It was still night time, when I climbed into a tuk-tuk, wearing a smile that couldn’t be bigger and/or brighter. Hiking and partying from previous days maybe made my body a bit weary but my mind was alert and on cloud No.9.
Enjoying the ride and a bit of fresh air knowing it will get hot real soon, I was wondering does Siem Reap ever sleep. Heading up North through the dark, towards our destination, we were surrounded by other tuk-tuks, people having pretty much similar facial expressions to mine. I guess sunrise at Angkor Wat is well known and worth seeing.
As soon as you approach the Angkor area, your senses start to respond. Strolling through the forest, with mirror-like water on one and little monkeys coming out of woods on the other side, you can almost smell the history and mysticism in the air. You feel the importance of what is ahead of you and there is absolutely no way you will stay indifferent.
Even though everyone knows about Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, it is less known that in those woods and further in the fields, lies more than thousand other temples. Which makes Angkor area the best possible place for any temple and history lover (read: me).
As soon as I spotted the towers in the distance, timidly sending the night away and greeting the day, nothing else existed anymore. All the people, and voices vanished. Because straight ahead of me, in it’s whole glory was The Capital Temple. And it was everything I imagined and more. Leaning on the wall surrounding the waters, I was trying to understand that this time I am not looking at a postcard, picture or a painting. It was right there. The real deal. My heart was pounding as it was about to jump out and run across that bridge, to the inside where all the ancient stories are hidden. I wished sun was coming up slower so that special moment would last longer.
The orange ball climbed up bit by bit and, having a tour guide booked and people flooding in, it was time to go, to escape the biggest crowds. (Oh, the minuses of booked tours! Learn from my mistakes.) I was a bit agitated because I felt I needed more time, but I said to myself I will come back later, just to get to this same place and admire the view from the distance. Turns out I did that twice later that day and it was just what I needed, to make peace with myself and let it sync in.
Walking through the entrance felt just as unreal as the sunrise did. With each step, I was trying to show respect for this place. Out tour guide started explaining the general facts (in not the greatest English) but I would only listen every now and then. I read so much about it anyway!
Walking around, every single wall has it’s story. Literally. There are decoratives and reliefs everywhere you look. They show different myths and stories combined with real life motives. They show battles of good and evil, sending messages about life choices.
Not really carrying about facts of architecture and measurements, I separated just a bit, touching the rasping sandstone and having my own thoughts… Did you know Angkor Wat was built as a hindu temple but became a buddhist temple sometimes in 12th century? Peculiar, isn’t it? Even then, nine centuries ago, there were people, just like you and I, who needed to believe in something. People who needed a shelter from the every day world, where they would come to be with their own thoughts and prays. People who, no matter what political regime was, needed something divine to look up to and show them the way. Some great force that has all the answers. Since then, everything changed. And nothing changed at all.
As I was climbing the galleries, taking pictures from dozens of different angles, I was imagining stories of people who built this magnificent place. Place too good for people. God worthy. I imagined what happened here eight hundred years ago, five hundred years ago… I imagined how it looked in 19th century when Mouhot re-discovered it. Century by century, approaching today, I was envisioning situations I had no evidence of. Like a fantasy carousel. And I felt so lucky to be there.
After our guide brought us out to the meeting point, before going to Angkor Thom, my friends and I gathered on plastic chairs across from the entrance, to have a second breakfast/early lunch. I had no desire to sit around plastic bottles, dirty tables and people eating, so I took an over priced banana pancake (so worth it, I highly recommend) and went to that same concrete fence I saw that sunrise from. While both my taste buds and my eyes were celebrating, I finally started to feel like it was all syncing in. A temple lover like me was in city of temples.
After taking five, we hopped into tuk-tuks again and went straight to Angkor Thom. Like I said, there is many temples around and (to me) they are all worth seeing. So I urge you to explore as much as you can. Because, I strongly believe there is no other place in the world like Angkor area.
Another thing I urge you is NOT to ride elephants while moving from one place to the other. I saw many people doing this and it literally made me go from crying to being angry and then back to crying. I know some of you think it is a great idea and a whole lotta cultural immersion but it is literally disgusting. Elephants are not meant to be ridden and placing a saddle on their spine hurts them and cripples them. Please, be smarter than that.
What made me even more sad, was that after few days I read one of those adorable creatures called Sambo died. Yes, one of the elephants I saw that morning, suffered from a heart attack due to heat and mistreatment and died. You can read about it here.
So take a tuk-tuk. Walk. Anything. Also, if you get off your tuk-tuk just before famous Bayons, after the entrance to Thom, you might get to see monkeys playing and asking you for food. Even though I had rabbies shot, I decided not interact too much, because apparently heat makes them nervous and unpredictable. However, some of them are cheecky enough to walk up to you and poke you asking for bananas. I even saw a mommy with her little one. They stayed away but you could tell she was curious.
Turns out they are all over the place. At the entrance of Bayon (central temple of Angkor Thom), there was a cute monkey couple. They were helping each other to get rid of fleas. Not too bothered about people.
Bayon has a charm of his own. And what gives it that charm is the fact that it doesn’t resemble any other temple – everywhere you look, you see peaceful, smiling faces. Or should I say “face”. One happy lil chap everywhere. Up and down, left and right, as you walk through the towers. Even though time has taken it’s toll on them, there is that grin and impression of serenity. You can hide from it only for a second by entering some of the halls and going through, but as soon as you emerge to the daylight-there they are, eyes closed, happy as they can be.
What is even more unusual is that nobody is really sure about whose face that is. Because of calm and mild expression it could be bodhisattva but then again, it could be King Jayavarman who had this temple built. Or it could be both, because Jayavarman liked to compare him self to Buddha and he though he was a god given king. Well, if that isn’t intriguing enough, nothing will be. I mean, having your face carved in stone 216 times would be a pretty cool thing to do, no?
After playing hide and seek through the holes and maintaining my cool while some Chinese lady pushed me into other people to take a photo of her (I presume) husband, I was ready to head to Ta Prohm.
By the time we have reached another treat of the day, Ta Prohm, sun was high up and burning my neck. Not believing I was dumb enough not to put sunscreen, I kept rejecting children who were selling postcards and other trinkets. For some reason, they were countless here. I wanted, I really really wanted to give them some money but, like everywhere in Cambodia, as long as they bring money home, their parents send them to beg or work like this… Instead of going to school. Trying to shake that unpleasant feeling, I continued walking.
Ta Prohm is one of the rare temples in the Angkor area that still looks pretty much the same as they (re)discovered it. The way that place has grown together with nature gives it a vibe I can’t even begin to describe. Tree roots hugging it’s walls and supporting them. If you take one out, the other just can’t continue to exist on it’s own. Symbiosis at it’s finest.
Entering the passages under the tree roots, tripping over them while looking at the wall reliefs and bumping into them while trying to take pictures, fascinates you and gives you a feeling of a present mystery at the same time. Angelina Jolie must’ve had a blast jumping around and running through these tunnels, while making Tomb Raider.
It is so easy to get lost in your thoughts… And tunnels and passages. That is exactly what happened to me. I was supposed to head out to meet my friends and I was so sure I knew which way the exit was (I like to believe I am good with directions) but turns out I was very wrong. Turn here, turn there, the wall. Ok, go back, turn here, another passage. Ok, this way, go through this, sh****t I was already here. I was starting to worry as everything around me looked the same, and people were getting fewer and fewer and I thought it must be the closing times soon.
Just as I started thinking about the irony of the situation, because that was exactly how you should explore a place like this, I stumbled out at the same place I entered. Slightly embarrassed because I was actually looking for the exit, I headed the opposite way. Eventually, I was reunited with my friends.
Trust me when I say Ta Prohm is a magical place. If you head there, make sure you have enough time to explore it, because it is very worth it. It is one of those places that awakens the adventurer in you and ignites your imagination. Even if you get lost in the halls. It will just add up some flavour to your story. As long as you don’t wander off into the jungle which is right next to it (been known to happen to few visitors), you are all good.
Things the travellers do…
As my group rolled out of the place in their motorized carriages, I looked at three of my fav adventurers and despite of the pounding headache, I said: How about we go back and check out the rear entrance of Angkor Wat? Few conspiracy grins and we were on our way.
Sun was going down already so it was more comfortable to walk around. We climbed to few more towers, went trough few more corridors and I was so relieved there was not as many people as previously that morning. Our voices were bouncing of the walls as we were laughing and saying “check this out” repeatedly. Through one of the windows I spotted the main entrance and it was a beautiful view. Then I looked back at my silly friends taking funny pictures in one of the galleries and I said to myself: I will be back.
Picture of my amazing time in Cambodia this April, you can also find on my Instagram.
Until next time,
Smiles all around!