Temples, Temples, and More Temples

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November 5th 2019
Published: December 27th 2020
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Angkor Wat
Today was going to be another full day of sight seeing and probably the reason we all came to Cambodia as we would be visiting the world famous ruins of Cambodia. We set off for the official ticket center where we picked up our local guide Johnny for the next 2 days and obtain our 2 day pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park. From here, we made our way into the hot Cambodian jungle. Spread out over 400 square kilometers, the Angkor Archaeological Park contains approximately 1,000 temples of various sizes and states of decay, the most famous among them being Angkor Wat. Built in the 1200s, Angkor Wat is known as the largest religious monument in the world. We began our tour of the Angkor Wat temple at the eastern entrance, and our group began walking to the Gate of Taku, one of the original entrances leading to the Angkor Wat temple. We just had a brief look around and I was surprised that people were allowed to roam freely amongst the ruins. In most places, a site like this would be roped off and only seen from a distance. We continued our way to the temple where the jungle's heat and humidity were already stifling and I noticed that my legs were being attacked by biting insects despite all the insect repellent that I had applied. Our first glimpse of the towers of Angkor Wat came into view through the jungle's trees and I quickly forgot about the biting bugs and the heat. We arrived at the outer walls of Angkor Wat and stood there in awe realizing we are seeing one of the world's great monuments. Thankfully we were in a not so crowded area of the temple, a far cry from the throngs of tourists we would encounter inside. After taking our obligatory photos, we continued on with our walking tour. We made our way into the inner temple and we started to encounter more tourists. It was here that Sreymon made another disparaging comment about the throngs of Chinese tourists. Her comments were not unfounded in my opinion. There were areas where signs clearly indicated to be quiet and many of the Chinese tourists were talking so loudly that it was bordering on yelling. Even more disrespectful was the fact that I saw many Chinese tourists spit. Definitely not appropriate for inside a religious temple. Bad behavior isn't just isolated to Chinese tourists but since there were so many of them here at Angkor Wat, they just stood out more to me. We eventually made it into the inner area of the temple and here is where most of the tourists were concentrated. We did our best to admire and the intricate carvings within the temple walls all while trying to dodge other tourists. There were 2 Buddhist monks here offering prayers for a small donation and I was hoping for an opportunity to take part but for now Sreymon brought us to a less crowded area where we were able to sit while she and Johnny explained some of the history of what we were seeing here at Angkor Wat. It was nice to be able to sit for a while and rest as the heat was draining my energy. Once our history lesson was over, we were encouraged to line up now to climb the stairs to the upper level of the temple before it got even more crowded and more warm. The sun, high heat, and humidity belted down on those of us in line but thankfully the queue moved relatively quickly and we eventually made our way up the steep staircase to the upper levels of the temple. Back in it's glory days, this area high above the surrounding jungle was reserved for societal elites. Today, it is jam packed with tourists enjoying the views over the jungle as well as the nice breeze flowing through this area. Shea and I wandered around checking out the amazing intricate apsara carvings within the walls of the temple. Apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and water in both Hindu and Buddhist culture. The apsara carvings were so well preserved despite hundreds of years and all the tourists who are free to touch anything and everything inside the temple. After exploring this area and enjoying the views into the surrounding flat landscape of the Cambodian jungle, Shea and I made our way back down the steep staircase while being careful not to trip and go tumbling down. While waiting for the remainder of our group to come down, Shea and I paid a few Cambodian riels and had some cheesy touristy photos taken with some locals dressed in traditional Cambodian dance attire. Sreymon and Johnny lead us back to the area where the Buddhist monks were offering prayers and let us have some time to receive a prayer if we were so inclined. For a small donation, the Buddhist monks tied a bright orange bracelet to your arm then began chanting the prayer while sprinkling holy water on the prayer's recipients. I participated even though I'm not religious or spiritual. It was more for the experience of having a Buddhist monk offer me a prayer. From here, our group made our way out of Angkor Wat and back out with the hordes of tourists. We had one final view of Angkor Wat, this time with it's surrounding moat in our view before make our way to our pick up point in order to visit other temples in the area.

From Angkor Wat, we made our way over to the temples at Angkor Thom but first we made a quick stop at one of the gates to Angkor Thom. The south gate to Angkor Thom is easily the most popular and most fully restored of all the gates. The causeway which crosses a moat and leads up to the gate is flanked by statues of 54 demons and 54 gods on both sides. Some of the statue heads have crumbled over the years, but most are very well preserved if not fully restored. The causeway leads up to a gate that towers above the visitors with a large face which is said to either represent the king himself or the bodhisattva avalokiteshvara. We spent about 20 minutes here checking out the demon and god statues on the causeway and even had the good fortune of seeing a wedding take place on a boat in the moat. When we walked through the gate with the large face towering above us, I could just imagine how unsettling and daunting it must have been for peasants back in the day who had crossed the causeway and entered Angkor Thom via this huge gate. Back in the van, we drove through the gate and made our way to the Bayon, the most impressive temple at Angkor Thom. Built in the late 12th or 13th century, the Bayon temple is known for the huge smiling faces that adorn the temple's towers each one with just a slight grin. At first glance, the Bayon just seemed like a glorified pile of rubble. It's not until you wander inside that it's magic becomes apparent. Sreymon and Johnny lead us inside the temple where we had some fun taking cheesy photos with the faces in the stone. I was able to escape the group for a bit and I had a peaceful time just wandering the grounds of the temple. It seemed as if everywhere you went in this temple, one of the faces in the stone was within sight or towering above. Unlike Angkor Wat, this temple was more compact and thankfully a lot less crowded. I even had a few moments while wandering where I was all by myself to enjoy what I was seeing. All in all, I enjoyed this temple much more than Angkor Wat. It was not as sprawling and crowded as Angkor Wat and walking around felt peaceful and mysterious.

It had already been a full morning of sightseeing when we headed back into Siem Reap for lunch at Sala Bai. Another one of the social enterprises that Intrepid supports, Sala Bai is a hotel and restaurant school that seeks to train young Cambodians for careers in hospitality. We were greeted by friendly and smiling young Cambodians as they served us a very well presented lunch. It was clear that we were all a bit tired after having an already long day as our group was relatively quiet during lunch. After lunch, we were given a brief tour of the kitchen and a short presentation was given on the goals of the school. This was another great place that Intrepid brought us to that shows that our money is being used to directly impact local economies instead of going back into the corporate pockets.

After lunch, we set out again for more temples this time to the Ta Prohm temple which was made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Shrouded in dense jungle, the Ta Prohm temple had a much different feel than the other 2 temples we visited today. Being surrounded by jungle, it was definitely much more shady here but also much more humid. What makes this temple famous besides Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider is that fact that the gigantic roots of the trees are exposed and seem to be tearing the temple walls and terraces apart. Basically, it's as if the temple is being swallowed up by the jungle. Much of the temple is in the same condition as it was when it was re-discovered. With tree roots growing through walls, across the roof, and around pillars along with moss and vines creeping across crumbling walls and down into doorways, walking around this temple was such an eerie feeling. With the exception of the more photogenic areas of the temple which were crowded with tourists looking to get a great photo, it didn't seem terribly crowded here at Ta Prohm. With all the walking we had done today in the heat and humidity, it really started to hit me while exploring Ta Prohm. I was just so low energy that I wasn't able to fully enjoy exploring the site as well as I could have. All I could think about was getting back into the van and returning to the hotel for some rest.

Back at the hotel, our activities for the day were not finished. We only had about an hour of rest time before Sreymon was to lead us on a street food tour. The idea of checking out some authentic food served by street vendors for the local people both terrified me and intrigued me. As I have a sensitive stomach, I always get concerned that something I try will not agree with me and that I will be paying for it over the next few days. As Shea and I rested, we realized just how tired we were. Resting for that hour just made us more tired and we just wanted to lay there and relax for the rest of the night. Unfortunately, we skipped out on the street food tour. After a few hours with Shea still fast asleep, I decided that I would go our for a walk to check out the night scene here in Siem Reap. I had no intentions of going into a bar or restaurant but just wanted to see the vibe of this town once all the tourists were doing temple hopping. I crossed the river to explore some of the markets before crossing back and venturing over to Pub Street where the nightlife was centered around. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel to call it a night for a well deserved good night sleep.

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