Friday, 26 August 2011

The Mysteries of Angkor - 20-23 April 2011

Violently woken from my sleep at 5am, I slam my hand down upon my mobile telephone to shut the alarm up. Scared to use the snooze function, I force myself to get out of bed and under a brief shower. Not that a shower is worth it, as within a few minutes outside and I'll be drenched with sweat once again. My whole theory that I would be used to the humid climate by this point was blown out of the window and I resigned myself to a few months of dripping. I stepped out side and walked down the stairs quietly, trying not to wake the night watchman whom was sleeping in reception. Nicky and Tom were already outside in the dark waiting for me and the adventure ahead of us. Our tuk-tuk driver and guide for the day silently pushed the machine from around the rear of the guesthouse. The gates were opened and we hopped in and were off to catch sunrise over the ancient Khmer ruins.

Early morning in a tuk-tuk
We were on a tight schedule, sunrise was at 5.45am and we had to pick up Kate from her hotel and her friend Shale from his. Once we had collected everyone we would have to travel a few kilometres out of Siem Reap, buy a ticket and travel a further kilometre to the main temple of Angkor Wat. The night before, I handed the driver a piece of paper with details of where we needed to collect the other two from and he assured me that it was OK and that he knew where the places were so everything 'should' be fine. The streets of Siem Reap were eerily quiet and not reminiscent of Asia at all. As we drove down the street towards Kate's place, the three of us savoured the peaceful atmosphere and cool breeze flowing past us. The driver's confident attitude began to diminish and his head started slapping from side to side desperately trying to find the intended address. He slammed his breaks on, changed his mind and applied the throttle over and over again. Our peaceful mood turned to concern, time was passing rapidly. I leant over and spoke to him in a loud clear voice so that he could hear me over his whining engine. I pointed to the map but he had no idea where he was going. Unfortunately, he had no telephone on him, neither did we, so we couldn't call Kate or the hotel in question. The tuk-tuk driver took the initiative to turn around and steam back to our hotel to seek assistance from the night watchman.

He ran into the reception area and was in there for a while. I had become impatient and followed him in to see what he was up to and when I got inside, I just saw him staring idly at the telephone. I'm not sure he knew what it was or how to use it. My impatience turned to frustration and I urged him to hurry up as we only had 25 minutes now to pick up the others and get into the complex for sunrise. Another minute passed by and the guide leaped energetically through the front door and moved briskly towards the tuk-tuk, said “OK!” and we were moving again but our hopefulness immediately disappeared when we reached the end of our road, we turned right onto the main road... The opposite direction to where we should have been going! My anxiety increased, I looked at the other two and we couldn't help but laugh through our pain.

The tuk-tuk stormed into the quiet streets of central Siem Reap and we arrived at Shale's hostel where he had been waiting for a while. He jumped on board with now only 15 minutes to pick Kate up, buy tickets and get into the site before that sun rose above the horizon. To our surprise, the tuk-tuk driver said “OK, Angkor Wat!”. “NO!!!!” we all screamed in disbelief, “We need to pick up Kate!”. My hands clasped together in a fit of stress, squeezing my guide book like it was an orange. I raised the book and to stop my teeth clenching together and shattering, I stuck the book in between my top and bottom deck and bit down hard. We laughed at the unbelievable situation. “Ah, I can't find this address to pick this person up so I'm going to just forget about her, they won't mind and everything will be fine.” How could he possibly think such a thing. Luckily Shale had a mobile and could contact Kate. Within a few minutes we were back the other side of the river and town with Kate climbing aboard. We now only had 10 minutes to get over to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

We now had five people squeezed in the back of this tuk-tuk and the engine was noticeably struggling to get above 50km/h. The sky was getting lighter by the second and we all knew in the bottom of our hearts that we wouldn't make it. We had a couple of kilometres to go, stop at the ticket office, travel a further kilometre or two to Angkor Wat and then walk into the site itself. We still urged the driver to go as fast as possible, but it became more light hearted and fun as we had come to terms with our late arrival. We finally arrived at the site around 5.50am, the sun had brightened the sky somewhat but was still not visible above the horizon. So we jumped off the tuk-tuk and walked with a hurried step into the temple site.

Suddenly all the memory of the past 45 minutes evaporated as we were presented with Angkor Wat's impressive entrance and our first taste of the mystery that lies within. Although the sky was light, the sun hadn't risen above the ruins so we had in fact got there in time for the sunrise show. The sky began to turn red over the surrounding jungle illuminating the ruins in a beautiful orange glow. Hundreds of people swarmed around the temple capturing as many photos as they possible could. The views were awe inspiring, unforgettable and certainly a highlight of Andy's Epic Voyage. We spent a couple of hours at the main site walking through the endless elaborately designed passageways. It is so easy to lose your bearings and sometimes you have to stop and retrace your steps. Especially as you get in towards the centre where it's all pretty much symmetrical. In the centre, you have the chance to climb up to the highest point of the temple and this is where I confirmed my choice of wearing flip-flops was not, I repeat NOT a good idea! Climbing uneven 800 year old steps in those was not the easiest or safest thing to do. 

My new young monk friend
After walking round for a while, I needed a break, so I headed out to one of the many exits of the central complex and sat down. I opened my bag up to retrieve my bottle of water but opened my front pocket instead and was extremely surprised when a huge cockroach scuttled out at speed up my arm. I instinctively shuddered and flicked the disgusting insect off me. I have no idea how long I had been carrying that around for! After taking several swigs of my water, which was now warm, I was joined by a few young monks who greeted me and took my photo. Such friendly people, yet I'm still not used to seeing them walk around with their digital SLRs and using mobile phones.

We all reconvened and decided that we should take this moment to leave and head towards another temple. The second temple was a small ruin just to the east of the main one and fairly unremarkable. We weren't there long before we headed back off to another more impressive temple. Perhaps even more impressive than the main Angkor Wat temple we visited first thing. This temple, I have Preah Khan is a perfect example of how powerful nature is and how it will consume us given the opportunity. With the downfall of the Khmer Empire, the Angkor region went into hiding for many years giving the surrounding jungle to move in until a French man rediscovered the complex 150 year ago. Seeing the trees twisting around the stone carvings and coming through walls is an inspiring sight. These temples are jaw droppingly amazing now, I can't imagine what they were like when they were built?

Flip-flops not ideal....
Time was moving on rapidly and hunger began affecting us, so before we visited any more of the temples, we stopped for dinner at this restaurant to give us all a break from the heat. The five of us went inside and got a meal and a nice cold drink whist the guide got into a hammock and fell asleep for a while. The restaurant owners were lovely and accommodating, they pulled over a couple of fans and pointed them directly at us.

After lunch we headed to another temple that sat quite isolated in the complex but was a tall pyramid with steep steps on all four sides that led to the top. We walked round the temple in a bid to find the side that was in the shade so we could climb up without the sun burning our backs. We finished our complete circle and failed to find shade. Only by looking at my watch did I see the reason why, it was midday.

Banyon Temple, our last temple of the day and one of the most popular due to the mysterious faces that are carved into the stones around the temple complex. The temples are certainly one of the wonders of the world and too amazing, mysterious, provoking and vast to justifiably describe with written word. You could spend days, weeks, even months wondering the countless passage ways through the dozens of ruins on this site. We only had one day and by the time we got to Banyon we were so hot and tired that we ordered our guide, who was eager to show us more, to take us back home. We had spent eight hours walking, exploring, climbing, haggling, drinking gallons of water and sweating it straight back out again. The ruins are in the midst of a jungle and thus the humidity, even as early as 7am is unbearable.

The Faces of Banyon
Once arriving back at our guesthouse I just got straight into the shower and I'm pretty sure there was steam rising off my body as the cold water sucked the heat from my body. After the shower, Nicky and I headed out to have our hair cut for the second time on my trip. This time I took along a photograph to show the barber instead of trying to explain what I wanted. Nicky had a dramatic change to his hair and had most of it chopped off.

Later that evening we went to unwind at a restaurant with Kate, as it was her last night and have a couple of drinks. I enjoyed the evening until it came to paying for the meal when I handed over $10 to the waiter and after a few moments of deep evaluation he returned it to me saying it was unacceptable. I was taken aback. I asked why he wouldn't take it and he pointed out the tiniest tear not even one millimetre long and asked whether I had another one. I didn't. Even if I did, I would have said no out of principle. I began to get frustrated at their refusal of my money. I would have accepted it if it was screwed up and ripped in half but it was a perfect bill apart from that tiny minuscule blemish. I stood up and spoke quietly to the waiter and asked him where his manager was as I wasn't prepared to take it out on an innocent waiter as it's not his fault. The manager came out and I again presented the bill, and with it an ultimatum that he either take the perfectly good money on offer or I walk out and don't pay for my meal as that is the only money I have. He began asking my friends for cash and unfortunately someone handed over another note on my behalf and I left the restaurant feeling defeated.

The evening finished up perfectly at a bar down some back alley where locals were celebrating the end to Khmer New Year with some locals. We only went for a couple of beers but as we sat quietly drinking and talking the revellers urged us to join them for a dance and so we did. These are the moments travelling is all about, being invited to celebrate and share a memory with the local people.

As there are so many photos, here's a slideshow!

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