Angkor Wat

The Lone Ranger in the Lake and the truth about Anchor Watt (part two)

The  Lone Ranger in the Lake

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.

Angkor Watt and Sunrise Strategy 101 for beginners, Siem Reap, Cambodia (part one)

Its time for Awesome Angkor Wat. I'm beyond excited. We've parted ways with the Aussie girls I met scrubbing down elephants and i've stayed on travelling to Siem Reap with Rich, the laconic, blonde ad man from London. 

Rich and I have time to spare and really don't like the idea of cramming in all of the sites into one hot, touristy day – (1 day pass -$20) so we are opting for the 3 day pass ($40) . 

After much deliberation we have a plan – its Sunrise Strategy 101...for beginners... 

We want to do our own route and (steel yourself) we've opted to do sunrise at a different temple on each of the three days. That means a sprightly 4.30am start. Luckily the three day pass can be used on any day over a given week so we plan our selves a day off in between to recuperate by the pool. Which (as I am not quite as young as I used to be) allows time for the greying skin and bags under the eyes to retreat as well, and if you are not time starved I highly recommend. 

The logic is this: although there will be plenty of people hauling themselves out of bed at that ungodly hour to see Angkor Wat, the main tour buses don't arrive into the site until 9 am. We've been tipped off by the Aussies that if we catch sunrise at the other temples – Ta Prohm (the jungly temple where Tomb Raider was shot) and Bayon, the temple of enigmatically smiling Buddha heads, we may just get them to ourselves. 

The site is too large and spread out to do on foot; enthusiastic and very fit cyclists can show themselves around by bike, but otherwise if you are not part of a tour group - hiring a tuk tuk and/or a guide is your best bet. Rich leaves me with the job of sourcing our transport for the next day. As I leave the hotel i'm met by a bank of the fellows – who have a rather strange habit of raising their arm in a salute to command your attention whilst lying supine in the shade of their tuk tuk. 

“I wouldn't mind” says Rich later – “but its the fact that most of them can't even be bothered to stand up for the business that gets me!” 

The consesus amongst them seems to be $20 and $25 per day (the same quotes as the hotel) and they really don't like the idea of us going “off piste” as it were with our own route. 

Slowly they fall away. One driver comes out of the shadow of his tuk tuk and smiles hesitantly. 

“I do for $10” he says shyly. 

“Really?!!” I say 

So we agree $10 a day and for the one where we want to go further out – we agree $20 and the next day Mun (pronounced Moon) meets us bang on 4.30 am. Its wise to take along long sleeves and also something to cover legs, not just because its chilly at this unholy hour but because its required out of respect in some of the smaller temples (and within part of Angkor Wat itself.) 

I'm also sporting my new Cambodian Army baseball cap that April persuaded me to buy. 

“Good God you are not actually going to wear that are you?” says Rich looking aghast... 

“Yes why not?!” 

“Well it could go either way couldn't it?...I'm not sure 

how much sense of humour they have about their army... 

“The Khmer Rouge might see you and kill you!” he adds a tad dramatically. 

They don't, you'll be pleased to know. Actually the opposite is true –they laugh and shake my hand -Cambodians that is, not the Khmer Rouge...that would just be scary. 

We start our half hour journey to the temples and gradually shapes come out of the darkness. Villagers live within the temple grounds and as we pass little straw huts balanced on building bricks; we see the faces of children lit up by the smoke and glow of early morning fires as they crouch outside with their parents. One small boy is curled up across the thigh of a huge supine water buffalo. 

I'm accosted by a little girl and her mum selling “hot coffeeee!” as I stumble out of the tuk tuk which should please other night owls and caffeine freaks but is too early for me to drink anything or be polite. We watch the sun rise over The Royal Bathing Pools with only a scattering of other people for company. The palm trees across the lake create an inky silhouette mirrored back perfectly in the flat undisturbed glass of the water. Gradually the light at the corners of the sky shifts from indigo to turquoise and a warm peach glows lights the horizon. Its a tranquil, magical start to the day. 

At 6 o clock Ta Prohm opens so we walk over and through the ornate archway into our first Angkor Temple. 

 



We are the only people here aside from one other French couple. The first rays of early morning light filter through the leaves onto ancient stones grey and mottled with a pale moss, giving an unearthly feel to our first ruin. We stand and admire the entrance – a crazy paving of broken up slabs and archways speared by the bone white trunks of two large trees that leer out of the top of the temple. 

Ta Prohm was built in the 12th to 13th century by Jarvarmun V11 as a Buddhist monastery. It looks like the jungle has been trying to reclaim it ever since. Enormous tree trunks thrust their way through the open rooves and branches drape their way around windows. Its an extraordinary monument – nature at its wildest trying to swallow whole the offering man made to her. When the French couple leave we have the place to ourselves and we can explore the place in silence; its awe inspiring and just a little eerie. The pale rays of the sun send slivers of light through archways; touch with gold the curling tendrils of the vines; and light up the giant grey roots that lurch over doorways. My scream shatters the silence. A millipede as long as my hand winds past me and drapes itself over a stone step. The heat of the morning sun brings more tourists with her. So we leave, pleased to have shared our first Angkor temple with nothing but birdsong and the creatures of the jungle. 

As we leave Mun greets us where we left him and takes us to a restaurant he knows for breakfast. Usually tuk tuk drivers will have a deal set up with cafes but Mun says he doesn't get free anything and sure enough we watch him pay at the end. 

“ I don't know how you did it but I think you managed to find the only honest and cheapest tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap! “ says Rich appreciatively. 



Breakfast is thick Cambodian coffee with sweet condensed milk and a delicious Ban Xeo – a frilly edged, freshly fried pancake stuffed with bean sprouts and pork with sweet dipping sauce and aromatic herbs and crushed peanuts for garnish. 

Our next main temple is Banteay Srei – this temple is set a way out of the main tour circuit of temples so you will need to pay extra for a visit. In my opinion it is worth it. 

Built around 967 its name means Citadel of Women and it is strikingly distinct for its intricately delicate reliefs that are carved out of red standstone. It has an intriguing Pink Panther-esque history as well as its the victim of a theft by the French writer and artist Malreaux who tried to remove and take home two of the bas reliefs. Ironically he was arrested by French colonial authorities who much later in his career made him Minister for Cultural affairs! 

On our way back we visit the Landmine Museum. It was created by a boy soldier who fought under the Khmer Rouge and afterwards dedicated his life to removing landmines -using his technical knowledge and his bare hands. The museum is a little ramshackle in its set up but you can see all kinds of ammunitions and landmines that have been used both by Cambodia and the USA. Cambodia has the worst landmine problem with Unexploded ordinance still peppering the rural landscape, and its well worth visiting and supporting this cause. 

We finish our first day with a visit to a smaller temple - Thomanen. A woman in straw pointed hat offers me some incense and I say no. You have to pay to make an offering at the Buddha shrines within the temples and I'm feeling hustled but as she shuffles away she removes her hat to reveal a shaved head, she is a Buddhist nun. 

 



Thomamen is a series of curling arches set back amongst pine trees and away from the hustle and dirt of the road and its tuk tuks. It feels special here somehow, the air feels thick with energy. 

I go back and find the nun and give her some money for a donation. She smiles a gappy toothless sile and ties a red cotton bracelet around my right wrist. Its a Buddha bracelet -for good luck.
When I meet with Rich he says: 

“that place had something really …..magical about it. But maybe its because it was set away from the others...in the trees.” 

I nod silently. Its strange we've both thought the same thing. 

By midday we are ready to call it a day. Well we have been going 8 hours and the sun has burnt off the early morning coolness; the sky is a pristine navy blue. I like our Sunrise Strategy as it allows us to get in early and avoid the thrust and bustle of the packed tourists who are now scurrying over the remains like ants, and then leave when the heat is at its peak. We head back to the hotel to build up our energy reserves for another 4.30am start to morrow, and the biggy – Angkor Wat itself.