Ok I’m struggling. Clearly Lady Croft was a lot to live up to.
The day started dark, lit only by blue and white Christmas icicles and flashing stars adorning the trees around the hotel. Hot, but festive. Full of hope. All good.
We drove in the darkness at speeds never exceeding 30km/h toward Angkor Wat, bought my entry ticket, were dropped from the car in the dark and, leaving the world of artificial light, set off like good pilgrims in darkness down a track into the unknown.
Stars pricked the velvet blackness of the predawn sky, all was silent, the outer rock wall of the temple loomed in the faint light of the guide’s cell phone. We rounded a corner and gasped, just able to discern the towers of the great temple complex against the near black sky. Motorbikes passed breaking the moment with sound and light, flashlights popped as people tried to capture the dim moment in pixels. I adjusted my ISO to max, manually focused, sat the camera on what I think was a rock wall and 8 seconds later (no flash) had a moderately focused poorly composed silhouette of Angkor Wat with the evening star bright above her spires. Should have gone home then.
Instead we followed the departing motorbikes, rounded a corner to join (at the less tourist infested west gate) a crowd of several thousand happy snappers. It felt like The Henge at midsummer minus Hari Krishnas.
Amazing how many people think their iPad is a valid camera or that a flash will work at 100m. Anyway the next 30 mins was spent trying to get the perfect sunrise shot. There was no collective Ahh at the moment of solar magnificence just jostling, climbing on monuments, the waving skyward of phones/pads and the occasional camera up above the crowd to try to get an unpopulated shot or 40.
I took a couple of shots of what looked to me like a sitting Ganesha on the Angkor Wat rampart (level 2) – ok it was a round lump with bits on each side like ears. I laughed, I photographed, I thought of Sri Ganesha. Turns out it was a library.
I did manage to get a couple of nice reflections of the Angkor Wat silhouette, but the event turned more into a struggle to get the best shot (without people in the way or a tripod to hold the exposure) rather than enjoying the moment. I actually believe among my 40+ photos there are probably two or three worth seeing. Digital makes us profligate.
So at 620, and the sun now duly inhabiting the sky, my guide Sok and I began our whirlwind paced marathon around 7 sites in 6 hours. No wonder the only part of me that felt engaged was my butt! (Yes I can walk post massage but the ball joints where my femurs and hips interact may never be the same.)
So into Angkor Wat. Level one, amazing carving of the Ramayana and Mahabharata – lots of columns, lots of Korean and Chinese tourists unable to read the do not climb, do not enter, no access signs despite the pictograms. Breathing. Through a magic doorway, fabulous sunrise glow on the sandstone carvings. Up a very steep staircase. Remember this is a sacred site. Built as an earthly embodiment of Mount Meru the home of the Hindu gods, entry is meant to be slow and deliberate, climbing to the presence of the sacred is meant to be hard work.
And so to the second level and the Apsaras, topless buxom young girls who danced for the Hindu gods. An earthly reward for the toil of climbing to level 2: lovely carving, nice spot. No monkeys. Lovely sunrise ambience.
Sadly level 3 doesn’t open till 740am, we are too early so miss the final heroic climb to enlightenment.
Sigh <you all know me well enough to visualise my pursed lipped look> “you have three day pass, you can come back.” Says Sok unwilling to wait the hour for level 3. <lips squeeze yet tighter, eyebrows descend. We move on. I do not forget.>
Maybe it was missing level 3, but the climb, the pilgrimage, leaving home in the dark, making special preparations (breakfast in a box), the journey up the sacred mountain… well, like the sunrise, it missed it’s Ahh moment. Kinda sad.
And so, denied enlightenment, we descended and processed westward out the funerary gate (shrouded in German restorative scaffolding and tarpaulins) along the very impressive causeway (could have ridden in on your elephant had you had one in the garage) toward the tethered helium balloon going up and down at $15 a trip (not on my itinerary.)
Apparently the causeway was originally balustraded by Naga – seven headed serpents. I am finding it interesting that the serpent cobra Naga is clearly an ancient Cambodian mythical symbol, adopted by Buddhism. It is a symbol in early Hinduism too but this emphasis seems indigenous. There are also a number of early creation myths involving this highly female earthy raw primitive fertility symbol and it seems interesting that even Buddhism assimilated dominant local beliefs in its moves into new lands and cultures.
I also find it interesting how the Hindu stories morphed and changed emphasis as they moved out of India into Indochina. The Ramayana being more important here than the Mahabharata for example (all readers nod sagely hoping fervently that I’ll move on to something they understand or that they can find faintly interesting.)
Anyway, as I said, denied level 3 we descended and set off apace down the causeway out of Angkor Wat and into a cafe for my breakfast in a box and a truly magnificent iced coffee. Down and done by 815. Whompa.
In the car and off next to Angkor Thom. Out of the car 90 seconds later. Excellent imposing southern gate to this massive city – first of the day with massive stone smiling faces and three headed elephants carved into the stone blocks. $15 elephant rides available through the gate, no thanks but nice elephants.
Impressive huge causeway with gods to the left, demons to the right playing tug-o-war with a massive Naga to stir up the cosmic milk (will have to research that little myth later-quite a perplexing tale. Wonder how the Naga felt about it? Stirring the cosmic milk to make the nectar of salvation? Most intriguing.)
Anyway through the gate, back in our Camry with Pooh sunshades on the back for ease of identification and on to the Bayon. Dead impressive. Hundreds of towers each carved with four faces for the four faces of Buddhism. Ok there are only 108 towers but at four faces each that makes hundreds of “enigmatic” faces! Truly excellent, being renovated by some Japanese, really good. More steep steps and my butt was feeling engaged again. Like many in Cambodia this is a cross pollinated temple; while built Buddhist it has developed several Hindu lingum over the years. As you do. It’s a verdant country. Must say the bas-reliefs were amazingly detailed but my eyes were starting to glaze over a bit. Sadly we missed the bas-relief of the Khmer circus, that might have been different to all the battle scenes. See Hindu kings belong to the warrior cast and it was important people remembered the size of your, umm army, hence the size of the bas-reliefs.
Despite allegedly also being a working temple like Angkor Wat, not a single orange clad monk was about – sensible chaps given the thousands of tourists clambering around.
Anyway back in the car for 120 seconds up to the Elephant Terrace where Sok announces, “Miss Wendy walk along here, look at elephants. See you at end after Terrace of Leper King.” And so Miss Wendy was bundled out of Pooh Camry to walk along Elephant Terrace so creatively named for all the elephants carved into it! Basically it was a 300m long terrace (grandstand, pavilion, platform) for the watching of royal entertainment on the parade ground in front.
At the far end was an interesting sort of maze below a platform (higher than the elephant terrace) on which sits a statue of a gent (probably a king) who clearly had some wasting disease and hence is known as The Leper King. I found the maze below the platform (not really a maze more a twisting 4m deep unroofed passage lined with – you guessed it bas-relief) more interesting than his-nibs. This time the figures were underworld deities, kings, celestial females (!) demons and multi headed nagas. No-one seemed clear on the purpose of the passage or in fact the terrace: seemed to me that if the builder was a deformed diseased king he probably wanted to remind everyone for every future generation who came to that playground full of health for sport and entertainment, that he suffered living damnation. Maybe it’s a statement of anger spurning their healthy athleticism, maybe defiance showing himself at home with demons when shunned by the healthy. Who knows his motive but I found it quite profound.
<have to say my day’s improving on reflection telling you guys about it-thanks 🙂 >
So back in the car – end of morning program (it’s only 930 but I guess we started at 5 not 8). No need for rest or lunch says Lady Croft, off to the next fabulous adventure. Maybe an error, but who needs lunch and a nap at 930?
So off we go to Preah Kahn – temple of the sacred sword, another Buddhist temple, but no visible sword or Buddhists. A small band of land mine victims playing tunefully by the path did extract a donation from yours truly. Poor sods looked like they might have drawn solace from the leper king’s defiant refusal to be ignored.
Anyway Preah Kahn was probably my favourite. It has been restored but the trees have been left in place. In 300 years the trees will have destroyed it but (selfishly) for now the rubble and roots and vines and echoes of magic and mystery were enchanting. There weren’t so many tourists, maybe that helped. It still wasn’t atmospheric, my butt was still all that was fully engaged, but this was what I was looking to see.
I made the mistake of expecting too much from Lady Croft and our final stop at Ta Prom. Should have let myself be immersed in Preah Kahn.
Ta Prom was fabulous, if only you could have shouted “fire! fire!” in 30 languages and removed several thousand tourists. It is where movie scenes are filmed, it’s amazing, but truly, the tens of thousands of happy snapping clamberers meant Sok and I burned around like we had a plane to catch. I snapped away, practiced excuse me in every language I know and we hustled. The roots cling like stalactites, the rocks are moss covered and falling in casual disarray, a beautiful yellow butterfly fluttered and sat briefly on a crumbling wall, but the frelling tourists!
The photos look better than the experience coz I mangled to get people out of most of them, but it really was way too crowded to appreciate.
So it was back to the hotel by 12 my full day tour over before lunch – fair enough I guess since we started at 5 and skipped “930 lunch”.
Since then I’ve lunched, napped and written to you lot – and I feel so much better. No I really do, I was feeling quite down about the day but having processed it all writing to you and reviewing my 262 photos I feel good.
I have Christmas Day as a free day in my program and a three day temple ticket in my purse. Apparently for $25 I can get a Took Took for the day. Think I’ll do that and about 7am head out to Angkor Wat and the third level, then to Ta Prohm hopefully before the hoards. And back to the hotel by lunch I expect. May even take a ride in the balloon you never know.
Tomorrow Sok and I have another full day of temples, but this one is a two hour drive away through scenic countryside and villages. AND we have a picnic lunch!! Bring on the bas-reliefs!