Angkor Wat and Thom, Kampuchea
We’d spent thirty four consecutive days with people by the time we reached Siem Reap in the Kingdom of Cambodia, or Kampuchea as the people of Kampuchea apparently call it in Khmer, the national language.
Thirty four consecutive days with people, maybe the most consecutive days we’ve spent with people ever, definitely the most in the last seven months. I’ve also been ill then not ill then ill for a few weeks now so we were more than ready for a break when we reached Cambodia/Kampuchea and spent our first few days venturing no further than the other side of the road to a very nice French bread and pate stand, a favourite local dish it seems.
After a few days and feeling rested and much better all around we ventured out…at four flipping o’clock in the morning, seriously what is wrong with us. I’m a morning person yes, clearly not a middle of the night person though UGH! Never again, I have seen the sunrise and the sunset many times in many places and it will have to be pretty damn spectacular to get me out of bed at that time again, which this was not. In the pitch black we bumped along in our tuk tuk, one of many in a very long line of tuk tuks depositing their passengers at the entrance to Angkor Wat. You can’t see anything, pitch black remember, so torches lighting the ground, you join the stream of people presuming someone at the beginning of this thousand strong line knows where they are going. We walked along immense flagstones, up wooden steps and through ancient buildings, along a wide ancient causeway, lights in the distance beckoning us on. People started drifting away from the main stream heading off into the dark. We stayed until the end breaking right as most moved left and found ourselves sitting on a small patch of grass, a large pond in between us and the very faint outline of Angkor Wat some five hundred metres away, it was about five twenty am. As we waited for the first glimmer of light we were soon engulfed in a sea of living and breathing and annoying tourists, a four am start apparently makes for a grumpy Tink. Much to the surprise of some of our fellow sunrise seekers the day started to get a bit lighter, it tends to do that every day but anyway, ha! I was valiantly restraining myself from asking all the people I could now see in micro shorts and vest tops if they had missed the signs posted at the airport, in the hotels and OH EVERYWHERE, or if they just couldn’t read any of the ninety five languages it was in or decipher the pictures asking them to dress respectfully *deep breath* The reflection of Angkor Wat in the pond was pretty lovely, the bats that had been passing by in the dark were now replaced by dragonflies and we took a few snaps and soaked in the moment before ascertaining that the sun was in fact going to come up behind some trees to the right of Angkor Wat and not behind it and left to get some breakfast.
The Angkors, Wat and it’s lesser known but much bigger neighbour Thom, were built between the eight and thirteenth centuries by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist Kings. Thom a vast city complex and Wat the largest religious monument in the world. After breakfast we headed out to meet the rest of our tour group to discover it was just us, sweet! So with Sokha, our guide, we headed off to our first temple Ta Phrom, the temple a lot of the original Tombraider movie was filmed at. They’ve cordoned off a lot of areas since then and chopped down some of the trees, it’s an impressive sight nonetheless. Trees hundreds of feet tall and centuries old reaching their roots around and through and into the temples. Around all of the temples are thousands of massive stones, some intricately carved, some plain blocks, it seems most of the buildings were never finished but also those that were had been pretty much assimilated into the jungle before work clearing them began in the early twentieth century.
After Ta Phrom we headed through the wonderful East gate, also used in Tomb Raider, one of five gateways into the city of Angkor Thom. We walked up the wall, some eight metres high and supported by an earth embankment, dwarved by the twenty metre gateway carved with a face in every direction and at its base three headed elephants once standing guard, now mostly crumbled away. Each gate opens onto a causeway across the wide moat, the causeway lined by the statues of 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right, each holding in front of them the body of a huge Naga. Most of the heads are now missing at the East gate but reproductions can be seen at the South Gate where many have been replaced.
Having passed through the gate we went to Bayon and for me by far the most impressive and iconic temple. Originally Buddhist with forty nine towers, each with four faces, as you approach the serenity and sheer magnitude of the site is overwhelming. There is conjecture that they are the face of King Jayavarman VII, others say the bodhisattvas Lokesvara whosoever’s face they are, they are quite magnificent. We could have spent hours here wandering around, being shown secret spots for great photos by Sokha who had been filling us in on the temples as well as Cambodia/Kampuchea’s history as we wandered. Carved into the walls great bas-reliefs telling the history of a Khmer battle with the Cham, Buddhas with beards, an unlikely addition by an incoming Monarch to change the temple from Buddhist to Hindu and in every direction you look more huge, serene faces, all the same, all slightly different.
The Terrace of the Elephants was our next destination, so called because of the life size Elephant carvings and bas-reliefs of Elephants on the base of what was believed to have served as a viewing platform for Royal festivities. If you look carefully or have a great guide like we did , you can see a water buffalo being tossed in the air between two elephants, these panels were decorative but also a show of the Kings might. Along with the elephants there are people sized male and female Garuda, a mythical half human half bird creature, Lions and Naga, mythical seven headed snakes that are present at most of the temples. The terrace served as the entrance way to the Royal Palace, of which sadly little remains.
And then we headed to Angkor Wat, having had such a blah morning there it was a joy to see it in full sun, it’s majestic towers reaching skyward. After a very short stroll we decided we needed to devote another day to it’s exploration. After a relatively chilly few weeks in Myanmar it is hot with a vengeance here. Quite wonderful that we have the time to pace ourselves and so we headed back to the hotel to cool off. Our tour was arranged with Beyond Unique Escapes in Siem Reap who were professional and easy to communicate with and our guide was great, giving us a real flavour of his country as well as these wonderful monuments.
This is a peace loving country that still bears the scars of war, after the devastation of the Vietnam War, the Khmer rouge seized power and killed more than a quarter of the countries inhabitants. Every person my age has lost someone, most their entire families. As you enter Angkor Thom you pass musicians, all the members of the band have lost limbs and/or been blinded by land mines. Choosing not to beg they play music to entertain and ask a donation to support their living costs. There are still an estimated four to six million unexploded landmines and other ordinance in Cambodia and it will take another twenty years to clear them. People lose their lives every month, dozens more suffer life altering injuries. There is little that they can do to earn a living with their injuries and tourists are encouraged to buy goods from land mine victims, supporting them to live independently. You can donate to the mine clearing efforts and victim assistance at a number of places including http://www.landmine-relief-fund.com/ and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre.