Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Angkor Wat: Better than Machu Picchu?

From Bangkok, we hopped on a quick flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The goal?  To see the ruins of Angkor Wat and other temples in the area.

When we had previously discussed the trip itinerary, Giorgio had asked various times, “what exactly is Angkor Wat again?”  Stephanie’s response was usually that it was the “Machu Picchu of Cambodia” and therefore a must-see.  Now that he’s been to Angkor Wat, Giorgio would like everyone to know that (in his opinion) it puts Machu Picchu to shame.  First of all, it’s not just one site – we saw several impressive temples, only one of which is Angkor Wat, and one large walled city (Angkor Thom).  That was only the tip of the iceberg.  Furthermore, the temples are not only an architectural wonder, but also boast incredible decorations and sculptures, the likes of which we certainly haven’t seen at Machu Picchu.  The main galleries of the various temples are home to intricate wall carvings, typically depicting Hindu and/or Buddhist myths – these works are not unlike Roman and Greek friezes.

We scheduled a tour guide for the two full days that we’d be in the area.  Even though it’s certainly possible (and enjoyable) to wander around the ruins on your own, we thought we needed to learn a bit more about the history and religion to fully appreciate our visit.  Plus, who knows when we’ll be back!

For our first afternoon, though, we didn’t have a plan.  Our trip from Bangkok was seamless and we arrived with plenty of time to start our explorations early.  Our taxi driver to town from the airport was so gregarious, telling us all about Cambodian politics and asking about the US, that we promptly took him up on his offer to drive us to some of the ruins in the afternoon.  We arranged to see a few of the temples that weren’t included on our official itinerary and decided on the perfect spot to see the sunset before setting off again from our hotel.

Our first stop was the ticket booth, where we purchased a three-day pass to see all the temples.  Giorgio almost got a free pass when the girls selling the tickets decided he looked Cambodian, which would have been great since the pass is not cheap.  Every Cambodian we met quickly pointed out that the money from the concession was going to the Vietnamese, rather than staying in the country like they thought it should.  In Cambodia, they view the Vietnamese with the same distaste that the locals in other countries we have visited reserve for the Chinese.  According to the locals, Vietnam is trying to annex Cambodia.  Who knew?

We clambered through some of the oldest temples in the complex, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, marveling at the Sanskrit inscriptions that remained in the stone as well as the stone elephants and singhas continuing to stand guard on many of the pyramids.

As sunset approached, we hiked to the top of a hill to the south of Siem Reap and the other ruins.  This summit was fortuitously located far from the more popular and crowded sites to view the sunset and, in addition to being home to the ruins of a temple, boasted a fabulous view of Tonle Sap Lake (the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia). 

Not long after the fabulous sunset, it was time to wake up before dawn to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  Although we usually make a point of avoiding large crowds, we made an exception for what we had heard would be a once in a lifetime view.

Our guide, Nol, picked us up bright and early at 4:45 to lead us to a spot in front of the temple in the dark.  We arrived just in time to have a front row view, although Nol sternly warned us not to move, as we would lose our place.  More and more tourists arrived as we waited, including various Asian photo-enthusiasts who tried to steal a spot in front of us along with their giant lenses and tripods.  We firmly stood our ground to maintain the prime position.

As we peered into the darkness, listening to the crickets and the babble of languages surrounding us, the temple towers gradually came into view, along with their reflection in the pond.  Although clouds obscured the famous view of the bright sun rising directly behind the turrets, the gradual emergence of the legendary temple in the dawn light was still well worth the early wake up call.  As the sun rose, the small plot of land in front of the temple filled with people – it was like we were attending a sold-out concert.

After the sunrise followed by a picnic breakfast along the calm banks of the moat, we began our explorations in earnest.  In the jungle, we encountered temples in various stages of ruin, as well as the vast city complex of Angkor Thom.  Giorgio’s photos are the best way to describe the experience, so we’ll let them speak for themselves and simply note some of the highlights along the way.

Many smiling faces at Bayon:

Ta Prohm, or the “Tomb Raider” temple:

Bantay Srei, the only temple made of pink sandstone:

We knew little to nothing about Angkor and the Khmer kingdom before our visit and welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the complex civilization that ruled the region several centuries ago.  We hadn’t even realized that most of the temples in what is now a Buddhist country originated as Hindu temples, designed to worship gods like Vishnu and Shiva. Throughout the reigns of various kings between the 9th and 14th centuries, temples were erected to honor either Hindu or Buddhist gods, as beliefs flip flopped between the two religions.  Each king was considered to be a deity in his own right, so a temple would often be built in his honor as well.  When a new king ascended to the throne, he would mandate the construction of a new temple to surpass the previously erected structures.  Visiting the temples in chronological order means that each is more impressive than the last.

Our guide also provided insight into more recent Cambodian history, describing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge as well as the current problems of government corruption.  Nol compared the Khmer Rouge to the devils depicted in the carvings lining the galleries at Angkor Wat.  They utilized the same methods of torture and after the fall of Pol Pot, the local people came to the temple to scratch out the faces of the devils, which they also linked to the regime’s cruelty.  More than one Cambodian we met lamented that Cambodians are very unlucky people.  “Not like America – Americans very lucky people,” Nol would say.

Some of the temples, such as Angkor Wat itself, are still in use by the Buddhist monks and therefore enforce the same dress code that we encountered in Bangkok.  We had also read that the Cambodians view all of Angkor as a sacred site and are routinely taken aback by the clothing worn by tourists, but are too polite to point this out.  Keeping this all in mind, we wore pants and t-shirts both days despite the heat, rather than the tank tops and booty shorts favored by some other visitors.  When one American girl was told that she could not enter the second story of Angkor Wat due to her attire, we overheard her tell her friends “that’s so racist!”  We are pretty sure she doesn’t understand the definition of racism or how to be respectful when visiting a foreign country.

In between explorations of the temple complex, we had plenty of time to escape the intense heat relaxing poolside in the shade and exploring the city of Siem Reap.  Although it isn’t a large town, it’s easiest to navigate via tuk tuk because of the chaotic traffic and nonexistent sidewalks.  We wandered through the market, sampled Cambodian street food (but avoided the fried spiders), conducted a taste test of “Cambodia” beer versus “Angkor” beer, discovered Cambodian barbecue (basically a combination of shabu-shabu and Korean barbecue), and stopped for a $1 foot massage.  The ladies at the massage parlor found Giorgio to be endlessly entertaining, not because he was a man getting a massage (there were plenty of other husbands/boyfriends on the premises), but presumably because of his mysterious ethnicity.

We concluded this initial Cambodian adventure with a 15 minute tuk-tuk drive to the airport the following morning.  We are now in Laos, about to embark on a new adventure: motor-biking around the Bolaven Plateau.  Stay tuned for updates detailing Gio’s driving skills and Steph’s ability (or inability) to read signs in Lao.


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