Five Days In Siem Reap

The boat trip went on forever!

8 hours in total in the end, the last hour and a half bouncing around in the waves on Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap. It was an amazing trip, winding along a narrow river for a few hours in the early morning past some very poor looking riverside people who all waved at us with big smiles on their faces and then out into a wider stretch of water, through floating villages and more waving children.

Once across the lake, the boat dived into the mangroves and fought it’s way through reeds to get to Siem Reap, Annika having to swerve out of the way of whipping bamboo and other wildlife as we picked a careful route through.

A silly argument with a tuk-tuk driver later and we arrived at our hotel.

Next morning, we were up at 4am again to go and see Angkor Wat appear at sunset, along with most of humanity. Well OK, there weren’t THAT many people there but photos were hard to get due to the people insisting on standing up and sitting down all the time whilst preparing their tripod-mounted cameras at the front.

It was an amazing sight, the 5 towers which represent the 5 peaks of Mount Meru (Everest) slowly revealing themselves, reflected in the pond that sits just in front.

As soon as the sun had risen, the camera papps all packed up and left and our guide began delivering his encyclopaedic knowledge to us. By the time we’d walked round Angkor Wat I was beginning to really feel the effects of so many early mornings though and breakfast was a welcome fuel boost when it came.

Once revived, we set off to one of the far flung temples in the area, Banteay Srei which was quite small and very interesting, The Citadel Of Women apparently.

Lunch was followed by a visit to Ta Prohm, the temple used in the filming of Lara Croft apparently. I’ve not seen the film so that side of things was of little interest to me but this is probably my favourite of the area as it’s buried in the jungle and is in the very slow process of being eaten by the various trees that have sprung up in the short time (900 years or so) since it was built. Apparently, once the temples were abandoned, seeds dropped by birds in their droppings landed on the temple walls and began to grow. Gradually, their roots have reached down towards the ground, strangling the temple below, sometimes knocking parts down as it goes, creating some astounding combinations of nature and human creation.

Our last stop was Bayon in Angkor Thom which was the source of much historical information for the Cambodian people – a lot of Cambodian history had been lost and the carvings in this temple provided historians with a lot of useful knowledge.

I, however, was flagging in the heat by this point so you’ll have to ask Annika if you want to know any more! All I can remember are tons of nutty stories about gods and demons churning milk in the sea to make a potion which would make them live forever and, my personal favourite, Kala, who was greedy and hungry so decided to eat the head of one of the gods (Vishnu) but, when Vishnu discovered this, he punished Kala by making him eat himself (why didn’t Kala think of that before?!) from the feet upwards and now his little grinning face sits atop almost every lintel as a demonstration of what happens when you get greedy. As I said, mental.

It was a truly exhausting 12 hour day of sight seeing but unlike anything I have ever seen and it just has to be done if you get a chance – fantastic. Our guide was a genius of the highest order and has asked me to set up a website for his (only exists in his head at the moment) tourism business as he only earns $15 per day for giving us rich people the benefit of his knowledge. Anyone fancy lending their skills as I am not exactly a web design expert (as can be seen by this site!) ?

An early night and a change of hotel and we hired some old, crap bikes and set off for the temples again next morning. Believe it or not, there is much more to see here than you can comfortably fit into a day or even two. We pedalled our aching buttocks around like crazy but there are still bits we failed to see (Preah Khan for example, which is massive) and we managed to get to the traditional sunset viewing spot just in time to see it close which was nice.

After a week of early mornings and exhausting days we decided to stay in Siem Reap for another 2 days and rest as our hotel was very nice and fairly cheap. We spent Saturday by the pool, Annika had another (!) pedicure and in the evening we went to the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital for a cello recital by the guy who founded the Kantha Bopha hospitals, Dr. Beat Richner who calls himself Beatocello.

The guy is amazing, not for his cello playing (which apparently was very good, though what do I know? I played recorder at the age of about 8, that’s my musical background!) but for his commitment to the children of Cambodia. He has pioneered and founded 5 hospitals (4 in Phnom Penh, the other here in Siem Reap) which provide treatment, free of charge to children who have any health problems, most of which are tuberculosis and Dengue Fever – he has apparently reduced the mortality rate in children from 6% to 0.5% since the first one opened in 1997. Amazingly, only 5% of his funding comes from the Swiss government (he is Swiss) and 5% from the Cambodian government – the rest is donations.

The evening consists of a few cello pieces dotted in between his views on world health, particularly his scathing opinions of the way that the WHO and UNICEF are run. Without knowing much about the subject, it is hard not to see his point of view – his hospitals look superb, he pays his staff (who are 98% Cambodian) a more than decent wage (in order to prevent corruption) and they even give the remote farming families the price of their travel back to the hospital to ensure that they can afford to return for out-patient treatment – the average income of a farmer here being around 50 cents a day. He’s the sort of individual who ought to get a lot more coverage for his work and yet I’ve never heard of him – I suppose there’s tons of people like this around the world doing just as vital work for people who need it without any recognition and yet people who win X Factor are lauded as heroes for overcoming some private personal tragedy at some point. Bonkers. Donation donated, we left feeling rather pointless but at least we’d done something, even it was a relatively small something.

Sunday was unremarkable, save for a visit to the National Museum which houses a lot of the relics that were found in the temples and an unexpected glimpse of the King!

As we left our hotel to go to the museum, there were tons of police around a nearby school and quite a few onlookers. Deciding that, even if we hung around to see who it was going to be we wouldn’t recognise them, we wandered off to get ourselves a tuk-tuk. “Maybe it’s the King?”, I said to Annika as we strode across the bridge as she quite fancies him, having seen him in the film Dr. Richner showed us the previous night. “I don’t see why it would be”, came her reply.

Our tuk-tuk driver did his best to nip through the traffic which was all being held back by the police to keep the roads clear but in the end, he failed and we were forced to stand by the side of the road and wait until the mystery celebrity had passed. Barely 5 minutes later and his motorcade glided past, King Sihanouk leaning out of the window of his state car, waving at the crowds. Annika maintains he waved and smiled at her so everyone prepare yourselves to greet Queen Annika I in July!

It seems a shame to leave Siem Reap. Our 5 days here has been so nice and so varied, I’ve really enjoyed it. But leave we must and we are now on our way to the capital – Phnom Penh.