Wednesday we had to be up at 5.30am to checkout & struggle with our rucksacks down to the marketplace in town. The bus left at 6.45am & owing to the early start we slept for two hours, stopping for steamed rice & eating our desserts bought the day before. At 3.15pm we reached our changeover stop. Nick-named 'Spiderville' the small town was famous for a culinary delight discovered afew years before when food was becoming scarce. Tarantula-like spiders were hunted down, dug out their nests & eaten. The whole time Vicky was very nervous, not a fan of the eight-legged critters, cooked or not. Her mood was worsened by a kind girl throwing a tarantula at her & making her freak. This was one of the stories we had already heard from friends about the place but we were still taken by surprise. Ten minutes later & we were thankfully on our connecting bus sleeping right through till we reached Siem Reap at 7.30pm. We took a tuk tuk to Ivy 2 Guesthouse (as recommended by Kim & Tom) for $2 & checked into the pleasant $6 place. The appropriately named place was surrounded by ivy & bushes, in town but the plants & green, organic canopy feeling more like it was in a rainforest area. The pleasant environment was sadly balanced out by quite expensive food meaning we had to settle for the cheapest things on the menu, spring rolls & fried noodles.
Thursday we got up at 7.30am to begin our trip round the temples but a bad case of travellers gut sent me back to bed leaving Vicky to have breakfast & cancel our trip. The rest of the morning I was bedridden, dreading a repeat of my sickness in Vientianne! I think not being ill most of the time made sickness worse for me! Vicky entertained herself taking a walk round the nearby streets, making a mental note of which handbag would go with her outfits (glad she didn't have the credit card). By afternoon the sleeping & reading had eased the sickness so I braved a steamed rice brunch, whilst Vicky bought chips. We had a stint on the internet & then explored the night market together buying wedding presents for Neil & Sara, a scarf for Vicky & bracelet for me. We had dinner at a night stall (sweet noodle & vegetables & rice soup with chicken at 3,000 & 4,000) & seeing only a repetition of the same trinkets we came back.
Friday we got up 6.15am & had a pancake breakfast at $2.50. This time I felt alot better so we arranged with a tuk tuk driver to take us around the temples, first stopping at the ticket office at 8.50am for a 3 day pass for $80 for both of us. It took us an hour to reach the first temple on our tour, Banteay Srei. Supposedly the most famous & amazing outside of the Ankor temples the 'citadel of the woman' as the name translates is an early tenth century temple, one of few to be commissioned by a Brahman not a king. The guidebook said that the temple was stunning in its iconiograph beauty & pink colours giving it a 'fairyland ambiance'. Sadly, apart from the bas-reliefs of women with lotus flowers & scenes from the Ramayana (an epic tale) the place had little appeal to us - packed full of obnoxious tourists, shoving us out the way & the temple itself more of a ruin than the books indicate. After an hour we had seen enough & so we headed back towards Siem Reap.
On the way back to town we visited the Landmine Museum, created by an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier, which served the dual purpose of explaining the mechanics of such horrific weapons & as a reminder to all that landmines are still a big problem, many still only being discovered when they are set off by a poor farmer or children playing in the fields. The creator of the museum Akira provides a fascinating story of his life before, during & after the Khmer Rouge having laid some of the mines originally himself but now helping the world rid us of them. He still trains bomb-disposal teams (using modern methods as well as a stick & counter-weight system) & heroically disarms any found in Cambodia & other places for free (many villagers unable to pay him anyway). Ontop of this he has created a refuge for some of the poorer children, many victims of landmines that he runs with his wife.
Another hour later we reached Banteay Sambre, a flat Angkor Wat-style temple built in the mid 12th century by King Suryavarman II. It's preservation was much more impressive to us than Srei although there were less carvings in its' walls. We bought baguettes from a nearby stall for 3,000 then stopped to check out the Eastern Mebon temple situated on a former island on the long dry Eastern Baray reservoir. The temple was a mountain of shrines & towers & guarded by carved stone elephants & built by King Rajendravarman II in the 10th century. After buying a coconut for $1 we drove 1km south to Pre Rup, similarly built in the form of a pyramid-shaped temple mountain by the same king. This temple had more reliefs & some controversy exists on whether it's translation 'Turning the Body' was a reference to its' possible use as a crematorium.
Thirty minutes & we drove past Sra Srang, 'Pool of Ablutions', a small lake with a stone platform & adorned with naga balustrades & guardian lions, & an island that originally had a wooden temple on it. The lake was used by the old kings & their families but now seemed just as popular with the locals, especially the happy splashing children. We ended our tour at Prasat Kravan, (a Hindu worship temple built by noblemen in the early 10th century) late afternoon & all templed out we paid our tuk tuk driver, Wait Luos, $17 then slept in the Ivy till early evening when I went for a walk round the town & found a bike hire place near the Ankoran Hotel. We had dinner at Full On, fried rice & chicken; fried noodle & pork for $1.50 each then battled it out on the pool table Vicky nearly beating me.
Saturday a bad nights sleep caused me to reluctantly rise at 6.30am to make the most of the day. A breakfast of pancakes was followed by a walk to the bike hire place where we paid $1.50 & cycled off along the busy main road, worsened by the opening of the local markets. It took us thirty minutes to get out of town & we were faced with a hot, dusty 14km ride to the Rolous Group. This modern name is taken from the nearby modern town of Roluos, however it's real name is Hariharalaya. The place although distant from the impressive Angkor Wat & Thom was an extremely important place, the first Khmer capital that served four successive kings over 70 years. The two main temples Bakong & Preah Ko were early examples of temple-mountain & tower architecture, in the past impressive stone structures but we sadly felt that after the long ride they were a bit of a let down. Taking a rest we chatted the monks at the modern temple onsite & cycled back taking a turn after 7km towards Ankor Wat. We stopped for a lunch first of chicken noodle soup at Thuam Lay round 1.30pm then entered the 'Grand Circuit' park area, taking a right past Sras Rang & following the road up & round to check out three more impressive temples. The first, Ta Som was a twelfth century monastic complex built by King Jayavarman VII, flat with small towers & cruciform shaped areas. The place was amazing to look at, especially with a huge tree growing through the main gatehouse. Vicky seemed typically more preoccupied with the local children begging than the architecture though it was fun to see their faces when we offered them sweets.
The second wonder Neak Pean was a beautiful eight pool baray (dry as it was the dry season) with a small island temple covered with coiled serpents at its' centre. It served as an absolution pool said to have healing properties & dedicated to Buddha.
The third Preah Khan was a huge monastic complex built in dedication to King Jayavarman VII's father. It had originally served as a Buddhist monastery & school. It had even been the King's home temporarily. The labyrinthian site with both a shrine & a beautiful palace, as well as tunnels with Buddha bas-reliefs & cylindrical columns could have taken hours to explore & the scenes of the former jungle growing out of the site as if to reclaim it provided numerous photo opportunities. Sadly, we had neither the time no any battery power left so we followed the road onwards & cut down through the awesome Angkor Thom, entering through the fearsome north gate with a giant face staring ominously at us. The site was more magnificent than anything we had seen since arriving at Siem Reap but we didn't have the luxury of time to stop & explore. Instead we caught glimpses of the various buildings as we crossed the huge park, peddling as fast as we could to catch the sunset. We failed miserably as not only did we miss the sunset but had to race against the encroaching darkness which would leave us lost in the wilderness if we didn't reach the main road back to the city. It was a scary experience. Not only did we have to negotiate the route in virtual darkness but once we were on the main road we had to avoid being knocked down by traffic that had appeared from nowhere!
Once back in the city we returned the bikes & lazily decided to eat chicken tostadas at the guesthouse followed by sticky rice & rice/cake desserts from the market.
Sunday was an early wake up - 4.45am so we could catch a moto to Angkor Wat in time for the 'spectacular' sunrise between 5.40am & 6am. We arrived at the temple entrance just as darkness turned into daylight & after paying the driver $3 crossed the wide stone bridge over the river moat & entered the gatehouse. Inside were several large Buddha statues dressed with gold robes in small chambers at various intervals along the wall. Once out the other side we both stopped & stared in astonishment at the sight before us. The thing to note here is that although parts of the building can be seen from a distance close up the place is like nothing you can imagine. The gatehouse opened up onto a huge courtyard the size of a national park enclosed on all sides by high stone walls. A meter high stone walkway cut through the courtyard with steps leading down to an immaculate grass lawn & either side were identical chapels recently restored by Japanese archeologists. At the end of the walkway were two adjacent pools with reflections of the main temple itself serving as the perfect setting to photograph the sunrise. With the sunrise over we attempted to walk to Angkor Thom but an hour later were too tired to carry on so caught a $3 moto back to Ivy & passed out till 11am.
A brunch at Full On of fried rice & chicken & after buying baguettes, dragonfruit & a smoothie we were recharged & ready to tackle the temples again, stupidly walking to the 'Mini Tour' route at midday. The distance was greater than we thought so Banteay Kdei wasn't reached till 2.30pm. The late 12th century monastic structure was more in ruins than most of the others we'd seen owing to the use of inferior sandstone materials, built over the site of an earlier temple. Along the same route we looked round Ta Prohm, halfhidden by the jungle & surrounded by wooden walkways, another Buddhist monastery but the most wealthy one that had control over 3000 villages & built by Jayavarman VII in honour to his mother. The dark corridors & open plazas were fun to explore but clusters of tourists made this difficult.
With all the more minor temples visited all that was left for us to do was explore the major Angkorian site. We caught a tuk tuk to Angkor Thom at 4ish. The grounds were a greater expanse than even Angkor Wat, containing three main temples as well as numerous other structures. We were running out of time so opted to check out the most stupenduous of the temples Bayon. The building was as creepy as it was marvelous. The state-temple of Jayavarman VII had carvings depicting daily life & significant Khmer battles against the Cham adorned along the walls at the base that were under repair but is most famous for the 37 standing towers most with carved faces similar to the ones on the main gates that may represent Buddha or the king himself keeping an eye on his kingdom. From the top of the steps the structure seemed more crowded, by the tightly packed towers as much as the tourists. We then made an attempt to catch the sunset at Bakheng but it had closed early!
We caught a moto for $2 back to the guesthouse & contented ourselves eating sticky rice & dragonfruit whilst watching t.v.
Mon we were up by 8am & decided that we needed to stay another day to explore Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom properly. So, after sticky rice, a banana stick & a smoothie we hired bikes again & bought two one day passes for $40. Cycling to Angkor Wat for 11am the place didn't look half as impressive as it had round sunrise the previous morning. It was still worth the visit. We crossed the walkway, stopping briefly to examine the aspara bas-reliefs & carvings on the outer walls before entering the main building. Inside it was a maze of winding passages with small carvings round the doorways, stone rubble that I tripped over more than once & the most amazing carvings I had ever scene. Wall after wall was filled with stories & characters from Hindu mythology, the Battle of Kuru; the founder King Suryavarman II & his army marching against the Cham, Heaven & Hell & the 'Churning of the Milk'. On the next levels was a collection of Buddha statues amid corridors & two room-sized spaces that had been libraries. As far as we could go was the steps of the third level as major work was being carried out on the towers beyond, so we felt like we were missing out. Realising there was nothing else we could see we made our way back to Angkor Thom.
This time we crossed a huge ornate stone bridge complete with stone Nagas running along the sides to the south gate & were again in awe of the stone face staring at us. There were infact four of them on each gate facing each direction of the compass & looked just as ominous in the daylight as the previous evening.Once through the gate we cycled along through the park area & were forced to duck under the plastic sheets covering Bayons' unreconstructed section as it rained heavily for half an hour. At 3pm it had stopped so we cycled north then west to Baphuon crossing a long elevated causeway running between two ponds to the huge 11th century temple-mountain. Sadly, like with Angkor Wat, the place I had wanted to see since it had feature in the first Tomb Raider films years ago was closed for extensive renovation work. Walking north we cut through the remains of a gateway into a smaller enclosed courtyard, the grounds of the Royal Palace & stared up at the laterite & sandstone pyramid shaped Phimeanakas, King Jayavarman V's temple. Apart from its height the 'galaxy of the stars' seemed unimpressive so I scaled the western staircase & dodged broken ledges to see if there was a good view. It was exciting but pointless as any view was obscured by thick trees at the height I could reach & further progress upward would have been sheer suicide.
Back at the bottom we came back onto the main path checked out the two & a half-meter tall, 300 metre long stone raised platform on our left appropriately called the 'Terrace of the Elephants', as there were scores of statues of the beasts lining the wall as well as a five headed horse & warriors & dancers. After a gap at the northern end there was another shorter platform known as the 'Terrace of the Leper King'. This one had a double terrace wall the inner wall an earlier version of the heavily sculptured outer wall. On top stood a statue of the 'Leper King'. The inner carvings stood out in an almost lifelike way as I walked between the two walls & gave off eerie shadows that danced in the evening light. As we explored we could imagine the King displaying his mighty army, parading them round the grounds while he & his entourage towered over his people.
We just had enough time to look round the 12 towers & kleangs adjacent to the terraces before a frantic cycle ride back at 6.3opm in the pitch black, using a torch & the traffic headlights to find our way. It was scarier than before as Vicky had several near misses with cars & I hit a stone & nearly fell off near town.
We dropped off our bikes paid for 2 bus tickets to Tratt, a small town on the Thai side of the border ($13 each) & enjoyed the rest of the evening eating at the famous 'Dead Fish Cafe', a building that looked like it was the end product of an architectual bomb, so many styles & features - statues of animals, railings twisting upwards, an illuminated brick & steel erection. Inside it was just as bizarre, part cafe restaurant, part saloon, part warehouse & the rest a small museum & zoo complete with two live crocodiles in a pool a sheer drop from the toilets. The food completed the evening - a lovely 'mild' Khmer curry & a carbanara & beers coming to round about $12.