March 18th 2017
The environs of Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, look like nothing more than Iowa with palm trees. It is coming to the end of the dry season and the winter rice has been harvested but thankfully they have not yet begun to burn the fields. The overall sense is of ochre in the air until an unexpected downpour scrubs the dust from the trees and reveals a burst of fluorescent green.
Siem Reap, where all three pillars of South East Asian tourism are forced into uneasy proximity. Endless hordes of Chinese tour groups are disgorged from their buses then rapidly quarantined in the startlingly vast (and presumably opulent?) hotels that line the ugly road from the airport. They only appear after 11, when the heat is becoming its most blistering, and so we run into them only by accident. The backpackers have found nirvana in Pub Street and are taking its mantra ‘encouraging irresponsible drinking since 1998’ extremely seriously. They don’t seem to be here to go sightseeing, so we only meet them at night. The bourgeoisie are installed in discretely well-appointed hostelries like our ‘Pavilion D’Orient’ – a tropical oasis with a huge infinity pool and plentiful cocktails – and are focused on avoiding eye contact under any circumstance. There are many, many more Americans, looking spruce in white and determined that every interaction with the hotel staff will be a significant cultural exchange. The Brits are suffering loudly from the heat, while the French would like it to be recognized that they were here first. The Japanese mutter to each other inscrutably and remarkably the German/Dutch axis manages to fade into the woodwork.
In any case, the full seventy-seven wonder-of-the-world-square-miles of the Angkor Wat archeological park deserves more than our usual lackadaisical approach to sightseeing, so we buckle down and make a plan that will be appropriate for the 3-day entrance ticket (the 7-day ticket must surely come with a PhD). On day one we will reconnoiter of the lay of the land by bike, on day two we will inspect the minor temples and only on day three will we get up close and personal to Angkor Wat itself. (Lest this be interpreted as slow going even for Schwobs, please know that the hotter than hell index is currently approaching a 15 on the Spinal Tap scale, and as we will find out in due course, we can only healthily be outside before 11 and after 4.
In the event, we are almost thwarted even before we get started: Two sequential delays in our flight connections the night before left us ravenously chowing down on delicious ham baguettes, while willfully ignoring the well-known maxim that the location with the least incentive to ensure its mayonnaise is up to snuff is the departure lounge café at any airport. Fortunately, almost the best thing about AW is the super hygienic toilets within dashing distance of each of the temples, no matter how remotely they are located and so we avert an ugly outcome.
Even so we barely make it round the ‘Grand Circuit’ even with the help of reasonably functional mountain bikes, 4 cans of fizzy sugared beverage and many liters of water. Afterwards we collapse, me in the pool Jim in a darkened room (shades of Italy) and we can barely stagger to happy hour that night. (As an aside our miscalculation of the effects of the weather has not been helped by the forecasts of lowering clouds and rain furnished by all the major news organizations, or by the population who are still dressed in winter clothes (hoodies have substituted for puffer jackets and natty flannel pajamas have surfaced as a style item).
Day 2, and our helpful hotel has insisted that we need a ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ experience even though it necessitates a seriously ungodly start at 4:45am. Mr. Karona our trusty (if sleep deprived) tuk-tuk driver indicates his deep desire for us to have a good time so we are moved to share our concerns that we will be elbow to elbow with a million other tourists whose hotels have had the same idea. Mr. K. takes the matter in hand, heads off in precisely the opposite direction to everyone else and finally deposits us at the bottom of what seems to be the only significant hill in the area. He points out the way up and settles down for a nap. We finally reach the ruined temple at the top in the pitch dark, and completely alone (fortunately, Jim didn’t forget his cell phone) and right on cue dawn breaks over the plain and Angkor Wat in the distance. The sun does rises in its own good time but not surprisingly we are not at the correct angle to reproduce the iconic ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ picture beloved by Google Images, so we refer you to that source. Jim feels he has earned the breakfast picnic the hotel has also thoughtfully provided, but I still need to be prepared for a dash, so I donate mine to Mr. K. (by now much refreshed) and he eats it happily as we set off to explore the fantastic Temple of Ta Prom, of Lara Croft fame.
Day 3 of the Angkor Wat marathon also does not disappoint. Thanks to due diligence the day before at the Museum we feel very confident with the Hindu deities, but we are completely thrown by how much the outside of AW resembles an English Stately home – Chatsworth or Blenheim maybe. All that’s missing is a fountain of some description at the front. We start with the outside galleries with their massive bas-relief narratives of famous battles between deities as well as the among the ancient Khmer and their foes. Within about 5 minutes and despite having more than one erudite guide book we can’t remember the difference between the bird deity and the goose deity, who has 4 arms, 8 arms or 20 arms and whether the monkeys are good or bad. Still it is all fantastically executed and we find that if we discretely glom onto various tour guides we eventually get it straight. It takes so long that when we finally emerge into the unwelcome sunshine the Chinese have appeared and are energetically photographing each other in every available nook and cranny. Fortunately, it is a religious holiday so we do not have to fight them to climb up the central towers which are blocked by marching grannies with bouquets of lotus blossoms (remember them?). Instead we clamber to the top of a side tower seriously lacking in selfie opportunities, so when we get to the top we have it to ourselves.
Jim departs for Bangkok and I set off for the last stage of the trip