ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA

The ruins of Angkor Wat have captured my imagination for years, and I was thrilled that our journey took us through Cambodia to see them. Compared to the relatively recent history of civilization in Europe, or the even younger United States, the ancient wonder of the East was an enduring architectural marvel I was longing to see for myself.

We had arranged for our Tuk Tuk driver, who introduced himself as Blake, to pick us up at 5:00AM and stay with us all day to drive us between the scattered temple sites. After we had finished up at one place we’d find him on the shaded roadside resting in his hammock, which he hung between the seats of his Tuk Tuk. I hadn’t realized before arriving at Angkor Wat that the ancient city is made up of dozens of temples spread out over kilometers and kilometers of land, so it was impossible to see it by foot. At one point when it was first built in the twelfth century as a Hindu temple (soon after its construction Angkor Wat became Buddhist), it was the biggest city on earth with over 1.5 million inhabitants. What remains today of the powerful city is its royal palace and religious sites. All common dwellings have long since fallen to the elements.

We arrived as the sky was just beginning to lighten and crossed the stone footbridge over the 30-meter wide moat to enter the grounds of the main temple. Hundreds of other people had gathered on the west side of a lily pad covered pond to witness the sunrise over one of the ancient wonders of the world. For such a huge crowd of onlookers, the atmosphere was surprisingly quiet. The sky turned pale pink and then brilliant orange behind the silhouettes of the three towers, and as the dawn broke the pond in front of us reflected the magnificent scene ahead.

The enormous main temple grounds of Angkor Wat were designed to echo the layout of the mythical home of the gods, Mount Meru. The central tower rises tallest above the surrounding structures, which reflect the peaks below Meru’s summit. Each of these three shorter towers represents a deity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Enclosing the stately cluster of temples is a square shaped gallery; four long hallways which open through pillars to the outer air and are decorated on the inner wall with impossibly detailed bass reliefs of epic battles, royal coronations, and holy ceremonies. Stone enclosures throughout the palace apparently used to fill up with water during the rainy season and would be used as jacuzzis for the king. Each of the buildings in the central area seemed small compared to the vast Thai temples of Bangkok, but we learned that Hindu temples are customarily smaller as they only need room for their devoted god or goddess to occupy. Space for human worshippers was never a consideration in their construction.

After we had circled the extensive main temple grounds on foot, Blake drove us to his wife’s food stall for breakfast. With her recommendations we tried an assortment of traditional Khmer dishes, including a ginger flavored coconut curry, a sweet chicken stir fry called Amok, and a beef stir fry called Lok Lak. Next stop on the circuit was a deteriorating mountain shaped group of narrow towers called Bayon. There are around 49 towers in the formation, each with two or four giant faces carved into the sides. We climbed up onto a few of them using terrifying staircases of 4-inch wide crumbling stone steps set at a 60 degree incline. Being inside Bayon felt like being in a giant complex jungle gym, with stooping archways and musty darkened enclaves, under the constant watchful gaze of the godlike faces overhead.

Me in my tevas, for scale

We walked to the royal palace adjacent to the temple and climbed ever steeper staircases to the third and highest level in the center of the ruins. Though it was only 8:00AM, we were already hotter than we’d been in the entire trip (which is saying something in Southeast Asia). The sun seemed like it had a personal vendetta against us, and Katrina declared in an overheated delirium that we might perish in this “unrelenting hotness.” The shade in the strikingly green jungle in between temple structures did little to relieve the heat. The humidity of Cambodia wrapped us in a steaming towel from the time the sun rose and wouldn’t let go until well after dusk.

Blake drove us to four more temples to the northeast of the main moated area that varied in size, grandeur, and degree of decay. One was flanked at the entrances by four pairs of ten foot tall stone elephants, believed to be the guardians of a holy place. Another could only be reached across a bridge lined by rows of tiny monsters that were half bird, half man with the head of a lion, each holding up a section of a long Naga, or serpent. When I imagined them in the intact condition of the 1100s, the temples appeared in my mind as intimidating and breathtaking displays of power.

The last temple we visited, in a still heat between afternoon showers punctuated by cricket sounds, stunned me even more than any of the others. It was called Preah Khan and had been built originally as a university of medicine. While most of the ruins we had visited had been partially resorted from decay, this one had been left in its original state at the time of rediscovery in the early twentieth century. After hundreds of years of neglect, the temple had been reclaimed by the greedy jungle. Strangling figs had infiltrated the thick stones of the walls and trees had grown roots through the rock, becoming one with the structure for better or for worse. Vines covered entire sections of the outer wall, disguising the temple within. Engravings on pillars had turned rust colored with age, and a large area that had once been a covered Hall of Dancers was now a field of crumbled stone worn smooth by storms and sun.

The juxtaposition of geometric formations carved by human hands and the wild organic chaos of the jungle seemed to me to be a beautiful commentary. Even the world’s most formidable city had fallen to the hands of nature. We were witnessing the effects of one thousand years past, and the scene before us was powerful. It really makes you wonder how long any of our society will endure. The jungle’s additions to the once perfect temple seemed somehow more beautiful, softening its hard edges into curves of vines and leaves, entangled roots of fig trees stretching toward the sky.


SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

I would not recommend arrival in Cambodia via bus. After departing Ho Chi Minh City at midnight aboard a filthy and torn up sleeper bus, we drove three hours to the border, parked to wait another three hours until immigration opened, then switched buses and drove over dusty, bumpy, barely-passable roads through the countryside for another 13 hours. The total journey took us 20 hours and none of it was smooth or comfortable.

Fortunately we immediately grew to like Cambodia upon our arrival in Siem Reap. The town is very small and (albeit touristy) picturesque and extremely friendly. It is centered around a beautiful night market alongside a river where colorful lanterns and neon adornments light up the water. The market is filled with artisans selling herbal soaps, beaded jewelry, and countless stalls of colorful paintings. Some artists painted scenes of jungles and temples as pedestrians passed by, and you couldn’t help but stop to admire the work.

For dinner we decided to partake in the ubiquitous Cambodian hot pot washed down by rounds of $0.50 beer. The server brought out plates of raw meat, squid, prawns and veggies and lay them on a steaming convex metal plate right on our table. Around the raised center where the meat was cooking he poured broth from a tea kettle and dropped in ramen noodles, carrots, cabbage and morning glory stems. As soon as a piece of beef or seafood was cooked he would expertly snatch it off the burner and plop it into one of our bowls. The beef, thinly sliced and left rare, was especially delicious. When we paid our bill ($10) and walked away, Brett Ashley burst out, “I feel like I’m getting away with something!”

We patronized the night market by purchasing elephant t-shirts (a backpacker wardrobe staple) and beautiful oil paintings created by local artists. Brett Ashley fell in love with one featuring two monks dressed in bright orange robes passing between crumbling grayish blue temples.

We found another rooftop bar, which is a favorite pastime of ours, which featured a view of the partying Pub Street. Flashing neon signs advertised the name of the pedestrian road which featured loud music, crazy bars, and lots of westerners having a wild night out. We made friends with a Cambodian bartender at one of the loudest bars on the street: Angkor What. He taught us how to say “cheers” in the vernacular, something pronounced like “chay moy.” We had memorized short phrases in each country’s language such as hello and thank you, and we always felt compelled to be able to order three of the local beer and say cheers when we drank them.