Monday, 7 November 2011

Day 64 & 65: Siem Reap

Siem Reap has one of the better city names around: in Khmer it translates to "The Total Defeat of Siam". It relates to the centuries of conflict between the Cambodians and the Siamese, in which the Siamese - though my large Cambodian readership may disagree with me - came out on top. The Angkor (i.e. Cambodian) civilisation did pretty well for a few centuries until the Siamese came along and nailed them. The fall of Angkor saw the emergence of the Siamese Ayutthaya. So why "Total Defeat of Siam"? Sheer petulance. While on the backfoot, the Cambodians still managed some decent battle victories, one which is commemorated in Siem Reap's overblown name. Given their own way, the Siamese would have ruined Angkor and its temples more than they did, but the Cambodians, fortunately, prevented this. That's something perhaps worth some celebration. Still, it must have hurt when "Total Defeat of Siam" fell under Thai control for over a century up until 1906. The Thais preferred the pointed Siam Nakhon or "Siamese Town" as their name for the city.

Modern day Siem Reap is less about war victories and more about tourism. Make no mistake, as the satellite town to the Angkor temples, Siem Reap embraces with open arms the hordes of tourists that flock. Usually I try and sidestep garish tourist towns, finding them fake and expensive, but somehow Siem Reap avoids this. It feels Cambodian despite the huge numbers of tourists. It has a frontier feel with dusty roads and busy streets, and a saunter into town sees you accosted by tuk-tuk drivers, restaurant owners, offers of massage, children selling postcards or beads, and at night the surreptitious offers of drugs and girls are often the follow up to a "no thanks" to a first approach. The main street is the directly named "Pub Street", which misleadingly is somewhat more restaurant based, with all the other bars and restaurants orbiting around. The stubby Pub Street reminds me of a microcosm of Kuta in Bali - music blares from some bars, people cram into the streets, lights and neon flashes. I should absolutely hate it all - but I don't. It's quite fun, and there's a spirit to the town. The increasing surge of tourism is giving Siem Reap a boomtime and while one day the dust will settle and a new Siem Reap will be sat there, in some form, right now the dust is being kicked up and everyone is invited along for the ride.

Of course, everybody is here for Angkor, and this city of ruined temples on the periphery of Siem Reap is the day-time attraction. During the day, the buses, the tuk-tuks, and the bicycles leave the modern city to circle the ancient one, and Siem Reap is left relatively quiet. It's only as dusk arrives does Siem Reap come to life, with all the aforementioned noise and bustle. Burness and I have rather enjoyed this, especially the $0.50 beers that are prevalent around Pub Street, but also the range of different foods that are around. As a result, it has taken us three days to first visit Angkor. Kind of, at least. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, and felt suitably lazy to just mooch around for the rest of the day. Really, if we'd been motivated, our Angkor experience should have begun on Sunday but we woke that morning and both thought "Nah..." We felt tired, perhaps not unrelated to the $0.50 beers, and the thought of touring these magnificent world class temples didn't appeal. So we just mooched around all day, doing very little.

This might sound a strange, unambitious, course of action when I'd been looking forward to Angkor and Angkor Wat for ages, and regarded it as the first "big one" of all my Wonders, but perhaps precisely because of this expectation, I didn't want to give it a half-assed visit. Fatigue doesn't encourage enjoyment or appreciation, and Angkor is so vast that I didn't want to begin the visit already feeling tired. So I held off. Till the evening at least.

To visit Angkor, you can buy a day ticket ($20), a three-day ticket ($40), or a seven-day ticket ($60). But if you buy the ticket and visit after 4.30pm, you can get that first evening for free, as a bonus sunset. Most people use this to watch sunset at Angkor Wat, and I thought this would be a good preview for my upcoming Wonder. And you know, it was a bit of a let down.

The level of expectation had grown to a point where I now knew I was going to be let down, and I wasn't wrong. It was the wrong debut for my Angkor Wat experience, being tuk-tuked to the site, walking in, vaguely seeing a sun set behind some clouds, and walking out as it got dark. Plenty of other people had exactly the same idea, so it wasn't exactly quiet. I tried not to think it, or even to believe it, but I was a little disappointed. The magnificent Angkor Wat didn't seem so magnificent to me. It wasn't as big as I expected - though it's the biggest religious building in the world! - and was more ruined than I'd expected. I was right - I'd hyped it up too much. I'd pegged Angkor Wat as a sure-fire contender for Wonder of the World, and although there was much to appreciate, I just didn't feel the "wonder". What was wrong with me? It seemed to tick all the boxes but just didn't tickle my fancy. If Angkor Wat didn't impress me, what hope was there for my World Wonder quest?

And this is where one of my developing mantras comes in, with regard to Wonders or any renowned location - always visit twice. Because today, I took a guided tour around the Angkor site, concluding with Angkor Wat, and came up with altogether conclusions. And these will appear shortly, in my proper review.

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