Angkor Wat

We made it two whole days in Siem Reap before we saw a single temple. Tuesday night we had dinner with Claudia, who is a friend from yoga school. She and her boyfriend were in Siem Reap for their third time and had already revisited dozens of temples. Jason and I couldn’t contribute to any historical conversations since up to this point our Siem Reap experience was limited to the pool at our hotel and a few choice restaurants.

The border crossing, Batambang moto-tour and all-day boat ride had wrecked us and it took a solid 48 hours to recover and prepare to trek through centuries of religious history. Also, we had managed to arrive in the number one tourist destination in Cambodia, at Christmas with no hotel reservations past the first night, which required some scrambling on our parts. In all we had to piece together five different hotels and guest houses to keep a roof over our heads while we were there.
Christmas Eve we opted to rent mountain bikes and ride out to Angkor Wat from the city - a method I highly recommend. Unbelievable is all I can say. I am fascinated by religious art and architecture, always have been. I mean you really have to love your deity to build the likes of the Duomo in Florence, Italy or the Cathedral in Zacatecas, Mexico, but the builders of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples may just take the cake.

These people had faith and they didn’t just have one god to build for, they had god-kings, Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva and Buddha to consider in the construction of the temples, sometimes even trading one god for another along the line and expanding or altering an existing temple to reflect the new religious fashion.

We began our bicycle tour at Angkor Wat the largest and most famous. I could spend a month here and not see half of the story. Every surface is covered in reliefs depicting dancers, kings, battles, gods. Every room holds a different tale of worship or rite. Layer after layer exposes a new tale.

Monks in bright orange, drab brown and crimson red robes wandered and goose-necked just like the rest of the tourists. There seemed to be no racial, economical of geographical barrier to the visitors gathered. Young, old, white, black, polka-dotted, you name it – they come to Angkor Wat.
Afterwards we hiked up to the most popular sunset spot from where, on a clear night, one can watch the sun go down over Angkor Wat. It was overcast that day so we couldn’t watch the sun, but we were lucky to have the place practically to ourselves.

That night we partook in the mandatory Christmas Eve party at our hotel. I was beyond thrilled that there was holiday-appropriate turkey and cranberry sauce to be had and only a little sad that the mashed potatoes were substituted for fried rice and the pumpkin pie was omitted in favor of those unidentifiable gelatinous sugar cubes they sell everywhere in Asia – but never mind the details, it was a feast and we got all dressed up in holiday spirit.

Santa Claus was there and he danced the Macarena and karaoked to Christmas carols.... Fa,ra,ra,ra,ra - in fact, now that I stop and think about it, our dinner bore a striking resemblance to the one in the movie A Christmas Story.

Christmas day was the full on temple day. We saw something like twenty temples – I made Jason wake up early so we could be at the first temple by 6:30am in hopes of getting some good sunrise light for photographs. Instead, we got overcast skies and drizzle, but at least we got to see most of the temples that day before the hoards of tour bus tourists arrived.
The temples in the area vary widely some are quite small, others were actual cities once upon a time. Some are very ornate,some are more utilitarian in design and some were never finished because of superstition or bad luck. One in particular is a great pyramid-shaped temple mountain, erected to honor Shiva the most masculine of the Hindu deities. Shiva, the destroyer – sitting on a lion’s skin or just as often depicted as a lone phallic symbol. This temple’s construction was abandoned after the commissioning King died and it was soon after struck by lightening. While it is unadorned and relatively simple as a result of its unfinished state, it is a true testament to the labor involved. A man-made mountain some 50 meters high, built from flat land and providing a 360-degree view from it’s peak.

The photos many people see of Angkor Wat are of Ta Prohm Temple. You’d know it if you’d saw it, a mass of crumbling old stones slowly succumbing to nature in the form of giant trees, their roots creeping through crevices and completely swallowing temple walls. If you haven’t seen photos from history books then perhaps you caught Lara Croft, Tomb Raider which was filmed there and which Jason and I felt compelled to watch since it is reference everywhere in Siem Reap – Sorry Angelina, but I cannot recommend it, not even if you are watching it while bored on a seven-hour, third class train trip... but I am skipping ahead.

Everywhere there are vendors and children trying to sell bracelets, postcards guide books, water. Friends told us to beware the vendors around the temples and that everything is “one dollar”.

They weren’t kidding, the sheer volume of salespeople is staggering. Cries of “one dollar” filled our ears all day. But unlike many of the street vendors I have come across in my travels these salespeople don’t get mad when you say no. The kids especially make a game of it. I am not certain of the educational preparedness of the Cambodian school system, but I must say they have rote memorization down to an art form.
Every kid selling postcards can count out the ten in a one-dollar packet in at least five languages. “Look lady, ten for one dollar” fanning the cards one by one… “uno, dos, tres, quatro… one, two, three... un deux, trois… neung, sawng, saam”. The girl I ended up buying a book from could tell us for both Australia and the US, the populations, the capitals of any state or territory we chose, the prime minister, president and president-elect - country depending, she even knew the years and locations of the Olympics hosted in each country. She was nine.
Throughout the tour we never passed an offering room without stopping and paying homage. After lighting hundreds of sticks of incense and bowing until my back ached, we are assured of good luck and mindfulness for the new year.
As the hours grew our time at each temple diminished, we started pretty much doing temple drivebys. It is simply too much to try and cram into just a few days. By the time we threw in the towel we had been walking for 10 hours, we'd climbed up to exposed heights that mere months ago I would not think myself capable of, we’d ridden an elephant, we ate the best vegetable curry we would find while in Cambodia, we were even offered the opportunity to buy a really placid cat from a kid for, you guessed it, one dollar and somewhere in the mix I fell madly in love with the country of Cambodia.

I'll let the photos tell you more.
Angkor Wat

Bridge to Angkor Wat

Reliefs at Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm

Jason climbing up to the Shiva temple

Relief at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Heads at Bayon Temple

Tunnel Entrance

Stick a fork in us! Our last temple of Christmas Day 2008

Another in the series of monks behaving un-monk like.
On the causeway at Angkor Wat.

Comments said…
A few of us are going to be in Phnom Penh over Christmas and were wondering what hotel you used. Looks like fun. said…
Oh, we haven't figured out all our plans yet...we will be in Cambodia over Christmas...that's the only thing set in stone...still curious about the hotel you used over Christmas.

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