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.
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.
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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