19 January 2019
The alarm went off at 04:00 and, amazingly, both Ian and I had no problem getting up and sorting ourselves out. I had a quick cup of tea, and put some Deet on in the shower (mosquitoes were likely to be a problem today), before I woke Cornelia using a similar magic spell that we’d agreed on yesterday, and as she was waking, I managed to get her clothes on. So far, so good!
We were out of our room and downstairs on time for our collection by Xhi Vaht, our tour guide from Angkor Cycling Tours, at 04:40. I asked him what time he’d had to be up… 03:00 was his answer! I hope they are paying him well!
The streets were very quiet to start with, and Bugsy was in a remarkably chatty good mood despite being tired. Xhi explained that we were going to drive to Angkor National Park first to buy our temple passes, then we would drive to Angkor Wat temple and park up, before walking to the West Gate and watching the sun rise from behind the temple. The streets grew much busier as hundreds of people headed towards Angkor Wat, and we were in the queue by 04:55. It didn’t take long to buy our one day photo pass (Cornelia was free), and Xhi had lanyards for the paper passes so that they didn’t get damaged. (If you are found to have a damaged pass, it would be deemed invalid, and you’d have to buy another one.)
We drove on to the temple car park, then followed Xhi through the crowds of people, as he led us all the way to the moat surrounding the temple. It was about 05:30 by the time we arrived, and we were by no means the first people there! The crowds were already two deep from the edge of the moat, and we were lucky to find a spot we could squeeze into, from where Cornelia could see. Which was not much to start with! It was still completely dark, and all you could really see were the lights from everyone’s mobile ‘phones. Then gradually, the light began to come from behind the silhouette of Angor Wat. It was slow but worth every second of the wait, as the sky changed colours, starting from a dull deep orange and purple, into a bright explosion of fire, then finally the pinks and purples that would turn into a bright blue sky as the day progressed. It was really quite special, despite the company surrounding us!
Cornelia was brilliant. She was looking for stars and planets, and was very excited to see Venus and Jupiter so close together. We then opened up my “star” app, and started looking for other planets and constellations, which occupied her for almost the whole time. Far more interesting for a four year old than looking at the sky change colour, that’s for sure!
Once I had had my fill of taking photographs and just staring peacefully at the unbelievable scene in front of me, Xhi took us off for breakfast at one of the cafes 100 or so metres away. Ian and I both had coffee with condensed milk (condensed milk is VERY popular here) and Bugsy had a hot chocolate. Then we all ordered pancakes: pineapple for me; banana for Ian; and yes, chocolate for Cornelia. The set up is great for the local traders. They basically all serve the same sort of dishes and charge the same price, and all of the tables are lined up in rows, with a small kitchen at the end of each row. Then, you are brought a menu from the kitchen of whichever row you happen to be sitting in! As we ate, small kids did the rounds, selling postcards and magnets. Naturally, I bought an Angkor Wat magnet for our ever-growing collection, but resisted all other offerings.
Unfortunately, as I don’t really eat massive pancakes or drink coffee at breakfast, I started to feel quite unwell almost as soon as we left the cafe. Xhi took us into the temple and we followed the flow of people, as he gave us some details about Angkor Wat. Originally built as a Hindu temple to the god Vishnu in the 12th Century, it was converted into a Buddhist place of worship in the 14th Century. Although the statues of Buddha have been destroyed or removed over the years, the many depictions of various Hindu symbolic iconography remain.
Inside the main temple, we explored the four now-empty pools representing the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Wind. It felt slightly awkward being part of the growing mass of tourism movement whilst orange-clad Buddhist monks venerated various niches in the temple; and equally, there were clearly devotees of Vishnu trying to block out the crowds and engaging in worship. Apparently, over the last twenty years, the number of tourists has increased from less than 20,000 annually to now over 2 million. These tourists have also caused the steep steps at the centre of the temple to be closed. The steps are incredibly steep and there had been so many injuries as a result of falls, that a new staircase was built to allow the tourists to reach the top. The significance of this particular part of the temple was that only the king and priests were allowed there – it symbolised the stairway to heaven, and as the highest point, only the select few were able to climb the staircase. Xhi also told us that when people climbed the staircase (at the invitation of the king), if they fell off, it meant that they had bad souls, and conversely, if they made it to the top, they were good. Ian observed that maybe that was why so many tourists had fallen….!
Obviously, Ian and I skipped our way to the top…! Cornelia, however, was not old enough to make the climb, and sat chatting to Xhi in the shade, as we took in the spectacular views, admired the magnificent carvings and strained our eyes for a glimpse of the “big Buddha”, who was set far back and protected by a fence. But it was all slightly marred by the fact that I now desperately needed the loo! I felt in danger of fainting or throwing up, as a hot flush engulfed me and my tummy cramped up. I grabbed Ian as subtly as I could and growled “We have to go… now!” whilst managing to smile at everyone around me.
Xhi, bless him, insisted on telling us more about the history of various parts of the temple, but by now, my concentration had completely vanished. As soon as I realised that we were about to leave the temple, I casually asked Xhi if there was a bathroom around. He said “Oh, don’t worry, there are nice government ones at the next temple, which we are going to cycle to now!”. At this point, I looked at him and just said “Actually, is there one I can just use now?!” I think he realised my predicament, and took me off to the loo. Typically, it was locked. So, he went off to find the key holder. In the meantime, just as I was considering ripping the lock off, a policeman came past. I gestured towards the toilet block and he said “No, no, the government toilets at the next temple are better!” Bloody hell, GIVE ME THE KEY! He then said that the keyholder was somewhere in the temple. I nearly cried. I followed the policeman back around the corner and saw Xhi in the distance. I waved at him (so far as I could stand up straight to wave, that is) and like a god, a grumpy man appeared with a key.
Why they needed to lock a hole in the ground is beyond me…! I shan’t give any details, but let’s just say, there was a porcelain hole and a large trough of water with a saucepan floating on top. I’m glad I have strong legs. And let’s just leave that story there…!
Reunited with Ian and Cornelia (who had found a tube of bamboo and was busy creating some lovely music!), we began our quest to get the helmets on. We were, to say the least, slightly frustrated by them, as they were completely knackered. Ian couldn’t get his on his head, and mine had a broken strap. Cornelia’s was also ill-fitting, and as we knew the route we were taking was quite “bumpy” in parts, weren’t happy to spend the day with helmets that wouldn’t do their job in the event of an accident. Xhi rang his company and they arranged to supply new helmets at the next temple, so finally, with Cornelia all strapped in to her child seat, off we went.
We had a terrific ride along tracks north of Angkor Wat, taking us to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, where we rode up onto the 7 metre high walls, after crossing an amazing bridge over the moat, lined with (on one side) 54 gods and, on the other, 54 demons, each holding their own multi-headed snake.
This ride took us mercifully away from the crowds and we enjoyed the route through a local village. Only families living there prior to UNESCO World Heritage status, granted 27 years ago, are allowed to remain in their traditional homes. No more houses may be built. On the outskirts of the village was an elephant enclosure, containing fifteen of the beasts. It was sad seeing them chained up (so they didn’t escape) – they are now only used for the tourist industry, rather than in their historic role as beasts of burden.
At the centre of Angkor Thom is Bayon, another extraordinary temple. Cornelia was already feeling a bit “templed out”, so I offered to stay with her in the shade, while Ian and Xhi walked around. By now, it was mid thirties and very humid. We whiled away our time making funny faces at each other, before Cornelia spied another little girl, with her extended family, who were sitting behind us. I said she could go and play with her if she wanted, and off she went to say hi. It was my fault… I’d completely forgotten how popular Cornelia’s blonde hair is, outside of Europe and the States! The family surrounded her, touching and grabbing her arm for photos with their daughter. Cornelia did her best to smile, but was looking quite overwhelmed and eventually escaped to bury her head in my lap! Then her little friend fell over and hurt herself, so Cornelia (bless her) went over to help her up. This resulted in the family holding her to pose for more photos with their sobbing child! Cornelia kept looking over at me, desperate for help, so I called her over, just as Ian and Xhi came towards us, having completed their navigation of Bayon. She raced towards us, and burst into tears. It was just all a bit too much for her. The family still crowded around her, so I lifted her up and carried her back to the bikes, smiling and waving through my slightly gritted teeth.
Although Ian was glad he’d looked around Bayon, he’d been unable to take many photos, as the whole place was just packed with people, all jostling to take photos at the same spots. The walls captured historical every day moments, such as crocodiles, cock-fighting, pig-fighting, gambling, cookery and hunting, as well as depictions of Khmer stereotyping of various races with whom they were in conflict.
We cruised on for a short distance, before stopping for lunch. The set up was similar to that at breakfast – a cluster of tables and kitchens – and Xhi (who knew the staff at this particular one) sourced drinks for us, while we browsed the menu. Cornelia had some scrambled eggs with a baguette, Ian tried the lok lak again, and I had a chicken and mango salad, despite still not feeling brilliant. I went off to visit the government bathrooms that had come so highly recommended, and when I returned, everyone was ready to go – complete with new, much-improved helmets!
Experiencing road cycling in Cambodia for the first time, we headed a little further east for a while, before dodging off the road and back onto the quiet tracks, that once again led to the most incredible smaller temples. They were all built without any kind of mortar to stick the blocks together, so inevitably over time, many of the walls, roofs and doorways have collapsed. In the main temples, these have been reconstructed, but the smaller ones remain in their natural state, complete with tree roots growing over the masonry. It is quite surreal – think Indiana Jones meets Tomb Raider! Even more surreal was the appearance of several runners who, it transpired, were participating in the Angkor Wat ultra marathon / marathon which was taking place this weekend. I cannot believe that this race was on and I hadn’t realised! I would have LOVED to have done it, and it is now most definitely on my list of races. What an epic run that would be!
Cornelia fell asleep in her child seat for about half an hour, as we cycled on through the heat, visiting more relics and our final temple, Ta Prohm, riddled with the giant silk-cotton trees. Bugsy was now awake, and we strolled through together, but to be honest, we were all now a little temple-weary, and the hordes of people lining up for photos meant that you couldn’t really walk around freely. Xhi wanted to take a couple of photos for us, which was sweet of him, and I’m glad he did as it preserves our place in history. Unless the authorities do something to control access to the temples, we can see it all being ground down over the coming years. And yes, we contributed to that today, I know!
Xhi was completely charming all day, and his knowledge of the area was extensive. We followed him back along the busy main road (genuinely a fun experience!), stopping only to feed the monkeys some leftover pancake that I’d been carrying around all day. It turns out, they don’t like pancakes, but Xhi kindly offered up his banana which was snatched right out of his hands and devoured by a pregnant monkey halfway up a tree!
Back in the saddle, we had one final push back to the bike shop, where we were refreshed with cold wet wipes and icy water. Heavenly! We had been hoping to buy the blue Angkor Cycling Tours jersey that Xhi had been wearing, but they only had the short-sleeved version in Ian’s size in yellow… So, that’s what he got!
We clambered into our first tuk tuk of the trip, and for $US1, were ferried back to our hotel, at around 16:00. Half an hour later, Cornelia and Ian were in the pool, while I relaxed on the lounger. Cornelia got into trouble when, for the second time, she spat water out at Ian (like a spout, as opposed to maliciously, I think), so Ian moved into the warmer jacuzzi tub, adjoining the main pool. She decided to get in too, but then of course, she didn’t want to get back into the colder water. It was the perfect way to get her out of the pool and upstairs for a shower.
It had been our intention to go out to the Cambodian street food market for supper, as recommended by Chun yesterday, but Cornelia was now very tired and asked if we could stay in the hotel. We had enjoyed our meal last night, so agreed that this made sense. Ian showered first, and went off for a quick explore of the local area (and to try and find a birthday card for me, that I am not supposed to know about), and then Bugsy and I went down to the restaurant, where I ordered her pasta and waited for Ian. He was only supposed to be half an hour, and I was just about to get worried (nearly an hour had passed!) when I saw him arriving. Success, I asked? Of sorts, came the response! Hmmm….!
Bugsy ate all of her pasta and had an ice cream too (parenting mistake to give a tired child an icecream just before bed time?!), while Ian and I both had good meals again. I only had pumpkin soup, as my tummy was still quite distended from whatever was making it weird, and Ian had the nasi goreng that I’d enjoyed last night. Yum.
He was still drinking his beer, so I offered to take Cornelia upstairs and start getting her ready for bed. Well, she was in bed fast asleep by the time Ian came back upstairs twenty minutes later! We were also very tired from our 04:00 start, and I was just brushing my teeth, when the doorbell rang. Quite irritated to be disturbed so late (it was 21:00), I flung the door open with the toothbrush still in my mouth, to find Chun and his colleague standing there with a birthday cake for me, singing Happy Birthday! I swallowed my toothpaste and invited them in, as they videoed me blowing out my candles and wishing me well. I was deeply touched. They asked after Miss Cornelia, so I took them in to her room, so they could see her fast asleep, and they were so thrilled! Oh, they were just SO sweet.
Once they’d gone, I finished brushing my teeth, and packed up my bags for our flight to our final new country tomorrow morning, but then felt really bad that I wouldn’t have touched their cake, and it might appear very rude. I rinsed my mouth out as best I could, and asked Ian if he was going to have some too. Luckily (for my diet!) it didn’t taste as good as it looked, so after a few mouthfuls, I was able to put it back in the fridge, guilt-free, knowing that I wouldn’t have insulted them by not eating any of it.
Finally, finally, I crashed into bed, ready for another early start tomorrow. We are being collected at 06:00, so the alarm was set for 05:00. I can’t quite believe this is all coming to an end. Last new country tomorrow – and it’s also my birthday!