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Caroline and Andy’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 01 Mar 2007

Location: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

MapThe alarm woke us at 4.30am, we were to be at Angkor Wat by sunrise, 5.30am. Our tuk-tuk chauffeur was sleeping in the hut in front of the guest house, a swift kick from one of his fellow drivers and he was ready for action. The Cambodian roads are dangerous at the best of times, but when the driver is half asleep and using one hand to smoke his breakfast cigarette, it is even more un-nerving. Luckily we were too tired to care.
The first destination was the most famous, Angkor Wat. We arrived in darkness, walked across the moat and through the gatehouse. There were a surprising number of people, even at this time of day. We found a place to rest, inside of the perimeter wall, where we could see the famous five peaks of the temple come into sight as the sun gently lit up this ancient world. We watched the temple for a while, then moved to one of the ‘libraries’ in front of the main temple, where we watched the sky and temple change colour for a little longer.
We made our way up to the temple to the first set of steps, we would come to learn that the architects like very steep and tall staircases which simulate climbing a symbolic mountain. Steep, well-worn, 1000year old steps and blazing heat will be the theme of the next two days ! The outer circuit of the temples walls reveal some amazing ‘bas relief’s’, these are stories carved into the long stone walls. Each one has important religious context, but the meaning is often blurred as these buildings were used and adapted by many generations of people, following different kings and religions. God-king sons will often attempt to erase some evidence of their fathers reign to strengthen their own image. ‘Vandalism’ dating back as far as the 16th century can be seen at some sites, removal of certain images, or corruption of stories to suit new beliefs.
I could write pages and pages about the many amazing sights of Angkor Wat and the surround temples, but I think the pictures will describe it better. I also believe that, although it sounds cliché, word really can’t do it justice. In many instances the camera struggled to capture the sheer size and presence of the buildings, carvings, statues and grounds. I will write an itinerary of our tour and attempt to label the photos accordingly, and will list any highlights that I can remember from that particular Temple.

Angkor Wat.
The most famous of the temples, we spent four hours here. We enjoyed the upper levels of the temple more than the lower. The early morning start made the climbing more enjoyable, and the stonework has a very different feel in the early morning light. We couldn’t believe how much we’d seen by 8.30am ! The view from the opposite side of the lake, with the peaks reflected in the water was beautiful. Grabbed a bit of breakfast here too. Greeting used to rice for brekky, it beats the Cambodian attempts at a ‘genuine western breakfast’ ! As the morning progressed the temple became busier, unfortunately you can find yourself having to rush ahead or hang back to stay detached from big tour groups. It was generally possible to find a part of the temple that few or no other people were in at that time. We came back to Angkor Wat for the sunset, but were not allowed to climb to the highest level due to the danger from the climb down in the dark after sunset. We saw sunset over the lake in front of the ‘library’ instead.

Through the south gate of Angkor Thom.
The bridge leading to the gate is made from statues of gods in a tug of war, with a sea serpent as the rope.
Through the Victory Gate. Passed five (real, not stone) galloping elephants, complete with headdresses and riders. I never knew they could move so fast.

Thomannon

Ta Kao
This temple has no adornments or carvings as it was never finished. It is a complete structure, but lacks the refinement of the finished temples, which have every surface covered in carvings, statues and reliefs. It is still very interesting though, as the engineering and craftsmanship involved in the basic building blocks of the structure are more evident.
Ta Prohm This temple has been left in much the same way as the first western explorers found it. There is some sympathetic restoration, to prevent any more collapse and a little of the vegetation has been cut back. This was the one I was looking forward to and it did not disappoint. It was entirely possible to climb over the rubble and through into semi-collapsed rooms and courtyards, leaving the mass tourism behind (if only for a couple of minutes). There were some excellent photo ops, and plenty of Indiana Jones moments !

Banteay Kdei
A temple similar in style to Ta Prohm, but larger and less ruined.

Sras Srang
A man made lake that was filled some 900 years ago.

Cambodia is a very flat country and its heart is dominated by a lake which swells to three times its normal size once every year. This resource has helped to sustain the country through its many generations. The people of Angkor used this water to create lakes, fountains and waterways. These were built to symbolise the universe itself, the primordial ocean surrounding the five mountainous peaks referred to in Khmer mythology, placing the shrines of the gods at the summit of these peaks (the towers that are obvious in all of the temples). These massive hydro-engineering projects are less imposing, but equally impressive as the temples themselves.