Saturday, 8 August 2015

Siem Reap

In order to have more time in Penang, and because it was only marginally more expensive, we decided to fly back to Kuala Lumpur in order to make our flight the next morning to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was our first destination in Southeast Asia and one that I was really looking forward to. Siem Reap has reinvented itself a chic tourist city which whilst catering for the western demands of foreigners still has its own character.

The reason behind this reinvention is its proximity to the ancient site of Angkor with temples as evidence of the Cambodian 'god-kings' striving for temples of great size, scale and symmetry. Stretching over 400square kilometres, Angkor is the remains of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, and with Angkor Wat at the helm, it is one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia for its cultural, religious and symbolic nature. 
We hired a tuk-tuk and driver for the day and set off to the first stop of Angkor Wat. Following a stone causeway across the moat surrounding the site, the looming compound comes into view. From this location, we felt the need to continue and 'get to the wonderous five domes, companions of the sky, sisters of the clouds and determine whether or not one lives in a world of reality or in a fantastic dream'  (From Helen Churchill Candee's book, Angkor: The Magnificent, The Wonder City of Ancient Cambodia).
Because of its size, it is difficult to grasp the layout of the temple city which is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different leveles linked by stairways. These stairs are thought to 'make us force to a halt at beauteous obstructions (so) that the mind may be prepared for the atosphere of sanctity' (Candee). The size is deceiving because of the layout but it stands at 213 feet, making it almost twice the height of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. We entered the temple and walked through the passage ways with beautifully intricate carvings on the wall before reaching the central tower, all the while passing shrines appearing behind the haze of burning incense and monks dressed in bright orange going about their daily life. The central tower symbolises the mythical Mount Meru which is situated at the centre of the universe. Although a considerable amount of restoration work has been done, its age is apparent in some places but that all adds to the character; it is also a reminder that this magnificent structure took only 30 years to build.
Next on our self-guided tour was Angkor Thom which was the religious and administrative centre of the powerful Khmer empire. Once the residence of the king, officials and priests, the grandeur has faded a little with age but the fact still remains that this 'great city', as the name translates, is exactly that. As with all the sites within the Angkor complex, there were a great deal of tourists baying for that perfect photo or to feel the spirituality of the place. Whilst it is somewhat annoying to be pushed and shoved, it is testament to how important the site is, not only when it was built but over ten centuries later. 

Following our exploration of Angkor Thom we then puttered along in the tuk-tuk to Ta Prohm. which rose in popularity after it featured in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film. Left untouched by archeologists, the temple is shrouded in jungle giving it an ethereal atmosphere and allowing visitors to get a sense of how the early explorers would have found it. Nature has truly taken a hold of Ta Prohm leading the Rt Hon M MacDonald to write in his book Angkor and the Khmers, that the 'temple is held in a strangehold of trees. Stones and wood clasp each other in grim hostility; yet all is silent and still, without any visable mobemnt to indicate a struggle - as if they were wrestlers suddenly petrified, struck motionless in the midle of a fight. The rounds in this battel were not measured by minutes, but by centuries.'
The day spent at the Angkor Archeological Site was amazing to see for ourselves why each and every compound within the complex is so revered around the world. Much like the Incas who built Machu Piccu in Peru, the Khmers faced all logistical challenges to build a magnificent feat of religious dedication.