Monday, July 9, 2012

Angkor


In one of his episodes about Cambodia, Anthony Bourdain mentioned that he stopped taking pictures of his vacations after a trip to Siem Reap in 2000. On Sunday night, when we arrived, we were not feeling the same way. On the tail end of illness (both Doug and I were sick with different maladies) and after yet another day of travel, we arrived at our hotel a bit disappointed. At that point, we were ready to be done with travel; we were ready to be on our way home instead of facing another adventure.

But today – today is a new day. Right now, I completely understand what Bourdain meant. Not that we’ve stopped taking pictures – oh no. Today alone, we took 294 pictures. It’s more that it’s so hard to put into words or capture on film the awe that Angkor Archaeological Park inspires. The best I can say to come close to it is that both Doug and I agreed that it is the most amazing thing we’ve seen this year – perhaps in our whole life. This is kind of funny as Cambodia wasn’t even on our radar before we got here, but many people told us how amazing it was, so we (well – I) decided we had to come. And we are so glad we did. At one point, Doug said it was as if someone conjured this up as a movie set (and in fact, it did feature prominently in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider although it wasn't build for the movie!).

Despite the fact that it’s so hard to describe, I’ll attempt to do that right now as I explain our day. 
 
 
 Berkley and Quin back in the tuk-tuk saddle
 
Our hotel arranged for a tuk-tuk driver for the day, so at 8:30, we met our driver, Ratha. A congenial man, he works as a tour guide during the high season (from November to April) and just as a driver during low season (i.e. now). That worked well for us as it meant he gave us a 2-3 minute overview of the sites we visited, and then let us do our thing inside. We decided to go easy today and settled on Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom as our two destinations. If people have heard of this area, generally speaking, they’ve heard of Ankgor War.

Angkor Wat
 
But Angkor Wat is just one of hundreds of ancient (800 or so years old) temples that are sprinkled throughout the park. Angkor Wat is also one of the best maintained of the temples as well.


As Ratha told us, while the Europeans like to claim they discovered the temples in the late 1800s, the Cambodians never forgot (and really – who can blame them for not saying anything about their amazing historical sites to a bunch of colonizers?). Since the fall of the Angkor empire, Angkor Wat has been protected by the encroaching jungle by monks who live in the site; in fact, Angkor means city and Wat means monestary – meaning that Angkor Wat was the city of monestaries, hence the protection.

Monks in heaven (the third level) of Angkor Wat
 
It’s an amazing site with three levels; the lowest is the underworld, and the highest is heaven – which I guess means the middle is earth (clearly the boys must have been distracting me when Ratha explained that part). 
 
 
 At the entrance to the first level - the underworld

Quin and Berkley exploring the second level 


 
Monks ascending to the third level - heaven

We were blown away by the fact that you could walk all over and touch these ancient sandstone temples. As Doug noted, any one little part of the temple would be behind glass in a museum anywhere else in the world.


Berkley ascending steps to the second level

Even more amazing was how deserted the place was. Since it is low season (because it’s rainy season – although we had beautiful weather all day), there are only 1,000-2,000 visitors a day (the park is over 400 square km, so that’s not very much), as opposed close to 8,000 per day in high season (still not that much compared to Chinese standards). As we walked around, it was so easy to take a picture without anyone else in it.
 


 After a quick stop for yummy Khmer lunch (and a great conversation with Ratha, whom we invited to join us, about his life and family), we headed over to Ta Phrom.
 
 
Doug and Ratha enjoying fresh coconut juice at lunch
 
Ta Phrom
 
This is the temple that was featured in Tomb Raider as it simply spectacular. The trees have become intertwined with the temple and only add to its beauty.


 
Some of the trees are approaching 500 years old, which gives you an idea of the scale of them. They’re in the process of restoring parts of the temple, but they can’t remove all of the trees as some of the structures would fall without them. The two together are more beautiful than either alone, so walking around Ta Phrom was mind blowing.


While there are a few wood boardwalks, you can simply walk around and all over this semi-ruined site, taking in the 39 towers (designed to represent the 39 steps to enlightenment in Buddhism). 
 
Entering the tower site the hard way
 

 One of the 39 

 
 Now, after a good soak in the pool and a massage for Doug (my turn tomorrow – Cambodia is one of the cheapest places to get a massage in the world!), we are ready to head out and explore town in much improved moods. At this point, while I still long to be home, I am eagerly awaiting our next few days here and would give this advice to all of you faithful readers: if Siem Reap is not on your bucket list, add it now.

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