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Published: April 19th 2014
Young Monk at Angkor
Tara captured what is probably our favorite picture from Angkor. This young monk glanced back before running to join his friends.
The familiar tune on Tara's phone stirred us from our slumber in the pitch black of our guesthouse room. The clock read 3:30 am, the perfect and perhaps the only time one might set out to see Angkor at it's most sublime. We had purchased our three day pass in advance but had not entered the park that night, we wanted our first impressions of the Khmer ruins to be experienced on our own terms, which meant cycling through the dark, silent streets of town and out along the forested roads to reach the temple complex five-kilometers north. By the time we had rubbed the sleep from our eyes, stretched, prepared provisions and the like it was a good bit after 4 am and we embarked on our journey. We had acquired two small flashlights, one of which sat in Tara's basket, the other held in my hand pointing backwards to make our humble presence known to oncoming traffic. Once we left town and peddled up the forested portion of the road the darkness was all encompassing and the blanket of silence was stagerring. We are by no means cyclists, bu still I was a bit surprised about how long the
trip was taking. Gradually tuk tuks and then busses of tourists began to overtake us - we peddled faster and harder. We passed through the admission gates and around a corner. The baray which surrounds the temple was right in front of us, yet the temple was still hidden from our view. The sky was lightening rapidly, light blue on the horizons and a bright pink overhead - we peddled harder, fearing we would miss the sunrise. We turned another corner and continued to follow the baray, now glowing in firey magnificence, echoing the skies above. We saw people with cameras crossing the bridge ahead, a parking area with fewer vehicles than I expected, and then at last the iconic lotus bud towers appeared against the horizon. I was enamored with the overwhelming sense of the exotic as I stared ahead at those towers. I remembered being a student in high school and seeing pictures of the Parthenon and Taj Mahal, Notre Dame and the Hagia Sofia - inspiring architecture and monumental items of history, yet no structure of man had so intrigued my imagination as the otherworldly shapes of the Angkor towers, surrounded by forest and framed by the
iconic Cambodian palms - it had always filled my heart with a sense of mystery. And now alas, here it was.
We locked our bikes and guzzled some water, I glanced to our left and saw a bahn mi stand and by now my hunger had grown ravenous. I contemplated wolfing down a quick sandwich before glancing out across the water at those timeless shapes against the wonderous morning skies. People were moving across the bridge now, perhaps well over a hundred on the long stretch of the first causeway alone, yet the vastness of it all made the crowd seem insignificant. We crossed the water on the stone causeway, and passed through an archway which led to the homestretch - only a few hundred meters along the sandstone causeway now separated us from the main temple. A substantial crowd had gathered to watch the sunrise at the foot of the temple near the West Portico, though fewer than I would have imagined. We joined the crowd to snap a few photos of the sunrise over Angkor, but realizing that the world already has thousands of that same picture, we did not linger for long. Instead we wandered off
to the other sides of the temple, equally impressive since the temple is built to show you three lotus-bud towers regardless of which side you view it from. As we arrived at the southern gate of the temple we realized that we were the only two people in the entire world who had decided to view Angkor from that side at that moment. We circled around to the backside (the east gate) where, once again, we were the only souls present to soak up the breath taking scene. Though the sunrise was now at our backs, the sky still glowed magnificently, and we walked down a small forest path where we could view the temple at a distance, framed by the trees on either side of the path. The forest was vibrant and alive with the sound of primates and insects, and nay a man-made sound within our range. Times like this allowed us to get a feeling, even if only for a few moments, that we were viewing Angkor alongside Henri Mouhot, one of the early Western visitors to the sight whose brilliant sketches enlivened the images in the imaginations of the Western world. The ability to carve out
moments such as these in an increasingly overpopulated world is among the greatest treasures life presents to us in this modern age. By now the sky had lightened enough that you could practically call it day light, yet no crowds appeared on the forgotten sides of Angkor, the entire temple seemed ours to behold.
We circled back to the East side of the temple and climbed the stairs. As we reached the top we were confronted by a truly awe-inspiring spectacle, the grandeur of which defies presentation in the form of text - Suryavarman II's army stood before us in brilliant bas-relief carvings. The new morning light passing faintly through the pillars cast an eery texture over the carving, the enormous spectacle stretching for at least 100 meters and towering over our heads. King Suryavaram II, one of the most notorious Khmer leaders, stood triumphantly upon an elephant with his sword in tow, surrounded by an endless procession of warriors, Brahmans and servants. My mind simply did not possess the capacity to understand how a mural so vast, intricate and of such impeccable quality could have been executed nearly a thousand years ago. For the first time I was
beginning to understand the unbridled might of the Khmer Empire - with a resource base, expendable man-power, technical ability, and artistic sensibilities - that allowed for such an incredible meld of artistic creativity and engineering capacity. As we circled around we realized to our far greater astonishment that the depiction of Suryavarman II's army was one of eight bas-relief images that surround the entire compound, stretching more than 1,200 meters and including scenes of Hindu spirituality and historical scenes from great South-Asian epics. It is hard for the American to imagine, that the oldest building in the history of the United States is only about a quarter the age of these brilliant structures. Like gazing at the night sky, the images transported us back in time - staring at the impressions made by hands in a time beyond the span of our comprehension - this is all that was left of these people now, but what a legacy to leave. As more and more people trickled in we decided to continue on. We had made our plans for traveling Angkor by reading in depth the recommended paths for each part of a day, and then avoiding those areas at peak
Exquisite Stone Carvings
A lifetime of work covers every nook and cranny over the many square miles of the Angkor complex.
times and traveling in reverse of what most recommendations would suggest.
The Hill at Phnom Bakheng had been recommended for watching the sun-set, but I suspected it might gather a bit of a crowd for sunrise as well. Since it was now about 8am, well after sunrise, we figured we would try our luck by climbing Bakheng Hill. We were joined half-way by a kid who was exploring Angkor by bicycle solo and he decided to join us. The morning air was still fresh, though the sun was beginning to exert itself. We wondered how many tourists would be awaiting us atop the hill, though as we locked our bikes to a sign at the foot of the hill, we noticed the conspicuous absence of bicycles, motorbikes and tuk tuks and took it as a good sign. The hike up the hill, while I wouldn't describe it as easy, was quite pleasant and opened to a remarkable view. It was the first time I realized the endless nature of the former Khmer Empire, realizing that the monuments of the former kings stretched far beyond my line of vision. As we arrived at the peak we realized that the three
of us were the only visitors on the hill. We wandered about the stone monuments - thankful that we hadn't been born a Khmer slave, tasked with carrying them up there - and felt as though we were supernatural beings gazing down from the heavens. From our vantage, the prodigious Angkor Temple once again became shrouded in mystery, as the forest surrounding the temple created a mighty veil, as if trying to consume it - and yet the timeless towers stood triumphantly above them. From here, it appeared that Angkor Wat might still be lost to most of the world, and we could imagine ourselves as the explorers who trekked boldly through the jungle to find it. Our first few hours of our first morning had been a triumph, and I contemplated our good fortune in the silence of the morning air, overlooking those mighty towers. If only our entire visit could have followed the pattern of that first morning, my thoughts on the future of travel might have remained a bit more naive, boundless and hopeful.
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