Published: January 4th 2009August 29th 2008
The resounding thunder echoed off the dusky, engraved walls. The majority of tourists had departed as the storm approached, so this ancient temple appeared deserted. An empty and extremely long colonnade stretched away before me, where a symmetrical line of columns protected blackened reliefs of Krishna combating demons. The skies continued to darken as gusts of winds flayed the fronds on the palm trees at the perimeter of Angkor Wat. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, rains fell – and the wall carvings portrayed a scene befitting such a storm – as combatants with grimaced and stern faces battled to the death. A squall rushed along the colonnade; it tousled with the shirt hanging loosely over my belt and a spray of mist moistened my face. I wondered if the devotees of this temple who lived 800 years ago would have considered this wrathful weather a dooming portent.
But as is usual with tropical storms, they soon pass. Billowing clouds replaced their leaden counterparts and the late afternoon sun cast a feeble light. With the rains having halted, I moved to rejoin Fi (who travelled with me after the Olympics) and found her at the entrance to the inner enclosures of Angkor
Wat. Despite this temple’s most famous visage being the lake-fronted exterior, the first enclosure is the most impressive as it contains towering prasats
with vertiginous stairs that lead to mysterious darkened interiors. Though the approach to Angkor Wat is not overwhelming, the inner area is certainly worthy of the temple’s famed status.
After a tiring day of temple exploration amongst the jungle, my hotel beckoned; but unlike my usual choice of inferior accommodation with third-rate features, I decided that reclining in a salubrious five-star resort for a few nights was the best postscript to a hectic fortnight of Olympic experiences. I am usually dismissive of the five-star hotel experience that can isolate the traveller from the local culture and people. But they may have a purpose, for such pampering in the final few days of an exhausting or extensive period of travel is the perfect way to refresh before returning to the prosaic world of regular employment. The hotel of choice was the Le Meridien Angkor – a splendid resort nestled at the edge of Siem Reap. It supplied everything for the most discerning traveller (including the best hotel toiletries) and the friendly staff even fussed over my laptop
when it had a major moment that threatened to scupper the uploading of photos. It is rare for me to recommend a hotel in my blogs (only done once before
) but a stay at the Le Meridien is worthy of a detour.
These languid days consisted of an early morning breakfast prior to the first half of sightseeing. However, the humidity was stifling - beads of sweat even appeared on my face as soon as I had dried myself. Normally, my heat intolerance is blamed on the number of malaria tablets (whose side-effect is heat sensitivity) rattling around my body but there were no such excuse this time. So after a few hours of sweat-drenched sightseeing, we returned to the hotel and spent the hottest portion of the day swimming beneath palms and gushing water features in the pool before a final flurry of sightseeing in the afternoon. The day concluded by lounging in the hotel room and consuming Thai snacks purchased during transit at the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This included the krong kraeng
, and the box describes it as having “a bewildering forming like the shape of small cockle shells. Makes the snack more delectable. It also
eccentric and lovely in the shape of this snack. Which crispy and taste of spice famous during Thai ancient. Eaten as snack wiht (sic) hot tea or coffee at this days. If you ever taste you will know at once that this is not an ordinary snack that you ever taste. But it also make you impress.” I enjoyed reading this description as much as consuming the krong kraeng
The first morning of temple viewing commenced at a gleaming complex to purchase our three-day admission pass. One side of the building sold multi-day passes, and the single-day version was sold on the other. Surprisingly, every other visitor formed in large queues to purchase single day tickets. These appeared to be Japanese tour groups and the subsequent encounters of them being hurriedly herded around sites like cattle coerced into an abattoir made me regard these polite Japanese people with a degree of sorrow. It is insulting for any tour company to allow only one day at the Angkor temples – the sites too numerous, the distances too great, and the heat too intense. This brief time deprives the visitor of such pleasures as wandering less frequented and overgrown paths or
descending steep stone stairways into a rarely visited quadrangle.
I planned our temple itinerary by finding the usual visiting times of tour groups and doing the opposite, which enabled us to explore almost every site in relative solitude. The first day of sightseeing included the twelfth century sites of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, where it is possible to discover many hidden wonders amongst these expansive ruins. Ta Prohm is the more famous temple as it is gradually being subsumed by the formidable jungle. Carvings of deities, dancers and kings stare helplessly at the encroaching dominance of nature as clumps of green moss seep from the solid stones. Thick, gnarled tree roots have slowly grown and expanded over the centuries to fracture the stonework of ancient artisans – as if to mock humans who dared to believe that they were more powerful than nature. Though some temples are supported by a system of modern framework within its walls, it merely delays the inevitable fate of these edifices being crushed by nature’s mighty hand.
We visited the largest temple complex of Angkor Thom the following day. The highlight here is the Bayon which (along with Ta Prohm) has the
most character of the Angkor temples. As with other sites, the Bayon displays a combination of Buddhist and Hindu iconography, but the most noticeable aspect is the oversized faces that vacantly stare to the four cardinal points of the compass. Wherever you stood, one would find themselves beneath the stoic gaze of at least one face. This was the only temple where we encountered large groups of tourists, and this was evidenced by a cluster of Cambodian dancers and musicians dressed in traditional costume that lazed around looking incredibly bored. Once a group approached, they sprung into action from their near comatose state; the men clacked away at their instruments and women struck suitably elegant poses in the hope of enticing the foreigners to take photographs – in exchange for payment in foreign currency of course. However, if one is patient, these groups quickly pass, and you are again left alone with dozens of silent stone faces for companionship.
The last morning was the most oppressive – the sun ferocious, the humidity extreme, the air suffocating, and no breeze to ease the discomfort. Whilst standing motionless, I could feel the sweat forming on my body and saturating my shirt
– this was the hottest day of all my travels. I visited the temple of Banteay Srei, a tenth century masterpiece of carving that contained the most beautiful reliefs of the area – the detail on the pink columns and cornices were nothing short of superb. A group of Cambodian students were in attendance and even they were amazed at the intricate artistry invested in this small temple. Thankfully, my departure coincided with the arrival of two busloads of tourists, but unfortunately, 90 minutes after leaving Banteay Srei, I was relaxing in the Siem Reap airport ready to commence a prolonged journey home to Australia.
2008 has been an annus mirabilis
for me, a year that expanded both the heart and mind. Twenty weeks of travelling is always going to be remarkable - not only did I watch mountain gorillas in their natural habitat and attended the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (perhaps a unique combination this year), other experiences were just as memorable: the hospitality of the Syrians, the architecture of the Iberian Peninsula, the food of Ethiopia, and the wildlife of East Africa. I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been born into a country which affords me
opportunities and privileges denied to most people of the world, but this was an extremely privileged year even by Australian standards.
Travel shall be limited in the foreseeable future, but in 18 months I will earn my much anticipated Long Service Leave, and at that time – the possibilities are endless…
There are more photos below