut doing that. In any case we decided we wanted to see this village, as it was less visited and that we would turn down all extra offers to spend some cash. We arrived at the entrance and they demanded the 20$, after a short look down the road with nobody driving on to get into town, we decided to pay the asked sum and shortly thereafter we were off on a boat. The boat was incredibly loud, but we had it to ourselves and we only saw a few other boats on our trip. We can’t say it was overrun, which was a definite plus. Shortly after we left the road came back into view and it very quickly became obvious why nobody was driving on it. Dry season or not it was still very flooded on large stretches. The village was only reachable by boat.kids
The houses are fascinating, built on stilts about 8-10m high, the houses lie way above you, when we visited. But in the rainy season, when the Tonle Sap fills up, the houses will be almost on the same level as the water. We drove through the village and saw many fascinating things:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A floating pig shelter, a floating garden, the mangrove forests and not least the endless width of Tonle sap. The best part however was when we turned around to drive back. It was shortly past 12 and the school had ended. Bathing & playing kids everywhere. They were adorable to watch!

ROLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAefreshed we set out to visit the three temples in the close by town Roluos: Bakong, Preah Ko and Lolei. They predate Angkor by several centuries. Bakong, for instance, was the first pyramid-style temple to be built. The mount created by the temple is meant to represent the holy mountain Meru on which the gods lived. It was dedicated to Shiva.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Preah Ko was also dedicated to Shiva, although to a different reincarnation. The temple predates Bakong by a few years only and is the only place where I actually saw some remains of the stucco on the walls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In most of the temples only the holes in the wall remain that were used to attach the stucco to the wall. Our last stop was Lolei, which mostly impresses by its history. The temple itself is quite inconspicuous, but Lolei was the first island temple in a Baray of almost 4km x 1km length. The Baray is the oldest such water reservoir, but unfortunately it wasn’t visible to me. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt has long since dried out and while I did try to make out the remains of the walls of the Baray in the fields, I just couldn’t see them. The temple itself was also already quite decayed.
The Roluos-group is important historically, but I particularly liked the visit because it showed me something new I hadn’t seen before even after 20 temples: The stucco. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Angkor Extended

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had seen the most famous temples the day before, but there were many left that have a reputation for being similarly beautiful but less overrun. Not that we had the impression to have been particularly overrun, our guide managed to successfully circumvent most of the crowds during our first day.
We decidOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAed to follow what is traditionally known as the “large tour” around the East Baray. We started our day with the sunrise at Sra Srang, the landing peer of the kings. It’s supposed to be a splendid spot for sunrises and much less crowded than Angkor Wat. This might have been true if the peer hadn’t been completely disassembled and the remaining area covered by a plastic sheet. As such it was quite a disappointment. If anyone wants to go there, I’d definitely recommend checking out the current status of the work there first.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Continue reading

Angkor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we hopped on a flight and left Laos for Cambodia. We flew straight to Siem Reap and the world famous Angkor temples. We booked a tuk-tuk and a guide for the next morning and set off to explore the gigantic area with hundreds of temples. The initial plan was to make the most famous temples the first day. Unfortunately this didn’t quite work out due to my lack of preparation. Angkor Wat, highlight of the Angkor park has a quite clearly published and enforced dress code that I had smartly ignored. So our guide rescheduled the tour we had planned and we went to several of the other temples, which officially have the same set of rules, but they aren’t enforced there. The rules, as such, are quite simple: Wear clothes that cover your arms down to the elbow and your legs down below your knees and that aren’t revealing. However with some 30 degrees in the shade, I often found it hard to comply with them because they left me feeling soaked by 10am. So I took advantage of the fact that the rules are not always enforced on occasions. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My bad planning turned into some good luck though, as we decided to go to Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider temple” instead and were rewarded by being able to roam through the temple almost on our own. We spent over an hour there, admiring the huge trees growing in and over the walls and by the end of our visit, we got a first feeling of what “crowded” means for Angkor Wat. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHuge groups of Koreans started invading the temple and started pushing you or running into you to get their shot before you could react.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Luckily they mostly have a Korean tour guide showing them around, yelling explanations, so they can be heard and avoided from the distance. Nevertheless I learned to count to 3 in Korean quite quickly: Hana, dhul sehtt. It was ubiquitous. I’m not saying that Koreans are horrible, they most definitely aren’t, but those guided tours are a bane.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From the now crowded Ta Prohm we moved on to a very small, completely isolated temple called Ta Nei. We were the only ones there and rather enjoyed that. It is also somewhat overgrown and apparently was only recently made accessible to tourists, which is also why there are so few tourists. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From there we moved on to Ta Keo, the first pyramid-style temple we saw. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s more or less two styles of temples: One called the long-temple which I will describe below and the other that I have called “pyramid-style”. These temples have a quadratic or at least square platform and raise themselves up in several steps, often a mythical important number like 5 or 7. The top does not converge as it would normally do in a pyramid. Rather the pyramid is capped and on the flat area several smaller temple towers are built.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe temples Thommanom and Chau Say Tevoda were next. The two temples are from the twelfth century and the former is older than latter. Both have been fully renovated to show off their carvings and decorations and are quite similar.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA They are both long temples and oriented towards the east, as are all temples except for Angkor Wat itself. They consist of a main gate, called gopura, the central hall called mandaba then the temple tower itself, the prasat. At the other end finally the west gopura. This is a very traditional set up we would see often in Angkor, frequently flanked by “librariesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“. Nobody knows what the buildings were used for, but they turn up in almost every temple complex and have been dubbed library for lack of a better word.
On we drove over the famous bridge guarded by gods and demons through the Victory Gate to the Elephant Terrace. The bridge crosses the large moat around the old town, Angkor Thom, were reputedly a million people lived in the 12th century. The Elephant terrace leads into the royal palace and is, in itself, quite famous. Unfortunately the day had already drawn on quite a bit, so we were in a bit of a hurry and our guide rushed us through to the next temple: Phimeanakas. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother pyramid-style temple, but much older than the previous ones, dating from the 10th century. The access to it was apparently reserved to the king and high priests. Phimeanakas did not impress me, I must admit. By the time we reached Baphuon, our next temple, I had already forgotten what it looked like. We returned in a more relaxed setting a few days later and I must say that the laterite used to build the temple gives it a lovely red color and it has its merits, but is in quite a poor shape.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs already mentioned our second to last stop was Baphuon, another pyramid-temple built with huge sand-stone blocks, giving it a grey-green color. It is significantly larger than Phimeanakas and has some very nice carvings that remain intact, but not everything remains intact. Around the 15th century when the area had switched from Hinduism to Buddhism, the temple was modified to contain a huge lying Buddha on one of its sides. When the restoration process started, a hard choice was to be made between restoring the 12th century or the 15th century temple. In the end a solomonic decision was taken by restoring half of the lying Buddha. Baphuon has a baffling more recent history: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was taken apart in an effort to restore it by French archaeologists in the 1960ies, when they had taken it apart, the Khmer Rouge took over and the careful documentation of which stone goes where was lost. Nevertheless archaeologists managed to put the temple back together in 2011 finishing the possibly largest game of puzzle ever played.
Our final stop was Bayon, the temple with several hundred Buddha faces, since we were tired and it was late by the time we got there we only spent little time in the temple itself. We couldn’t do it justice then and I will describe it in its full glory on our next visit.

Southern Laos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur final destination was southern Laos, in just a few days we covered the Bolivean plateau, the most famous Khmer temple in Laos and had a nice relaxing stay on one of the 4000 islands close to the Mekong falls. Unfortunately we were delayed so that our visit to the Bolivean plateau was cut quite short. WOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe only visited two of the water falls on the border of the plateau and didn’t really get to see the tense fauna of the plateau itself. Circling the entire plateau takes about 200km. If you consider that we’d taken over 8 hours to cover this distance just a week ago, it is not surprising that we didn’t have time to do this after we arrived at 2pm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After our short visit to the plateau we stayed a night in Pakxe. From the first impression I got that this town has little to offer and, I must admit, we didn’t really give it a second chance. We stayed in the hotel that night and left early the next morning to visit Wat Phu. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI thought I’d seen the last of Pakxe, but I would be very very wrong. Pakxe has the only bridge for about a 100 miles around (yes I made that number up, but there are VERY few bridges over the Mekong), so whenever we needed to switch the side of the river, we had to return Pakxe. This would happen 2-3 times. WOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe first stopped in Wat Phu, a lovely temple currently under reconstruction. There are two buildings, supposedly one for women and one for the men, but nothing definitive is known. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom there a lovely, lovely stair case leads up to the older temple at the foot of the mountain where there is a sacred spring and supposedly a crocodile-altar to sacrifice virgins (not so lovely).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there we returned to Pakxe to cross the river and drive down to the landing place next to the island we’d be staying onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. A 30 minute drive with a very authentic boat brought us to the main island where we would stay the night. and watch a very lovely sunset The next morning we could walk down to the Mekong falls. On the way we saw the local railway. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWho would have thought that an island barely 3km long would have its own railway system, or at least had had. There are a few informational posters telling you the history behind the railway, which was used to transfer heavy military steam boats over the Mekong falls for the French and was abandoned shortly after the end of the canonicalization era.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  The falls themselves are not as impressive as one would expect, while the Mekong is a strong and water-rich current it is split into several smaller side arms between the different islandsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. Of course each of those side arms remains more massive than most rivers I know, it still doesn’t quite compare to the mental image I had made my myself and the falls themselves are more like rapids. It is still very impressive to see the water masses tumble down the rapids, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a water fall.