Two Savages in Southeast Asia

The Land of the Rising Sun

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Day two of our temple visit. A quick Google search last night informed us that sunrise today would be at the sprightly hour of 0544, so up we get at 0430 to leave enough time for the 6km bike ride up Charles de Gaulle. There’s a spasm of early-morning tuk-tuks barrelling down the road, but the ride is fairly peaceful. Our only concern is maybe the complete lack of illumination devices on our bikes, but thankfully the bells might just be audible to any errant drivers…

We reach the temple at 0515 – and not a moment too soon, for it’s already quite busy. The western causeway is staffed by an army of ticket checkers, eager to ensure that no fare dodgers gain entrance to the fabled Angkor Wat. After a quick trot down the causeway, we enter through the central gopura and into the enclosed area of the temple. There’s a crowd congregating on the north side of the causeway, just across a small pond of standing water from the main temple, but we opt for something a bit more active and start the ascent into the temple itself.

Up through the first floor with its impressive ring of bas-reliefs, up past the cruciform cloister of the second floor, and into the central quincunx of towers – where we’re stopped by a guard who is supposed to be watching the staircase up but instead has decided to elicit bribes to the tune of 5 USD per person for the final part of the climb. (It opens officially at 0740, we’re told, with a cunning reminder that this is well after sunrise.) Needless to say, this bald attempt at extortion (why even staff the staircase if you’re not going to open it?) ruffles our Western feathers, so we decline and pop off to the northern side to enjoy the sunrise in peace.

As the sun rises, it lights up the sky in the east with an unearthly pink glow, dancing off the clouds in brilliant hues. The sun is not yet high enough to reach the interior temple walls, but slowly the smaller shrines and libraries gain definition. A beautiful sight!

After watching this spectacle for some time, we head down to start our next task: learning something about the temple itself. Our hostel was kind enough to lend us their copy of Ancient Angkor, an excellent guidebook to all the major temples between Angkor and Beng Mealea, including the Roulos Group down off Highway 6 near Tonle Sap. Using its lengthy descriptions as a makeshift tour guide, we receive an interactive lesson in Hindu mythology and Khmer history from the massive bas-reliefs that encircle the first level. (For more details, see our photos!)

One word of caution: if you can, bring your own food to visit the temples. The food stands there are wildly overpriced and of quality ranging from poor to inconsistent. (Some of the street vendors in Siem Reap have sandwiches, bananas, and other easily packable items, and there are a number of bakeries in town. Your hostel might also offer picnic lunch foods, although usually this will be at a premium compared to street food.)

The bas-reliefs explored in detail, we wander back to the western entrance to check out a few of the distinctive features there: a statue of Vishnu still decorated and used for prayer; numerous Apsaras etched into the east-facing interior wall; the north and south gatehouses that would have admitted vehicles. Thanks to extensive conservation and reconstruction efforts, you can make out the faint outlines of the old city roads.

It’s already starting to heat up, and our full day yesterday combined with our 0430 wake-up call this morning are starting to take their toll, so we repair to our hostel for an early morning siesta. Thus refreshed in mind, we need some refreshment for the body, so we head to the awesome Chamkar for some delicious vegetarian food:

  • fresh spring rolls;
  • “wedding day dip”, a mix of coconut and peanut with curry spices;
  • cassava fritters;
  • mixed fruit shakes.

This makes up for our lackluster breakfast at the temples and gives us enough energy to tackle our next educational experience: the Angkor National Museum. (If you visit the Angkor area in Cambodia, be prepared for a bit of sticker shock compared to other attractions in Southeast Asia: passes to the Angkor temples cost 20 USD for 1 day or 40 USD for 3 days, and the museum is a further 12 USD on top of that.)

The museum has a number of Buddha statues from various eras on display in the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas (a quick count suggests there might be twice as many as that!) As the Angkorian civilization waned, so did the wealth of material available for these statues; many of the post-Angkorian Buddhas are made of wood or cheaper metals such as copper, in contrast to the stone used at the height of Angkor’s power. Some of the statues have been painted, with traces of red still visible – for some reason, this color seems to be the best-preserved.

There’s also a number of exhibits on the various kings, on the design of Angkor Wat and its relationship to the cardinal directions and equinoxes, on the Hindu mythology, and even on ancient Khmer fashion. We’re feeling a bit over-informationed by the end of it all, but it is nonetheless fascinating!

It’s been a pretty full day, if not quite as athletic as yesterday, and we’ve got another full day over at Koh Ker and Beng Mealea planned for tomorrow. Some relaxation is in order, so we grab some dinner, hit the night markets, and watch Argo before heading off to sleep.