day one hundred and twenty-four: january 31, 2016: manila > siem reap
We decided to sleep in this morning and meet my cousins for lunch at the nearby mall (we just can't get away from malls!). After a casual lunch, we said our goodbyes to my dad and his girl friend then my cousins dropped us off at the airport.
Next stop, Siem Reap. We booked a nice little AirBNB and our host was at the airport to greet us and bring us to his house. Phalla worked in the tourism industry in Siem Reap for the past 15 years, so he hooked us up with a fellow tour guide and tuk tuk driver for the next few days.
day one hundred and twenty-five: february 1, 2016: angkor wat
We woke up bright and early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Phalla supplied us with some eggs, bacon and bread, so Jonathan cooked breakfast before our tuk tuk and guide, Vannak, met us at 5 AM. Off we went toward Angkor Wat.
After purchasing our three day passes, we headed toward the temple. There were already lots of people on the road headed in the same direction. Upon our arrival Vannak set us up further away from the temple for a good view letting us know that it would be too dark for photos. After showing him what our camera could do in low light, he quickly moved us to the pool directly in front of Angkor Wat along with everyone else. After watching the sunrise we thought that maybe it would have been a lot more peaceful where he first stopped where no one else was around.
There must have been over one thousand people (not exaggerating) all there to see the sunrise and all trying to capture that perfect photo. Unfortunately, the weather was a little bit cloudy so we didn't quite see the sun come up over the temple, but on the flipside, it made it a lot cooler temperature-wise as we toured the temple afterwards.
Interestingly enough, most of the crowd thinned out before the sun actually came up so we got to enjoy the view with less people than before.
After the sun came up, we strolled along the north side of the complex to the west gate where we had the area mostly to ourselves.
Here, Vannak began to tell us about the significance of different parts of the huge temple. First, he showed us the large Naga carvings surrounding the complex. According to Cambodian legend, the Naga were a reptilian race that fathered the Cambodian people. Apparently, the seven headed Naga, always an odd number, symbolizes energy, infinity, timelessness and immortality.
As we began to tour the temple itself, Vannak told us about the temple was actually constructed. Built in the 12th century completely made of sandstone, this temple is truly amazing. The planning involved to build such a structure is hard to imagine. When one looks at the details of the joins between stones and the angles and straightness of the lines and alignment of stones it's truly mind blowing. Even the design of the moat and pool were all necessary for the stability of the temple. The moat actually keeps just enough water and moisture in the soil to keep the foundation stable without allowing it to become too dry and crack and crumble and also not too wet for it to collapse. The pool in front of the temple was actually used to determine if the structure was standing perfectly straight by using the reflections in the pool as a determining factor.
Below, Vannak is showing Jonathan one of the joins up close.
The joins are almost seamless without any space between the stones. Below you can see interlocking joins which were used to prevent stones from moving.
As we peered down the long galleries with a wall on one side and columns on the other, you could see that all the columns were perfectly aligned. Incredible. The Khmer builders also used male and female joins on different pieces like the columns to prevent movement of the stone pieces.
Walking thru some of the enclosed areas, looking up you could see the design of the stones to create a sort of arched ceiling. Also very impressive.
Fairly quickly we began to see detailed carvings on the walls and columns. Vannak told us these were done after the building of the temple. The wall carvings each told stories while those on the columns and trims were more for decoration. We could consistently see lotus included in much of the decor.
Many of the columns were carved with depictions of hermits, one on each side of the column to serve as supports. At the bottoms of many of the columns there was clear deterioration of the stone. We asked what had caused this and Vannak responded that when UNESCO declared Angkor Wat a Heritage Site, Indians came to help clean some of the moss and lichen that had grown on the temple. To do this, they used acid to remove it, but this acid also ate away the stone causing the wearing that you see all around the temple. Such a bummer!
Throughout the complex, there are pillars in both open and closed windows. All the pillars look as if they were made by machine, but that's definitely not the case.
In the center of the complex is the central part of the temple with steep stairs leading upward. 37 steps in total, matching the number of years it took to build the temple. They are steep and difficult to climb because the journey to heaven is not meant to be easy.
We waiting in a decent line to take our turn to climb up to the top of the temple. Once up there we took our time walking around exploring the top and taking in the view.
As we continued to tour Angkor Wat, Vannak showed us some carvings that were much closer to being finished. He told us you could tell by the depth of the carvings. In fact, the ones that we had seen earlier were not even close to finished. Below, you can see how much deeper and detailed the carvings are compared to those previously.
As we departed Angkor Wat, we waved goodbye to the Naga and headed to our next stop, Bayon Temple. Bayon was named for the Banyan trees that were covering it when it was re-discovered. Bayon Temple is well known for the large faces on the towers of the temple. One face in each direction, north, south, east and west.
As we walked up to Bayon Temple, a couple was getting a tour on an elephant and their guide was playing music using only a leaf. What tune was he playing? Jingle Bells...
On the first walls that you see as you enter Bayon Temple, there are depictions of the Khmer at war with the Cham people. Underneath the main carving, you can see a much smaller strip that depicts the daily lives of the Khmer people at the time. Everything from hunting, to pig and cock fighting, to sumo wrestling, to trading fish with the Chinese.
Jonathan magically managed to get most of his photos without a single person in them. A miracle based on how many people were actually there.
After our first Khmer meal of amok fish and chicken curry we headed to Ta Prohm, more commonly known now as the Tomb Raider Temple for its role in the movie.
Due to its popularity, many of the areas are roped off and platforms have been added to enable people to take photos in the key spots. Unfortunately, you also end up with platforms and ropes in your photos as well.
With the heat of Siem Reap, we decided to head back to our AirBNB since we had been up since the early morning. We relaxed the rest of the afternoon before heading out to Pub Street for some dinner at Khmer Kitchen. We ended up sharing a table with two med students from Rhode Island and had some great conversation. They were both doing a rotation in the local Children's Hospital. Always fun to meet new people in a new city!