‘Wats’ in Cambodia Day 118: Angkor Wat, Enough Said

After waking up in a sweat in the early morning (no surprise when the fan was taken from decades ago), I checked out of my room and joined my two friends for a day’s worth of temple viewing, including sunrise at Angkor Wat. The tuk tuk we took like all others in Siem Reap and I can imagine the rest of Cambodia are a different style of tuk tuk (since each country seems to have its own interpretation of the vehicle) with the motorbike not built into the back with the seats but rather attached to it dragging along what basically has turned into a trailer. Upon reaching the ticket entrance, I reaffirmed my decision to buy the seven day pass versus the three day. Sure it might cost $60 ($40 for the three day, which nearly everyone lined up for) but coming to Angkor Wat and all these historic temples is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I have been dreaming about for some time and I would hate to feel like I was being rushed. The nearest temple from Siem Reap just so happens to be Angkor Wat (for obvious reasons when the city came in formation). After passing under the many festival-like lights that seemed to guide the way to temple kingdom if you didn’t have enough light from the multitude of vehicles paving the way. Once outside the moat (6 km from Siem Reap) that revolves as a square around Angkor Wat, I could barely see much of anything as I processed with the many others here to witness the same thing as me. With each step I took, I struggled to imagine how unlikely it is that I am here. Not too long ago was I at home flipping through pictures of places like this, all just a dream that stood far away. Once through the main gate, the sun began to shed some of its light up over the trees and towards the rear of Angkor Wat. My God, what a beautiful sight it was! No longer is this National Geographic or Travel Channel images. This right before my eyes is the real deal, the one and only Angkor Wat. We positioned ourselves for sunrise but the wait was of no use as the sun struggled to peep out from behind the blanket of clouds that stood behind my beloved Angkor Wat. I headed towards the temple itself refusing to wait any longer to explore this wonder of the world. Angkor Wat and its five lotus shaped spires cannot be mistaken within the vast space that makes up the inner ring of the walled temple. For something eerie, Angkor Wat faces west towards the setting sun since this temple was dedicated not only for religious practice (a still active religious site) but for the king’s burial grounds, thus the reason for it facing west and symbolizing death with the end of the day. The main structure can seem overwhelming to the point it could prevent further, closer inspection. Mostly well kept and artistically significant, the bas reliefs etched into the outside of the wat’s walls are a treasure trove of history and insight into the religious beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as the artisan craftsmanship necessary to create such a work of art. The bas reliefs tell some of the many stories involving religion including epic battles fought in heaven and hell between the gods and demons. For all this time since its creation, I am pleasantly surprised how well kept it is. Sure, some renovations have been done with some artisan crafted copies replacing the lost, stolen, or destroyed originals but the integrity has not gone away. Inside this working temple, I found monks praying in their stark bright orange cloaks (compared to the dark walls of the temple itself), orange shrouded Buddhas, and burning incense from offerings. During my time analyzing and appreciating the work and talent behind the bas reliefs, I lost track of the Euros and began wondering whether I would need to walk the rest of the way (didn’t really care either way; I was in too happy of a place). While waiting for my turn on the upper level of Angkor Wat, I ran into one of the ‘pink ladies’ from Bagan (expanding the list of random reencounters). Once amongst the five famous spires (a further surreal moment), I could take in the views of all of Angkor Wat below me including the minnows scurrying around the many proud lion statues and multi-headed snakes acting as balustrades as well as the two main libraries that stood on each side of the main acting walkway. Upon walking back towards the moat, I somehow found the Lithuanian girl amidst the many tourists. After a cheap crepe, we continued on with the tuk-tuk puttering along. From Angkor Wat, we took the long road out to Banteay Srei built on the far outskirts of the Angkor kingdom. The temple is translated as the ‘lady temple’ and is small, especially when compared to just recently visited Angkor Wat, but has some of the best artwork of the time period, all well preserved to the point of it appearing almost new or at least built within the last few centuries. How something so divinely crafted with the smallest etchings and formations carved into the stone could last this long (but in the 9th century) is beyond me. Gods with monkey or birdlike features stood guard over this petite temple atop their individual pedestals. Needing a snack, we got an unreal two for one special of sliced fresh baby pineapple and a mango for a buck. For a change of pace, we stopped in at a land mine museum built by a man that was trained from a young age to plant them around Cambodia. After defecting from the Khmer Rouge army to serve for the Cambodian and Vietnamese armies, he undid his wrongs by slowing finding and deactivating some of the millions of still unaccounted for land mines scattered throughout the country. Along with some of the real life weaponry on display, many victims stories, his own personal background, and historical outlook were quite interesting and thought provoking. I didn’t realize how many land mines still haunt the people of Cambodia today with several hundred dying from them or getting harmed in some each and every year. At some of the temples, we saw some amputees who were victims of this gruesome weapon. These particular land mines were designed to injure but not kill the victim so as during warfare the energy would use more time, energy, and money on them than for the dead. I didn’t realize that the U.S. is one of the few countries to not sign the anti-land mine manufacturing treaty, along with China and Russia (for reasons to defend the North Korean border properly). The land mine museum also has an orphanage and school on site for victims of land mines whether due to their own personal injuries or deaths upon their parents. We visited many more temples, some large and small, but all very small when compared to the gargantuan Angkor Wat. For the most part, each had their unique, distinct quality to them whether it be from the trees that have grown in and amongst the ruins and walls of the temples, the pyramid-like terraced shapes, continually awe-inspiring carvings that dotted the walls, or the maze-like aspect to trying to figure your way around and out. I can definitely say that I am glad to have visited Bagan in Myanmar first otherwise my appreciation for those temples would have been lacking after visiting Angkor. Angkor has its fair share of temples laid to ruin but the ones still standing (with the exception of a little crumble) possess a magic unlike anything I witnessed in Bagan. Even for the lesser temples, Angkor has so much more going on whether it be the carvings or individual shrines within the temple itself. Ta Prohm temple otherwise known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ was the highlight of the afternoon if the day could not possibly get any better. Here nature has truly gone awry with trees’ roots having worked themselves into every bit of the rocky block foundation and planting the trees that they sprouted from squarely or rather tilted atop the temple walls, shrines, and inner libraries. The trees and temple have formed a deadly symbiotic relationship; one cannot live without the other. Early renovators wanted to remove the trees to return the temple to its original state but any lost root and more so trunk would compromise the state of the temple into a crumbled mess. I got my necessary photo with the main tree that Angelina Jolie stood in front of but the temple had so many more trees worth a look that weren’t constantly sought after for a selfie. At Angkor Thom (the largest temple complex at Angkor, which would be saved for tomorrow) has grand entrances at each of its four sides. Lining each side of the road that went across the moat stood a ‘railing’ involving what appeared to be gods and animal-like demons competing in a high stakes tug of war. After some background, I learned that this scene is a depiction of the ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’ in which these gods are fighting the test of time by reversing the earth’s rotation so that they may continuing living eternal lives. Before sunset we scaled to the top of the famous temple sunset view point which offered really no view at all for standing on a mount. Bagan definitely had the better sunset/sunrise with nothing in the way of your view of the thousands of red beaten temples around you. Elephants were being used as show for anyone wanting to pay the fee to reach the summit on pachyderm as the Europeans did in the early parts of the 20th century around Angkor. After passing several monkeys walking and skipping along off the road, we climbed some pyramid-like temples with three of five layers or terraces. The day had been long as it was so we began our trip back into Siem Reap for some much needed nourishment. What a day it was to achieve such a lifetime goal/aspiration of mind beyond the many other great temples around that I never heard of before stepping onto these hallowed grounds. Dinner was more amok but at a different restaurant and not of the same top-notch quality as my first experience with the Khmer culinary treasure. At the end of the day, the meal and a beer came out to be $3 so how can I complain. I kept chugging water like a man on a mission just as I had been doing throughout the day from the undying heat that refused to take any sweaty prisoners. For dessert, I went on a tamarind binge downing these shelled Asian fruits. Later on in the night I went for a walk around town to take in the night market and the energy that reverberated out of Pub Street. Each corner I passed and every sidewalk I walked along a tuk tuk driver inquired me in need of my business. After awhile with so many drivers asking, it felt like they all assumed my one last dying wish was to hop into their tuk tuk even though no attention, even a glance, was spent their way. After getting hassled enough for rides, I came back to the guesthouse to sleep and swear through the night but this time in a different room (same story different cover).

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