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A VISIT TO ANGKOR
And more besides
City of stone
Text & Images: Anne
It was the end of the year. I was busy fussing around
in order to finish work in time to prepare myself
for my holidays. My destination, a city which has had
a part of the name Siam but is not in Thailand -
Siam Reap in Cambodia. When friends found out I would
go to see the great Angkor, I had several warnings
such as; "Beware of Khmer ghosts. They are
everywhere!". Or "Be careful of Khmer black magic".
That was really funny because none of the
guidebooks mentioned that. Maybe it was just Thai
superstition. After all, if there are really ghosts or spells in Cambodia,
that wouldn't be any reason to stop me to going, because
the spirits don't really speak the same language as me, and
they would be to shy to communicate with a foreigner
According to my Angkor Wat-Angkor Thom
guidebook, the name Siam Reap has two separate meanings. The
first refers to a victory of the Khmer over the Siamese; the
historians assure us it was in the middle of Ayudhaya Era
(1488-1492).Wheras the second means a city that was created
by the Siamese, because in the reign of Rama III of
the Rattanakosin Era, it was in fact a Siamese colony.
What came to my mind was that there would probably be
many Thai people who had migrated and lived there in the past,
so much so that some of the people would look just like
Thais. I'm a perfect example, since I had a hard time saying that
I was a Thai. They gave me real nasty looks because I
was hanging out with foreigners, thinking "I had forgotten
where I'd come from".
So, yes, I could pass for a real Khmer too!
But when it came to money, things changed
immediately. No riel, no baht! Only dollars, thank you!
I've read lots of books about Angkor, so I was
really excited to think I was actually going to see it, stone
Oh dear! More haste less speed! You know what
happened? Although I packed my rucksack and stormed out
to go and see Angkor - I missed my train!
Nature + Art
Fortunately, my friends took me to Lampang to
catch the train there. I was thinking, "Oh my! What a way to
begin a journey. Is it going to be all like this?"
Yes, pretty well, it was at first. The train I did
manage to catch in Lampang arrived in Bangkok late, so that
the tickets friends had bought me for Aranyaprathet were
useless. But then after six hours in a bus and another three in
a taxi from Poypet to Siam Reap (I missed the last bus
again), and listening to Khmer rock and hip hop during the
transport, I began to relax, feel in holiday mood, partly because of
the songs but also because I really was in Cambodia now,
even if the road trip was like a journey on Mars instead of here
Once in Siam Riap, and squeezed into a local taxi,
I forgot all the chaos of the trip, the cool breeze and the
stunning colonial buildings mesmerizing me. The street was full
of tuk tuk drivers, who were more than friendly enough to
take us - me and my friend - to a bar, only a few steps from
our guesthouse, when they spotted us wandering around
lost. And by 9 pm, we were starving, many restaurants
seeming to be fully booked, because of the New Year Eve Celebration. We
decided to hop into a Mexican restaurant that provided a one
dollar frozen margarita promotion and yummy burritos
. and then
went to bed early, for we had a long day ahead. We planned to buy
a three-day entry pass for Angkor. The first day was to be at
Kbal Spean, which has a waterfall full of carved stones, far out of
the Angkor area. Then we were going to see the sunset at
Banteay Srei, the pink sandstone temple some way to the east of
And that's what we did, but the plans of mice and men
- halfway to Kbal Spean both of us were covered with orange
and looked ridiculously like walking sandstone sculptures.
The waterfall though was quite amazing, the ancient Khmer putting a
lot of effort into making these wonderful sculptures. Then, we
hopped on a tuk-tuk and headed to Banteay Srei to see the sunset.
It was pretty late when we arrived there, the weather
not clear enough to see the sunset. The brief history of Banteay Srei
is that king Yajnavarah founded this temple for the Lord Shiva in
967. It was discovered in 1914 and restoration was finished in
1936 through the process of anastylosis. It was quite late, getting on
for site-closing time, and anyone looking on would have seen
two orange-colored people strolling past detailed pink sandstone
bas-reliefs, among clean Chinese tourists that stopped in every spot
to take photos
it was really outstanding for our tuk tuk driver
to distinguish us in this way. Even though we missed the sunset
at Banteay Srei, we didn't hesitate to compensate ourselves by
having a sunset drink on the way back to the guesthouse.
Finally, we found a Khmer restaurant in town which was
not so busy; it was in the Psar Char area where all the tourists
hang out. We ordered Amock fish, Cambodian fish curry and
stir-fried eggplants with rice, and with a taste not unlike that of Thai food
- except that as a Thai, I can't do without chilies. But they're used
to us Thais in Cambodia, so they made soy sauce with garlic,
limejuice, and chilies for me, no extra charge. After dinner, we tried to find
a bar called the FCC (Foreign Correspondent Club), but
unfortunately, it was too busy, so we decided to try the Warehouse bar in
the same area as the Khmer restaurant that we dined in.
Since we'd spent too much money on transport the
previous day, on our second morning we hired bicycles and started off
at 5.30 a.m. to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. I had to keep
reminding myself that we drive on the right side here. It was only 20
minutes' ride to Angkor, the trail was really nice with big trees along
both sides, not so many cars or tuk tuk, cool breezes and fresh air
so that I started my day enthusiastically. At Angkor Wat, there
were plenty of people setting their cameras to catch the sunrise
but unfortunately - no visible sunrise: clouds! So we decided to
come back the third day to see the bas-reliefs, the Gopuras along the terrace. By this time, nature always asserting itself,
our stomachs were really empty. I found a baguette with grilled pork at the
kiosk really interesting, but there were too many people
queuing up, so we chose a restaurant near by which
was not much good.
We rode back to the guesthouse since we
had to draw money from the ATM. We wanted to do Angkor Thom in the
afternoon, but since it was partially closed for restoration, we went instead to the Bayon, which
is terrific. Everywhere we walked it seemed there were many
eyes staring at us, not those of humans but huge sculptures of
the Khmer kings' faces. Walking along the Gopuras was a great
idea, the bas-relief illustrating Khmer history; the kings' processions
with Thai and Chinese soldiers to fight against Chams, the everyday
life of the common people, and most wonderful of all the Apsaras
on the pillars or the walls. The best time of all for me was looking at
the beauty contest of Apsaras along the Elephant Terrace. It looked
like a labyrinthine gallery, full of characters. That was it then till
sunset, when we headed back to the walking street for the
count-down party at Psa Char. That's right - it was the evening of 31st
A word of advice, folks. Avoid Khmer drinks.
Things went pretty crazy the last evening of the year,
and the following morning I had a hard time figuring out what had
happened. There'd been a jug of Maekhong, hadn't there? - and
some Red Bull? - and
One thing I was sure of on New Year morning. My head
was really heavy, and my body urgently needed rehydration. I also
remembered that we'd planned to go back to a school I'd seen
near Angkor Wat.
The teacher there was really happy to see us. All the
kids were really poor, and the teacher not only had to teach them
but also provide necessities like - well, food. We donated some
books, notebooks and stationery to the school plus some money.
Having said goodbye, we happily walked to look at Angkor Wat,
hangovers forgotten, tagging along behind a group whose guide was
explaining about Angkor Wat's history - how it was dedicated to
Vishnu etc., and how each panel of the reliefs gave different
mythological accounts, from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, mainly. But
what most impressed me was the beauty of the Apsaras - about 1,600
to 1,700 them. One in particular, smiling widely, showing her
teeth, attracted everyone's attention. But I couldn't help feeling that
we women never change. There they were from almost a
thousand years ago, with their magnificent clothes and hairstyles, as if on
the catwalk - stunning is the only word suitable.
Such a colossal monument to Khmer greatness, we felt
on leaving Angkor, and how painful the recent history has been for
the people. The evidence of that brutal period only thirty years back
is still in the people's eyes when they tell you about it.
Getting There? Daily buses and trains are available; Chiang Mai - Bangkok - Aranyaprathet District
- Poypet - Siem Reap.
Or take the Chiang Mai - Siem Reap flight
by Bangkok Airways, available on Thursday and Saturday.
Text & Images: Anne