Monday, April 22, 2013

The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

4:30 AM - The streets of Siem Reap were dark and quiet as we got ready to catch the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. It felt very strange after the crazy-busy streets of Saigon!

As we got closer to the UNESCO World Heritage Site I noticed that we were part of a long parade of tuk tuks, all carrying tourists, with the hopes of witnessing a colorful sunrise. The weather was as cool as it could be (26-28 degrees) but even with the wind on our face we were sweating already. For $17 US, Mala agreed to be our tuk tuk driver for the whole day, stopping at the main sites that we chose: Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei.
Our excellent tuk tuk driver Mala.
5:30 AM - Under a slowly lightening sky we paid our entry ticket: $20 US. You need to show your pass at every temple. The amount of security at the gate was ridiculous. Beyond the gates I saw rows upon rows of small tables, open food stands, huts and tables all along the road to the temples. Hundreds of hopeful Khmer locals, living in near-misery, behind their shop, trying to sell souvenirs or food to tourists. But every vehicle was just whizzing by without giving a second glance. From what I've seen, in both Siem Reap and Angkor temples, there are way too many food/drink/souvenir stands for the number of people visiting.

Angkor Wat

6:00 AM - Despite the clouds, I still managed to get some sun rise colours on camera (thanks to my Vivid Colors setting. I know. I cheat.) The long walk over the moat and towards the main temple was spectacular. Almost every column, wall and ramp is covered in detailed bas-relief. I will never see the Cambodia flag the same way.
5:45 AM Sunrise on Angkor Wat.
We spent at least 2 hours at Angkor Wat (12th century) visiting the corridors around the temple and going as far in - or up - as the site allows. Many staircases are closed. For good reason too! They're very steep and unstable. Like any good tourist, I looked around in awe and tripped 3-4 times over fallen stones or door frames. I was trying hard to catch the perfect postcard photo: it should include the majestic ruins with vegetation growing on them, as well as a Buddhist monk in bright orange passing by. And it still counts even if he's on his mobile phone, we are in 2013.
Some of the Apsara carvings inside of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom

8:00 AM - Angkor Wat gets all the attention, but I think I prefered Angkor Thom! At most of the sites we visited there isn't much information about the structures and statues. You need a tour guide or book to know why they were built, in honour of what god, and what each carving means. However there is a lot of signage about the impressive conservation projects happening in every temple of the complex! In many cases, structures were completely falling apart... so they were taken down, the pieces were numbered and rebuilt with a solid foundation and replacement stones (for those missing or broken) like a massive 3D puzzle!
Side of Bayon, the biggest temple within Angkor Thom.  
After the Bayon (above), there was Baphoun (below), where I climbed about 100 steps to the top and met a couple with a baby. Canadian dad & Australian mom. 7 hours in the scorching heat, going up and out steep stairs... I'm impressed!
Me at the top of Baphoun, one temple of Angkor Thom.
Past the Terrace of the Elephants, my parents took a little break in the shade. I climbed (crawled) to the top of Phimeanakas, which is also falling apart. I noticed a broken, roaring lion statue leaning dangerously close to the edge. I don't want to be the next tourist to walk underneath.
You really have to watch your step once you get to the top of Phimeanakas.

Ta Prohm

11:30 AM - Hot hot heat! 35 feels like 45, I think. But it wơn't stop me from visiting Ta Prohm which is by far my favorite temple. Not because it appears in Tomb Raider but because it's just so damn beautiful. For better or for worse, because the massive fig trees growing all over the templ ruins are actually destroying it very slowly. The roots are very strong so they hold up the walls. But once the tree dies, everything falls apart.

12:30 PM - Lunch in an air conditionned restaurant. Thank goodness!

Banteay Kdei

1:00 PM - We went for one last visit: Banteay Kdei, "the Citadel of Monks", built in the 12th and 13th centuries. I think it looks like a mini version of Angkor Thom, with scultped faces on the top, with trees growing all over it like Ta Prohm, and with very well preserved carvings of Apsaras on the walls. Unfortunately this temple is full of wooden or metal beams holding the place together until a proper restoration project can be funded here. France? US?
A nice inside view of Banteay Kdei gives perspective...
There were adorable Khmer kids trying very hard to sell souvenirs and flutes. I took a 360 degree video of the temple in which they correct my "Banta Srey" to "Banteay Kdei" and within 5 seconds one of them yelled: "You take my photo, now you buy flute!" They learn quickly.

Back to Angkor Wat

2:00 PM - Before leaving the complex on our tuk tuk with Mala, I couldn't help but running back to the main Angkor Wat temple to get a good glimpse of this beauty under the full sunlight. Even with the scaffolding and green tarps in the middle, Angkor Wat is still breathtaking.
Tạm biệt Angkor Wat!
We could have fallen asleep in the tuk tuk on the way back... We had a quiet dinner by the pool: traditionnel Khmer dísh called "Amok" with a well-deserved mango smoothie.

Sleepy time!

No comments: