‘Coffee? You want coffee? Yes? Maybe latah. You remembah me, ookay? Coffee. Maybe latah.’ In the dark, the young boy follows us persistently. ‘No, thank you’ I say, even though Trish and I both would like some coffee. But the little ‘restaurant’ outside Srah Srang, which is a tiny temple at the edge of the baray (artificial lake) is not the place we will get it.
But damn it sure would taste good right now. It’s 5am, and we are here for the next hour watching the sun rise over Cambodia, one of the classic adventure travel events on the planet.
The strategy for Angkor temples
If we had a strategy for handling Beijing, it failed. I think nothing would have avoided the massive crowds we faced except coming outside the summer tourist season. But ANgkor Wat offers more alternatives for meeting our goals of avoiding crowds, seeing the best stuff and keeping kids interested.
My three day plan looks something like this:
Day 1: Flight over the temples. We do this early on the first day because the operator suggested we do it first in case they had to cancel flights and re-book us. But it’s also best to do early mornings when you first arrive because the kids will gradually get tired of touring temples. In the afternoon, I picked a lesser temple Preah Kahn. I don’t want to start with the best ones, because it’s better to build toward a climax.
Day 2: Sunrise is a must at Angkor. We try Srah Srang to avoid the crowds. Afterward we will see the large and forested complexes at Bantrey Kbei and Ta Phrom. If we have time, we’ll do Pre Rup. Then after a nap and lunch in the middle of the day, we’ll go to the Roluos Group of temples, some of the oldest.
Day 3: We sleep in (till 7:00) and get to the headline sites of the Bayon, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Then after a quick lunch, a trip north to the forest waterfall and ancient site of Kbal Spaen and then the magnificent Banteay Srey end the long but awesome day.
If we had anymore time, there are trips to the floating or stilted villages that can be fun. And I would love to have an evening to see the Phnom Krom sunset. But we have 3 days only. Two million tourists visit Angkor annually and the average stay is 2.5 days, which just isn’t enough. Do yourself a favor and book 4 days minimum.
How do you describe a sunrise?
The sunrise was critical to the architects at Angkor. Most of the temples faces east and lots of reflecting pools are oriented to view the sunrise. Srah Srang is a baray, which is a rectangular pool of water, the purose of which is still a mystery.
Angkor Wat was once dominated by two huge Barays (Called east and west) but only the West survives. They may have had an agricultural use, but no records indicate that. Or it might have been purely for the symbolism of Mt. Meru and the cosmic ocean.
We share the daybreak with a handful of other photographers, but not the kinds of crowds that are a mile west at Angkor Wat. If you came here in the off-season, you’d surely have a religious experience by yourself. The sunrise isn’t brilliant, but together with the Nagas and Lions, the experience is authentic.
We head across the street to Banteay Kdei, one of the larger monastic complexes, but far from the largest. Banteay means citadel or walled temple. It’s mostly unrestored and was built somewhat clumsily. The architecture is from the late Khmer Empire period and was Buddhist, which is why there is no moat.
And it’s spectacular. The light is perfect, softly glowing but low in the sky so it creates shadows everywhere. And the trees inside are huge, some strangling the buildings in a frightening show of natures’ gradual power to destroy man’s constructions.
And the tunnels have buddhas everywhere, especially in the center where Lily decides it’s time to pray to one. We light incense and she kneels and prays. We’ve tried to explain the fundamentals of Buddhism, but it hasn’t been absorbed as well as with Emma. Lily gets up and says “I wished for a happy life!” That’s not bad, actually.
Anger at Angkor
Emma corrects me. “It’s ANG-KOR, not AN-GER’ something I explained to them yesterday. She is technically right, I kind of slurred it out. ‘Emma stop arguing, please.’ She’s in a phase where she corrects everyone, no matter how trivial or annoying.
‘I’m not arguing.’ she says.
‘Yes, you are.’
‘No, I”m not’
‘You’re still arguing.’
‘No, you are.’ she says.
Sigh. The past few days the family has been playfully fighting and arguing. ‘Mommy, you have a big butt’ Lily says. ‘Daddy, you were stupid to go to Pakistan when you could have gone to Phuket.’ was one I heard at least 10 times. It’s meant in fun, but it’s getting on my nerves a little.
The greatest city of it’s time
I change the subject. ‘Hey did you know that Angkor was, at it’s peak, the largest city on earth?’ Actually it is the largest pre-industrial city in history. The closest contemporary city would have been Mayan Tikal, with maybe a tenth of that population.
The Khmer civilization began in 800 or so when the first Emporer, Jayavarman II declared the empire independent from Java and himself the god-king or universal monarch. Thus began more than half a millenia of fantastic architecture, economics and culture.
Angkor means ‘city’ from an old sanskrit word. All that’s left are the religious monuments, built with sandstone. The other buildings would have been constructed of wood or thatch and have long disintegrated. It’s hard to fathom that what used to exist here was even bigger than even Siem Reap today, which has only has a few hundred thousand people.
I’m a little ashamed and surprised that I know so little about one of the worlds greatest civilizations. I had no idea about the size, magnitude and cultural depth of the Khmer Empire. Possibly that’s because it collapsed and never regained it’s importance. In the 15th century, Angkor was attacked and defeated by the Siamese, and they retreated toward the ocean, never to regain their stature.
One of the biggest builders at Angkor was Jayavarman the VII, the most revered of the ancient Khmer Kings. His most important additions are Angkor Thom, which we will see tomorrow. Today though, our second and last temple is Ta Phrom, a temple he build to Bhramin for his mother.
The temple is huge and at one time had six or seven hundred apsara dancers as part of the regular religious ceremonies. It follows the flat temple layout, with a gate to the east and a series of concentric squares that surround the central space.
Ta Phrom was known by tourists for being the ‘jungle temple’ and is extra famous for having been the initial set location of the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie. The French were initially responsible for the excavation of Angkor Wat, principally clearing the forest. But they deliberately left Ta Phrom in a state of ‘apparent neglect’ in a ‘concession to the general taste for the picaresque.’ Gotta love the French.
There is a lot of construction here though, and the site is covered in walkways. It seems they may be restoring it again, which is a shame. The appearance of ‘apparent neglect’ is much more interesting than neatly reconstructed buildings.
Ta Phrom is missing the expected bas-relief artwork that adornes everything else. One possible reason for this is that Jayavarman VII, was the first major King to adopt Buddhism in favor of Hinduism. This caused backlash after he died, and the are may have been destroyed by later Hindu kings.
Just about every little hut on the side of the road sells liters of gas dispensed from old coke bottles. A cut kid comes and watches Emma and Lily. We speed off and the wind blows cool air through our hot damp clothes.
Home by lunch
If you stand anywhere long enough at the Kool hotel, someone will plug in a fan and blow it at you. They don’t use coins for change here in Cambodia, just the smaller bills of the Cambodian Riel, which is worth .2 cents each. So a 500 bill is like a dime. As I’m counting my change, they turn on a fan and a multitude of nearly worthless bills blow out of my hands like a piggy bank smashed open.
The pool feels good after hiking through old temples and jungle for the past 5 hours. My plan was to get a car to some of the distant temples today, but I can see we need long naps and I don’t think we have time.
In the evening we have dinner by the pool, lemongrass curry chicken for me that’s pretty good. The photos from today are among my favorites ever. Angkor is a great place!