I know many have been waiting for more on the Siem Reap portion of our trip. The biggest problem for me is trying to figure out which photos to use. Over the course of our trip we took over 4500 photos, and discarded many. But we are still left with about 3700! But without further ado, let's move forward.
We had no problem waking at 430 am in anticipation of our 520 pick-up. The combination of our still present jet lag, and our excitement over-rode our internal clocks. Our Driver, Narin was there to pick us up exactly at 520am. Narin seemed to be a very nice, mild-mannered, calm individual, and once the Missus started up with Her incessant questions(everything but "why is the sky blue") , Narin warmed up and started smiling a lot more. He took us to get our passes(with your photo), and asked us what we had in mind, and helped us plot out the day. And soon we were off. On some very good advice, we had decided on hiring only a driver. Drivers are allowed to drop off and pick-up tourists, but not enter the temples. Only official guides (costs $2000, + a test, + some, ummm, "connections") are allowed on Temple grounds. At every site you're supposed to show your pass to the guards. Some are a bit more diligent than others.
The main reason for the early wake-up was for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We looked for the classic shot of sunrise at Angkor Wat, from the pool on the Northwest side.
What this photo doesn't show is that everyone else is trying for the same shot.
Even though we had been told by several people how annoying all the clicking of the cameras and jockeying for position was, we never did get that feeling. Perhaps deciding to visit during the hottest month of the year wasn't too bad an idea. By this time we decided to extricate ourselves from the crowd, crossed over the causeway and took more photos of the sunrise.
Knowing that we'd be returning later that day, we quickly made our way back out to the car. we quickly arrived at Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng, situated up a hill(sometimes called, "The Strong Hill") was one of the first major temples built in the Angkor era, at about the 9th Century AD. It is believed that the first capital of the Khmer Empire, Yaśodharapura(City that Bestows Glory) was built around the Phnom Bakheng, by Yasovarman I. Due to the hilltop location, Phnom Bakheng is usually packed with tourists during sunsets. All this traffic has badly damaged the original stairways up the mountain, which are now closed off.
Instead, a trail wound it's way around the mountain, and since it was still fairly early in the morning, the weather was still cool, and we only had the constant electrical buzzing of Cicadas to keep us company for the short walk up the hill.
Having the Phnom Bakheng to ourselves only heightened the feeling of awe and wonder.
And while the Missus was climbing about exploring, I just circled. I still had some reservations about walking on the ruins. And though I would get over the feeling that I was somehow a party to destruction, the thought was always hovering about in the background.
Because this site is elevated it is very popular during sunset. In fact, I've heard it's downright sardine city! During the evenings you can catch elephant rides up and down the mountain as well.
The next stop, Angkor Thom. Many persons I know who have heard of Angkor Wat, believe that Angkor Wat is the only ruin in Siem Reap. They've never heard of the "Great City", Angkor Thom. In the 12th Century, the Kingdom of Champa, and the Khmers were at war. In 1166, the Khmer ruler Yasovarman II was assassinated, supposedly by one of his subordinates, Tribhuvanāditya. Sensing the instability in the region, the Cham, in war canoes crossed Tonle Sap Lake and invaded Angkor, destroying Yaśodharapura, and killing Tribhuvanāditya. under the leadership of the person soon to known as King Jayavarman VII the Cham were defeated and driven out. Seems that Jayavarman VII was quite the builder, and one of his greatest achievements was the centralized city of Angkor Thom. I've read accounts that have said that within the 9 square kilometers that comprised Angkor Thom resided anywhere from 100,000(low end) to over a million(high end estimate) people. After reading a bit more about Angkor Thom, I couldn't help but admire the combination of practicality: the city was surrounded by walls 8 meters high, and huge moats, that provided water, as well as protection. Hard to believe from this pastoral scene, but I was told that they used to have the moats filled with crocodiles....for a bit of extra "insurance".
And spirituality: From accounts I've read, Jayavarman VII was a fervent Buddhist, so when he was inaugurated, so was Buddhism, replacing Hinduism. I've also read that when the Khmer fell to the Cham, so did their faith and belief in Hinduism.
The South Gate is probably the most famous entrance to Angkor Thom. The entrance portal was built to accommodate elephants entering the city.
The causeway to the gate is guarded by 54 "Gods" on one side:
And 54 "Demons" on the other:
It makes for quite a sight. You can read more on The East Gate, and on Angkor in general on Wandering Chopsticks post here.
For me, the one thing that always stood out, and what I consider to be sort of the "trademark" of Jayavarman VII is this:
Each head faces one of the four cardinal directions.
If that weren't enough, our next stop was one of my favorites. The Bayon. From afar, it looks like a pile of ruins, with spires rising out of it.
But each of those "towers", holds 4 faces, each face has that mysterious, sly-knowing smile....the "smile of Angkor". According to literature, there used to be 54(yes, numerology is very strong) towers, but now only 37 exist at this temple.
The Bas-reliefs at the Bayon are also magnificent. They are carved much deeper into the sandstone, really projecting the various scenes. I'll go into these a bit later on. We enjoyed The Bayon so much, we decided to return later on.
The temple consists of 3 enclosing walls and a top terrace, where the forest of towers reside. There are a few stairways, and one good metal staircase. You need to watch your step, some of the stairs are really worn down.
At the top you can get up close and personal with the faces. One thing I noticed, look through any window, and you'll see at least one, or more heads. I'm sure this was by design. But it really gave me a strange and eerie feeling. The only feeling more strange than those provided by those enigmatic faces, was that in the back of what little grey matter still exists, I could hear the faint sound of a song:
"I always feel that somebody's watchin' me
And I have no privacy
I always feel that somebody's watchin' me
Is it just a dream?"
Egad! You gotta be kiddin' me.....I'm standing among one of the great wonders of the world, and the best I can do is a "Bad 80's" song by Rockwell?
Now for the, "yes we're tourists, and sometimes we do cheesy tourist things" portion. The Missus had always wanted to do this...so for $10 a person, we rode an elephant around the Bayon. I was a bit concerned for the elephant's sake, but was told that if this elephant wasn't giving rides, it would be doing logging work. So I guess this is the lesser of 2 evils. So what about the ride? It's bumpy, and really no big deal. We can now cross the elephant ride off our list....no need to do it again. We were also told that the elephants have set hours, with breaks. Must be a pretty good union.... We did see elephants trotting "home" for lunch. They can move pretty fast.
Our next stop was the Baphuon, just North of the Bayon. The Baphuon was built around 1060, and is still undergoing restoration. For us, the most interesting feature of this temple is the raised sandstone causeway leading to the temple.
It's hard to see that the causeway is raised in that photo, so maybe this is a better one:
Here's a view from under the causeway:
We took a walk across the road to Prasat Suor Prat, the so called "towers of the tightrope walkers".
The most popular story is that tightrope walkers walked on ropes tied from tower to tower. Another says that the 12 towers were used to resolve disputes. The individuals were placed in different towers, and after a few days the person who was in the wrong would become ill. To his day no one is sure.
Behind Prasat Suor Prat are 2 buildings called the Khleangs.
No one is sure what the purpose of these buildings are.
After walking about, Narin asked us if he could drop us off for lunch. One of his customers needed a ride to the airport. We would have lunch at one stands across from Angkor Wat, and than head on over to Angkor Wat right across the street. This wasn't a problem with us. We just wanted something small to eat...the combination of excitement and heat had repressed our appetites.
The menu at this place was pretty extensive...but the Missus wanted...drum roll please! Yep, Fish Amok($8.00):
We had a large order, which was served in a coconut...all it needed was an little umbrella to complete the picture. Actually, this tasted much better than what we had at Khmer Kitchen. Much richer, and not as sweet.
And after having all of that very low grade rice in Vietnam, we really enjoyed the rice.
Of course, I was a bit distracted....because right across the way some "dancing girls" were calling to me.....