Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cambodia's Angkor Wat is One of the Great Wonders of the World

Cambodia's Angkor Wat is one of the great wonders of the world.

Wandering temples with a double called 'Eldon'.

Angkor Wat is a huge medieval temple complex lost in the jungles of northern Cambodia, gradually being unearthed by archaeologists and overrun by tourists looking for mysteries.

The last available government figures show that 750,000 foreign visitors tour the jungle temples every year. Despite the crowds, Angkor Wat remains one of the great wonders of the world, an extraordinary experience well worth travelling around the globe to visit. It was where I met Eldon John.

"You know, you look very familiar," I said.

We were at the Riverside Guesthouse in the town of Siem Reap, a few miles from the entrance to Angkor. The guidebook said there was a crocodile farm on the river and a map showed it wasn't far from the guest house. I was thinking of going to look at some crocodiles.

"Everybody says I look familiar," he said. "That's not possible," I replied, sipping my beer, "but I must admit you certainly do look familiar."

"I work with Elton John," he said again with a slight smile. "I'm his body double. Elton's virtual twin."

"Pardon my ignorance," I replied, "but exactly what does a body double do?" "I stand in for him on stage if he thinks there's a security problem," he said. "I get to ride in the limo and wave at people. I sign autographs. That sort of thing."

"You're pulling my leg," I said. He pulled two photos out of his pocket. "One is Elton, the other is me," he said. I studied them. I couldn't tell who was who. He did look exactly like Elton John. It was really uncanny.

"I bet you have some interesting stories to tell. How often do you get mistaken for Sir Elton?

"About five times a day in the western world," he smiled, downing his beer. "Over here, maybe once a day." It's a strange feeling to wander the jungles of a strange country with someone who looks exactly like Elton John.

We visited the main temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, packed with tourists, including some westerners who looked at us in a strange way.

Then we rented a car to drive 37 kilometres deeper into the jungle to look at the temple of Bantey Srey and finally five kilometres further to the river and waterfall at Kbal Spean.

Here, long ago and for some mysterious reason, artists diverted the river and carved thousands of figures into the bedrock, then re-directed the river back over their carvings. It's the only underwater art museum in the world. Very strange.

We hired a longtail boat and drifted through the floating fishing villages scattered around the edge of the giant inland sea known as Tonle Sap.

To end the trip we visited the ghostly overgrown temple of Ta Phrom, where nature has been left to take its course and huge banyan trees dwarf the ancient ruins. Very mysterious.

"You know there's a lounge in Siem Reap called the Red Piano?" I said, sitting down to wipe sweat from my brow. "I have an idea."

The Red Piano is located right at the centre of Siem Reap. There is a huge photo of Angelina Jolie on the wall. Jolie starred in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, shot at Ta Phrom.

The film crew partied at the Red Piano every night of the shoot, so now the bar is mentioned in all the tourist guides, and everybody comes to look at the famous photo of Jolie on the wall.

"Why don't we go down to the Red Piano," I said, "and sit down where people can see you, and then see what happens?"

"I know exactly what will happen," said Eldon, standing up. "Let's go."

We strolled over to the Red Piano and grabbed two chairs right by the front door. A man and woman walked through the front door and stopped to look around. "Here we go," said Eldon.

"My God!" burst out the man. "I can't believe it. Look Emily! Look who it is!"

The man strode forward, holding out his hand, his eyes bugging out of his head. His wife held back, too nervous to move.

"Hi, I'm Walter! We have all your albums!" gushed the man, pumping Eldon's hand like a piston. "Everybody in Atlanta is so grateful for the work that you've done in our community. We're such big fans of yours!"

"Thank you," said Eldon in his strong California accent.

"Pleased to meet you."

The waitress came by to take our order. "Is the owner here?" asked Eldon. He pulled out a red felt pen he kept in his breast pocket for such occasions, and autographed the back of a photo. 'Best wishes to the Red Piano,' he wrote. 'From Eldon John.'

Gert, the owner, was Belgian. Business was slack until the Jolie film, when things had subsequently exploded. He came to our table with a look of shock on his face, gazing down at the business card in wonder and then back up again. He burst into a wide grin.

"So pleasant to have you come to my bar," said Gert thrusting out his hand. "Welcome. I would ask you to play but we don't have a piano."

"That's okay," said Eldon, "I can't sing."


Siem Reap is a one-hour flight from the capital of Phnom Penh. Flights leave several times a day. A fast ferry across the Tonle Sap Lake takes 5 hours and cots $25. The bus takes 8 hours and costs $10-$15. There are many hotels in Siem Reap from which to choose.

Read more at http://www.canada.com/travel/Cambodia+Angkor+great+wonders+world/6228560/story.html


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