We decided we couldn’t handle any more of Phnom Penh … or buses …so we bought a ticket for a boat that left for Siem Reap where Angkor Wat; one of the 7 man made wonders of the world, majestically rises out of the jungles.
The boat was long and covered and moved quickly. I was happy that I opted to sit below in the air conditioning instead of the top deck in the hot sun and wind for over five hours.
There wasn’t much of a view out the windows and we were moving fast. When we arrived at Siem Reap we were greeted by the usual throng of people yelling to come with them for lodgings. We knew that there was no point in trying to haggle ,or ask to go somewhere specific, because we would just end up checking into whatever place they took us to, so we followed someone along to another small bus and off we went.
We cared about one thing; a bed and a private bath.
We were thrilled to reunite with some friends ,from Paris, that we had met in Vietnam; Jean and Caroline. While we were in Phnom Penh they had taken a side trip to Laos. They met us back in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.
On our first day we decided, with much pressure from our Parisian friends, to rent our own motorcycle instead of relying on guides. You need to ride carefully and defensively in Cambodia but it was the best decision we could have made. There was not too much traffic and the roads were bad so we went at a slow pace until we found stretches of good road. The freedom to come and go at our own pace to the various temples was exhilarating.
Day One: We parked our bikes outside the site and walked along the road leading into Angkor Wat. Along the way we met some monkeys; a mother and baby and decided to give them some litchi nuts. We tried to feed the baby but the mother was too fast and snatched up all of them.
As we moved farther along we spotted a large baboon sitting low in a tree. He was eye level.
I gingerly offered him a litchi and he immediately twitched in a spasm and kept biting his own hand. Travis commented that the poor thing had some sort of tick and must be ill. I kept whispering to him gently, still offering the nut to him. His ticks increased and suddenly he charged off the tree at us and chased us down the road and managed to reach out with a clawed hand and scratch our friends boot. Our hearts were racing and we were out of breath when he finally gave up and turned back to his spot on the tree.
As we came upon an Angkor Wat guard we described the peculiar ticks that this baboon displayed and how he must be sick and how he had charged us; ending in our narrow escape. The guard looked thoughtfully back at us and said slowly in English, “No he not sick… he tell you… do not come to me or I…(and he bit his own hand)… will BITE you.”
We stared back dumbfounded. This baboon could not have been more astute in his attempt to communicate with us. Clearly he had done everything possible ,including a demonstration, of what he was going to do if we did not cease in bothering him.
Never have I felt so inadequate and stupid as a human being. It was unfathomable that I had not recognized the signs; being a long -time player of Charades.
We moved along pondering the brilliance of this baboon ,and our complete failure as the superior species, as we entered the site of Angkor Wat.
We passed some elephants carrying more stupid tourists and some kiosks with food until we finally saw a massive head looking down at us from the heavens… surrounded by more massive heads and chambers and stairways and it is impossible to put on paper what it is like to see Angkor Wat for the first time.
The magnificence in its size and detail, along with the fact that it is so preserved ,is hard to fathom.
It was built in the first half of the 12th century and estimated construction time was 30 years. Its sculptures are so incredibly well- proportioned that I believe these were not erected and carved by humans… but aliens. How could men have accomplished this impressive and monstrous gift to the gods and the world? The tallest and central sculpture is a mind blowing 699 feet.
When you stand in the center you see stairways coming down from each Hindu god to meet in the middle and you feel tiny, insignificant and lost in the wonder of it all. There is a mystical and very religious feeling at Angkor Wat. We climbed in and out of chambers and up stairways that would open to platforms where monks would sit burning incense, waiting to bless you. I am not a follower of organized religion but do feel that I am a spiritual person and accepted these blessings with the greatest humility. The dedication of these ancient architects to honor the gods and build this for 30 years struck me as incredible. Where were the workers who ,after ten years of back breaking labor, said…”OK enough is enough… looks good to me.”
There are five towers in Angkor Wat but you need to be in a specific spot to see all five.
It is ingenious. Without having the perspective of seeing things from the air I don’t see how they could have achieved this.
We climbed some temples where the stairs were so steep from the top it looked like a sheer wall without stairs at all. I had to go down the stairs backwards at a crawl… clinging to each step until I thankfully touched the ground again.
Walking around the site was exhausting and when we left that day we were so thankful to return to an air-conditioned room and flop on our bed.
Day two: We returned to Angkor Wat but this time we decided to venture into the jungles to see some temples that were out of the way of the central area. We were cautious about doing this because only five years prior Christopher Howes, a British mining expert, had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge at the jungle temple in Angkor Wat and subsequently murdered along with four others between 1994 and 1996.
Our Parisian cohorts were fearless travelers and convinced us that we would regret not making the trek with them so off we rode into the jungles.
When we parked the bikes and started to navigate our way through the thick terrain we came across trees that had grown in and through massive sculpted arches and doorways that led nowhere except farther into the jungle. This area was not as well kept as the main tourist area. Crumbling concrete eyes covered in vines and moss hid their secrets and only the jungle knew the original meaning.
We finally came to a clearing where we saw the temple. I was nervous about being here and couldn’t shake the thought of being kidnapped. The Cambodian people still wore the red checkered neck scarves that symbolized the Khmer Rouge for me. Everyone I saw had the potential to be a terrorist in my mind.
The temple was not as large as the main temples but it was still intimidating and maybe more so because of its isolated location.
As we entered the first thing I saw were smiling children. They were selling the scarves that I was so afraid of. We spoke with the kids who knew some English and I relaxed. I ended up buying a scarf from a young girl and a tee shirt and I was grateful to our bossy French friends for shaming us into accompanying them. If I had let fear dictate, I would not have met these incredible kids. Like all the kids we met in South East Asia they were confident and funny and … well.. these kids were actually making fun of us and imitating us… so there is that.
A child doing his impression of Jean
That day in the jungle was exhilarating. I felt like I was on a real adventure that would stick with me for the rest of my life and it has. In the jungle there are noises that you won’t hear anywhere else. There are birds of all sorts singing and calling out to each other and cricket sounds that are familiar and yet you know you’ve never heard them at home. There are long screeches from monkeys and sounds that you’ve only heard in Tarzan movies. You realize how noisy it is when you walk along in silence. The ancient pathways were now overgrown with vines and roots from enormous trees were growing up through cracks.
We found our motorbikes and made our way back to our hotel for the night. We went for dinner and, once again, I had frog’s legs for the 2nd time in my life. This time they had been drizzled in butter and pan fried with a crispy skin. They were delicious and I have not had frog’s legs since.
DAY 3: We hopped on our bikes and headed back to the main site.
Today was the day we would spend all of our time at the center of Angkor Wat. We climbed and explored and we were so lucky that it was not crowded. I hear that these days the crowds can be huge but at that time I think travelers were still wary of going to Cambodia. There were no fancy and expensive hotels that catered to tourists like there are now.
Travis gave an ancient warrior his head back
The images and giant faces surrounding us from every direction made you feel like you were not alone. It gives you pause to think that people have inhabited the earth for centuries and some of the earliest inhabitants built something so amazing that it has lasted long enough for us to experience it.
Angkor Wat has stayed with me over the years. It is something you cannot forget but you also can’t take it with you. My imagination isn’t even big enough to recreate the real thing. I think about these ancient people and the determination to create something that symbolized their culture for all time. I wonder if they even thought about the future beyond their own life time. I know we do as a millennial society. I just hope that our legacy will be saving the planet that we have been destroying.
I hope some of you will start planning a trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat. It will be the adventure of a life time. Like all ancient sites it is eroding and deteriorating more and more with time. There is peace in South East Asia right now and that is a wonderful thing.
I want people to explore traveling and seeing different cultures; experience different ways of living because that is the only way we will see that people are the same everywhere. We are all brothers and sisters in this world. I carry with me all of those amazing people I met on our trip.
I hope you enjoyed this post and my attempts to give you an impression of Angkor Wat. Happy travels!