Its Rich and I's second day exploring the temples of Siem Reap and today its the big one – Angkor Wat itself. Its a well thought through strategic decision, part of Sunrise Strategy II. We didn't want to see it on the first day - and “peak too soon” but we're also slightly superstitious about saving it til the last day – in case for some reason we are let down (!) or the weather doesn't hold up.
We leave again at 4.30am and this time arrive around 5am at a twinkling bank of fairy lights – a hundred tuk tuks already lined up and dropping off tourists.
We situate ourselves at the edge of the lake so that we can look out over the water infront of us and watch the sun rise over the outline of one of the world's most famous temples. There is already a thick line of travellers who have beat us to it but we still get ring side seats. Or so we think.
At first everything is deep black but then gradually the sky lightens to a petrol blue and the silhouette of a long, thin arc of a bending palm tree and its spidery fronds frame the jigsaw shadow of the temple. A silver slice of moon hangs above with its star. It looks almost biblical and as its December 18th it makes for a picture perfect Christmas postcard. The early morning light slowly shifts to apricot as the golden face of the sun rises above the rooftops.
At this point one man decides that his view needs to be better than everyone else. He removes his flip flops and wades out into the lake – thereby ruining the photo for just about every other single person there. People shout and ask him to get back but he just angrily turns round and gesticulates back. Then the stone throwing begins.
I'm almost in awe of this idiot. It really does take an attitude of complete, narcisstic egomanical selfishness to do what he's done and he really couldn't care less.
“I wonder if we can guess his nationality” says Rich with a wicked gleam in his eye.
“ooh thats a good idea!”
“No.... it would be racist!” he says backtracking.
Once the sun has risen I move angles a bit and gradually the invisible protocol not to mention the precedent set by the Lone Ranger of the Lake has dissolved as one by one people inch their way along the perimeter trying to crouch by the waters edge to get the perfect photo.
I've made the mistake of leaving two inches of land spare between me and the water, a Japanese man comes and balances precariously in front and then bends over thrusting his buttocks up against my knees.
The man from the lake wades out and walks away talking loudly to some one who isn't embarrassed to be his companion.
“Oooooh French” I say. “well that makes sense.”
“...!” says Rich.
“Oh sorry” I say .....but a couple next to me laugh loudly in recognition.
Thats the thing about travelling, whilst you realise how alike you can be in your basic human desires it does seem to draw out the national stereotypes in both us and our travelling friends we meet along the way.
I don't think I've ever felt British... until I started travelling that is. And now I've never felt more British in my life! I've realised i'm really quite reserved and very polite and more than anything I miss the “British sense of humour” and absolutely pine for a decent , proper, lovely cup of tea. Asians shout:
"England? Manchester United!" at me pretty much every day!
Would that be considered racist?
Maybe its just when we begin reinforcing our negative pre conceptions about each other that laughing at and embracing our cultural differences ends and xenophobia begins.
As the crowds have filtered away we make our way up to the entrance. The bright early sunshine reveals that the main one is covered in tarp and scaffolding. Not quite as romantic.
“Shall we meet at 9am? “ asks Rich
“We won't want more than two and half hours will we?”
God I quail at the thought, my stamina for scaling ruins is minimal. I anticipate being done and ready for a thick Cambodian coffee by about 7.30...
The grey crumbling brickwork of the largest temple is a site to behold. It is decorated by Devatas (Harem panted, bare-breasted women dancers with fingers curled into mudras and wry smiles.) Some of the breasts look more polished than others. A hundred thousand traveller hands have glided, groped and fondled their way past.
In the corridors of stone it is cool and shaded, sometimes the alley wells are lit with golden buddhas and the smoke of incense.
Rich and I have decided to go without a tour guide. We want to find our own way around and not be restricted by anyone setting a path. Also, I have the attention span of a gnat and tend to just tune out if people talk for too long so we both figure we'll enjoy it more if we do our own thing and read up on it later. Judging by the quality of some of the monologues I hear we made a wise choice – so if you do fork out for a guide make sure their English is excellent and they know their stuff!
I make my way to the corridor that runs along the lower outer perimeter of the temple. Its quieter here. Looking up into the dark ceiling of a recess I can see the furry bobbing mass of bats and just hear their chittering. Around the corner a guide is explaining the relief work on the nearest wall. Marble smooth as milk has been intricately carved to tell the Hindu story of Vishnu and the Lake of the Burning sea. To one side I come across a large slim Buddha about 8 ft tall standing in a concave. He has the same fleshy enigmatic smile and unseeing eyes as the Devatas. I get a weird feeling looking up at him and then suddenly its as if all of my senses are switched up a notch and I can see and hear everything in minute detail: the hum of traffic far away, the insects buzzing and shuffling, the bird song. I take a seat on one of the marble walls and gaze out at the bright grasshopper green of the lawns below.
I start to think about my cousin Sarah. She died very suddenly in her sleep three years ago when she was my age now, 37. When I was little she was like the older sister I never had. We used to spend time romping around the countryside of Esher picking fistfuls of blackberries, making midnight feasts – and she gave me a life long love of all things that go bump in the night by scaring me witless with ghost stories. As adults we had grown apart but more recently got back in touch again and just begun to forge the strands of a new friendship, unpicking the bones of our relationships past and marveling at their similarities.
A runner and in good health, she simply went to sleep one night and didn't wake up. She left behind a partner and three young boys under the age of 10. The doctors think now it was a genetic heart condition -a virus that her mother's line was prone to. Only after her funeral did it come out that two other women in the family had also died suddenly and young. The older generations don't talk about things like we do... things get buried away and feelings and heartbreak gets stuffed down deep, somewhere dark with the memories; so the family never even knew she was at risk. I've never lost someone my own age before and I still find myself side walled by this grief that bubbles up like a well spring out of nowhere from time to time.
I find myself questioning again the senselessness of her loss but this time i'm gradually overcome with this remarkable feeling of peace.
There is a thought that introduces itself .... that there is a Grand Design. We can't question each and every single independent element of it because we are like a jigsaw – we all fit together to make the whole and cannot be understood separately. I see an image of an oyster shell, its scalloped lip shaped by many fine layers. I see that - for this lifetime part of becoming whole is accepting ourselves fully as who we are, imperfect. But part of this Grand Design is our constant perfection over many lifetimes: our souls are refined and sanded and perfected over and over until, like the individual layers of a shell pressed down on one another, we become whole again. Its the closest thing I've ever had to a spiritual moment. Not only was Sarah a keen traveller who was, at least in part, the inspiration behind my own voyage but she also sent her kids to Buddhist school so I think she would have approved of this morning's revelation.
I look at my watch and realise its 9am. Somehow I have managed to be here two and a half hours. And It didn't seem like any time at all.