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Friday, November 15, 2013

Sunrise Temple Tour

Rising at 4.15am is not something I do regularly; in fact I usually get into bed around that time. I am a complete night owl and I really like my sleep (when I can get some sleep - but that's another story). However I was excited to go back to Angkor Wat for sunrise as I'd heard it was really spectacular. April, Laura and I were fairly quiet as we got ready and got out, climbing into the tuk-tuk by 4.35am. Travelling through Siem Reap in the dark and cold, we were anticipating a beautiful sunrise.

As I mentioned in another post, we got ripped off for tea and sandwiches (USD6); the first stall open opposite Angkor Wat does a great trade but if you are there early it's probably best to bring your own food or wait til all the stalls are open. We did try to haggle but they were having none of it. When the others opened we could have gotten tea at a third of the price.

Tourists filed in through the gate in the dark and most seemed to take up a place on the right near the lake. We soon saw why this was - Beautiful pink flowers open in the dawn light. I have a photo but it really doesn't show you how amazing watching the petals unfurl is.

I think it may have been the wrong time of the year for sunrise (as it moves around the temple) and honestly I found sunset alot more rewarding. I'm not Hindu but there is an enormous sense of peace about this place, hard to believe in a war-torn land. If nothing else, you have to appreciate the architecture of the place, the craftsmanship  - sure we can build airplanes and fancy buildings, but without machinery - these temples were built. A testament to the men of that time (and women? Who knows?)

Afterwards most people headed back into town; we had booked our tuk-tuk to continue onto the other temples whilst they were quiet. You can walk it, but some are many kilometres apart so you won't get as many covered in a day so even for the fittest hikers I would recommend using a tuk-tuk or bicycle. We had also bought our ticket the evening before for sunset which included the following day (USD20) - and was enough to do the short tour circuit - (our hostel gave us a map - but this is also good)

Guide books tell you to buy your ticket after 5pm but the office closes at 5pm so be there about 4.30!
So we continued forward to Bayon (the gates are extraordinary, I took my time looking at all the different faces, wondering what they were communicating!) We were approached by a little boy in Bayon who offered to show us around. He told us he was five, but he must have been more like ten. I asked why he wasn't at school but he didn't answer me. April indulged him and let him be her guide and of course afterwards he asked for money. He did have alot of facts and he was a darling but this really isn't encouraged - and he asked for more money after she gave him USD5. I'd imagine earning this money encourages them not to be at school so it isn't ideal. Families do live inside the grounds and have to make a living but this isn't the right way.
Some of the temples are more demanding than others  - since restoration work has been completed you can now climb to the top of Baphuon, but be careful and ensure you have excellent footwear - the steps are slippy and narrow (we went in rainy season) and people have been injured (apparently one died!) after falling off them. The only thing to break your fall is more rock - a little disconcerting!

There are other interesting sites within the walls of the city of Angkor Thom, such as the terrace of elephants, which I loved and the Wall of lepers. Also just before these there was a cafe area where we stopped for some pancakes and coconut milk. It was a little more expensive than town but really not too bad relative to Western pricing. The service was great - always with a smile! You can also buy big bottles of water along the way for USD2 (excessive price but handy when you're walking mid-morning in the sun).

There are alot of people selling their wares within Angkor Thom and around the site. Some are extraordinary. I had to travel light but one guy was painting large tile images outside Bayon and his work really was beautiful. He was charging something like USD15 for a piece. We went onward to Ta Keo and Ta Phrom, famous for portrayal in the first Tomb raider movie. It would be interesting to know if the Hollywood bigwigs contributed any money to the restoration of the temples? Much work is ongoing and most is credited to foreign investment, particularly from Japan. It is fascinating to see how the trees have uprooted rocks or grown around them - it brings another quality to the place and I hope they don't remove all of them.
We finished our tour around 12.45 (after arriving around 5am). You could get more done in the day, but it gets pretty hot around midday and we were rather fatigued (and temple-d) out. I'm really glad I did it, and I'll never forget either sunrise or sunset at Angkor Wat. I think sunrise wasn't quite so spectacular for me as I'd seen sunset first, but maybe different times of year bring different effects.

It's definitely worth reading up on the history beforehand, and also the layout so you have an idea of where you're going and what you're doing. It's also definitely worth continuing on after sunrise to beat the crowds, who seem to start arriving around 9am.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Airport Inertia

Airports are not indicative of the nature of a place and it's probably a good thing, given that I usually arrive in them woozy from lack of, or emerging from sleep, sedatives or a couple of glasses of champagne. In fact, the more I land at, the more they seem to blur into one another. This is one part of globalisation I don't like - I understand that logistics may dictate a certain amount in the design of an airport but I really think more flavour can be added to the interior design at least.

Sometimes we're treated to the stunning visual map of a city at night whilst the plane descends into land - I will never forget my arrival into Dubai in 2004 - it felt like landing on the Vegas strip. I had never seen so much neon or so many skyscrapers. Nowadays the plane always seems to come in across the desert so we don't receive the same visual impact. The airport itself is nondescript. White, more white and acres of space. Passport control is generally a nightmare - regardless of the fact that there's about 60 desks in both Terminal's 1 & 3, they are either partly unmanned or just so busy. One of my favourite life-aids comes into use here - E-gate card, which I am lucky enough to own as I have residency in the


Malaga airport at least tries to brighten the mood amongst arrivals - on the way to passport control you pass a number of photographs displaying the wonders that can be reached from the airport - the Andalucian countryside in all it's glory - Cordoba, Seville, Granada and of course Malaga itself (any photos of the Rock of Gibraltar are conspicuously absent!). It's many treasures both architectural and objets d'art are covered in the exhibition. Everytime I enter I smile, because I know I'm already in Spain.


This year, Dublin airport - or the airport I should say closest to home (but I don't even know what home is anymore) - put on an exhibition of it's own - of Ireland's faces. Some are famous and some aren't. I appreciate what they are trying to do and given that we were an almost completely indigenous island until very recently there are certain celtic traits which are clearly visible and perhaps do suggest to one that you've landed in Ireland - but it doesn't inspire any passion in me for being home. The good thing is that if you land in Dublin on a clear day - you have already been treated to some striking scenery flying in from the Irish sea across Howth head, along Portmarnock and can even spy Croke Park Stadium in the distance.

Artwork trumps ad-work every time and for those stuck in endless terminals something to enlighten oneself on a travellator is a nice distraction - and perhaps for some an education.

I'm sure many of you have visited Heathrow, London and JFK, New York so I don't need to mention how soulless they are. I'm not a Heathrow hater though - I've been through it so many times now that I find it easy to manage and I certainly think it has improved in recent years. Security is a nightmare though, which has become a given in any international city (funnily enough I flew from Sharjah International Airport in U.A.E other day - and I didn't even have to remove my laptop or liquids from my case - perhaps not funny at all? Are Budget airlines not a threat?).

What shocks me is that in the increasingly fashion-obsessed world we're living in is that designers haven't gotten their pricey paws on this huge market? I can certainly see a Dior-Dubai Terminal or Burberry-Beirut. What bigger boost to an ego than a Terminal named after your brand? Even the First class lounges are basic, wouldn't they benefit from a Cavalli-esque makeover? Perhaps the wheels are already in motion, it really wouldn't surprise me.

What is less surprising is that aesthetics are being considered in the new airport designs. Renowned architect, Zaha Hadid is onboard to modernise and visualise a new Heathrow Airport after her deisgns for Zagreb airport in Croatia proved winning.
For me - there's still a lack of substance to these new-gen designs - as they don't reflect the surrounding countryside or culture of each place whatsoever. The design for the new Incheon airport in South Korea looks more like an elaborate flyover rather than saying anything about this wonderfully cultural country.

However I am no architect or engineer and perhaps looking for aesthetics in these functional places is superfluous. All I know is that I ensure my visa is complete before entering any of these airports (this includes filling out those blasted pre-landing cards before arrival), that my passport is handy (not buried in hand luggage), that I have shoes I can slip off, comfortable clothing, a bottle of water and a good book on my Kindle for reading on the queue for passport control. But note to those creatures of vision - we spend more time inside these buildings than outside so some attention to form would be appreciated by those who are terminally in terminals.