The culture shock of being in Siem Reap, the contrast of experiencing one of the true wonders of the world and the commercial trappings of all the material goods and services available here, after travelling for many weeks mostly on quiet rural roads where people live off the land, took us six days to overcome, but we did not only managed, but triumphed with great enjoyment.
With apologies to those who have been here and seen it all, its truly a challenging task to encapsulate what Angkor is about. It is much more than Angkor Wat one of the most famous landmarks that is applied to this area. Angkor in fact is the Capital City or the Holy City of the Khmer Empire that existed between the 9th and 12th centuries and it encompasses not only three or four centuries of massive buildings but an area that spreads over hundreds of kilometers, with ruins that are in various stages of preservation: some well done and others intentionally left unrestored with giant building block size stones scattered like mammoth lego pieces, with equally massive tree roots, like elephant trunks hugging them.
The Khmers also constructed massive water works, for many kilometers, and constructed temples dedicated to the gods, places of worship, as well as cities worthy of their military, economic and cultural dominance of a region that spread over an area that covers modern day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Early in our travels, even though we were moving at a relatively slow pace, covering modest distances and had the benefit of two digital cameras and lots of memory cards, Alison and I agreed that we can't visit all sites and capture every photo opportunity, a promise we had to remind ourselves when we toured Angkor. We had a three day pass, which included an evening tour and we soon discovered that it’s nearly impossible to beat the crowds. The guide books all comment on the monuments and which is the best light to photograph them and then go on to suggest the contrarian strategy of doing them at reverse times, but its all to little or no avail. We would rise around five in the morning and were on the go by sixish, and this gave us a couple of hours of relative quiet but by eight or so, at least at the nearby ruins the buses would disgorge their passengers who eagerly followed their tour leaders' flag.
As our own counter, counter maneuver, we would start at some of the most distant sites which allowed us some of the best undisturbed viewing opportunities, but these would also be relatively short lived. Not that its a complaint, but having others around did take getting used to but it was still a most awe inspiring experience, and one that is not only worth doing but perhaps even repeating, not withstanding the fact that Angkor's popularity will not only increase but will grow rapidly as the roads, as we have discovered to Thailand and Vietnam and Laos have all been paved. One indication of this is that there is a near solid line of hotels built or under construction, west of the city of about four kilometers towards the airport which we only discovered as we were leaving town.
Beyond the hotels, there is a huge tourist infrastructure of eating, drinking, massages and of course shopping which we also got used to, especially the ability buy foods for an early in-room breakfast our favourite being whole wheat baguettes, and European style pastries which very conveniently were half price after eight p.m.
It took us six days of adjustment but we not only coped but thrived under these demanding conditions, building our touristic abilities. During the three days we ended not only bicycling about 175 kms between sites but enduring walking and climbing steep temples that were designed to humble the supplicants and sure provided an ideal training ground for rock climbing, often in the heat of the day, such that by early afternoon we would return nearly exhausted to do battle the following day.
Of course the mental stimulation is one that is most difficult to describe as one contemplates how without the benefit of modern tools and even local stones, over a 1000 years ago the Khmers built an empire that must have required untold amounts of money, labour, planning and execution, all the while fighting internal and external wars.
This wonderment was shared by most of the people who we saw and spoke to but there were some annoyances. The loud speaking foreigners, the groupies who would take ages to pose solemnly in front of a particularly impressive monument, followed by the remaining busloadful of their compatriots and the occasional young eastern oriental women in their slinky, silky, fluorescent outfits, with splayed arms and fingers, struggling to strike sexy posses for that trophy photo to preserve their experiences.
The variety and complexity of the structures and the details of the history are nearly impossible to absorb in such a short visit but left an enduring impression on us. Its also not possible to ignore the question of the decline and fall of major empires, such as the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Mayan and ultimately our own as we see how in a relatively short period of time, a civilization can thrive and then decline to ruins.
While the comparisons may not be entirely appropriate, I am always stuck by, especially in South East Asia, the contrast between the monuments governments and near government agencies build for themselves and the way people around them live. In Vientiane one of the most imposing, pyramid like structures is the home of the Mekong Commission, with a parking lot full of fancy cars, while the people nearby live most modestly. In Siem Reap I donated blood to a wonderful children’s hospital, established and run by a cello playing Swiss Dr. Beat Richner and is supported by mostly private donations and yet the Ministry of Health is housed in a five storey, palace like structure.
Of course the contrasts within this society are even more striking. In a land like Cambodia where most travel by motorcycle or by bicycle, not counting the few eccentric tourists on two wheels, where if there is a private car, it is a soon to be recalled, beaten up Toyota Corolla from the 1980's and naturally, the typically black high end Lexus SUV, with blaring horns, is bound to stand out.
We could easily have stayed longer but the road called and what a ride it was to Sisophon, on a recently paved near flat, smooth surfaced highway with a paved shoulder, such that with the benefit of a tail wind, it felt like we flew the distance of 110 kms in 4.5 hours. From Sisophon to Battambang was another 70 km and enroute, I recorded 69,000 kms on my odometer marking also that we have since leaving Toronto, travelled more than 4,000 kms on our trusty two wheeled vehicles.
Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, on the Stung Sanke River, and we elected to stay in an international class high rise hotel, not because of the wonderful room with all the conveniences, the second floor pool which two days running we have had to ourselves, but to avail ourselves of the buffet breakfast with both western and eastern food options and to take a well deserved rest day after all the tourist challenges of Siem Reap.
Tomorrow we leave for Pailin, not the home of the political wonder woman, but a town near the border of Thailand which is the shortest route to the Gulf of Thailand, where we will be able to squeeze in about a week of sea, sand and sun while we contemplate and try to integrate the wonders of Angkor Wat and prepare ourselves to ride to and to fly home from Bangkok.