Siem Reap, Cambodia (Day 1)







There it was, the temple complex of Angkor Wat, its “beehive” towers standing ever so proudly yet solemnly in the middle of the forest of Siem Reap, as it has done so for centuries. Other than how immense it was, I was taken by its location, hidden deep in the woods, forgotten and untouched, its existence unknown to the outside world for years and years. I wondered what it must’ve felt like for the French explorer who re-discovered Angkor in the 1800s, to have found all that grandeur and to have undoubtedly been flabbergasted by the staggering thought that a place as massive and as beautiful as that could’ve been forgotten almost entirely by civilization. And while Angkor Wat and the rest of Cambodia’s temples are now renowned all over the world and are visited by crowds of tourists each year, on that quiet, wet and gloomy Sunday morning, standing on the bridge towards its entrance, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate to have been part of, and to have seen for myself, the “hidden” magnificence that is Angkor Wat.


April 5, 2009

We woke up bright and early on the second day of our trip to find that the weather did not match our buoyant spirits. It was still dark outside at a few minutes past five, and all we could hear was the gentle pitter-patter of the rain – not very good weather conditions for watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The thing about travelling is, on a trip that you’ve planned for and researched for hours and saved money and vacation leaves for, when something totally out of control like bad weather happens, you can’t be too frustrated, because it’s not going to do you any good. The best you can do is to keep your spirits up and hope that everything turns out right, which is thankfully what happened on the second day of our trip.

At the lobby of The Villa Siem Reap, we were greeted by the two locals who would join us for our two-day exploration of the Angkor temples: Mr. Ou Houk our tuktuk driver, a nice, middle-aged man who always (and I mean always!) had a smile on his face, and Mr. Sokha our tour guide, who seemed more reserved and serious than the former but just as friendly, and as we would find out in the two days we would spend with him , a very wise, happy and contented man. (As you read through this you will find that my friends and I were very happy with the tour they organized for us and highly recommend them should you decide to go to Siem Reap – head on over to the Vietnam-Cambodia Complete Trip Information post for their details and contact numbers).

We hopped on Mr. Ou Houk’s tuktuk and in the 5 am darkness of Siem Reap braved the unlit roads and the downpour to head for the Angkor Archaeological Park.

We paid USD 40 each for a three-day pass to the temples of Angkor and were required to have our pictures taken for our tickets. If you’re a victim of horrendous ID photos like me (oh, the horror of my passport photo!), I feel obliged to tell you that you really shouldn’t have your picture taken on a bleary and very early Saturday morning (especially when you’ve had little sleep the night before) unless required by law, which was sadly the case on that day. Anyhow, our passes would allow us entry to all of the temples within the archaeological park, and we used them immediately, heading to Angkor Wat first to catch the sunrise.

Off we went on Mr. Ou Houk’s tuktuk, passing through roads thickly lined on both sides with slender trees that grew ever-so-closely alongside each other. Maybe it was the early morning rain, the abundance of foliage and the lack of urban pollution, but as we ventured away from the city proper and into the forest that housed Angkor’s temples, the air began to have a distinct, indescribable aroma, perhaps the scent of…nature? For a few minutes there was nothing to see but the trees that densely lined the road, until the trees and the road opened up to reveal Angkor Wat’s immense moat. After a while, we found ourselves right at the entrance into Angkor Wat.

Above Photo by Tiff Orbien

Above Photo by Tiff Orbien

There it was, the temple complex of Angkor Wat, its “beehive” towers standing ever so proudly yet solemnly in the middle of the forest of Siem Reap, as it has done so for centuries. Other than how immense it was, I was taken by its location, hidden deep in the woods, forgotten and untouched, its existence unknown to the outside world for years and years. I wondered what it must’ve felt like for the French explorer who re-discovered Angkor in the 1800s, to have found all that grandeur and to have undoubtedly been flabbergasted by the staggering thought that a place as massive and as beautiful as that could’ve been forgotten almost entirely by civilization. And while Angkor Wat and the rest of Cambodia’s temples are now renowned all over the world and are visited by crowds of tourists each year, on that quiet, wet and gloomy Sunday morning, standing on the bridge towards its entrance, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate to have been part of, and to have seen for myself, the “hidden” magnificence that is Angkor Wat.

By this time the dark sky had already changed into a pale blue, softly accentuated with streaks of light pink. We didn’t venture deep into the many chambers and hallways of Angkor Wat yet, because Sokha told us we would save that for later in the afternoon. We were instead to head out and explore the other temples first, but not before a little breakfast.

Cambodia and Vietnam are part of the well-trodden backpackers’ route of Indochina, and as such, its tourism industry is well-prepared for a modern traveler’s needs. We had breakfast at a makeshift eatery across the road from the entrance to Angkor Wat, and from the sight of the place, you wouldn’t be able to guess that it offered a wide variety of both Western and Eastern dishes in its menu. I had bacon and eggs, Jen had an omelet, and Tiff was on the second day of her noodles-in-soup diet. After breakfast we headed out to our second temple for the day, Ta Prohm.



For centuries, the jungle has slowly been reclaiming the ruins of Ta Prohm, and these temples have only been recently restored, and only partially, in order to maintain the area’s rather eerie forest atmosphere. Massive trees grow out of windows and on top of the various structures within the complex, yet a lot of the temple’s intricate carvings are still intact.



Made famous by the first Tomb Raider movie, Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples within the Angkor archaeological park, and because of the numerous tourists that visit it regularly, wooden walkways have been put in place within the complex and some areas have been cordoned off. Still, it isn’t difficult to imagine what Ta Prohm looked like when it was still untouched by man for hundreds of years after it had been built, when only nature took part in shaping it.



Next up was Angkor Thom, the great walled city of the empire of Angkor. Spanning three kilometers and having had a population of as much as a million, Angkor Thom had five gates, each of which is crowned with four giant faces. We climbed on the side of one of the gates (thanks to Sokha who knew all the best spots to take photos) and had a ball taking pictures with the massive heads.




Various structures can be found within the walled city, but perhaps the grandest structure within Angkor Thom’s walls is the temple of Bayon, located right at the center. There are two things I will remember most about Bayon temple – unsurprisingly, the first is the collection of massive stone faces that make up the temple:




… and the second are the bas-reliefs on its lower
walls that depicted battle scenes as well as the everyday lives of the residents of Angkor Thom. Sokha was an expert on the bas-reliefs, and loved the intricate details on them – through the carvings, he weaved stories and helped us imagine what life would’ve been like for a citizen in Angkor Thom so many years ago.

Above Photo by Tiff Orbien


We had lunch in one of the eateries within Angkor Thom, where we encountered another offshoot of a robust tourism industry – souvenir sellers, a multitude of them, majority of whom were children. We met a few of them as we waited for our food, and were surprised that they were quite feisty – they pitched their goods to us endlessly, tirelessly, pulling out all the stops just to get you to buy something from them. One girl had a little game – if we were able to name the capital of Madagascar (or some other random, little-known place on earth), we wouldn’t need to buy from her. But if we didn’t know the capital of Madagascar and (of course) she did, we would need to choose and buy from her collection of Angkor-inspired fridge magnets. The strange thing is, while they pushed and pushed their products, it wasn’t to the point that it got annoying, and we didn’t get angry – if anything, the relentless selling just felt so desperate and frantic, as if their lives depended on it (which it probably did, one way or another), that you couldn’t help but feel the need to help these hardworking children out.

Eventually we decided to buy a few fridge magnets, postcards and some Buddha beads – the latter a popular accessory in the early 2000s (at least in the Philippines) that seemed to never run out of style in Cambodia, where it no doubt originated from, but definitely not as a shallow fashion trend. One of the girls who sold me the bracelets also gave me a piece of paper she had drawn on – it had her name on it, Chura, written amongst flowers, a big heart, and a smiling sun and two clouds. I kept it safely in my passport, and it’s still there right now.

The thing about travelling to any tourist-laden destination is, any time you’ve bought something – a trinket or a big-ticket souvenir - it’s hard not to feel like you were ripped off, even if you were able to haggle to some extent. A tiny voice in your head will try to say, “If you had stayed home, in your city, you would’ve never even considered buying that, let alone actually buying it – do you really need it? Will you ever find use for it?” Yet so many of the things that we do when we travel are not the usual things we do at home, and that’s exactly the beauty and joy of travelling. So I allow myself some slack when shopping for random trinkets on a trip or splurging on a good meal – the experience and the memories these things will give me probably have as much value to me as the food it will put on the vendor’s table for her and her family.

After a thorough exploration of Bayon temple, we were back on the tuktuk and headed for Angkor Wat again, where we were to spend the final hours of our first day. The weather had changed at noon as the day became bright and sunny, and this continued until the afternoon. The nearly cloudless bright sky made the perfect backdrop to Angkor Wat, which we again marveled at from the outside.



We then finally entered the Angkor Wat temple complex and found more walls with bas-reliefs, deep but empty pools, and lots of and lots of steep steppes. At the back of Angkor Wat, we climbed one of the libraries – a steep climb to the top on tall, narrow steps (the first of many in the two days we would spend exploring the temples of Cambodia).


The sun was already setting by the time we got out of the temple, and soon we headed back to The Villa Siem Reap.


4 comments:

Ix said...

Whoa, to think this is just Day 1. EPIC.

Great pics, but you missed a few things.:

1.) a pic of the girl's drawing
2.) a pic of that ID you mentioned

Daene said...

Jun!

1)I haven't got a scanner at my disposal, but when I get one, I will post it. :)
2) No-freakin'-way, never! Haha! :P

jasperjugan said...

i love the temples, and definitely will be back again someday. i was alone on my trip back then, perhaps next time with my family :)

how's the restoration work around on the temples now?

Daene said...

Hey Jasper! Wow, you went to Cambodia alone? That's so cool! I can't wait to come back too.

There was a lot of restoration work happening in a portion of Ta Prohm, and within Angkor Thom, a notable temple that they were still trying to put together was the one with the reclining Buddha. I would love to go back and see that once it's been fully restored!

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