The Temple Ruins of Siem Reap

We made our first ever visit to Cambodia in November and, naturally, we went straight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siem Reap. Here are my images and impressions of this amazing place.

1. The Angkor empire was massive and lavish in its heyday. The sheer number of temples in the area is quite mind-boggling. They number well over a thousand. Temples like Ta Prohm had thousands of servants to maintain it in its pomp and the Angkor area used to be home to 0.1% of the global population, which is mighty impressive.

2. The restoration efforts at Siem Reap are a brilliant example of international cooperation. Many of the temples are being restored by archaeological teams from as far and wide as the USA, Japan, India and more. They work in conjunction with local Khmer artists to recreate lost carvings and sculptures.

Outer guardhouse at Angkor Wat

Nature takes over at Ta Prohm

3. Whilst all the restoration work is sorely needed, I was more mesmerized by the temples that were left for nature to reclaim e.g. Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn. Having said that, it was quite obvious that many parts of these temples would have been lost forever without any remedial work so I guess it's more getting that balance right.

4. My favourite temple, by far, is Ta Prohm. This is one of the temples that was featured in the Tomb Raider movies. It's rather humbling to see how the trees here have managed to beat the stone into submission. Some of the root systems here seem to go on forever. An awesome show of nature's strength.

5. Similar to a lot of other cities in Asia, the wealth gap in Siem Reap is quite large. Despite receiving two million visitors a year, the province remains the 3rd poorest in Cambodia. Most of the locals live in very basic conditions and life seems tough. Despite the hardships, Siem Reap has some of the friendliest people we've met on our travels. More of those tourist dollars need to trickle down though if the social problems here are to be rectified.

6. Cheap-as-chips beer. 50 cents USD for a Cambodian draft beer! It's not the finest of beers (I swear there's almost no alcohol in them) but at that price you might as well drink it instead of water.

7. The most famous temple here is, of course, Angkor Wat. Said to be the largest religious monument in the world. The massive number of tourists here at sunrise has to be seen to be believed. It does spoil the occasion somewhat when you have people shouting and jostling for position but it is still quite a sight.

8. The civil war here absolutely ravaged the country. Most obvious are the effects of the land mines. It is said that there are still 4-6 million unexploded land mines in the country. We came across many people who had lost limbs to mines and these were just the ones who survived the encounter. Cambodia apparently has 40,000 amputees, the highest in the world. Tourist sites that are only 30km out of Siem Reap are still riddled with land mines and guidebooks advise you to stick to marked paths when visiting the more obscure temples, which is rather scary.

Entrance to Preah Khan depicting the "Churning of the Sea of Milk"

There's something quite poignant and contemplative about slowly exploring the ruins of what was once, quite obviously, a majestic empire. If Siem Reap isn't on your bucket list, get it on there double-quick time!

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8 Interesting Things About Bario

Despite having moved back to Malaysia for almost 3 years now, I still don’t know my country as well as I should. I guess it’s just one of those “grass is greener” things where everywhere else seems more interesting than where you are now. In a bid to correct this, I've decided to make it a point to visit more local places. Over this past Eid-al-Fitr weekend, we went deep into the Kelabit Highlands in northeastern Sarawak, to a place called Bario (or Bareo, as Google Maps likes to call it).

Here are 8 interesting things I learnt while visiting this amazing place:

  1. Bario is remote! It’s in Malaysia, but only about 15km from the border with Indonesia. There are hardly any roads into Bario, only jungle as far as the eye can see. It sits at 1000m above sea level which means it’s actually not as humid as the rest of Malaysia and the temperatures are really quite pleasant.
  2. Flying into Bario is quite the experience. We flew in from the nearest major city, Miri, in a turboprop 18-seater Twin Otter plane. Except for one short flying lesson in a tiny American Grumman, the Twin Otter is the smallest plane I've ever been in. It’s hot and uncomfortable but provides some amazing views of Mount Mulu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). My nerves were a little jangled on the flight home due to some turbulence but it’s all part of the package!
  3. Bario is home to the Kelabit people. At around 5000 people, they are one of the smallest groups of indigenous people in Malaysia. They are an extremely hospitable and friendly people though and I was constantly surprised by strangers walking up to me in the street just to say hello and to have a chat.
  4. The Kelabit traditionally stayed in longhouses. As the name suggests, it is literally a long house, in which multiple families stay. Longhouses are measured by “doors”. 1 door per family. With modernization, most families have moved into individual houses and longhouses are mainly used for tourist homestays now.
  5. Bario is known for rice and pineapples. The land here is extremely fertile resulting in some amazing produce. It’s also well known for salt. There are multiple springs in the area that produce water suitable for making salt. This water is boiled in large stainless steel vats and then inserted into shafts of bamboo and dried out over log fires resulting in cylindrical blocks of salt.
  6. Bario is completely off the power grid. Electricity here is garnered from a small local hydro-dam as well as petrol powered generators. When the rains stop, so does the electricity. When we were there, it had not rained for a while so to conserve fuel, generators were only used between 7pm and 11pm. I wasn’t too bummed though as no rain meant no leeches! It’s also really nice to be forced to unplug every now and then.
  7. Bario is one of the darkest places I’ve ever been to. I thought Death Valley on the American West Coast was amazing for stargazing but this managed to beat even that experience. It just so happened that we were there during a new moon which can only mean one thing: the Milky Way! The combination of the remote location, not having 24-hour electricity, the new moon and the altitude meant that I managed to shoot my most detailed Milky Way shots ever.
  8. A Toyota Hilux pickup truck can carry 9 people! 5 inside the cab and 4 on the back deck. This has to be the best way (if not, the most fun at least) to move around dirt tracks. We could probably have fit one more on the back making it 10 people. That’s almost an entire football team!

And there you have it. If you liked reading this, or if you liked the pictures, and would like to know when I publish a new post, consider subscribing to my blog.