Sweltering heat and rolling thunderstorms: the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia was a mix of extremes for me, a place where time stood still and the world moved on, both peaceful refuge and sensory overload.
We decided to take most of the Ankor temples all in one day, since we only had a weekend in Siem Reap. In hindsight, I feel I would have enjoyed more with an extended ticket (a three-day ticket cost the same as two single-day tickets), and with an extended stay it would have definitely been on the cards. A longer stay would have meant less blurring of the lines, for one: temple fatigue is certainly possible with collapsing all the amazing temple ruins in one day.
One thing that I feel strongly about is the presence of a tour guide. To be honest, I was worried hiring on a guide because I do like to take my time when discovering new places. When our hired driver asked if I was interested in an English-speaking guide, I took a while before finally deciding to hire one for our two days of sightseeing. I’m grateful I did: as someone who knows little about Buddhism, Cambodia, and its history, I found that the trivia, stories, and history that our guide shared with us as we walked through the temples enhanced my experience.
(Your mileage may vary: I love trivia.)
We visited Cambodia during the dry season, which means dusty roads and sparse greenery. While I think the complex would be stunning during high season, the temples were still lovely–and though there were tourists about, our guide assured us this was low-season crowd. How much more packed would it have been otherwise?
I think Banteay Srey is in the running for my favorite Angkor ruins. It’s much smaller than the other temples, which made it feel cozier and more personal to me. Built with pink sandstone and intricately decorated all throughout, just these would make it worth visiting–but the best part is, again we beat the crowds and there were only about three other small groups there when we arrived.
After touring the ruins, we milled around the nearby market and I got two pairs of pants and two shawls–and in hindsight it was still probably too expensive, though I did try to haggle. I’m not a very good haggler. We had more sellers accost us as we walked, but I and my resting bitch face probably helped put them off a bit (as my friend got wheedled into buying a set of postcards for $1).
We went off to Preah Khan. It was mid-morning and the sun was high. Sections of Preah Khan were left alone and unrestored, as seen from large collections of stone slabs lying scattered among the ruins, and some silk-cotton trees growing right on the ruins (as they do). We saw a tree housing a half dozen bee hives, and one hive was particularly saturated with bees that one movement of one bee would send a ripple throughout the surface, each bee moving in response to the original catalyst.
We visited the room of Indradevi, Jayavarman VII’s first consort, where there was incense and some offerings laid for her. Chet told us that in order to see her, we had to pay our respects and bow first. I did not know exactly what to make of this, until the reason became clear: the doorway was too small to go through without bowing.
On our way out of Preah Khan, we passed by a guide book seller who had a bit of excited discussion with Chet. It turned out that the author of one of the books they are selling just passed by, right then. He had stopped by them and pointed out his photo before going on his way. They did not ask for autographs–ah, so sad, how we immediately thought of how they should have asked him to sign some books and then sold those at a higher price. How commercial we are now.
After Preah Khan, we went on to the Bayon, who has massive stone faces of Jayavarman VII who built it as his official state temple. He was one of the most beloved kings of the Khmer Empire.
Chet told us a story about this lady who was being forced to give up her home, without payment, by the king’s architect and general as they wanted to build a temple for the king. She refused, and they continued to bully her, pulling up her walls and fences and wreaking havoc. She decided to go to one of the king’s public courts to ask for help, and as she waited, the king came out and saw her crying. He called for her first, and asked the reason for her sorrow, and she related the whole situation to him. He called for the general and the architect and punished them, as well as himself, as he had caused suffering for his people because of the use of his name.
(At least that is how I remembered the story.)
After lunch we went on to the Tomb Raider temple, Ta Prohm. The film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was shot on location, and you can see shots of portions of this temple in the movie.
The silk-cotton trees are at their worst (best?) here. Admittedly, I was a bit templed out by this time, so that coupled with restoration work being ongoing for most of the temple resulted in not-as-many photos. The interior of Ta Prohm is also a little smaller, and without a proper wide-angle lens (which I did not bring) it was difficult to capture the trees growing up and through the temple itself.
We got up early in the morning to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. As we weren’t able to get tickets the previous afternoon, we had to stop and queue up to get tickets–the tickets have your photo on them–the sun was already rising by the time we were speeding on up to Angkor Wat. We walked to the reflection pool, which by itself looked rather sad and sorry–but Chet encouraged us to walk up to the water’s edge where lots and lots and lots of people were, as well.
And yes, the temple was reflected beautifully in the water, with the beautiful sunrise colors tinting the sky. On account of the dry season, the pool really did look rather poor, and insects walked nonstop on the pool surface, creating little ripples like raindrops throughout.
After sunrise, we went off to the other temples above, and our final stop was once again Angkor Wat itself. We were all tired, and I think Chet also appreciated that we were taking things slow. We went up the temple and went around the first level, looking at the depictions of the churning of the holy milk and the different punishments in hell, and Chet talked about how the Khmer Rouge, after taking control of Angkor Wat, used the depictions of punishments as inspiration for what they did to their own prisoners.
We went up to the main, active temple where there are wooden steps to help with the climb to the top. The original steps were underneath and you could see it from other entrances to the main temple, but these were very narrow, forcing people to practically crawl all the way up. (I remember experiencing something like this when I went up one of the temples in Bangkok with another friend a few years ago.) Over these, they built wooden steps that, while steep, are slightly wider than the original and slightly easier to climb.
The sky grew heavy and dark, the clouds growing more ominous as we walked around and rested at the peak. We didn’t tarry very long, and made our way out the temple. It was only three in the afternoon, but it looked like six; and soon enough, we heard thunder rumble in the distance. Chet urged us on, as it was not advisable to stay inside the ruins during thunderstorms: while they have installed lightning rods on the towers, it’s always safer to be away from large stone slabs that could fall at any time when hit.
Once we were outside, we could see lightning far off in the distance, streaking from the sky about once every two, three minutes. I contemplated stopping for a while and waiting to take a photo of one, but we walked quickly and started a slow sprint when a bolt of lightning hit just above us, at a coconut tree a few meters from the reflection pool. Two branches fell.
So yes, we actually did a Temple Run.
The wind picked up the dirt and sand and flung these at us, where it stung and got into my eyes and mouth. We ran. Lightning flashed above us, once more, twice, three times. We resisted taking shelter at a tree as fat raindrops fell while we waited for our driver, and we had not been in the car three minutes when the rain finally hit in earnest.