For most of the past week I have been exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After the intense rain caused by Typhoon Ketsana had stopped (more on this later...), I followed Paul's recommendation to 'head straight for Ta Phrom. This way you may avoid the coach loads of Japanese tourists'. Ta Phrom was the set for Tomb Raider as you realise when just about every seller tells you. But what is really special about Ta Phrom is that it is one of the few temples at Angkor that is overgrown and crumbling. There are some huge trees growing out of the top of buildings in this Hindu, then Buddhist temple. Its a shadowy and poky place and I was blown away. The temples of Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom in particular were simply incredible. This place is so good I went a little overboard taking Photographs. Like over 1000. And I visited Ta Phrom three times.
Unfortunately it seems they must have recently dubbed a Chinese version of Tomb Raider. Or even, it crossed my mind that Paul's excellent blog must now have a dedicated Chinese readership, but then again if you remember his blog is blocked in China, just like this one. Yes, Ta Phrom is now swarming with Chinese tour groups and it now feels awfully like a Chinese tourist attraction, except its not fake. They have even put in wooden walkways round the main route to accommodate all the high heels and posh frocks, the standard dress of a female Chinese tourist. Conclusion: I have found the one place outside mainland China which has been seriously tapped by the Chinese tourist market. Oh and, there are over a billion of them. Around Angkor you'll see separate places for the Chinese to eat and dine, great big warehouse sort of places serving, you guessed it ... Chinese. Then they're coached around in big tour groups from site to site and they destroy any sense of credibility by posing for Winston Churchill 'V for Victory' signs at every photographic moment, which, being Angkor, means there are a lot. Worst of all they are herded around temples in a giant convoys with tour guides bearing huge microphones and holding 'follow me, I'm an idiot' flags while blurting out Mandarin which I can only guess must be phrases like 'This tree root is growing on a doorway and looks like a frog crossed with a tiger crossed with a pig ! In China we call this the frog-tiger-pig-looking-tree'.
The other downside to Angkor is barrage of sellers that hang around all the main temples selling various bits of tat and plenty of drinks. But I have to say, compared to some place I've been they are very nice about it. Compared to India they are Saints. And its all very cheap, especially the couple of T-Shirts I bought for two Dollars, the cheapest t-shirts I have come across by far. Bets are on to see if the print will come off in the first wash !
So thank my lucky stars for a bit of serious rain from Typhoon Ketsana. Typhoon Ketsana left me with two whole days to explore Angkor without any tour groups and only the hardcore sellers. Everyone else stayed in Siem Riep, which I have to say is a dump although Sarah disagrees but I am with Paul on this one. Dump. For the first day, I was pretty much the only person brave enough to face the weather and head to Angkor. Which was rather pleasing to my Tuc-Tuc driver, who made his $10 dollars for a days work, while no one else did. But two days of a full on tropical Typhoon has its draw backs: Massive flooding. By the second day downtown Siem Riep was under two feet of water after the river breached its banks. Getting to Ta Phrom involved wading knee deep through the entrance. And the tuc-tuc drivers were frequently flooding their engines while whizzing you around. At first it was all a bit novel but that soon wore off after three nights of having to wade to dinner. Thankfully Ran our first rate Tuc Tuc driver knew all the back road routes managing to avoid the very worst of the floods.
My Blog does Video: My Second trip to Ta Phrom.
Its was all rather astonishing and very special. Bus loads of tourists aside, this place beats Hampi and Bagan hands down. Angkor Wat itself, the main and magnificent temple in Angkor was rather special but overrun by far too many tourists. The top level was also closed to tourists at the moment, which proved to be a little bit of a let down and certainly an anti-climax. Thankfully Ta Phrom and the hundreds of faces staring you down at the Bayon made up for this. The other place of note was Kbal Spean which translates to the 'river of 1000 Lingas'. Its a section of river has thousands of Lingas carved into the river bed, each of which is a symbol for the worship of the Hindu deity Shiva. Unfortunately with the floods all I could see was murky shapes in turbid water, but it gave me a sense of the scale and lengths the Angkor's went to worship their Hindu deities.
We liked Angkor Wat so much we put back our flights to give us a couple more days to explore. I even braved the heat on the final day to take a (push) bike for a spin and see some of the smaller temples, nooks and crannies. This is the way to see Angkor if you can brave the heat.
We are off to the Philippines in a couple of days. Our plan is to island hop for the next seven weeks. I've heard a lot about the Filipinos and I am hoping it's going to be a blast. I just have to survive one night in Bangkok. Gulp.
Sunset over Angkor Wat