The sun in sneaky today, dashing behind clouds and casting deepening shadows across the ocean stretched out before me. I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking the gulf of Thailand, a broad body of water that cradles the southern coat of Asia and meets the South China Sea to the east. We came down to Sihanoukville to escape the oppressive heat of interior Cambodia and catch some tropical breezes before hurrying across the Vietnam border.
The best of Angkor Wat – We spent three long days touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Once the capital city of the Khmer Empire during the 9th and 12th centuries C.E., the ancient city now lies in ruins and sprawls across a large portion of north-western Cambodia. Angkor literally translates to “capital city” or “holy city.” The crippled remains represent a time when the Khmer kings and military had incredible wealth and a strong dominance over much of South-East Asia.
Touring Angkor the right way – Many of the temples are so vast and spread out that it requires several days to thoroughly absorb the history and amazing details. We opted to buy the three day pass which would give us the flexibility to spend more time in certain areas or even revisit those that we especially enjoyed. We began with bikes the first morning and left our guesthouse at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. Although the entire land area is referred to as “Angkor Wat,” the actual Angkor is just one temple amid many, many others. Sunrise was breathtaking, and we walked the ruins with other awe-struck tourists and tangerine clocked monks.
The rest of the day was open to exploring the closest dozen or so wats that we were able to reach on bike. Thirteen hours, twenty-five miles, and 7000 plus steps later, we returned to our guesthouse completely exhausted, but happy with the day’s sight-seeing.
Ta Prohm and the Tomb Raider – My favorites of the day were Ta Prohm and Bayon, both of which lie several kilometers away from the central station of Angkok Wat, a benefit because they were far from the well trodden path and less touristy. Ta Prohm was constructed as a Buddhist monastery and had control of over 3000 villages at one time. Now the complex is covered in jungle overgrowth of massive, twisting roots and dense vegetation. I tried to pretend I was Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, but I don’t think I quite have her athletic abilities.
Bayon’s faces – Bayon reminded me of the Labyrinth for those of you who remember the movie with David Bowie. The towering temple has 37 stone pillars, each topped with carved faces pointing in a cardinal direction. I felt that there were hundreds of eyes watching my every move and wondered just what those eyes might have seen in the past couple of centuries. If only they could talk! When the sun reached it’s highest point, it was much too hot to meander around the crumbling walls so we sat in the shade of the uppermost levels and watched the activity below.
Second day touring Angkor Wat’s grounds – We hired a driver for the following day and began again at 5 a.m. to catch another beautiful sunrise. Tom (our driver) carted us around for the majority of the day, taking us to many of the outerlying temples. Many of these temples many hundreds of years older than Angkor, and some were but a few crumbling stones amid weeds.
We finished the day back at the main Angkor complex, eager to watch the sunset and capture the amazing reflections in the moat surrounding the temple. I got too absorbed with following some monks around and spent much of my time hiding behind stone pillars and sneaking through windows, trying to get their pictures. My sleuthlike techniques failed and I was caught. Fortunately, they were good natured and engaged me in conversation about Bush and the Chicago Bulls. We also had a trying time staying ahead of the hordes of Japanese tourists. If they got in front of us, we would wait forever while they snapped endless numbers of pictures. However, they did think that the three of us were pretty neat. Several times, we were all dragged over and placed directly in the middle of a smiling, chattering group of excited Japanese sight-seers.
Our third and final day was spent revisiting our favorites. We returned to Bayon and Angkor to just sit and watch life pass by. Many hours were spent in the shade of Bayon, thinking of years past when a place like this was bustling with activity. It was a time spent reflecting and appreciating.
Touring Angkor Wat tips – The best time to tour the temples was during the early morning hours when the ruins were totally deserted. Wake up before sunrise, arrive early to the wats, and then sit back and listen as the vibrations of jungle noises echo through the skeletal remains. It was enjoyable to sit in the middle of the ruins and try to imagine how life existed there so many years ago. Building these magnificent temples was quite an accomplishment, and it was simply mind boggling to wander around and observe their creativity and artistic abilities. What an amazing time.