Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Power of a Thousand Wats

Every nation has one outstanding tourist attraction that is a "must see" for visitors. France has the Eiffel Tower, Brazil has the Christ The Redeemer Statue on Corcovado Mountain, China has its Great Wall, Germany - something to do with sausages probably and of course in England, Bradford's very own Valley Parade. In Cambodia, tourists flock to the town of Siem Reap, which exists almost exclusively because of the nearby ancient city of Angkor and its temples.

At 5am we were picked up by a driver and a guide who took us to see the sunrise over the most famous of these temples, Angkor Wat. I'm not entirely happy with the idea that there are two 5 O'Clocks in a day and was barely conscious as we rattled along the bumpy road and our cheerful guide gave us some historical details. The key points are that it was the seat of the Khmer Empire about 1200 years ago, until some Siamese hard-cases came along and the Angkor occupants legged it down south. The city gradually fell into ruins, was consumed by the jungle and largely forgotten about. It was in the 19th Century that the site was "re-discovered" by the French. Given the scale of the site, it must have been an amazing day for the person who took a stroll through the jungle (presumably with a baguette in one hand and a bottle of Piat D'Or in the other) before stumbling across an ancient city containing the biggest single religious monument in the world. "Zut Alors" I assume they exclaimed, before clearing an appropriate space for a long lunch of "pain, vin et Boursin".

Over 100 years later another famous archaeologist of French descent, Angelina Jolie, came here to film the documentary Lara Croft:Tomb Raider and when people saw this documentary they wanted to come and see the temples of Angkor too - two million people visit this place every year. Hence as the sun rises at an ungodly hour I find myself jostling for position at the edge of a lilly-covered lake which sits in front of the iconic Angkor Wat. It's not easy, there are a lot of people who must have risen even earlier than us to get here first and I have to settle for a position behind a posse of Japanese girls who are among the few people shorter than me, and hope my sunrise photographs are not affected too adversely by the paparazzi scrum I'm now part of. Despite all this it was worth it, and of the hundreds of photos taken, I'm expecting at least one to be OK.

Given the early start, we've pretty much explored Angkor Wat by 9am and our guide takes us back to the minibus so we can be driven to some of the other highlights - there are over a thousand temples spread around the 390 square mile site so it would be difficult to explore properly in a day without transport. For me the highlight was not Angkor Wat with its recognisable towers, but Ta Prohm, which still retains the "walking through the jungle, suddenly found this temple" feeling. Huge trees have twisted and burrowed their way through the walls of this little temple to the extent that both trees and stone have become permanently combined. This is a site which featured heavily in the Tomb Raider documentary and you can understand why, it's a fantastic sight.

By early afternoon, we've seen everything that our eyes and legs can handle and return to our hotel to chill out by the pool. And incredibly, as I sip my cold Angkor Beer I spot the famous archaeologist Angelina Jolie applying Ambre Solaire to her long adventurers legs, who'd have thought... oh wait, no it's not, it's the German bloke from the room next to us. No more Angkor Beer for me I think.


  1. Glad you're having a great time Simon. I was there a couple of years ago doing Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia - Ton le sap was incredible. Hope it stays dry for you and you don't get bitten too much!

    1. Cheers Neil - looks like you've been to a lot of the same places as we're now visiting - but your photos are better ;) Had a few camera/computer issues so having to take a couple of photos at each location using my iPhone so I can upload something to the blog - doesn't afford the same creative options as my DSLR!