Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Major Temples of Angkor

The Angkor temples have become the number one tourist attraction in Southeast Asia (not including Thailand's beaches). From our guidebooks and fellow travelers, we had heard that the sunset view of Angkor Wat from the summit of Phnom Bakheng, a mountain-top temple, was a must-see. Sunrise at Angkor wat, a world heritage site, was also a required view. To this day, I still can't figure out why either draw the crowds that they do. Our 3-day ticket voucher allowed us entry after 5pm on the day prior to the ticket. This offered a perfect opportunity to watch the sunset from Phnom Bakheng. We arrived at the base of the mountain and began the hike up with hundreds of other tourists; already, I should have known to turn around. On the summit of the mountain, hundreds had gathered. One crowd pointed their cameras towards the setting sun while the other focused on the sunlit Angkor wat. The evening was so hazy, photos were worthless. No matter where you chose to stand, you were in somebody's way for a photo. This was not the way to experience a sunset at the Angkor temples. We left disgruntled but hopeful that sunrise was too early for most.

The 4:30 AM alarm sounded for day 1 at the Angkor temples. The tuk-tuk driver arrived on time, and we were off to Angkor wat, the largest of all the temples. We arrived in complete darkness and followed the sparse crowd across the moat and into the temple courtyard. There, we found a number of flashing flashlights on the main causeway to the temple. We eventually settled in front of a drying pond with, once again, hundreds of others. We figured it wasn't important as we'd get Angkor wat lit up red by the rising sun. That hope was dashed when the sun rose BEHIND the temple and backlit everything. It was no photographer's dream, nor any temple lover's dream. Surrounded by hundreds of tourists, we left Angkor wat to visit any other temple that might be free from the hordes.

We chose Ta Prohm, the smallest and least famous of the major temples. Ta Prohm was erected in the 12th and 13th century and was the temple chosen to remain in its "natural state" upon discovery in the 19th century. This decision meant the silk-cotton and strangler fig trees have remained a peice of Ta Prohm's atmosphere. The temple appears in Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider film.

Guys, I can't give you a better opportunity to see Angelina in tights than now.

"Honey, why'd you rent this movie?"

"I wanted to see the Jol..., ah, Ta Prohm temple from Jeremy's blog."

I can finally call this blog a success; I've linked in Angelina and now I'm bound to get millions of visitors.

Until 8:00 AM, Ta Prohm was empty and silent, the temple experience Laura and I were searching for. The stunning natural state atmosphere of Ta Prohm would prove to be our favorite of all Angkor temples.

Magnificent mirror image bas reliefs decorated each corner.

At 8:00 AM, the wonderful atmosphere was destroyed as hordes of tour buses arrived with Asians and Europeans. Our focus moved from the temple to the Japanese tourists whose obnoxious behavior and unrelenting noise dominated Ta Prohm. They posed in front of picturesque scenery, touched every ancient bas relief within reach, and their guide's microphone blazed throughout their visit. Instead of letting the droves of Japanese get to us, we joined them.

We continued to Angkor Thom, the ancient capital city. The city is enclosed in a 3 square kilometer wall surrounded by a moat. The entrance gates have elephants at the base and four heads facing the four cardinal directions above. The bridge to the gate is lined with gods and demons.

The city has numerous temples, pools, and terraces and most spectacular of all is the Bayon. The former state temple has a mass of ascending face-towers creating a mountain of carved stone.

As we explored the dark hallways of the Bayon, it seemed impossible to avoid the stare of the faces.

Once we clambered atop the temple, we came face to face with them.

The capital city was full of impressive smaller temples. Preah Palilay's tower standing strong against nature's test was a favorite.

Adding to the temple's aura was a butterfly that was overly attracted to Laura's bracelets.

From Angkor Thom, it was time to return to Angkor wat. Soon, the massive towers would be illuminated by the setting sun. Angkor wat is the grandest of all Khmer temples. It was built not only as a temple but as the Khmer capital. The temple has a wide moat that measures nearly 1.5 square kilometers. A long, wide bridge crosses the moat at the western entrance, the main entrance to the temple. Once one has crossed the bridge and entered the gate of the outer wall, a massive courtyard is overshawdowed by the temple praangs in the distance.

As we approached the pond where we had watched the sunrise, we finally got the photo we had wished for.

Not only is Angkor wat unique in its monolithic size, but also in the fact that the main entrance faces west. Nearly all temples face east toward the rising sun; this fact is why we had expected the sun to be illuminating the wat in the morning. Within the temple grounds, bas reliefs depicting Buddhist or Hindu stories were the most impressive thing. The reliefs spanned all gallery walls surrounding the praangs; I estimated each wall to be a half kilometer or more in length.

The praangs themselves were cordoned off and at least two of them had staging around them for repairs.

Our 3-day Angkor temple pass means we'll be visiting the minor Angkor temples in the coming days.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss the insects of the equator. Weather at the equator is never cold, so winter doesn't come to ravage insect populations. Insects thrive all year long. Homes aren't built to withstand cold so often times, holes in the outer walls provide air circulation. Balconies and hallways can be open to the elements. Previous posts have described our encounters with cockroaches and spiders, but our most common roommate is the ant. They come in all sizes and typically form a train directly to any food you may have. Once they've found it (and they will), you are screwed. So, what have we done to defend ourselves? First option, don't bring food to the room; impossible for me. Option 2, hang the food somewhere high and deposit banana peels in the garbage; they'll most likely gather in the garbage bag. Toss the bags out daily. Option 3 means you're already screwed. Just throw food away or wash the ants off with water and enjoy. Start stomping madly once you've enjoyed your food. Option 4 means there is just too many. This happened in Vientiane, and they weren't even attacking our food. They just really wanted to visit. The only solution was the front desk where they provided us Lao RAID. The stuff killed hundreds of ants day after day with just a single spray on the first day.

Each evening and morning, we'd sweep up a new batch of death. The scary thing is we slept with the fumes of Lao RAID for three days, and I'm starting to wonder if my minor Tourette's syndrome is an affect of agent orange (aka, Lao RAID).


Anonymous said...

those temple pics are wonderful the trees look to be huge--are there monkeys living at these temple ruins or are there still some monks that care for parts of them? must be you were able to protect your camera from all the red dust and it is hard to believe that you haven't lost it or some other valuables with all your swimming stops,etc. keep up the good work Laura!!!!!

Laura said...

Keeping the dust off is no easy task, but keeping Jeremy from losing things is a major undertaking!
There are no monkeys at the temples. Basically there is a Cambodian organization is charge of caring for the temples, with a lot of foreign money! Unfortunately Cambodia doesn't invest any money on protecting their own legacy, so they have to rely on other countries (France, Xina, India.. )

Greg said...

Holy Crap ....... what spectacular photos of the faces at Bayon Temple. Were you using a mind altering substance at the time? They are truly quite professional.

The 1/2 km walls with relief - I imagine these kept some folks busy for awhile. The "stone" appears to be a sandstone and has an oxide deposit - discoloration - which appears to be very similar to those on buildings in cities and old natural rock formations such as Grand Canyon walls.

"Minor Tourette's" - yet another endearing trait. Boy fishing with you guys will be even more of a blast. "Holy Crap" they say it is contagious.

Lao Raid .. and now you know where the DDT from USA went.

Quite an enjoyable read .. once again.

Thank you - From Warm 37F here today VT