Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Temples of Cambodia

When I was growing up, I was influenced by some pretty great teachers. A couple of them in particular had interests in architecture and history that led to my fascination with certain monuments: the Taj Mahal, Hagia Sophia, and Angkor Wat - my three world wonders.

In 2008, I made the trip to India to see the Taj Mahal. In 2011, TJ spent nearly an entire day at the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Now, in 2013, I have seen Angkor Wat. All three are just as incredible as I hoped they would be.

When we arrived in Siem Reap, we arranged through our hotel for a tuk tuk driver to give us a tour of the temples. On the first day, we purchased a three-day pass for $40 a person and were on our way!

The "thing to do" when you visit Angkor Wat is to arrive at sunrise. It is the only temple in the area that is facing west, so the sun rises behind the face of the temple. We were too exhausted from our journey to make the sunrise trek on the first day, so we slept in a bit and then started with a few of the far-off temples later in the day.

It was hot. Blistering, how-can-we-possibly-be-next-door-to-Thailand HOT. The tuk tuk provided a nice, deceptive breeze when it was moving, but every time we stopped, the three of us would be dripping in sweat before we even reached the temple gate. During our stay in Siem Reap, we met fellow travelers who would spend up to eleven hours visiting temples so that they could see everything in one day. I can't imagine how they did it. Our longest day was about five hours, and I'm not sure we would have lasted a minute longer.

Despite the heat, we managed to visit three "temples" our first afternoon: Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Pre Rup. Banteay Srei is a small temple referred to as the "Lady Temple." It has some of the best preserved samples of Khmer carvings in the world.

Kbal Spean isn't a temple. It's actually a riverbed that holds thousands of small carvings under the water. To view the river, you have to do a "small" hike up a nearby hill. With ridiculous heat and no water, we thought "well, we can probably handle a little walk." We were completely unprepared for 1500 meters of climbing over exposed tree roots and scaling near-vertical groups of rocks.

Eventually, we made it to the top and marveled at the carvings. They were definitely impressive. What really captured our attention, though, was the waterfall crashing just below the carvings. We each took turns stepping underneath it to cool off and get our hair wet. It was the perfect refreshment to get us ready for our hike back down to the tuk tuk.

Pre Rup is a larger temple that we passed on our way back to the hotel. It's a popular spot to watch the sun set. Most of the days we were in Siem Reap were overcast in the evenings, so we were lucky to be able to watch the sunset on a clear day.

We made a plan with our tuk tuk driver to see sunrise at Angkor Wat in two days and decided to take the day off in between. We had a day of wandering around Siem Reap, sleeping as much as we wanted, getting massages, and soaking in the hotel's pool. We also made time to prepare for our adventure the next day by visiting the museum in town. It walked us through the timelines and symbolism of the big temples we were about to see.

Since it was our "free day," we decided to make fun plans for dinner! Our hotel set us up with a traditional dance dinner theater downtown. For $12 per person, we were excited about a night of Cambodian culture and food. The dancing was nice and entertaining, but what really impressed us was the food. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet, and there was tons of it! We each went back for several plates full of different things to try.

Then, it was the big day! We awoke at 4 am so we could meet our driver at 4:45. He whisked us to Angkor Wat, where it was still so dark we could barely see the outline of the towers. Our driver had suggested we stand just in front of the reflecting pool to watch sunrise, but it was so dark that we couldn't tell what was water and what wasn't. Our first attempt at entering the temple was blocked by a group of white-robed worshipers kneeling at the front entryway. (We later realized that entrance was closed for construction anyway).

As the outline of the temple was becoming more visible, the number of people joining us at the temple was also growing. We scrambled back down the long walkway to claim a spot near the reflecting pools, now that we could see that was where other people were heading. Then we watched one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen.

After a few hours taking in the beauty of Angkor Wat, we grabbed a quick breakfast and headed to the next area of temples.

Angkor Thom was the capital of the Khmer empire in the 1100's. It is a huge city, with city walls, temples, and parts of the palace grounds still standing. We started with the most well-known temple in the city: the Bayon temple.

We finished up by visiting a few other ruins in the area, and then we made it back to the hotel before lunch time. We were exhausted! Our evening plans included a trip to the night market, but we knew we needed to recharge if that was ever going to happen. As it was, we made it to the market, but I felt like I was sleep walking the entire time.

The next day was our last day in Siem Reap. We had an overnight bus ride to Phnom Penh that night and no plans for the day. On a whim, we decided to take in one more view of the temples. Our regular driver was already booked for the day, so our hotel called in their back-ups - every single one of them. Each person they called had taken advantage of a day off and left town! Finally, they reached the last name on their list and the driver said he'd pick us up in ten minutes. Success!

We mostly wanted the tuk tuk to drive us around and give us that good breeze we appreciated so much. It turns out that the temples aren't nearly as far away as they look on the map, though, so the breeze didn't last all that long. In between, we got out and trudged through the remaining temples, trying to appreciate them despite the withering heat. By the last temple, we were all a little slower to get out of the tuk tuk. After four days of soaking up ancient culture with no complaints, Jamie finally announced she was done. TJ and I went in for a quick look at the East Mebon temple, full of elephant statues, before meeting her back at the tuk tuk.

We killed time for the rest of the night at the swimming pool and market, and then we met our midnight bus to Phnom Penh. That's an entirely different story.

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