Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Angkor Temples, Siem Reap and Battambang

The Angkor temples in north-west Cambodia are the county’s most famous landmark and tourist attraction. Built by the Khmer Kings between 9th and 13th Centuries who at that time ruled much of South-East Asia, the hundreds of temples range in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to magnificent structures including Angkor Wat, the largest religious building ever constructed, and are spread over tens of square miles.

In most cases, the temples were the religious centres of large walled cities which would at their height have housed the Royal Court and tens of thousands of people. In the intervening centuries the wooden residential and administrative buildings have vanished, swallowed up by the trees, leaving behind just the central temples and the vast outlying city walls as testament to their scale.

The temples are built of a mixture of brick, laterite and sandstone and were all designed to represent the Hindu cosmology, with a central tower representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; smaller towers representing the continents; and a surrounding moat, representing the oceans beyond. This common plan brings some similarity to the temples, yet they are also remarkably distinct. At some the towers are set out in a row; others are pyramidal in shape rising like a mountain out of the flat Cambodian landscape; while others are sprawling structures with multiple concentric chambers and passageways to explore and get lost in.

What is most impressive and beautiful about the temples is the way that they combine enormous scale and grand design with delicate and detailed carvings and bas-reliefs depicting religious figures and stories, the Khmer kings victorious in battle, scenes from everyday life and floral motifs.

We were joined on this leg of the trip by Henry, Kieran’s old housemate and university friend who now lives in Singapore, and his girlfriend Vila who joined us for a week. With them, we spent several days exploring the temples, cycling between them along quiet country roads. With most of that area of Cambodia wooded, the temples sometimes appear, almost without warning, round a bend in the road. Sometimes their scale and fantastic preservation was staggering; at other times the smaller, semi-collapsed structures looked just like a folly in an English stately garden. Although Angkor Wat itself and two of the other most famous temples were crowded with tourists, we were pleased to find that most of the outlying temples were quiet and relatively empty, so that we could wander often with almost no one else around.

The town nearest the temples is Siem Reap. A decade ago when Kieran first visited Cambodia, Siem Reap was little more than a dusty provincial town with a handful of backpacker hostels. Now it’s become the busiest, most Westernised and tourist place we’ve visited with countless hotels catering to all budgets, and wall to wall restaurants, bars and boutique shops. Yet despite its enormous and rapid growth Siem Reap remains an extremely pleasant place to spend time and relax after a dusty day at the temples and we enjoyed basing ourselves there, taking advantage of the delicious restaurants, hotel pools and another fabulous old colonial bar, this time set in the former Governor’s mansion.

Travelling by boat has been such an enjoyable way of getting about Cambodia that we happily opted for an eight hour boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang rather than a shorter bus journey. It didn’t look promising at the start as our overloaded boat rocked precariously about on the enormous Tonle Sap lake. However the lake soon gave way to a shallow river lined with tall grasses and trees and floating villages, with small children splashing about by the banks. Perching on the outer rim of the boat (providing much needed leg room) we passed the journey enjoyably meandering up the river.

Battambang is the fourth most visited tourist destination In Cambodia but as the average tourist’s length of stay in the country is only five and a half days (with most tourists viewing the country as an add-on to a trip to Thailand or Vietnam) it sees few tourists. This has retained its small town relaxed atmosphere, along with some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country. We spent an enjoyable few days kayaking and swimming along the river, wine tasting at Cambodia’s only winery (the wine was excellent, the brandy less so) and visiting Phnom Sampeau, a complex of Buddhist temples set on a hilly limestone outcrop. Harrowingly this was also the site of some notorious “killing caves” where the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned hundreds of people to death before throwing them down into the caves.

We also took a ride on the ingenious local bamboo train, the most unusual train journey we’ve taken. Locals use the old railway line which runs from Phnom Penh to the Thai border to make short journeys around Battambang. Each train consist of a three metre-long wooden frame covered with slats of light bamboo that rest on two barbell-like bogies connected to a six horsepower engine with a fan belt attached to a fly wheel on the axel. They manage to pick quite a speed, and feel even faster so close to the tracks, and it’s an exhilarating, if a little scary, experience to hurtle along the track on a sheet of bamboo with nothing to hold on to! The train line is due to be upgraded shortly which whilst good economically for the area will sadly probably mean the end of the bamboo train.

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