Thursday, January 15, 2009

My schedule

The East Gate of the city of Angkor Thom
Okay, enough stalling, what have I been doing the last few days? After attending parties galore in Siem Reap on Saturday and Sunday, it was all work, work, work on Monday through til Wednesday night. Now that I work in the tourism industry, rather than visiting the temples purely for fun, a few days in the temple capital of the world (in my view) necessitated me casting a keen eye over some of the Angkor temples, how and when to visit to see them at their best (without the crowds), testing guides, trying out a few remote sites and so on. Monday morning was spent meeting our new staff in our Siem Reap branch before a six-hour bicycle ride around Angkor Thom after lunch. I started at the South Gate and headed for the rarely-seen East Gate (or Gate of the Dead) which doesn't lead anywhere hence its solitude. I took my bike on top of the city wall to ride onto Victory Gate, sought out the hidden last known shrine of the Angkor period, Mangalartha (aka Monument 487 and Prasat Top East), before poking around some bits of rubble near the two Khleangs and the towers of Prasat Suor Prat. Onto the oft-overlooked handful of shrines that make up the Preah Pithu group - which house some fine carvings and are very peaceful - and then over the road to visit Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay. The latter was a major disappointment now that they have cut down the trees that gave it it's own unique forest setting. Hot and sweaty, I headed back to the office to catch up on my emails before taking my evening meal at the Curry Walla on Sivatha Street.
The gods lining the causeway to the South Gate of Angkor Thom
The eerie dawn light at Ta Prohm
Tuesday was an early start for a dawn visit and sunrise at Ta Prohm. It was pitch black when we arrived at 5.30am, no-one was about, not even the Apsara guards, and it was just me, my guide, a torch and the shrill of the green parrots that inhabit the temple's trees. We walked through the temple as the dawn light gradually improved as the sun rose over the horizon - which we obviously couldn't see as the temple was in the way - but the solitude inside one of Angkor's busiest temples was palpable and evidenced when my guide jumped a foot in the air as something scurried across our torchlit path. At 7pm we eventually saw another human as we made our way out of the east entrance and headed back for breakfast. I forgot to say that my overnight stay was at the Tara Angkor Hotel, which is pretty swish in all aspects, and their breakfast was a real treat after my early start in the extremely chilly air. Now warmed up, my day continued with the aid of my old pal, Kim Rieng and his moto. At 9am we headed out for a 9-hour trip to see a few of the remoter, rarely-visited sites of Phnom Bok, Prasat Banteay Ampil and Chau Srei Vibol. More on these sites in individual postings but Phnom Bok was a killer of a climb with 630 steps to the top, Banteay Ampil involved walking barefoot and pushing the moto through two small rivers and the route to Chau Srei Vibol was sandy and hard going. It was good to get back to my room at the HanumanAlaya (yes another change of hotel) for a welcome shower prior to a lovely meal and late-night chat at the home of my friends Eric and Lida.
Tree roots strangle this window frame at Prasat Banteay Ampil
The face of a demon, asura, on a false door of one of the towers of Bakong
A 5am start beckoned again on Wednesday. A new guide, a new temple, this time Preah Khan, but the bitterly cold air was the same. Preah Khan was an almost identical replica of Ta Prohm except there were no parrots, no sign of life at all, except for some bats, more doorways to duck through and by the time we reached the Hall of Dancers the first rays of sunlight were peering through the trees at the eastern entrance. Both of the guides gave me an excellent historical overview of the temples and the carvings (by torchlight) but also added snippets about the religions, the various gods, fauna, wildlife, customs, and so on. Certainly it reminded me that though my travels for many years have been solo, a well-informed guide who knows his/her stuff adds immeasurably to a visit to Angkor for first-timers. I'm certainly no novice but I learnt a few things on both of my dawn visits that I hadn't known before. After breakfast I conducted some training in the Siem Reap branch, took the opportunity to visit The Sothea luxury five-star resort that will open next month and gulped down lunch. Kim Rieng returned with his car this time and we headed out to the Roluos Group for a whistle-stop visit to Bakong and Preah Ko before taking a short-cut towards Chong Khneas, for an early evening sunset boat cruise on the edges of the Tonle Sap Lake. Dinner at HanumanAlaya and for the second time I fell asleep at my pc whilst trying to upload some photos to this blog. This morning it was back to Phnom Penh by Mekong Express at 7am - it takes six hours - despite the bus being clipped by a truck and we then came across a major road accident where a man's body lay in the road, motionless, with blood seeping from his head and his mouth. I fear he wasn't going to survive.
These are monks going to meditate, though they appear armed and ready to do battle
Some of the day's last rays of sunshine over the Tonle Sap Lake

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