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Friday 11 Aug
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat temple adorns almost everything in Cambodia including the flag, beer, cigarettes and money. Its not surprising as its a pretty fantastic thing to have in your country, but it is also far more symbolic of the good and the bad that has occurred in Cambodia's recent history than just a national emblem.

The infamous Khmer Rouge used the legacy of a once great civilisation (which disappeared a good 600 years ago) as their backbone and even called their mysterious command organisation - who were ultimately responsible for choosing who lived and died - the "Angka" (also meaning "organisation" in Khmer). The temples of Angkor were excused from destruction during the regime's control because Pol Pot wanted to show that they were proud of their history (even if it was one where thousands of peasants must have suffered and died so that kings could build huge temples to show how important they were).

These days it is symbolic of two things. Firstly tourism, which by all accounts is Cambodia's main export and is increasing rapidly. Secondly corruption as the whole complex of temples has been sold off to a Vietnamese company. The government gets less than 20% of the takings (tickets are a whopping $20 for one day) which undoubtedly gets even smaller by the time it hits the government coiffures. So a lot of this desperately needed money is disappearing into politicians pockets or out of the country altogether. There is a clear elite which is made up of corrupt officials and (mainly Vietnamese) businessmen who drive around in shiny SUVs or sporty Mercedes whilst a rural farmer would be lucky to earn $40 a month and children are working from the time they can walk (apparently there is no free education in Cambodia).

The temple complex itself is basically beyond my capabilities to describe with any justice. Firstly it is spread over 40 square kilometres with around 30 or 40 significant ruins and countless minor ones. So even in a week you could not really see it all (we had 3 days). Secondly, and most surprisingly the temples are all so different so that to try to describe them would take a very long time. To have any favourites would be a personal preference. The best way to express how we felt was "spellbound". Each time a new complex emerged from between the tall fig and cotton trees it defied comparison with the previous. Some were so big you could spend all day climbing through the ruins. One was a collection of small lakes with a temple in the centre and a stone horse leaping out of the lakes with "sailors" holding on to its flanks and even though it was small it was just as fantastic as everything else. Others were very tall and required you to climb steep and treacherous staircases to reach the top. The gods change, the animals change, some are covered in stalae whilst others are engulfed in the winding roots of enormous trees which are half supporting, half destroying them.

Getting easily jaded is one of the biggest problems with going away like this for so long, especially having seen so many impressive temples in Central America. But Angkor defies comparison and I challenge anyone not to be completely blown away.

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