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Published: July 25th 2010
Not many things will get me out of bed at four in the morning. A raging fire, acute diarrhoea, possibly the advances of Ewan McGregor. But apparently the opportunity to see the largest religious structure in the world is also a winner if you're looking for an alarm call for me in the future.
And so I found myself rushing ahead of the crowds to secure a spot by an atmospheric, perfectly reflecting, and mosquito laden lake at 5am. I sat there peering into the dark and waited as, like magic, the iconic towers of Angkor Wat became sillohetted against the lightening sky. It's one of those cliched moments on the well worn backpacker trail through South East Asia, and rightly so, it was really exciting to see this ancient monument emerge from the darkness and dominate the horizon. It was just as amazing to see it up close because, unlike the health and safety riddled monuments that English Heritage protect, you can clamber all over most of the temples here. This can lead to all sorts of fun, whether you suffer from vertigo or just have a penchant for reenacting action films.
It took us a couple of
hours to explore Ankor Wat from its dominating central tower to the outer walls covered in exquisitely carved bas reliefs. The carvings on this and other temples in the area depict everything from everyday activities and the lives of kings through to a graphic rendition of every possible form of torture awaiting anyone foolish enough to upset the gods and find themselves in hell. The most famous of the reliefs is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an impressive corridor of carvings depicting the gods and demons in a tug of war with a gargantuan serpent.
A quick fruit shake break and we were ready for the mighty city of Angkor Thom. Within the walls of this fortified city are many more temples hidden amongst the trees. The most impressive of these was Bayon, a temple covered in enormous faces. Half jeering and slightly creepy they are supposedly depicting Avalokiteshvara, some Buddha dude, but apparently they bear more of a resemblance to the legendary Cambodian king, Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the building of half the temples in the Angkor era.
From Bayon we visited Baphuon and then we got a bit distracted by wildlife. After walking the length
of the Terrace of Elephants, a wall with stone trunks coming out of it (art imitating life they all look like the tusks have been hacked off), we then went in search of the palace and the king's swimming pool (it would put the London 2012 Olympic pool to shame), and then found ourselves scurrying around the forest grimly fascinated by a huge line of ants! At this point we realised the sun was taking its toll on us and went in search of more refreshment, not difficult to find when there are hoards of women and children calling out and chasing you to buy water and sodas.
The next couple of wats were slightly less impressive, it seemed we'd gone in too quickly and seen the top attractions rather than building up to them. Ta Keo got our attention back, mostly because to get to the top of this pyramidical temple you have to haul yourself up four flights of stone steps, each step about half a metre tall and only 10cm wide. Not exactly easy at the best of times, when it's 30 degrees and 100% humidity it is like signing your own death warrant. We made
it back down again alive, mostly because we didn't follow in the footsteps of the local guides and hop, skip and jump down the retaining walls but bumped down on our bums!
A bit of miscommunication and a detour and our driver dropped us at a roadside cafe for lunch. It would appear that the Cambodian version of the egg sandwich is a deep fried ommelette with the texture of batter, served in a french baguette with cucumber and tomatoes - and laughing cow (Dairylea) if you ask for cheese! Not desperately appetising but it gave us the energy to run around Ta Prohm pretending to be Lara Croft and getting funny looks from the other tourists. We leapt around columns, peered from behind doorways and jumped off platforms pretending to hunt our enemies from amongst the piles of rubble. Ta Prohm was another big hitter on the temple scale. It's not the biggest or the most intricately carved, but it's the most fun. Crumbling and covered in lichen with towering trees growing out of the roof it looks like it's been CGI'd. Actually it's just had a nine centuries for the forest to come in and take over
as caretaker, and the forest has done a brilliant job in my opinion, adding foliage to the charm and atmosphere.
By this point the afternoon sun was taking its toll again and we were staring to see double every time we looked at a religious monument. While I could happily have spent days exploring the area, there are only so many wats you can take in one day and with a cursory glance at the small temples we passed on the road to Siem Ream we headed back to our hotel for a well earned nap.
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