As with Laos, we had been learning that time is a bit of a variable concept in Cambodia, so we weren't worried when the minibus failed to pick us up at the agreed time. Perhaps it was a ploy – the owner (what he owned was not mentioned, I assumed the GH) came over and introduced himself. He told us about another GH in Siam Reap – we could arrange a pick up, free of charge and go and look at the GH without obligation. Why not – neither of us were looking forward to traipsing around “Cambodia's most touristy town” with our early warning backpacks looking for a place to stay. We booked it.
As dusk settled we arrived in Siam Reap and a fellow called Mr. Si-mon collected us and took us to the GH, imaginatively called Number 10 like its brother in Phnom Penh. The room was fine except for the small issue of the price having inflated 20% during the six hour journey. Once we bargained back down to the quoted $5 we settled in.
Mr Si-mon wanted (of course) to take us to the temples so he started telling us about the various tours he could take us on. He had halfway decent English and seemed like a nice fella so we agreed to do 2 days with him in his tuk tuk. Moto actually. We were looking forward to having a few nice days in which to learn some of the history from Mr Si-mon, without going the whole hog and getting a full blown guide. We agreed a price and did the deal.
We were picked up at 7 the next morning and we set off. Mr Si-mon asked if we had had a good sleep, and we had. Returning the favour, he said “No, I drinking a lot with my fiends last night.” Just what you want your driver for the day to say!
There are more than a hundred monuments of varying origins, shapes and sizes in the area around Siam Reap. Angkor Wat is the most celebrated and a major source of national pride, to the extent that it takes pride of place on the Cambodian flag. But there are tons of others.
We started, I later found out, with Leak Neang, one of the temples that is not described in the guides. Mr Si-mon stopped the tuk tuk outside the temple and pointed at it. We got off, expecting a brief synopsis, perhaps an estimate of its age, who built it, was it Hindu or Buddhist or even a fusion. “I wait here”, said Mr Si-mon and curled into the tuk tuk seat we had just left.
The temple was in Angkorian style, with a once-grand entrance opening to a long set of stairs leading up to a myriad of crumbling large reddish pinnacles and some defaced lion-like images. No idea what it all represented, who built it or anything really but it was pretty.
Mr Si-mon was asleep when we returned. We were reluctant to wake him but a fellow tuk tuk driver waiting for his own tourists gave him a shout. Once he had woken I asked him if he had any information he would give us – that I thought we were getting a tour. He didn't, and got quite a bit put out when I said that it was a lot of money to pay for a driver and not a guide. Then he started a whining tirade about some people being rich, some being poor and that I was “not young” and should know better. He was visibly annoyed. I felt ripped off. But we carried on.
Next up was Bantay Srei, about an hour's ride north. Mr. Si-mon, still scowling, wanted us to have breakfast at a particular place and not in the mood for any aggro, went along with it. He lay straight down on the hammock and fell fast asleep, clear that this was the commission for taking us there. Bantay Srei is a diminutive temple compared to its peers but is immaculately well preserved (for a tenth century construction) and has incredibly ornate stone carvings throughout its pinkish stones. It also has a water-lily covered moat and is surrounded by lush rainforest. This one at least had a bit of blurb in the book so we had some idea what to look for – the information point that a European head might expect at the entrance is yet to be constructed.
Here, we began to discover one of the not-so-nice parts of visiting the area – hundreds of very young girls vocally selling drinks, fruit and souvenirs plus lot of people with horrible disabilities selling books. It's hard to walk on by but any sign of interest (or weakness) is so vehemently pounced upon that it's a lesson you learn fast. One very young girl, she can't have been more than about 5 or 6 was selling postcards. As part of her spiel she insisted on counting them out. “One, Two, Three” and all the way up to ten. She asked where I was from and on hearing my answer, said “Ireland: capital, Dublin. “A haon, a do, a trí, a ceathar ... “ I was dumbfounded to hear her sound off the numbers in Irish. I've no doubt she could do it 10 other languages but we still had unwritten postcards from Thailand to send to I had to hold my ground.
Surly Mr. Si-mon took us to another temple – not entirely sure what this one was called as he had stopped all information provision following my request for more. I think it was Kroi Ko, a much larger edifice with life size elephants guarding the cardinal points.
On to another temple, this one fighting a losing battle against nature, some of the walls almost totally covered trees, remiscent of the heart of stone we saw in in the Jesuit Missions in Argentina.
Temples coming thick and fast now our next stop was Neak Pean, a completely different monument altogether. It was built as a reservoir with a sacred island in the middle with four ancillary pools surrounding it. In its day, the 12th Century, various fountains in human, god and animal form graced it. All that remained which gave some impression of what it must have been like were the feeder pipes to the ancillary pools in the form of a lion (we think) a serpent, an elephant and a man.
Next up was the sprawling scrapheap of stones that is called Preah Kahn. We were left off at the northern approach and told to meet the tuk tuk at the western entrance. Fittingly the main points of interest were south and east. We saw a another, grander battle of ancient stone versus eternal nature and a 2 storey building, the library. This is very unusual as it was considered taboo to walk above anyone else's head until Europeans decided it would be a good way of maximising the value of city property. Preah Khan means “Sacred Sword”, a nod to the victory of Jayavarman VII's victory over Charn invaders at the site.
Claire hadn't had to climb up anything high in at least a few months, so the next temple Baksei Cham Krong was perfect for her – made to represent a mountain central to hinduism. It had delicartely intricate carvings of religious texts at the top. But vertigo takes no prisoners so we came down before it set in.
At this point I need to explain something, not about temples themselves but the act of seeing them. After seeing many beautiful, but similar ruins of ancient temples something starts to happen. The lack of information and the surliness of Mr Si-mon I'm sure helped the feeling along – we had started to lose the will to live. We had become templed. We visited one more, situated at the top of a hill and affording nice views of the sunset. We passed up on the opportunity to take an elephant to the top. After that we were done. And we hadn't even seen the main temples yet! It seemed an awful shame but we didn't care any more – there are only so many temples you can take in one day.
I had made a few reconciliatory gestures to Mr. Si-mon through the day, offering and buying cold drinks, making small talk, generally trying to repair the rift but he was impervious. If he had made any attempt at civility during the day we would have kept him on but we were both uncomfortable in his brooding presence so at the end of the day we paid him off, quite handsomely in fact and decided to get bikes instead.
That was much more like it. We could do things at our own pace and decide to say or go as we liked. We went to Angkor Wat soon after 8, hoping to beat the tour buses. It was all eerily quiet, perhaps due to the economic slump or the issues in Thailand. Angor Wat itself is simply majestic surrounded by a lake and lead up to by a 300m long causeway. From a distance I would have said it was smaller than expected but it's a trick of scale. The most distinctive architectural feature in the whole complex, perhaps the whole country are the tall conical towers, designed to look like lotus leaves. We walked around the temple with its massive bas reliefs, thankful for the shade it provided. It was spectacular, reminiscent of Maccu Picchu however much grander and more ornate, despite being many centuries older.
On next to Bayon, what I thought to be the most striking of all the temples. The centre of the ancient city its 53 towers are adorned with huge carved faces, each facing a cardinal point.
The burning midday heat prevented us from spending too long at the top so we retreated for some shade in a nearby forest. After a sit down and a guzzle of water we decided that we would have to call it quits for the day – way too hot to be doing anything. Plus we still had the entrance vaild for the next day. Claire got a puncture 500m away from the GH – it was a good job we came back when we did! Back at the ranch we booked our bus to Vietnam for 2 days time.
My ear had been at me since Luang Prabang. I had a horrible stuffy sensation in my left ear and had lost most of my hearing on that side. Some eardrops and baby oil I picked up in Laos had thus far staved off the worst. As we cycled around that day my right ear started to cause me a lot of pain. More than I was willing to put up with. Plus I couldn't hear anything now. To save poor Claire from repeating herself every time she opened her mouth, I decided to get it sorted out. Before going back to the temples.
This lead me to the Royal Angkor International Hospital the following day. Claire was impressed by its cleanliness and modernity, I was impressed that it existed. Cambodia was not my dream location for medical treatment. I was seen within a few minutes by a polite unassuming doctor who had a look first in my throat and then my ears. My guess was that it was either an infection or a build up of wax. The doctor confirmed it as being both – an infection in ear covered by impacted cerumen, further exacerbating the problem. (Sorry for anyone squeamish who's reading).
I was lead to the treatment room where I was asked to lay down and a nurse used a syringe to pour a liquid into my ear. A strange popping sensation started – it was as if someone had put some rice crispies and milk into my ear. 20 minutes later the doctor appeared with a tiny vacuum and hoovered out the liquid and a few bits of wax. He proudly drew my attention to one particularly large lump he managed to extract. He went deeper and deeper and then hit something and I nearly jumped off the table with pain. Thankfully he then moved on to the right ear and carefully repeated the process. He didn't get as far because the infection had caused swelling – his mini hoover wouldn't fit. He put an antibiotic gauze in it and told me to come back the next day to finish the treatment. It was almost dark by now – so the third day at the temples never happened. Probably just as well we'd have struggled to maintain enthusiasm for another 5 or 6 hours. It also meant the onward journey to Saigon had to be postponed. Definitely just as well – a huge storm rolled in during the evening and the electricity to the whole town was cut. Never easy to pack by candle light!
As we sat in the candle lit guesthouse that night we met a lovely American girl, Milena, who had been biking around SE Asia. She had some great stories about almost being blown up by accidentally riding through a minefield in deepest darkest Cambodia.
The doctor finished me off the next day and I was given a sweetshop of drugs, droppers, pipettes and all sorts and very clear instructions not to swim, not to fly, not to snorkel and not to drink alcohol. I was, of course delighted with this state of affairs. We cycled around town in the afternoon, exchanging books, having ice cream shakes (I was still allowed ice cream!) and replacing Claire's Havaianas which had broken much to her chagrin. She was happy, though with the funky new model sporting little plastic TVs on the straps.
Unusually, we'd eaten most of our meals at the gueshouse in Siam Reap so in order to break the habit we headed down town. Butterflies Garden Restaurant had received rave reviews in the guidebooks. Those reviews said it was an outdoor restaurant covered in a net in which thousands of spectacular butterflies flit around as you eat. So we went. And we ate. And we saw the net. But we didn't see one butterfly – maybe they were having a day off. The food was ok. It was time to leave Cambodia – I think the only country so far we didn't feel a strong affection for.