08:00 AM September 8th, 2002 –
After my third night in Bangkok I am fulfilling a lifelong dream by arriving in an air-conditioned minivan at the Cambodian border town of Poipet. I am still hung over from the previous evening, and nervous (in that excited kind of way), but I am determined to prove all my friends wrong. Getting through customs only takes an hour and we are soon across the border. As I walk through the filthy streets to the bus (‘tank’ might be a better description) that will travel to Siem Reap, I am definitely having second thoughts. I have never been in a filthier place than Poipet.
As I (literally) step over beggars without arms and legs, I am reminded that Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. I take a deep breath, trying to focus on the huge archway replica of Angkor Wat with the words I have dreamed of seeing all my life: Welcome To The Kingdom Of Cambodia. I somehow manage to avoid the 12-year-olds wandering the crowds armed with stun batons and walk the 1/2 mile to the “bus” that will take me to Siem Reap.
140 miles and 12 gruelling hours later, I am aching and bruised all over from travelling a ‘road’ that has to be experienced to be believed as we finally enter Siem Reap. We are deposited at the Beng Mealea Guesthouse, which I am quite content to stay at. In fact, at US$6.00 per night, it is an excellent bargain, with good food to boot. The bus tout offers to be my driver for US$10.00 per day, $20.00 for the day I visit Banteay Srei but it’s still a hell of a bargain, and I accept. His name is Proseur, an employee of Beng Mealea and a typical Khmer, modest, soft-spoken and eager to practice his passable English on me. I will ride ‘helmetless’ on the back of his motorcycle for the next 5 days as we tour the temples of Angkor.
10:30 September 9th, 2002 –
My family and friends told me I was crazy, that to go to Cambodia was tantamount to suicide; the best I would get would be artificial legs as a souvenir. I was about to find out if their misgivings were unfounded or not as I headed into the “jungles” of Cambodia to see the fabled ruins of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Ruolous, and the other temple/city complexes.
We set out from Beng Mealea through the streets of SiemReap and I quickly learned that in Cambodia, the largest vehicle has the right-of-way. There are no lanes and the roads are all dirt until we reach the Angkor Wat circuit. However, there are two stoplights in the city (that I saw) and oddly enough, they are superior to the stoplights in the USA – they had a digital counter when red or green, counting down from 45 to 0 so you knew exactly how much time you had to cross the intersection.
Once we reached the Angkor Wat circuit ticket inspection point, the road was paved, albeit rather crudely compared to the USA. The temperature was around 100 degrees F. so being on the back of a motorcycle was definitely the way to go, though not having a helmet (no-one wears one in Cambodia) was somewhat nerve-wracking.
Taking Proseur’s recommendation, we went to Bayon first, bypassing Angkor Wat. This was definitely a good choice, as I was to discover later.
Bayon is a smaller temple in scope and an excellent starting point for what can be an overwhelming experience. As we approached the temple we passed through the Victory Gate, consisting of Hindu gods on the right and demons on the left, each group holding the body of a Naga, or 9-headed cobra, the guardian of the Bayon. This culminates in the entranceway of the Victory Gate, an archway topped by images of Buddah facing in each direction. This is a truly awesome monument, and yet only a hint of what is to come. Passing through the Victory Gate, we continue on through the Cambodian “jungle”, in reality sparse groves of dense palm and banyan trees separated by flat expanses of grasslands. Bayon arrives abruptly and spectacularly; not arising slowly from the horizon, but suddenly appearing as we take a sharp turn on the road to reveal fully, this ruined wonder.
At first appearing extremely dilapidated, as we get closer the magnificent details begin to become apparent. The most notable are the 200+ Buddha faces that appear grouped in fours on 54 towers that are directly facing the cardinal points the compass. Also in this “complex” (for lack of a better term – temples are often within 100 feet of each other) is the Royal Palace (closed for restoration), the Terrace of Elephants (spectacular), Terrace of the Leper King (awesome detailed carvings and unusual statue), and Phimeanakas, the Aerial palace.
Phimeanakas is a very steep climb with no guardrail on three of the four sides. The climb and even more so the descent (even on the guard railed side) is not for the agoraphobic, but the view is worth anything short of a phobia.
8:57 AM September 11th, 2002 –
I’m away from the USA on the anniversary of the twin tower attacks intentionally: Terrorists scared many Americans from travelling at all, so I am travelling to (supposedly) one of the most dangerous countries on earth. The truth of the matter is that Siem Reap is crime free day and night and I never once felt threatened walking the streets at night unlike Hong Kong, the “safest city in the world”, where I was robbed at knifepoint the first night I was there. The Khmer people are the friendliest I have ever encountered anywhere; this truly is ‘The Land Of Smiles’.
Today, I am headed to Angkor Wat, the ultimate destination; the largest religious monument on the face of the earth. We arrive at 09:43, and are immediately surrounded by children selling everything from film to handmade musical instruments. I fight my way through them and make it across the street to the relative safety of the guards who keep the beggars and hawkers to a minimum outside the main temple entrances. It is here that I get my first view of Angkor Wat – across an 820ft stone causeway, leading to a large stone entrance, flanked on either side by manmade pools of water, or ‘barays’. I wonder where the seven famous towers are as I walk forward to the outer building; I climb the stairs and enter.
As I approach the doorway on the opposite side, I finally see it – Angkor Wat. The towers rise magnificently in the distance, framed by a cloudless blue sky. It is the most overwhelming thing I have ever experienced. The scope of this temple simply has to be experienced to be truly understood.
There is another long, stone causeway, this one leading through a lush green field to the main temple entrance, flanked midway by two stone libraries that are currently being restored. The size of the towers seems to grow as I approach, until they are encompassed by the main building itself. I go through the main entrance leading to the courtyard and enter the Hall Of A Thousand Buddhas. There are considerably less than a thousand Buddhas here now, and the Khmer Rouge has mostly decapitated the ones that are left in their efforts to destroy religion during the Zero Years (1975 – 1979).
I finally enter the courtyard and wander the temple, admiring the more than 1000 Apsara carvings (Bas reliefs depicting celestial dancing girls – a style unique to Khmer art). The towers are initially the most striking feature but once I begin to notice the details in the Bas-reliefs, I am struck by the depiction of the ‘Churning Of The Ocean Of Milk’ from the Hindu epic, Ramayana.
I spend the entire day at Angkor Wat, wandering the galleries, marvelling at the carvings and viewing the landscape from the top of the inner sanctum, some 200 feet up.
0643 September 12th, 2002 –
I am up early today as we have a long drive ahead of us: Banteay Srei, some 30 miles into the “jungle”.
I am paying my driver extra today, because of the length of the drive and because the tourist police charge the Khmer drivers a “fee” for using roads outside the Angkor complex – a common scam. I would definitely recommend making the drive by motorcycle.
I got my first view of the temple as we arrived and was initially disappointed, although upon closer inspection my disappointment turned to wonder.
Banteay Srei is a small red sandstone temple with the most impressive carvings of any temple I visited. The detail was absolutely stunning and the carvings are accented by the beautiful reddish hue of the sandstone used in the construction.
From here we headed back to the Angkor circuit to revisit Ta Prohm, my favourite temple in the country. Ta Prohm has undergone no restoration, having almost been reclaimed thoroughly by the jungle. Instead, it has been left as it was found. Impressive Banyan and Kepok trees spring from the rooftops of the temples, their roots displacing and reforming the walls into a scene from a fantasy film (in fact, parts of Tomb Raider were filmed here). Ta Prohm is a ‘must see’ for visitors to Angkor.
1100 September 13th, 2002 –
Spent the rest of last night wandering the streets of Siem Reap. I was feeling moved by the experiences of the temples and I needed a break, but today is my last day here, so I am revisiting my favourite temples. The feeling of awe is still there as I walk the long causeway leading to Angkor Wat, but it is less overpowering, allowing me to appreciate the more subtle architectural nuances. The Khmer style is more noticeable now; the feeling that was poured into every carving, every stone block, the fact that they were able to construct archways that are still standing 1000 years later without benefit of concrete or other binding materials; that they constructed temples that the jungle could reclaim but not destroy; that the details of their carvings lasted through centuries of time and decades of war. Its all still here for us to marvel at; a true testament to the skill of the Khmer.
Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Bangkok. I feel a twinge of sadness, but I know that this is a place I will return to. It compels me.
Author: Dan Quinton
Photography: Many thanks to Tropical Island