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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Temples of Angkor

As soon as we awoke the next morning we set about moving to a better guesthouse, stopping only briefly to eat breakfast. For the first time in weeks, it didn't have a hair in it, which cheered us up no end.
Tuk-tuk drivers lined the streets, each clambering for business by offering transport to the many temples in Siem Reap. We decided to explore the city for a while before committing to anything, and hired a tuk-tuk for a tour of the local area. We agreed on $2 for half an hour and so began a hair-raising introduction to Cambodia. The busy streets were a frenzy of bicycles, motorbikes and tuk-tuks all driving in apparently random directions, honking horns and ringing bells. The only rule of the road seemed to be NO STOPPING, as vehicles swerved to avoid each other. At roundabouts noone gave way,rather it was a free-for-all as everyone attempted to go at once. Despite the chaos, the tanned faces remained calm and impassive, even the tiny children who were squashed between various other family members on the battered motorbikes. The only ones registering the potential for disaster were us, who clung to the sides of the tuk-tuk as if it were a white-knuckle ride at Alton Towers.Never have I seen so much going on at once - I attempted to take a few photgraphs but didn't know where to look first - everywhere I turned a scene more jaw-dropping than the last was unfolding. Coupled with the fact that we were spinning around as if we were on a waltzer at the fairground, we soon gave up trying to get a good shot. Motorbikes were stacked high with unlikely cargo : pigs, chickens, large panes of glass (sideways on), entire families (I counted 6 on one bike), trays of eggs stacked high..the madness continued. The children in Cambodia are absolutely gorgeous and so friendly - running alongside the tuk-tuk waving furiously and shouting hello, smiling shyly when we waved back. I can see why Brad and Angelina couldn't resist. Despite the poverty the children all appear happy and smiley, content to be playing in the dusty roads with a puppy and their many siblings. It's impossible not to compare them with our largely-spoiled children in the west, always wanting the next new toy and demanding the latest trainers, but still never content.
That afternoon the heat was beginning to get to us so we returned to our guesthouse and arranged a tuk-tuk driver to look after us for the next 3 days, ferrying us to the famous temples and the floating village in the countryside.
That evening the driver (whose name I couldn't even say, let alone spell) picked us up and drove us to a temple called Angkor Wat, which was an ancient royal city monastery built around a thousand years ago. It seems we weren't the only ones wanting to watch the sun set over this breathtaking ruin - tuk-tuk-loads of tourists were also making the pilgrimage to this holy site. We purchased our 3-day pass to the huge archeological site and continued on to the temple...
Angkor Wat is a huge stone work of art, with intricate carvings adorning the walls depicting battle scenes, buddhas and other religious figures, as well as huge stone dragons & elephants. The sheer scale and size of the royal city was amazing - it's hard to put into words just how it feels to walk around ancient ruins so steeped in history. I won't bother to spout cheesy cliches, but the hairs on my arms DID stand on end at times.
The next morning our driver picked us up at 5am in order to return to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Again, a crocodile of tourists led up to temple awaiting sunrise, even at 5am when it was still pitch black. All you could see was a chain of flashlights, which we hadn't thought to bring and so stumbled around the site looking for a good place to pitch up and await sunup. Luckily it was worth the wait, and the sky turned from black to purple to pink to blue as the sun made it's way into the sky - the perfect backdrop to such amazing craftsmanship.
We spent several hours wandering amongst the ruins of many temples - there are more than 15 different sites, all with varying styles and designs. We both agreed that Angkor Thom was our favourite, with an impressive 181 huge faces of Buddha carved into the temple towers. I think I took a picture of every single one.
It was an amazing sight, something I'll never forget, and a definite highlight of our trip so far, which takes some doing as we've seen so many awe-inspiring things. Of course, where there are tourists there will be beggars and vendors, but there were almost as many children selling various obscure objects as there were tourists. Their wares ranged from the obvious: water, postcards, guidebooks, to the not-so-obvious: flutes, puppets, bracelets...
As I said, the little urchins were so cute that we ended up buying all manner of useless stuff and by the end of the day my bag was bulging with fridge magnets, flutes, books, postcards etc. We kept saying that we wouldn't buy another thing, but then one of the kids would look at us with huge sad eyes and before I knew it I was buying a CD of the music being played by landmine victims (all missing limbs yet smiling away at us) and all sorts of stuff that we neither needed nor wanted.
By the afternoon we were exhausted and returned to our hostel covered in red dust from the road and red-faced from the baking sun..
The following day was spent visiting more temples and climbing amongst the ruins, marvelling at how they came to be in existence in the first place. Our jaws ached from smiling for so many photos of us standing in front of various ancient doorways, many of which were used in the Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie. The temples are home to hundreds of monkeys, who boldly climbed all over peoples heads (I kept my distance, not fancying rabies at this point in the trip). A group of Aussies showed no such fear and soon the monkeys had stolen a flip-flop, a can of Coke (and drunk it) and a foot-long baguette.
After another full-on day of sightseeing, we collapsed back into the tuk-tuk having agreed with our driver that he'd take us to the final group of temples. Little did we know that disaster was about to strike....

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