Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Siem Reap: The Wonder and Majesty of Angkor Wat

Despite mild panic the morning we left Bangkok (we didn't have photos for visa to Cambodia - which we did get, but would have just cost an extra dollar at the border), we arrived safely in Siem Reap, home to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat.

Our first day in the city, we made our way to Angkor to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng temple (getting a pass at 5pm is valid for next day entry!). It turned out to be a bit of a hike up the mountain (runners are key!), and we were joining hundreds of other tourists making the trek. It was possibly a nice experience at some point in time, but when you're fighting crowds, it doesn't exactly feel serene. A tip for those who still insist on going, there are stairs around back, they were useful for us to avoid the hordes trying to leave - the stairs were fairly steep and I didn't trust the crowds not to push me down in the mad rush to leave! Following the disappointing sunset view, we head back into town for an early start to the night market. Nothing compares to the amazing market in Bangkok, but we did duck into the Island Bar for some beers and food while hanging out on comfortable Thai mats. Did I mention free wifi?? Was perfect!

We had an early start the next day with our driver, Pop, who we hired after chatting with him en route from airport. He seemed like a nice guy and you never know who you might get from the hotel randomly. He was also happy to recommend a licensed tour guide, which was convenient for us as well. He picked us up just after 5AM so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, one of those "once in a lifetime" experiences. We just hoped it wouldn't be crazy like the night before! We got there early enough to get a "front row" seat at the tip of the north pool, known to be the best spot. It was busy, but relatively thin crowds - takes some serious dedication to wake up that early and trek in through the dark! But it was totally worth it - was incredible watching the sun slowly rise behind the majestic towers of Angkor Wat. It truly is oen of those "wow" moments. After taking in the grand view, we made our way back to town for breakfast (yummy Cambodian noodle soup) and to pick up our guide, Thy. Our first visit of the day would be Angkor Wat itself (tour groups usually do Angkor Thom first so this seemed like a brilliant plan to avoid the big crowds!). We spent 2 hours or so walking the grounds. Thy told us about how the Wat is literally a representation of heaven on earth, about its Hindu origins in honour of Vishna (uncommon), and its transformation eventually into a Buddhist temple while maintaining the original designs and structures. The etchings and carvings were incredibly detailed, from the dancing aspara to simple designs on the walls. Thy also showed us cool little things like the one dancing aspara that smiles with teeth showing, took us to the echo chamber, and told us the legend of the churning of the ocean of milk (suddenly a lot of statues we've seen even in Thailand made a lot more sense!). One thing that stood out to me was on the 2nd level of the Wat, the meditation level, that had 4 pools (now dry of course) representing the 4 major elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Patrons were to cleanse themselves at the pool matched to their astrological sign before meditation, a real testament to how big astrology was. We also climbed to the third level, historically meant just for the King, and got to experience the wonder from above (note: you must be properly dressed as it is a religious site). It was beautiful and peaceful, and as access is regulated, you can afford to spend some quiet time admiring the towers and the view all around. Other than up the highest point, there are many paths to explore the expansive Angkor Wat, and many places to sit and take in the beauty and incredible work...or just as relief from the heat. The sheer enormity of the Wat is amazing to take in...how did they possibly build it?? Oh right, 40 years and 400,000 people!

Our next stop was the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a capital, and centered by the temple Banyon. Banyon's highlights are the 4 faced towers, said to resemble a combination of the King and his god (no modesty here). It is a much smaller temple vs Angkor Wat, but details make up for what it lacks in majestic size. Our walk through Angkor Thom was about a kilometer and although we made a brief stop at another temple on the way out, I was wiped by the time we were through...exhausted mentally from taking in all that our awesome guide was telling us and physically from hiking the temple grounds in the heat. We had a very welcome lunch break nearby, and we were grateful that our guide and driver took us to a restaurant NOT packed with tour groups.

After a long leisurely lunch, much needed for us to recuperate and re-energize, we made our way to the much anticipated Ta Phrom, commonly recognized for a scene in Tomb Raider (although in reality, scenes were shot at various temples). Ta Phrom is widely known as the jungle temple, seemingly overgrown by moss and trees - these amazing spung trees that over time, grew on the boulders of the temple with its massive roots stretching over and on top of the walls. The tree is light enough not to crush the temple completely, but certainly a lot of damage was done. Ta Phrom was probably the most "tourist friendly" of the temples, as it is flat, and had wood boardwalks throughout the ruins. We could see why this temple is a favourite spot to visit, it was beautiful and almost a bit magical - it felt like you were seeing the temple just as it was discovered, hidden away in the trees for thousands of years.

I can see why there is need to get a multi-day pass for Angkor Wat, we only made it to the main temples and were exhausted by the time we finished at Ta Phrom. They varied in structure and design, and were all incredible in different ways with different stories. It was also interesting to see the restoration work in progress, truly a world effort with projects done largely by the French, but also the Japanese, Germans and others. It's amazing in itself to think of the world coming together to preserve this wonder. I also can't imagine what it would have been like for Henri Mahout, the naturalist and explorer that "stumbled" on Angkor Wat and helped popularize the temple. This eventually lead to further French exploration of the area and discovery of the other temples. We were also blessed to have our guide, Thy, who had a real passion for the history of Angkor and knew nooks and crannies that we never would have found ourselves; in fact, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have made it past just Angkor Wat! He kept us engaged and learning the whole way - I highly recommend him for any future travelers! And our driver, Pop, too, was also great, so all in all, our experience was really made by the great people we met.

For an awesome English speaking guide: Thy - email: thyda_ing@yahoo.com/phone: (855) 12 933 730

Friendly English speaking driver: Pop (real name Kosal) - email: kosal_som11@yahoo.com/phone: (855) 97 57 57 572

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