Blog // Tales from the trail
After 'the' boat ride, our arrival into Siem Reap was akin to that really good feeling after having a hot and well-deserved shower. The light was soft and beautiful as we trundled along the dusty road into town, our driver excitedly chatting away, planning how he could assist us on various tours over the next few days. The green, perfectly flat rice fields turned into the outskirts of town, small villages calm and lulled by the closing day, which all of a sudden turned into town good and proper. Although people had mentioned that practically anything was available in Siem Reap, it was still a bit of a shock to see just how developed and action-packed it was, after witnessing such simplicity along the river only 15km away.
Siem Reap's success is more than likely owed to the 'discovery' of those Angkor temples in 1858 by Henri Mouhot; the seat of the Khmer Empire between the 9th-15th centuries. Not that the temples were lost necessarily, the Khmer people probably knowing they were there beneath the jungle, but Mouhot opened them up to the rest of the World with his vivid documentations of what he had seen exploring the jungle. The Khmer Empire has had a long, tumultuous history, as have most ancient civilisations, but was strongest during the 11th-12th centuries, when it left a legacy behind, for our viewing pleasure today, over 1,000 years later. Even the provocative name, Siem Reap, 'Defeat of Siam' pays hommage to its warring background.
The archaeological site at Angkor includes two well-trodden paths; the inner and the outer circuits. There are also several more temples further afield that require a more independent excursion to go and see. We bought a 3-day ticket and hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the outer circuit on the first day, leaving us to do the inner circuit at our own pace on a pair of bicyclettes a few days later.
It was inevitable that we would see the most famous temple, Angkor Wat first, the main route in from Siem Reap town leading straight to it, whether you are doing the inner or the outer circuit. In my head, for whatever pre-conceived reason, I imagined the temples to be a) really crumbly, b) concentrated in a small area and c) sat amongst swirls of red dust, being pecked over by masses of tourists. My pre-conceptions, were, thankfully, dashed almost immediately as we rounded the corner to reveal Angkor Wat's moat; a moat that could rival any other and wouldn't seem out of place if it were surrounding even the grandest of European castles.
Even though I knew the site was once covered by by jungle, I couldn't believe how green it was and also that there didn't seem to be too many people considering the buzz down 'Pub Street' in town the night before.
Our first stop, Preah Khan, turned out to be one of my favourite temples; big and maze-like, it took a few hours to explore and get a feel for the 'art-work' adorning most of the stone-work.
Most of the temples were built by Jayavaraman VII, supposedly the greatest of the Angkor kings, in the late 12th century, who embarked upon a prolific era of construction. Although the speed at which the temples were thrown up meant they weren't as structurally sound as some of the older ones. The condition and integrity of the most famous temple, Angkor Wat, built by the previous King 40-50 years earlier compared to most of the others, which are more in states of disrepair testifies to the old adage, "quality, not quantity".
The temples are invariably impressive though, bearing characteristic inscriptions in the stone, which are mostly indecipherable unless you are in the know about Buddhism, Hinduism and historic fables, such as the 'Churning of the Milk,' for instance. It was interesting to see that as the predominant religion changed, so did the inscriptions, with some crude re-design of the poses of the stone images.
Just as we were in wonderment wandering around the many temples, nature was just as captivating, the jungle growing up around and through the sites, adding an air of mystery to everything.
We would recommend making the effort to go and see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Although we weren't exactly the only ones there, not by a long stretch, it was still a serene start to the day and a good time to explore this particular temple before the really big crowds start waking up. We did cheat a little bit by going back to the guesthouse for a post-dawn snooze, before cycling back to do the rest of the inner circuit!
As Siem Reap is such a bustling town we managed to keep ourselves plenty occupied for over a week, including a bit of R&R time to recover from our first bout of travelling squits. And because the town and the surrounding areas are so flat, cycling is the perfect mode of transport - not that riding a bicycle will deter the tuk-tuk massive from asking if you want a tuk-tuk!
Having been reminded about the 'Green Gecko' project by an old friend, we took a break from the temples and cycled out of town and spent a very special morning visiting the Geckos. Australian Tania and her Cambodian husband Rem have made a family quite unlike any other. 10 years ago they set out to do something really tangible for the street-kids of Siem Reap, who all to often are forced out onto the streets to beg for money to pay for their families' drink, drug or gambling habits. Today, 100 street kids later, the geckos live in a safe haven, where they get an education, a healthy diet, self-esteem and are empowered to believe they can do or they can be whatever they want to be, their difficult starts no longer part of the equation. They are a family. We were given a guided tour by one of the geckos who proudly and confidently showed us around, telling us that when he finishes school he wants to be a photographer. The geckos talk about each other as brothers and sisters, looking out for each other, the older ones having responsibilities to ensure the younger ones are managing. The geckos have action-packed days, learning all sorts of subjects and getting involved in skilled activities such as farm-work, cooking and sewing. Rem's mother cooks the vast quantities of rice - enough for 130 people, three times a day, every day without fail. Some of the older geckos, 10 years' later have now 'graduated' from daily gecko life, but are still very much part of the family, Rem proudly telling us that he was recently a grandfather again.
We volunteered on the farm one morning, keen to learn more about Rem's master plan for the farm, having just completed a permaculture course in Thailand with one of his sons. Their ambition for the farm they are now creating is to sustain the geckos on chemical-free food, an admirable goal, not without its challenges and further lessons to learn. But we think they'll do it! There are so many other initiatives that the project is undertaking, including Rehash Trash, involving the biological mothers of the kids, turning trash into products they can sell; for many of them, the first time in their lives that they have had the opportunity to be self-sufficient and earn a respectable living. A totally inspiring story and project, the kids were a joy. We would urge you to read more about them and pay them a visit if you're ever in Siem Reap.
Before visiting Cambodia, both of us are rather ashamed to admit we knew virtually nothing about Cambodia's tragic history, fairly recent history at that. The madness of the Khmer Rouge regime is difficult to digest. A crazed ideology, where Cambodia was to become a completely closed, utilitarian, 2-class state where everyone would either be a farmer or a worker. Currency was abolished; Cambodians did not understand money, according to Pol Pot, neither would they need to buy anything, everything they would need either being produced on the farms or in the factories. All religion and worship was abolished. All foreign products were abolished, including medicines. Festivals, cultural events, the arts, were abolished. Education was abolished.
It is no surprise then that Cambodia is, rightly, inundated with NGOs, primarily focussed on development, healthcare, education and empowering people. As recently as 1997, the head of the Cambodian health services of UNICEF declared, with the country still in such a state of poverty affected by decades of civil war and grossly irresponsible governments, that 'The hope is for the Cambodians not yet born.' A plight hard to imagine approaching the new millennia.
Another project that we were more than happy to support in Siem Reap was 'Phare, the Cambodian Circus', a social enterprise, advocating sustainable and responsible tourism for community development. Their aims numerous, they are creating career opportunities for young Cambodians as well as developing the artistic culture of the country. An hour and a half well spent, we were completely entertained by the young performers and their big smiles.
And so, after an incredible week, seeing beautiful and inspiring sights all over Siem Reap, it was time to face the big city, Phnom Penh.
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