Hope you're well.
When we last wrote, we were glad to be back on dry land after our long (but interesting) journey up-river to Siem Reap.
We really liked Siem Reap – granted, it's very touristy, and basically only exists because of the nearby temples, but has a lively atmosphere, good markets and excellent bars and restaurants. Our hotel was lovely too – every evening they would give you a traditional Khmer bedtime story (with some comedy translations). We ended up staying here six nights, so we could break up our sight-seeing to avoid the onset of temple fatigue (a potentially very serious and incurable disease...)
Angkor Wat is of course the biggie and the one that everyone raves about. Everyone except perhaps us. It's certainly impressive in its scale, but we weren't as wowed as we'd expected to be. But then again, our visit to Angkor Wat didn't get off to the best of starts...
Sunrise is supposed to be one of the most magical times to experience the glory of Angkor Wat, so we hauled ourselves out of bed at 4am (nice) to get there in plenty of time to be overawed by the majestic splendour in the gentle dawn light. So far, so good. And then we heard the first rumbles of thunder...and, oh, was that lightning? Before long, the heavens opened and it our hoped-for sunrise was a monsoon-like wash out.
And then Roland managed to unintentionally desecrate one of the wonders of the world by throwing up his malaria pill (we think because he took it on an empty stomach). All in all, not a resounding success! (And, as an aside, we somehow managed to then keep ourselves up for over 24 hours to watch the Arsenal-Barcelona Champions' League match that same night...as I said, not the most successful of days!)
We did persevere and went back to Angkor Wat a few hours later (still under a fairly leaden sky but nonetheless absolutely boiling) but we still weren't really feeling it. I think partly because it's the money-shot, so there are hordes of tour groups milling around which is a shame. Also, parts of the temple are being renovated or cleaned, so there are distinctly un-camouflaged bright green bits of sheeting covering certain bits which kind of spoils the effect (and makes it blimmin' hard to take a good photo of the facade!)
Anyway, we much preferred the smaller, quieter and, for us, more atmospheric temples, of which there are dozens. We particularly liked Ta Prohm, where Mother Nature has called the shots and the jungle has taken over the temple ruins. Huge tree roots snake around and through the stones in a very cool Lord of the Rings-esque way. On a film theme (yes, I know Lord of the Rings is a book too), apparently part of Tomb Raider was shot here (and one of the bars in town even has a cocktail named after Angelina Jolie, its most famous patron...)
We also admired the intricate and surprisingly well-preserved carvings at Banteay Srei, a temple dating from 10th century and very different in style to most of the others. And the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom was good fun too. But our favourite was definitely The Bayon, with its 216 huge stone faces, enigmatically smiling down at you.
As an antidote to all those temples, I enjoyed lots of traditional Khmer massages (Roland not being a fan of being touched by strangers!) They really hoik you around and pummel you with their hands, arms, feet, elbows, knees, whatever... but you really feel like everything's been put back in the right place afterwards – the lazy version of yoga, must be why it appeals so much to me!
I also did a Cambodian cooking class which was great fun, and I managed (under the expert tuition of my lovely chef teachers) to turn out some pretty tasty grub. It was made easy for me though, with all my ingredients prepared in a Blue Peter 'here's one I made earlier' way. I shall be showing off my Khmer cuisine skills back home to anyone brave enough to try...
We were certainly well fed and watered in Siem Reap, including a lovely lunch al fresco in a pretty butterfly garden, delicious Khmer noodles (like the ones we'd seen being hand-made in Battambang) and G&Ts in a really nice breezy French colonial bar, just outside the bustling market and perfect to watch the world go by.
From Siem Reap, it was a long bus journey back down to Phnom Penh for a night – it's the transport hub so you have to backtrack to get most places – before heading to the seaside to Sihanoukville, which we'll post as a separate (much shorter, promise!) entry.
Helene and Roland xxx