Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rush hour at Angkor

The Buddhist complex of Ta Prohm is one of the largest sites at Angkor.

Pedal power is the main way of getting to the sites.

You can always take a break and ride in comfort.

November 04, 2007
Kara Murphy
Sunday Mail (Australia)

IT'S 6am, "rush hour", and locals from outlying villages make their way to Siem Reap on bicycles while remorque-motos (motorbikes pulling a covered carriage) carrying tourists putter along the main road towards the temples of Angkor.

This morning, I have neither bicycle nor remorque-moto to carry me. My old, faithful feet do the job instead.

The debatably bright notion of walking to Angkor Wat comes when a waiter at my hotel mentions that it is only 6km away.

"Great!" I think. Aware of the danger of landmines when walking off the beaten temple tracks, I assume that exercise opportunities will be minimal.

As usual, assumptions are incorrect, and I soon learn that Angkor's temples are quite spread out and exploring them certainly involves moving one's feet.

Angkor Wat, one of about 100 temples scattered over a 300sq km area in northern Cambodia, was most likely constructed as a Hindu temple between AD 1113-50, serving as a mausoleum for King Suryavaram II and later as a Buddhist temple.

Heading north from Siem Reap, visitors reach this temple first, and walking is a necessary part of exploring its grandeur.

A 250m causeway crosses its moat, and a 500m avenue leads from the main entrance to the central temple. Bas-reliefs stretch 800m around the outside of the three-storey central complex.

The first floor's Gallery of 1000 Buddhas and the second floor's 1500 apsaras (celestial dancers) don't make my jaw drop as much as the approach to the third floor. At 24m above the ground, the third level is accessible only by climbing exceedingly steep steps. The height and angle is paralysing on the final steps, and I'm both unable to move forward and too frightened to descend. Fortunately, a Cambodian guide-for-hire explains that if I can continue, another set of steps – complete with railing – is available for the descent.

After exploring the complex for nearly two hours, I'm ready to proceed to the Bayon, the central temple of the fortified Buddhist city of Angkor Thom (built by Angkor's greatest king, Jayavarman VII, in the late 12th and early 13th century).

Since it's 3km away, walking seems excessive in the moisture-rich heat.

Instead, I hire a remorque-moto, which carries me swiftly past the gargantuan faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara at Angkor Thom's south entrance, past elephants (used for hauling tourists short distances) and through shady surrounds towards the Bayon's entrance.

From the remorque-moto, the Bayon doesn't look particularly spectacular but, moving closer, I appreciate the identical contented representations of Jayavarman VII, adorning each of the four sides of the temple's 54 gothic towers.

The faces are both spooky and fascinating, and worth another look when I'm not so exhausted from a long walk.

Hailing a remorque-moto for $A3 back to the hotel for a long, lazy lunch is a no-brainer.

Just before sunrise the next day, I pedal towards Angkor Wat on a rented bicycle, hoping to view the temple in a different light.

The ride takes half an hour and, alas, the lighting and sunrise are less than ideal.

Just over a kilometre from Angkor Wat is late 9th or early 10th century Phnom Bakheng, a five-tiered Hindu temple mountain where crowds flock to view Angkor Wat at sunset.

Even though it's at least 11 hours too early, the view is gorgeous, plus the 67m descent occurs in daylight.

About 3km beyond the Bayon is the west gate of circa-1191 Preah Khan, one of the largest complexes at Angkor.

Its vaulted corridors provide cooling shade, and it is here where I first spy the magical tree roots that claim the stonework like alien claws.

Taking the longer route to Ta Prohm, I spend 90 minutes cycling north and east around Preah Khan, south past the circa-952 East Mebon, and west towards mysterious Ta Prohm's entrance.

En route is a group of little girls who have decorated themselves in leaves.

Stopping to take their photo, I give them a bit of riel (the local currency). On the ride back, these entrepreneurs are on the side of the road, fully dressed up in homemade leaf turbans, ready for the next tourist photo op.

Ta Prohm, a Mahayana Buddhist monastery, was built around 1186 and dedicated to Jayavarman VII's mother. Overcome at every angle with grasping roots choking the crumbling ruins, its atmosphere is one of decay and jungle power. It's no wonder that this site was selected for the filming of Tomb Raider.

A guide-for-hire leads me to Nim, the monk pictured on the cover of the 4th edition of the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook.

Nim uses this fame for a good cause. On a temple step, he sells slightly overpriced trinkets to camera-touting tourists, guidebook propped beside him, with proceeds benefiting local monks.

After an hour's pedal back to the hotel, I'm well and truly spent. One day of this type of exertion is plenty, and the next day $A24 buys remorque-moto transport to the intricately carved circa-967 Banteay Srei, 32km from Siem Reap.

To avoid becoming too overwhelmed and exhausted, spend at least four days in Siem Reap, using mornings to explore the temples by bicycle and remorque-moto, and afternoons to relax by a pool, beer in hand, reflecting on the morning's discoveries.

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