Extreme Templing, Day 3 - Seeing it all

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , KH.16,
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Angkor Wat, 4:45am
It felt like I hadn't even left the temple. I arrived back in Siem Reap, completely exhausted at around 7pm the previous night, grabbed dinner, slept, and before I knew it I was back at Angkor Wat. However at the ungodly time of 4:45am, the place looked completely different. For starters, it was still dark, with only slight shade of blue in the sky behind the temple, and there were only a handful of people around.

I knew the sun wasn't going to rise for about half an hour, so rather than wait with the milling group at the end of the causeway, I decided to go and have a look inside the temple. It was kind of weird, walking through the corridors with my mobile phone as my only source of light. When I got to the second level, I was pleased to see that there was no-one around, except for the birds! The previous evening the place had been swarming with tourists, but at 5am, it was deserted. Completely incredible. I didn't climb to the top, one because it was still dark and I didn't like the idea of climbing the steep stairs, and two because I wanted to see the sun rise from behind the temple.

I climbed back down, with the sky rapidly becoming brighter, and the tourists flocking in. Everyone wanted to see the sunrise! And fair enough too, because it was absolutely beautiful! I spent about half an hour beside the pool of water watching the sun come up, then went for a leisurely stroll around the base of the temple, before grabbing a coffee and some brekky. At this point, no more than an hour since the suns first rays struck the temple, I noticed something odd. Everyone had gone! I mean, virtually everyone!!! The hundreds of tourists eager to get that sunrise photo had all jumped back on their buses to get an overpriced scrambled eggs back at their ten story hotel. The 300m causeway was devoid of people, and here and there, you could see a lone backpacker or couple sitting around. Who would have thought!

I found a spot near the first set of bas-reliefs, to sit and read a bit about the temple. It was really peaceful and beautiful. I'd never have imagined a place this famous and popular could be so serene. After sitting for ages, I spent nearly an hour looking at the bas-reliefs, which were even more beuatiful than the ones at The Bayon. Scenes depicting the wars between the Khmer's and the Cham's (ancient Vietnamese), heaven and hell, and my favourite, the Churning of the Ocean Milk. The 60m long bas-relief depicts the asuras (devils) and devas (gods) holding a giant naga (five headed serpent, churning up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality. This is presided over by the four armed god, Vishnu, in turtle form. It was the most finely carved relief I'd seen apart from those at Banteay Srei, and again, it was hard to imagine that it was some 800 years old.

I grabbed some more water, and spent another hour or so sitting at the top of the temple, before I decided it was time to probably move on. Angkor Wat had been totally amazing, and I'd spent a total of about 8 hours exploring the place. It wasn't enough, and I feel like I need to go back. Something on that scale really needs time, and multiple visits.

Eastern Baray, 10:00am
The next few hours before lunch were to be spent exploring some of the smaller temples, around one of the ancient, now dry reservoirs. My first stop was the small complex of Prasat Kravan, followed by Banteay Kdei, Eastern Mebon, and then Ta Som. By the time I got off the moto at Ta Som, at around 11:30am, I was beginning to suffer from Temple fatigue. Off the moto, down the small hill, and what greeted me was (and this was the first time I'd thought about it like this) "just another temple". I wandered through the ruins, feeling hot and a little dehydrated, when I got to the end of the central enclosure, seeing a 100m path to the eastern gate. I seriously looked at it, and thought about turning round and walking back to the moto. I don't know why, but something made me continue on. I walked down the trail, under the gate, and sat on a small chair nearby. Completely consuming the gate on the outside, crushing the massive gopura, was a giant silk-cotton tree, similar to the ones at Ta Prohm. It was absolutely incredible! I sat for about 15 minutes looking at it, and then trudged back through the temple to my moto, thinking "this is why this place is the most amazing place in the world".

We then sped up to Neak Pean, an ancient pond. It was really hot here, and I wrapped my head in my krama and had a little siesta for 15 minutes. We then moved on to Preak Khan, where I had a well earned sit down, with iced coffee and friend rice!

Preah Khan, 1:30pm
After lunch I explored the massive complex of Preah Khan for a few hours. This complex was the second largest in the area surrounding Angkor Wat, a massive temple with a maze of corridors and carvings. There were no huge towers, or incredible photo opportunities like at other temples, but it was the subtlety of this place which grabbed me. I spent nearly two hours sitting, reading, and wandering around. There were some old khmers, burning incense near decapitated buddha statues (a lot of vandalism was done in the 13th century, when the Hindus reclaimed Angkor from the Buddhists), but apart from that, no one. By now I'd seen just about everything, except for one last sunset.

Phnom Bakheng, 4:00pm
After quickly exploring the temple of Baksei Chamkrong, near the south gate of Angkor Thom, I clambered up the small hill of Phnom Bakheng. There was an ancient 9th century temple here, 300 years older than Angkor Wat. From the summit, there was an awesome view of Angkor Wat, 1.3km away, the jungle canopy, and all of Siem Reap. But this was the place EVERYONE came to see the sunset. There must have been 500 people up here! The sunset was terrible, completely obscured by the clouds. But I enjoyed it here. I found it kind of funny to think that after three days of incredible siteseeing, it would finish upon a hill with hundreds of others, watching a pathetic sunset.

I had that sinking feeling too, like when something really special has ended. In fact, I compare it to the feeling I had at the end of The Falls festival's I attended. Three days of fun, friends and music, and on that final morning you wake with the sinking feeling that it's all over. It was exactly the same. It had been an amazing three days. I had spent approximately 37 hours exploring temples, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Trudging back down Bakheng, and looking at the hundreds clambering down behind me, gave it even more of a festival feeling, like it was all over.

So right now, I'm chilling out in Siem Reap, recovering from an awesome experience. A dodgy Malai Kofta rendered me a sick and sorry mess yesterday, and my holiday plans are now screwed. However, I'm not too bothered. Siem Reap is an interesting place. Cambodian at heart, but on the surface, not really Cambodian at all. The worlds largest temple complex right next door means it's heavily geared towards tourism, meaning there a lot of homely comforts here, making it an ideal holiday location. Tomorrow morning, assuming I'm fully recovered, I will visit Beng Melea temple, 55km away. I've only met one person who has been there, and they said it was even more incredible than Ta Prohm, with the entire complex consumed by the jungle. After that, I'm planning on getting a slow boat across the Tonle Sap to Battambang, the wonderful town where I spent my first night in Cambodia. There's a lot I didn't see there first time around. After that, I don't know. I need to be back in Phnom penh by the 1st of July, to find out about my timetable and classes for next term. I may visit a friend in Sisophon and Banteay Chhmar temple. I may visit a friend in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. Or I may simply get a bus back to Phnom Penh and relax with a sundried tomato and herb bread vegetable sandwich and chocolate milkshake at Java Cafe.
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