Day 8: Georgetown to Siem Reap

by - May 05, 2011

Today was going to be a long one.  The plan was to wake up on Penang Island at 6am, fly to Kuala Lumpur and then get a connecting flight to Cambodia.  Skipping out Thailand from the itinerary for the time being fitted nicely into my overall plan however as I am now going to spend my remaining four weeks in Indochina, taking an anti-clockwise loop from Cambodia, to Vietnam, to Laos and finishing in Thailand.  The new plan started well and I got to Penang airport with plenty of time to spare.  I felt I needed all the time I could get however, as the gap between my two flights was a mere hour and five minutes.

The plan started to unwind a bit as my first flight was delayed by 40 minutes, the duration of which I spent re-planning the rest of my trip with less days in Cambodia.  Luckily, the pilot seemed to sense my apprehension and put his foot down.  The flight which should have been 55 minutes long had about 20 minutes shaved off.  Time was still short though, but a man from Malaysia Airlines came and found me as I got off flight one and guided me through KL airport onto flight two.  I take back all the cursing I muttered towards the airline as I sat on the runway - they were actually superb.

Angkor Wat temple
At midday I had landed in Cambodia, at Siem Reap airport and took a tuk-tuk (a brilliant phrase) into town.The history of Cambodia is split between being one of the mightiest empires in Asia around a millennium ago, to almost self-annihilating itself several decades ago.  For this first part of the trip I shall focus on the former of these two, as the Temples of Angkor, the attraction that has put Siem Reap on the map, is considered by many to be the 8th wonder of the world.  They are certainly the pride of Cambodia and can be seen from the national Angkor beer, to the emblem in the middle of the national flag.  The temple complex, the largest religious building in the world, was built by the Khmer Empire to worship a Hinduism that was laced with Buddhism.

The steep stairs to the top of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the name given to the whole area, but is also the name of the flagship building and with an afternoon to explore, this is where I started off.  A three day ticket cost a huge 40 dollars but there was no way I would miss it (they use US dollars over here, even in the cash machines - the Cambodia Riel is only used for small change).  By the time I arrived at Angkor Wat it was 3pm, but that gave me two hours or so to explore.  Amazingly, and look back at other blogs if you don’t believe me, the main tower of the temple was covered in scaffolding.  I didn’t let this deter me however.  The temple is meant to represent the earth - with the towers representing the mountains, the various courtyards representing continents and the 190m wide moat representing the oceans.  The main tower can be climbed, but only by a set amount of people at a time - partially because it is the sacred centre of the site, but also because it involved a climb up the sheerest flight of stairs I have ever seen.

To give you an indication of the era this was built in, it was completed about the same time as Notre Dame, and has been used as a place of worship to this day.  The best equivalent I could think of was that it was like a much larger version of Karnak temple in Egypt, except that it was still in use.  Similar to Karnak as well, were the sheer amount of young kids trying to sell you stuff. It is annoying - I had one girl follow me for literally a quarter of an hour, but at the same time this is probably their family’s only income.

Sunset over the Cambodian countryside
After two hours or so walking around Angkor Wat, I headed up to another temple (whose name I will add tomorrow when I have checked my Lonely Planet).  While not much to see in itself, this second temple is on the top of a hill and is west facing.  It is therefore THE spot to see the sunset, so I and literally several thousand other people clambered up and spent an hour watching the sun go down.  It was a fairly cloudy day, so the sunset wasn’t very impressive until the last few minutes before it went over the horizon, when the cloud broke.  Lots of people had gone home by then, so they lost out.  I took the tuk-tuk (never grows old) back into town and after a really cheap and pleasant dinner - a noodle salad cooked in a banana leaf, I headed to bed.  Tomorrow I aim to get up at 4.30 to see sunrise over Angkor Wat, before making the most of my only full day there.

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