Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Angkor Wat

Now I'd love to tell you that my trip to Angkor Wat was driven by a desire to see for myself this truly spectacular piece of history but I'm going to hold my hands up and say that wasn't the case.  In fact I never actually planned to go there at all. The last stop on my backpacking trip was Thailand.  I had planned to be there for about 4 weeks and then fly back home in time for Christmas.  I thought a few weeks soaking up the sun would be just what I needed before facing the delights of a British winter.  However, I was clearly misguided and my preconception that Thailand is a sunny country was quickly set straight.  Sitting in my guesthouse in Bangkok trying to figure out if there was any part of the country where it wasn't raining, I soon came to the conclusion that a change of plan was in order.  There was a poster on the wall of the travel center showing the Angkor Wat temples and a quick check of the corresponding weather forecast confirmed to me that this would be a much sunnier option than the Thai Island resorts.  So seeking out sun rather than culture, I hopped on a plane to Cambodia and the next day I found myself in one of the most incredible places I have ever visited.

Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the world and the 2 days I'd given myself to see it was nowhere near enough.  As you make your way around, it seems like the place is never ending.  Watching the sunset over the main temple at the end of the first day was beautiful but it wasn't the defining moment for me as it is for many people.  It was these little pockets of peacefulness which creep up on you as you come round a corner and find the roots of a tree growing over, around and into a building.  They're slowly destroying the temples these trees, reminding us that no matter how much of a mark we make on this world, nature will wait for us to turn our backs (or fight our wars) and sneak in to reclaim it.  The trees are a part of this place and so far, the preservation efforts appear to strike the right balance retaining the historical monuments and recognizing the beauty of this destructive force of nature.  These drawing were done after I got home based on photographs I took at the time.  Although I'm not particularly experienced in plein air art, I can see the appeal in a place like this.  The idea of spending my day sitting in one of these forgotten little corners with a sketch book and a few pencils is quite an attractive one.

Those of you who have been to Seam Reap will know that it is a place of contrasts.  The aftermath of a brutal war is visible everywhere.  While rich westerners explore this beautiful monument, children chase them around begging for some money to help feed their families.  Victims of landmines watch you from the street as you walk into your air conditioned hotel without a care in the world.  And what really struck me about all of this was how self righteous we all get about it.  Even at the budget end of the hotel market I had a clean room with a fan and mosquito nets but as I sat down for my (substantial) evening meal I heard so many complaints from my fellow travelers about the children at the temple.  Everywhere you went, wealthy tourists (and however much the hard up backpackers dispute this, we were all comparatively wealthy) would warn you not to give them anything as "it only encourages them".  I didn't give them all money - nobody could do that.  But I did buy little bracelets and trinkets from them.  And I played along with one girls highly imaginative exchange rate scam.  She approached us over lunch on our first day and asked my friend where she was from.  "France" was the reply.  "Do you have any coins from France?" said the girl, "I've never seen one".  "Sure" said my friend and gave her a Euro.  Next she turned to me and asked the same questions.  I told her I was from England but I didn't have any English money on me.  "Could you change this for me?" she says, producing a 20p coin.  "Someone gave it to me and I can't spend it here".  I was amused by this little money making scheme and gave her a good rate of exchange for her efforts.  She was a bright girl who had memorised where each coin came from and who, with a different start in life, could do very well for herself on an FX Trading desk!