Off to the temples

Angkor Thom south gate Angkor mexican wrestling in cambodia Bayon
(All photos for this entry can be found here)

(Monday May 1st, 2006)

After dropping $40 each on three-day passes to the temples, we headed to the biggest, Angkor Wat. Since we started late we were assuming most of the tour groups would be gone by that time. It turned out to be a good bet. We even managed to stumble on the start of a wedding at the entrance.

When we visited Peru, we learned that the costs for Machu Picchu meant that many would never be able to visit their own history. I was happy to see that there are no entry fees to Angkor for Cambodians, and there seemed to be a good number of them visiting the temples. Angkor Wat was built to honor Vishnu, a Hindu god. Since then, Cambodia has become mostly Buddhist, and the temple is now filled with images of Buddha and altars. Though not active, the temples still seem to be considered holy sites by many.

The bad part about visiting Angkor later in the morning is that the sun is quite strong. Without the morning or afternoon light, a lot of the detail of the dark complex is lost. However, I think it was more than worth it to enjoy it all at our own speed. It takes a good bit of time to wander around before you get a sense of scale of the temple and the detail of the carvings. Though almost every surface of the temple is decoratively carved, the inner walls are pretty amazing. Theses long halls have extremely detailed reliefs carved into them. The carvings are almost too much for the eye to take in – one could spend hours exploring the details of a single wall.

Before we headed into the inner-most part of the temple, we decided to wander over to an active pagoda just outside the Angkor Wat walls. The traditional Buddhist shapes and imagery was pretty familiar to me, except for some of the outside paintings. Most were of the standard scenes, but a few focused on some pretty graphic depictions of what I can only assume was the Buddhist version of hell. It was a little odd to see the half-closed eyes of Buddha in one painting compared to the torture, blood, and strange creatures in the painting next to it. It reminded me a little of some of the Catholic art you see in Latin America. After exploring the new, it was back to the old.

Near the center of the temple is an almost vertical climb up roughly forty steps to the top level. They are tall steps, and there is only a handrail on the south side of the temple, so the other sides can be a bit of a hairy climb. Much like other culture’s temple steps, they force your head down as you ascend. I followed the locals up the west side steps to the top. Near the top I helped an older Cambodian woman (I’m assuming) who had sort of got stuck in limbo on part of the steps. I offered my hand for stability, as a slip wasn’t an option. After a bit of a look, she took my hand and I helped her up. She smiled, I smiled, she laughed, and then slapped me on the arm and said something in Khmer. I have no clue what that part of the exchange was about. Probably some sort of cultural faux pas on my part.

The view from the top of Angkor Wat was pretty amazing. The land is quite flat, so you could see jungle, buildings and dry rice paddies for a ways off. I’m sure the view in the wet season is spectacular.

After some amok (steamed coconut) fish curry for lunch near the temples, and some exchanges with the young sales force in training (ask Anna about “SIDER BOY”), it was off to the south gate of Angkor Thom. The south gate is a bit of a traffic jam, but the battling stone gods and giants lining tall carved entrance is worth any wait. On the short drive to our next destination, we got distracted along the way. The monkeys along the road seem to know exactly what tourists are for – buying fruit from the locals to feed them. While cautious, they knew they were going to be safe and well-fed whenever there is a crowd. We stopped to watch them play and get fed by the locals for a bit. After that, it was off to what is probably the second most famous temple in Cambodia – Bayon.

Though it is fairly large, Bayon isn’t known for its size. It has some nice carvings, but they are not the best in the area. Bayon is known for it’s large stone towers, with a slightly smiling face carved into each side. Bayon is a favorite for obvious reasons. It is really fun to explore, and the towers and giant faces are completely unique. We arrived here in the mid-late afternoon, which turned out to be a great time. The temple was relatively empty, and the light was nice. If the sun was directly over-head, I don’t think you could see the details in the faces or the rest of the temple as clearly.

It was getting close to sunset, and we decided to brave the crowds. It was off to Phnom Bakheng, a large temple on the top of a hill. The elephant ride was tempting, but also $15, so we passed. The stairs straight up looked a bit dodgy, and we were dragging pretty badly at this point in the day. So, it was the winding wimpy path to the top for us. It was a nice choice, and a peaceful walk through the woods to the top.

Phnom Bakheng was larger than I expected, and blistering hot at the top. The stone had been baking in the sun all day, so you were punished if you tried to sit down. The shady spot behind the top tower was prime real estate. Around twenty of us relaxed there, waiting for the sun to loose some power. We tried to ask a Cambodian kid how he found his Rey Mysterio (Mexican/American wrestler) t-shirt, but for some reason the hand signals just weren’t working. It was funny to travel a world away and find part of your own neighborhood. The wrestler is from San Diego/TJ, one of his “moves” is called the “619”. I saw three different Mexican wrestling t-shirts on locals at different times while here, so there must be some sort of clothing exchange going on with Mexico. I guess the second hand clothes I saw at the market had to come from somewhere.

After relaxing for half an hour, it started to get very busy. Soon half of the large platform was filled with tourists posing with the monks and crowding west half for the sunset. We saw some strange rainbow-like patterns in the clouds, but the sunset was thwarted by thick clouds. It was still another great view from the top though – you could even look down on Angkor Wat, where we had been a few hours before.

After enjoying the tuk-tuk breeze back to town, we headed out to dinner. I had read about a restaurant in Siem Reap that was supposed to be great international food, but relatively cheap compared to back home. We decided to give Abacus a try. All of the food was fantastic, and the patio was just what we needed. Open air with some fans for cooling, it was nice to relax and watch the geckos go to work.

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