Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wandering Angkor Wat

I dragged myself out of bed well before dawn, blearily noting the silence outside my window. It seemed even the neighboring rooster, who'd spent more than an hour crowing the previous afternoon, was still asleep. I, however, had better things to do: this was my day to visit Angkor Wat.
In addition to being a reliable driver, Mr. Thorn
was a good sport and agreed to pose for me.
After a hurried breakfast, I greeted Mr. Thorn, who'd picked me up at the Siem Reap airport the day before, hopped in the back of his tuk-tuk and off we went. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply as we tore down dirt roads in the dark. The pre-dawn air was lovely, the omnipresent Cambodian dust tamped down by an overnight rain and the sweltering heat of the Southeast Asian sun still an hour or two beyond the horizon.

The noisy confusion and fluorescent lights at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park jolted me halfway back to reality as I purchased my ticket, and I climbed back into the tuk-tuk a little more alert. I watched the fog that hovered above the surface of the moat running parallel to the road, guiding us toward the entrance to Angkor Wat itself as the nighttime shadows began to lift, nudged back by the first fingers of dawn creeping over the landscape.

The sun peeking through a momentary
break in the clouds over Angkor Wat.
Wading through the masses of tourists and salespeople, I eventually settled down on the steps of one of the libraries that flank the main causeway, watching light slowly seep into the sky around Angkor's unmistakable triple silhouette. A bank of clouds from the night's rain lingered, hovering above and behind the temple, and it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to clear before the sun was well into the sky. The photographers around me grumbled about missing a typically stunning Angkor Wat sunrise but I was oddly unperturbed, content to absorb the feeling of being nearly 9,000 miles from home, standing in the midst of a complex ordered built by a 12th-century king.

As the sun crept higher in the sky and deeper into the cloud bank, I made my way into the enclosure around the temple itself, marveling at the beauty of the bas-relief devatas guarding it and their apsara cousins, seemingly poised to begin a dance. After a climb up dauntingly steep steps with a railing so rickety I felt safer not holding onto it, I wandered one of the towers as the sun burned through the remaining clouds, sending hazy light spreading over the city surrounding the temple as sunbeams found their way through gaps in the sandstone to dance over the carvings lining the tower corridors.

A trio of apsaras at the base of one of the towers, with another tower at left.
The view from the stairs up to one of the towers (complete with rickety railing!)
Sunlight slowly seeping into the tower corridors.
The view over one of the tower balconies, with the Angkor balloon just visible among the treetops.
The South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and
the Bayon. The statues lining the road are
fascinating - gods on the left, asuras (demons)
on the right.
I could happily have spent all morning in that one small corner of the 150-some-odd square mile complex that is the archaeological park, but I eventually pulled myself away to find Mr. Thorn and make our way to Angkor Thom and the Bayon.

The Bayon was perhaps my favorite of the sites I visited at Angkor, although it was also the most crowded. The serene smiles of the huge faces carved into the stone make for a peaceful setting, and I curled up in as quiet a spot as I could find to write some postcards before moving onto Angkor Thom city itself.

The Terrace of the Elephants, the South Gate entrance and parts of the Preah Pithu Group aside, Angkor Thom city itself was my least favorite part of the day and didn't have as much of an impact on me as the other sites I visited, but I'm still glad I took some time to wander through one of the major sites in the archaeological park.

One of the side corridors leading off from the main entryway
into the Bayon.
One of the Bayon's many face towers.
My favorite of the face towers - I wrote my postcards sitting near this guy.
When I arrived at Ta Prohm, the last site I visited, I felt as if I had stepped into some sort of Eden. The shade from the surrounding jungle and the cool morning air retained by the stone protected most of the complex from the sweltering midday heat. Despite being another of Angkor's most popular sites and full of camera-wielding tourists, Ta Prohm seemed to instill a sense of awe in most of its visitors and the hush that filled the temple was a welcome change from the chaos of Angkor Thom. With its crumbling corridors and overgrown doorways, it was easy to wander Ta Prohm wrapped in a sense of solitude, absorbing the feeling of peace that seemed to float through the air. As I climbed back into Mr. Thorn's tuk-tuk, I faced backward to watch first the temple and then the jungle treetops for as long as I could before turning around to watch the dusty road as we headed back to the vibrant, noisy reality of Siem Reap.

The last photo I got before my camera battery died, taken by a kind French couple who waited for or asked numerous other tourists to step out of one side or the other of the frame to get the perfect shot.
N.B.: My camera battery gave up its battle with the Cambodian heat not long after I arrived at the Bayon, which is why there are no photos of Angkor Thom city or Ta Prohm. (Advice: take a spare or two! This was the only place on my Thailand-Cambodia trip that I could have used one.) I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph Ta Prohm for myself, but there's no lack of stunning photos of nearly every part of Angkor Archaeological Park available in books, prints and online. One thing that surprised me a little was the lack of English-speaking tourists, at least that I heard. The few fellow tourists I spoke with, either to take their photo or ask them to take mine, were French-speaking, although most tourists I encountered in nearby Siem Reap were native English speakers.

While planning this trip, I debated for a long time over whether or not to include this small piece of Cambodia and Angkor Wat on my itinerary, since it meant a harried beginning to my trip, but I'm very glad I decided to go. Thai temples are lovely, but I got a lot more out of my day among the stones at Angkor than I did my afternoon amidst the opulence of Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew.


Aussie on the Road said...

Love the photos! I'd love to visit Angkor Wat sometime.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks! I highly recommend it, it's beautiful. And Siem Reap is a great place to stay for a while!

Rade said...

Hi! I like reading your blog. I enjoyed a lot plus the pictures are very nice. Hope you can visit Philippines too.

I'll keep reading your blog.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Rade, I'm glad you like it! Hopefully I'll make it to the Philippines someday.