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Sunday 14 Jul 2013
Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Temples and Tomb Raiders

I'd hoped a good night's sleep would help but I was still hayfeverish this morning.  I've looked forward to Angkor Wat for so long that it was very annoying to feel to stuffy.  Simon and Carl went off on the bikes again while the rest of us booked two tuktuks to do the 'Small Circuit' around the temple area. 

Angkor dates back to the empire of the Khmer God-Kings in the 8th Century, although Angkor Wat itself is dated to around 1100AD, the same time as Westminster Abbey.  The incredible stone architecture remains, though the original wooden pagodas have long since disappeared.  There was a bigger civilisation here than in London at the time.  It's hard to imagine the logistics of constructing such immense temples without modern equipment - the manpower alone must have run into the thousands.  All the temples are constructed from interlocking stones cut in a variety of angles as there was no cement or mortar available.  Each successive King tried to outdo the previous in scale and grandeur.  Angkor Wat has been in constant use since its construction.  Thankfully it avoided bombing during the wars.

We started at Ta Prohm, the royal monastery, better known as the 'Tomb Raider' temple.  It actually feels more like something Indiana Jones would come across in one of his adventures.  Strangler figs have spent centuries growing over and into the buildings causing some of them to partially collapse or disappear completely under the weight of the roots.  The temple is undergoing partial reconstruction. There are metal walkways and fenced off areas, which spoils the feel of the place a bit.  Instead of discovering untouched nature, it felt more like walking across a building site.  Even the most famous view of the strangler fig growing in the corner of the temple is now impossible to photograph without a wooden railing in front.  Feeling a bit disheartened, we carried on through the complex and discovered a much wilder area in the middle, where metal supports had only been added under the heavier roots to prevent a complete collapse of the building.  We had much more fun clambering over and through the archways, finding more impressive views at every turn.  The last courtyard was surrounded by elaborately carved walls with tall strangler figs climbing over like the tripods from 'War of the Worlds'. 

Our driver wore a bright pink shirt so he was easy to spot in the melee of tuktuks and people selling food, cold drinks and souvenirs that surrounds each temple.  Simon and Carl hitched a lift holding on to the back of our tuktuks.  To reach our next temple, we crossed the bridge and entered the ancient city of Angkor Thom through the imposing Victory Gate.  The sides of the bridge are lined with a huge tug of war between gods and demons, while the gate itself has enormous faces carved into the top in order to intimidate visitors and deter invading forces.

Bayan temple was commissioned by King Jayavarmen VII.  It's covered with 216 faces (which reputedly bear a striking similarity to the King himself) looking down from every stupa, heightening the illusion of an all-seeing God-King.  Although the temple is weathered in places now, the faces are still impressive and actually quite creepy.  While the others were spread out around the roof of the temple, I went inside the main stupa to see the gold Buddha statue.  An elderly lady appeared out of a dark corner to give me incense sticks and flowers to make an offering.  I had a quiet moment of reflection and though I had only gone in to be curious, I made a small donation, for which I received yet another brightly woven wool bracelet.

Our last stop was  the mighty Angkor Wat itself.  We planned to look around the temple and then wait on the Terrace of the Leper King to see the front light up as it had last night.  The main causeway across the moat leads through the gateway and across the enormous inner quad to the temple doors.  One side of it remains uneven and broken, while the other half has been restored.  I am still in two minds about the restoration of places like this.  I agree with conservation to prevent such historical places falling into complete ruin, but replacing old weathered grey stones with sharply carved sand coloured pieces looks a bit out of place. 

Inside the main walls, the causeway crosses a meadow with a small lake on one side, lined with rows of market stalls.  We left the causeway for the classic postcard view of the Angkor towers reflected on the lake.  We just got in one shot before the wind rippled the surface of the water and the view was obscured.  When it returned, we took our group photos and now obligatory jumping photos.  My friend and travel buddy, Ailsa, has a canvas print of this view from her trip here five years ago.  I've seen it a hundred times and always loved it, so it was brilliant to finally see it for myself. 

The entry to the temple was crowded, but after the bottleneck at the doorway we could spread out a bit.  The temple is square, with a central tower structure and open quads in each corner.  In the centre, a ridiculously steep set of metal stairs lead up to the top floor, put in place to protect the orginal stone steps.  Thankfully there were separate steps for traffic going up and down.  I wouldn't have liked having to squeeze past people on the way.  The top level is also divided into quads with covered cloisters around the outside.  The views from the windows were stunning.  Despite all the tourists and vendors, there was such a peaceful atmosphere that it was easy to get lost in contemplation.  It would have been nice to know more about the temple before visiting - nobody's fault but my own really - but I had already added Cambodia to my re-visit list and the next time I will spend more time here.  The way I still felt, I am not sure I'd have coped with too much information by this stage anyway.

We were all tired and hungry, so headed back to the hostel for some dinner before coming back to watch the sunset.  I still planned to get up for sunrise at Angkor Wat, even if it did mean buying another ticket.  Unfortunately, we all made the mistake of having a quick nap and missed our sunset window.  Instead, we walked up to the night market for dinner.  I bought a lovely green and gold dress from one of the first stalls and a great handbag and travel wallet made out of recycled Cambodian cement bags.  I know that sounds a bit odd, but they had really cool elephant logos on! It was something unusual and reminded me of my trip so far.

Back at the hostel, we caught up with a Kiwi couple who'd been on Stray with the guys earlier in their trip and had a few games of beer pong.  The friendly bickering got a bit serious, so an Aussie guy, Jason, stepped in and became our Beer Pong Adjudicator for the night.  I'd finally started feeling human again but wasn't up for a big night, unlike everyone else.  However, as these things often go, I felt better as the night wore on and we ended up in the appropriately titled 'Pub Street' with hundreds of other people, dancing on tables in the 'Angkor What?' and 'Temple' bars.  I've been keeping a playlist of my favourite tunes of the trip and we added a good few more tonight.  Despite my plans for an early night, we got back at 4.30am and should have headed straight up to Angkor Wat then to watch the sunrise!  Instead, we went to bed and missed our chance.  Another reason to return...


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