The Temples of Angkor

Ta Prohm of the Angkor Temples

After successfully reuniting with Mike and Sarah in Bangkok, we headed east by bus. Our destination: Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It was a long day of bus travel, with a slow border crossing in the middle of it, but we arrived in Siem Reap in one piece and early enough to plan our expedition to the temples for the following day. The idea was to leave at 5:00am by tuk-tuk in order to be at the temples for sunrise. We were in for a day of heat, sweat, and ancient ruins. This was a destination that we’d been looking forward to for some time, and we’d finally arrived. We went to sleep with excited minds.

The Batmobile

Our tuk-tuk driver met us at the guesthouse right on time, and we were off in the Batmobile in the dark. We had the coolest tuk-tuk in all of Angkor, and we knew it. Other tourists lusted jealously after our sweet ride and laid back driver, who was a pleasure to have with us for the day. I mean, really, what could be cooler than a Batman tuk-tuk. Honestly.

We were part of a steady flow of tuk-tuks heading out in the pre-dawn darkness, and we started to get a little worried that we’d simply be a part of a huge mob for the entire day. As we neared the temples, we made a decision that was, in retrospect, brilliant. Instead of heading directly for Angkor Wat for sunrise, like everyone else, we convinced Batman to take us to Ta Prohm instead. We arrived to find ourselves absolutely alone. The four of us wandered in darkness into the heart of the ruins, and as the sky slowly brightened, we marveled at the temple in wonderful, peaceful silence. For nearly the first hour and a half, we had the entire temple to ourselves.

Ta Prohm and Nature

To make things even better, Ta Prohm turned out to be one of the most incredible ruins that we would see all day. The temple is in the slow but sure process of being reclaimed by the jungle. Huge trees are growing up through the giant stones, spitting and toppling them like jenga blocks. The intertwining of nature and structure is so complete in places that it was hard to imagine them apart. The trees were beautiful in and of themselves, but they were made even more so by the way they perched on top of walls and clung to the stone. It was simply awesome, in the truest sense of the word. We were also blown away by the scale of the temple. It was huge! On the little map we carried, Ta Prohm was a tiny square next to the much larger neighbouring temple of Angkor Wat and the city walls of Angkor Thom. But as the sun came up, Ta Prohm revealed itself to be a sprawling complex of corridors and courtyards. It was much bigger than I’d imagined it would be. It took us easily two hours to wander through the ruins and back to the batmobile.

Ta Keo

As other groups of tourists started to arrive, we left Ta Prohm and headed for Ta Keo on the advice of our driver. Ta Keo is more of a single structure than a complex, but it rises high above the ground and is accessed by climbing large, steep stone steps. As we climbed, we started to become aware of the day’s imminent heat, and the sweating began. Still, the top was reached and we looked down on the temple below us, parts of which were strewn with rubble, but which was for the most part intact. We had again beaten the crowds to this temple, and we took advantage of our solitude to execute some of our more advanced and choreographed group photos.

Oh yeah.

As the day went on, we visited the walled city of Angkor Thom, the Elephant Terrace, Bayon, and many smaller temples (relatively speaking, of course). The day continued to grow hotter, and the crowds bigger. With the crowds came the hawkers, and we were able to practice and perfect our haggling and refusal techniques with dozens of kids who chased after us offering postcards, bracelets, flutes, coconuts, and other unidentifiable souvenirs, for “only one dollar, one dollaaaaaaaar only. You buy? Lady, you buy now? One dollaaaaAAaaar.” We discovered that an enthusiastic “No way!” seemed to get our point across, and it was only afterwards that we realized how much this might actually sound like “Go ‘way!”. No wonder it worked. By this point we realized how cherished our time alone at sunrise was — now we were just numbers in a crowd.

Faces of Bayon

Regardless of the heat and crowds, the temples continued to impress. The faces of Bayon were a highlight, with their calm half-smiles and sleepy eyes. The Elephant Terrace offered a taste of the grandeur of the Khmer empire at it’s height. And the jungle offered cooling shade and a mysterious backdrop for it all.

We opted for a lunch and siesta break after Angkor Thom, and we found a patch of grass in view of the massive entrance to Angkor Wat where we dozed lightly in the shade for an hour or so. Feeling slightly recovered, and thanks to some lunch and cold coconuts, we were ready for the big one. Angkor Wat lay before us, isolated across a giant moat, with it’s stone causeway steadily carrying visitors through it’s symmetrical gate. The sun beat down mercilessly as we crossed the wide-open expanses of the temple grounds to reach the main complex.

The gate of Angkor Wat

The scale of Angkor Wat is hard to convey in words. In fact, it was even hard to grasp in person. Some of the earlier temples that we visited were impressive because we could stand back and view their enormous expanse from a distance. Angkor Wat was simply too big to understand in it’s entirety. There were huge areas of the temple grounds that we didn’t even see, and we only had the energy to explore the intricately carved corridors of one side of the main temple. Unfortunately the upper part of the main temple was closed to tourists: it was perhaps the only vantage point that would have offered an encompassing view of all of the walls and courtyards and towers and corridors. Being denied this view lent an unreachable aura to Angkor Wat, both augmenting it’s wonder and frustrating the mind’s eye in its attempts to comprehend it.

We finished our day, like everyone else visiting Angkor, by climbing to Bakheng for a view of the landscape around us at sunset. The crowds were at their densest here, and we were already 13 hours into our sightseeing day, so although we climbed to the top and appreciated the view, we didn’t last until sunset. We did, however, get to see our first elephants, as they carried people up and down the hill (for a price, of course). They were very impressive beasts.

Elephant in passing

Back in Siem Reap, feeling dirty and tired and hungry and happy, I felt the Temples of Angkor settling into my memory. It was an experience that I think will only become more and more unique and special as days pass and I have time to absorb it. It was beyond anything I had imagined it to be. It was dreamike to be able to see these ancient structures so closely, to climb their stairways and walk through their corridors, to touch the cool stone and stand beneath the giant, enlightened faces. It was a testament to the abilities of humankind, an achievement of incredible scale and symmetry, of intricacy and balance. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our travels to date, and although it sometimes feels like I say that a lot, I don’t think it deserves any lesser praise.

Comments

  1. Mother Goose

  2. Awesome story. How great making memories with Sarah and Mike.

  3. Bruce the Moose

  4. You are so fortunate to see and appreciate Angkor Wat. And to do it with friends. Very Cool. What’s the energy rating?
    Dad

  5. Debbie Rosen

  6. How fantastic!! And you write about it so beautifully, I can almost imagine I’m there too!

    Much love, and a big hello to Sarah and Mike!
    Mom/Debbie

    Beautiful description.

    Dad

    I’m so happy you four could experience such a spectacular place together. Have a blast hitting the beaches of Koa Tao:-)

    You guys are having way too much fun…lol It sounds and looks like you had an awe inspiring day. Safe travels. xox

    Incredible photos and stories!! How I need a break from all this western world!!

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