The beauty of Angkor
In this country of extremes we’ve explored for the past week the glorious temples of the Khmer Empire. We set out to get our 3 day tickets in the evening. The tickets were valid for a week beginning on the following day and we were entitled to a free sunset that night. We took off on bikes to get our first glimpse of Angkor Wat. In the evening light we parked our bikes and walked up to the iconic structure whose peaks are featured on the Cambodian flag. Everyone was leaving and as we wandered around the inner building we came across some guards who were closing down the temple. They asked if we would like to climb the steps to the central tower to watch the sunset, for a “gift” of $10. After some polite haggling we agreed on $6 and jumped the fence to climb the original steps of the temple – usually strictly off-limits to visitors. Climbing the steep steps evoked some of the feeling the Angkorian Kings must have felt ascending the temples built for their glorification. The view from the top was stunning (if impossible to capture) and revealed the extent of the huge moat surrounding Angkor Wat and the jungle beyond. After a tour of the inner sanctum we descending the back steps and ended our first brief viewing of the temples.
Our first day we visited the Roluos group of temples (the oldest of the Khmer temples dating for the 9th and 10th century) after which we decided our second day would be a full day tour – from 4:00am for sunrise to 5:30pm for sunset – of the most famous of these temples. Waking up at 4:00am is not the easiest thing to do when your insomniac, chain smoking neighbour leaves the lights and T.V. on all night, but rise we did for the 5km bike ride to the checkpoint. After punching our tickets, we rode in darkness the further 6km to the Bayon. This temple is known for the 216 giant faces of King Jayavarman VII that look serenely down on the temple dwellers. After a bumpy, unlit ride we came to a massive structure whose outline was barely distinguishable against the dark blue sky. A friendly monk performing morning rituals told us this was indeed the Bayon so we locked our bikes and climbed to the third floor of the structure. Emerging onto the upper terrace, the shapes of faces slowly began to appear before the lightening sky. We wandered the many pillars with only the sounds of the early morning jungle to accompany us. The peaceful quiet matched the gaze of the enormous faces that looked out from all four sides of each tower. The temple belonged to us for 45 minutes while we ate our breakfast of rice and dried meat. The only other person to come for the next hour was an Australian photographer.
We rode off when the tour groups started to come with busloads of loud Japanese and Chinese tourists, most of whom didn’t even bother to look at the temples, preferring to carry on their noisy conversations instead. Where we had spent almost four hours most of the tours were in and out in 15 minutes.
The next thing we visited was a group of terraces and temples further into the woods. The Baphuon temple, although closed to visitors, has an interesting history. During reign of the Khmer Rouge, all the French archeologists who had been working to put the structure back together were forced to flee the country. They returned to find that all their records, detailing where each piece of rock belonged, had been completely destroyed. They were left with thousands of rectangular rocks scattered around where the pyramid should stand. After years of agonizing work, the temple is now mostly rebuilt and stands as a testament to the will and dedication of these archeologists.