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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

18 May 2004

RTW 04: Cambodia

Cambodia - 13th May to 17th May

The flight out of Kathmandu was delayed for about 24 hours. Royal Nepal Airlines didn't present us with the best impression, as from their fleet of two planes, one was grounded, and the other broke down. Still, they did put us up in a five star hotel, which was nice. Before Bangkok, there was a brief stop over in Mumbai at a somewhat pants hotel that sold us a marvellous 12 hour city tour...which was entirely in Hindi...

We then arrived in Thailand, and decided to fly straight out to Cambodia rather than try the much more complex, if cheaper, overland route.

Day 1: The Outlying Temples – 14/05/04 (Angkor)

Having arrived the previous day via Mumbai (04:50) and Bangkok (14:30), due to our semi-impulse, but impressively cheap (£191 each) returns to Siem Reap and Luang Prabang (£66 off!), we set off in a tuk-tuk for our first destination, Banteay Srei, at around 07:00. ‘Terry’, our driver, began the day full of enthusiasm (this was to gradually wane as our itinerary became ever more extensive) and after a long drive (11/2 hours) we reached the temple described as an ‘exquisite miniature’ and ‘fairy palace’ in our ubiquitous Dawn Rooney guide - it lived up to its title. It was well worth the 30km, with marvellously carved frontons on the North and South libraries – I couldn’t separate my favourite from the depiction of Shiva crushing Ravana under his mountain and Indra riding atop Airividata scattering rain while Balarama and Krishna stood amongst a menagerie beneath him.

After spending slightly more than two hours at Banteay Srei, we moved onto the second temple of Rooney’s ‘Group 7’ – Banteay Samre. This was to prove the best of the temples for me of the first day, an altogether larger, quicker and far more isolated complex than the concentrated beauty of Banteay Srei. While the individual carving s were not of Banteay Srei’s standard, the cool antechambers and dungeon-hack like surrounding corridor, along with the sadly dry inner moat and somewhat battered naga balustrades, and finally the whole deserted, mystic, Set-like temple feel of Samre won out – straight from ‘Stone Prophet’! We also managed to get some memorable multiple arm shots here (hopefully the memory card won’t @#%$ them up) which the guards certainly found amusing! I bought two shirts, as due to isolation the touts were desperate, but also female, while my friend got herself a Cambodian outfit.

After roughly 1.5 hours at this rather magical place, we moved on the Rooney’s ‘Group 3’, which consisted of Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Krol Ko and Ta Som. Unnecessarily, I sent Terry past the first three in order to see the group in Rooney’s equence, but on the other hand it worked it well in terms of time and distance – the first three temples were by far the best – out of the reminaing five others we saw, only Ta Som and the East Megon were at all memorable.

Preah Khan – ‘the Sacred Sword’ – was the largest temple we visited. The highlight of this temple was easily the enormous ‘fromageres’ tree straddled across the wall on the east gate, which we later discovered was also the shot chosen by Rooney’s photographer. We spent roughly two hours wadnering about the jungle temple, but the aulity of carving and overall coherence present in the Banteays was severely lacking. The heat of the day also reached a stifling degree, our water consumption rose rapidly, and my friend's shopping was about about to completed – she bought a shirt outside Neak Pehn to finish her ensemble.

Unfortunately, the shirt proved the only worthwhile result of our visit to Neak Pehn, seeing as this small set of buildings sat on a lake had no water, contrary to the attractive picture in the guidebook. Krol Ko also proved uninteresting, except for a rather bizarre hiccuping-bark dog and a total lack of any touts.

Fortunately Ta Som rekindled the appeal of Group 3, in much the same way as Preah Khan – once again, the symbiosis between nature and ancient stonework proved fascinating. The tower at Ta Som, at the west end, has some pleasant Angkorian faces, with a large tree growing through the top, and entirely intermingle with the west facing side – even more so than we found in Preah Khan.

The day ended with the less exhilirating temples, from Group 5 – East Mebon and Srah Srong. The latter, supposedly a bath consisting of a 700m lake, was entirely dry, preventing our hoped-for sunset sport. The East Mebon had a few interesting points, despite being swathed in children. These were the large elehpant statues on each of the four corners, and a number of frontons – one depicting Shiva on his bull, Nandi, Indra on his three-headed elephant, and finally one showing Skanda on his peacock. We headed back to our beautiful hostel and air-conditioned room for an early start the next day.

Day 2: Angkor Thom and Environs – 15/05/04 (Angkor)

The time had come for cycling! As Banteay Srei was so far away, a tuk tuk was reasonable, but for Angkor Thom – a mere 5 miles from Siem Reap – there was no excuse. We eventually left around 6:20, arriving at Angkor Thoma, and more specifically the Bayon, around 7:20. I had been looking forward to the famous bas-reliefs, in particular the Churning of the Milk and alleged muay thai (or rather, muay khmer!), but was disappointed. The latter I couldn’t find, while the former was much less impressive than I had hoped. The reliefs on the outer gallery, which I spent around an hour wandering past – roughly 5 times – after losing my friend not realising she’d gone to the main sections.

After finding eachother by way of a high lookout, we set off for the top, which my friend had already explored during my circumambulation. The iconic ‘Angkor Smile’ was everywhere as gently carved heads beamed down. However, I felt strangely dissatisfied with this alleged highlight of the complex. In truth, I preferred the gate we had cycled through earlier on our way up, passing Angkor Wat en route.

The Baphuon was supposed to be next, but after walking up the tension building walkway, we discovered it was still under heavy restoration work and was therefore closed to the public. Slightly disheartened but also glad of the extra time, we moved on to the ‘aerial palace’, Phimenakas. Again, this was a disappointment – only I bothered climbing this small temple-mountain, and the view didn’t warrant the effort. We continued on to the one part of the view which had intrigued me, a large pool. This proved to be the ‘Srah Srei’, or ‘women’s bath’ – despite the murky green water, I was consoled by the sight of some khmer urchins diving in over the other side. Stripping down to my swimming shorts, I gingerly slid down the one step into the ‘bath’. The water was incredibly shallow, and I could feel the muddy grass under my feet, but I was glad to finally get the chance for a swim, not to mention an expanse of water, no matter how disturbing a shade of green!

We stumbled upon one of the most exciting edifices of the day by accident, which of course added to both its impact and appeal. The Elephant Terrace appeared out of nowhere, and after walking down the stairs, I encountered the famous five headed horse reliefs purely because I had been looking for somewhere in the shade to read my book! Upon seeing the gorgeous exterior of the Leper King terrace, we eventually realised where we must be (the first rather large hint was the three headed elephant relief on top of the terrace, which was the first terrace based carving we came across). Upon descending, the full splendour of the terraces revealed itself – at a later point, as we wandered past the reliefs back to our bikes, I thought how superb a bike ride the view would afford (fortunately, I soon got the chance, as we cycled back from Ta Prohm to Phnom Bakheng).

Ta Keo was our next stop, but not particularly exciting. However, it did provide an opportunity to discover new routes down other than the stairs, something I would try to more dramatic – and wrist-scraping – effect at Phnom Bakheng, when I attempted some Flashback style hang-drops. Not very clever.

Ta Prohm was the penultimate stop of the day, and proved to be one of the Angkor highlights. This was the setting for Tomb Raider, with a whole load of fromagere twisted through the mysteriously derelict ruins. It was a pleasure to simply wander and get lost in its depths – which I did repeatedly! – although at one point I found myself emerging next to a ‘Danger – No Entry!’ sign, having happily clambered across some extremely precarious blocks!

Phnom Bakheng was the final stop, and an arduous climb, where we joined a swarm of tourists, not to mention orange-robed Buddhist monks (who as usually were chatting to young blondes!). Unfortunately, the view was rather dark, made worse by cloud.

Final Day: Angkor Wat at Last! – 16/05/04 (Angkor)

Today was, at last, the day for Angkor Wat itself. We had cycled past it, seen it from a temple-mountain, but now we were finally going inside it. The temple lived up to expectations, with beautiful bas-reliefs, highlights being the Battle of Lanka, Battle of Kurukshetra and the famous Churning of the Milk, which I had erroneously attributed to the Bayon earlier. The architecture in general was superlative, with cunning foibles such as the five towers only becoming visible from certain angles. Climbing the central tower was a frightening experience due to the ridiculously narrow steps, so I once again climbed up the large blocks along the sides – a more circuitous, but also more satisfying, route. The view was suitably superb.

Afterwards, I had the first of many tasty cans, as the day was to prove full of such liquid delights. We set off in search of the Western Baray at around 12, having spent roughly 4 1/2 hours at the Wat. Judging by the map, there didn’t appear to be any direct roads, so my friend determined to find one. This proved to be a mud track which got steadily more squelchy as we went along, eventually becoming so stiff as to be impassable. At this point, leaning against my bike in the baking hot sun, I was quite ready to leave and give up. However, my friend forged ahead round the corner, just in case our destination was close by. She returned some time later, claiming that a girl had told her a large body of water was a short distance way.

I rejoined her to check out this possibility, passing various construction vehicles on the way, while what looked like a half-naked women stared at me. We stopped off at a small place selling drinks next to a sign stating ‘Flood Emergency Rehabilitation Project’ – this was not a typical tourist destination! After some Fanta ‘Fruit Punch’, which tasted distinctly like bubblegum, we trudged into the Cambodian jungle in search of the Baray. A short walk later, I recalled the rather worrying fact that Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

After this somewhat harrowing journey, and after a truck stuffed with children shouting ‘Hello!’ in broken English passed us on the extremely narrow ‘road’, we returned to our bikes. Back to Angkor Wat, where we spent another few hours, with two more excellent cans of drink – ‘soursop’ juice (some kind of spiky fruit) and the wondrous ‘mixed fruit’ drink. I also had a longer stare at various figures in the ‘Churning of the Milk’, especially the first figure holding the head of Vashlu, Vishnu and Hanuman, at the beginning, middle and end respectively. To finish the day, we spent half an hour or so at Ta Prohm – enjoying the very scenic cycle through Angkor Thom on the way – and then finally took a few moments to say goodbye to the marvellous Angkor Wat before returning home for a great meal at one of several posh restaurants packed with Angkoriana. Cambodia had been expensive, mainly due to government fees such as visas, passes and ‘passenger service charge’, but Angkor had most assuredly been worth it!

Next was Bangkok, then on to Luang Prabang, which at this point I knew almost nothing about.

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