All Roads Lead to Angkor

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November 15th 2011
Published: November 14th 2011
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We set out for Siem Reap with the aims of ending our enjoyable three month stay here in Cambodia on a high note. Both Amy and I had been excited about this excursion for a few weeks prior, which is somewhat unusual for us as we’d been suffering from a bit of an ‘enthusiasm crisis’ when it came to visiting temples before we arrived in Cambodia – I mean really, there are only so many temples in the world that you can observe and explore before hitting the proverbial wall. However, we have found Cambodia to be surprisingly fulfilling in the temple department throughout our stay.

Ok so perhaps our visit to Oudong Mountain a few months back was less about the temple and more about the experience we had there, getting to know some of our Khmer co-workers a little better and studying a religion conduct some of its most sacrosanct rituals. Following that of course was Phnom Chiso, which is but an architecturally similar prelude to what we would find at Angkor Wat - but a setting that certainly whet our appetite (and it didn’t hurt that it’s somewhat of a hidden gem amongst Cambodia’s numerous touristic draws). Thus, it appeared all roads led us to our final destination, enticing us further along the way in preparation to see one of the world’s genuine architectural wonders; a colossal testament to man’s potential to create.

Despite all the excitement, it was difficult not to acknowledge a nagging feeling of doubt that somehow this city of temples and structures would somehow disappoint. When visiting static tourist structures, they do tend to fail to live up to the hype, in part because we as tourists or travellers build them up to such levels of magnificence in our anticipatory minds that it’s almost impossible to achieve the satisfaction we are seeking (in more recent times known as the ‘Obama effect!’).

This doubt was further increased after we arrived in Siem Reap. Eleven staff members split into smaller groups with the intentions of finding their accommodation for the next four nights. After leaving our belongings in our accommodation, we set out with cameras and maps and sought out a tuk tuk driver to transport us to Bakheng Hill, perched above the entrance to Angkor Wat and renowned location to sit and watch a beautiful sunset. After hiking the short distance up the hill to the temple ruins on its peak, we queued for ten or so minutes, reached the front and were then told that the site was now closed to tourists – indeed in a country where nothing runs on time, of course they close the viewing point at 5:30pm on the dot! This did not prevent us from milling around capturing photographs of the full moon illuminating some of the hilltop ruins.

However, the stubbornness inside would not allow this mildly annoying bump in the road affect our plans for the following day – to rise early before sunrise and take in the breathtaking day break from the gates of Angkor Wat itself. As such our alarm clocks sounded at a preposterously early (for a holiday) 4:00am, where we rose bleary eyed, took an ice cold shower and hopped in a tuk tuk (again with map and camera in hand, though unfortunately without any warm clothing – yes, we can confirm that Cambodia really does get cold!) with our Indian co-worker and friend Babatdor (or ‘Bat’).

After paying the hefty one day ticket price of $20 the evening prior, we entered the grounds of the former Angkorian Kingdom, still under cover of dark and untroubled by security. After leaving our driver for a few hours, we headed in the shadows to the small lakes sitting at the feet of Angkor Wat and fought our way to the front for a good viewing spot amongst the copious amounts of tourists/photographers and waited.

In waiting it provided half an hour or so of prime people watching – something which we have previously disclosed as one of our favourite pastimes! Amongst our favourites on this particular morning were people wading into the water to set up their $300 oscillating camera tripods and a certain gentleman who, after setting up said tripod and fixing his camera atop, proceeded to set the camera to automatic, to take snaps of the sunrise as he looked nonchalantly the other way, his camera snapping away once every two seconds, all the while its owner looking completely dispassionate as to the truly amazing scene unfolding before his very lens.

And amazing it was –absolutely worth the start time, the cold and the copious amounts of people; people of countless nationalities and religious who watched in awe as the sun slowly climbed above the three peaking towers of Angkor Wat along its ascent into a perfectly clear blue sky, casting a perfect shadowy reflection of the temple into the lakes at its feet.

After such a satisfying start to the day, Amy, Bat and I saw out the remaining moments of dawn with a pancake breakfast and tea at one of the lakeside eateries, before readying ourselves for a day’s worth of exploration.

At no point of our day could we say that Angkor Wat or its surrounding temples are in any way overrated. They are simply spectacular! Constructed in the early 12th century for the King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat itself stands as the world’s largest religious structure. Prior to our visit, I had been watching a documentary about the complex and, according to said documentary; the original structures comprised an area larger in range than that occupied by New York City! The modern structures as they stand today are still spread out over vast distances but the innards of the former city have been consumed by the jungle. Fortunately for us, nature (an in Angkor’s case, a man made moat) has graciously left comparatively small remnants of a former powerful kingdom for us to behold in all their grandeur!

Walking around the numerous temple structures, you are never more than a few seconds away from something interesting. Of particular note where the numerous Hindu carvings evident on the walls, strange as it may seem in a hugely Buddhist culture (indeed a picture of Angkor Wat can be found on the Cambodian national flag) but interesting since the temples of Angkor were actually formerly Hindu (dedicated by King Suryavarman II to Vishnu) before a changing of religious influence in the latter part of the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII converted their use to that of Mahayana Buddhism. This constant religious fluctuation in the former kingdom provides a surreal modern day sight - watching monks quietly stroll across courtyards decorated with carvings depicting images from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata!

Indeed, the second stop on our tour took us to the subsequent capital of Angkor under King Jayavarman, Angkor Thom and the temple of Bayon. Bayon was my personal favorite on the expedition, a small labyrinth of serene stone faces carved into the temple walls, supposedly a dedication to the Buddha by King Jayavarman. Bayon is a relatively cramped space, made more so by the amount of people frequenting its secretive passageways; but impressive nonetheless. We visited a number of smaller temples on route to our third ‘big’ temple, that of Ta Prohm. Similar to Bayon in that it was constructed under Buddhist influence, Ta Prohm’s magnificence lies in its authentic appearance, where the jungle has engaged the man made stone temples in a battle of strength for centuries and what we have been left with is a visually stunning relic.

After all the walking, we had reached late afternoon, so we decided to call it a day and return to Siem Reap for a well deserved dinner and sleep! For dinner we headed out to ‘Pub Street’ to treat ourselves to some western food and a drop of alcohol. Prior to going to Pub Street, I had nightmarish visions of Koh San Road – the vomit, the rats, the lady-boys! However, what we found was a far more relaxed street, excellent food the perfect way to end a great day.

The remaining time in Siem Reap was spent exploring the modern city rather than putting on our Indianna Jones fedoras! We had contemplated venturing a little out of town to visit one of the floating villages on the Ton le Sap lake, but since we plan to visit Burma and Inle Lake in the new year, we decided against it and instead opted for Siem Reap itself.

After a day at Angkor, our legs were weary (somewhat worrying if I plan to do the Annapurna Circuit in March!) so we stayed close to home, venturing only as far as the town markets, sauntering between the numerous stalls and fending off the calls of “Hello lady...I have good price for you!” Our lazy day continued onto Pub Street for lunch and we generally slouched and slumbered around for most of the hot day. We did take in another bit of people watching along the Ton le Sap river, as numerous local children were recklessly launching themselves from a bridge into the river with uncontrollable joy! However, with the glare of the early evening sun on our faces, our aches and pains finally got the best of us and we each indulged in a 90 minute massage.

On our final day, we rented bicycles and primarily explored the east side of the Ton le Sap River, venturing into some of the quieter and lesser known temples, spotting monks busying themselves with their days work. After lunch, we took our bicycles out to the grounds of the Raffles Hotel, where an art exhibition was being held involving local artists to support the grown of Cambodian art. After taking in some interesting (and some not so interesting) pieces and displays, we returned to town for dinner with everyone together for one of the few remaining times before we all part ways next week...

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