Rocks in a heap in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Before today neither Gary nor I had ever gotten up to watch a sunrise. We had seen sunrises by accident before – while stumbling home from a night out or in our rush to get to some airport or other – but without the intention its not really the same. Nonetheless we found ourselves peeling our tired faces off our pillows at the ungodly hour of 4.45am this morning to meet our tuk tuk driver and join the hoards on their pilgrimage to Angkor Wat.
By 5.30 we had arrived and were carefully picking our way across the crumbling bridge towards the temple taking in our first view of the five famous lotus peaks, luminescent against the night’s sky. Passing through the gateway we were welcomed by a stone Buddha and the sound of a thousand tired feet pattering their way excitedly towards the lake. After finding the perfect spot to shoot from (Gary spent half an hour running around manically, looking for the clearest path from the perfect vantage point from which he could take that iconic photo) we settled down to watch the show amid the shining displays of a hundred Japanese pocket cameras. We had forgotten how much we loved the Japanese and their own avidly efficient breed of tourism.
Slowly a hush started to fall over the chattering crowd and the hawkers retreated to their hammocks. The show had begun. Blue light started to diffuse into the dark sky illuminating more and more of the temple’s silhouette and offering us a tantalising glimpse of what we had come here to see.
As the sky took on a vibrant purple tinge the temple came into focus and the gratified audience began to “ooh” and “ahh”. Spurred on by this encouragement the sun really started to really show off, flooding the landscape with a blood orange colour and throwing majestic shadows onto the surface of the lake. The crowd went wild – gasping, cheering and clutching tissues to their damp cheeks as the sky became bright and the sun, beetroot red with delight, finally showed its shining face.
Angkor Wat was a tough act to follow so a lot of what we saw over the rest of the day was a little lost on us – just a big blur of dangerously steep stairs, towering Buddhas and kids screaming “two cokes for one dooooooooooolla. Have to go to schooooooooooooooool.” Two ruins that did meet our expectations however, were the Bayon in Angkor Thom and the Jungle Temple.
Most of the Bayon, and the rest of Angkor Thom for that matter, was made of wood and has been burned down in the intervening centuries. What is left though is a kind of pyramid shaped structure watched from every angle by huge carved Buddha heads. The faces have become so weathered that it looks like they were cut out of the rock by nature itself so that you would know that Buddha, in his infinite happiness, just wants you to smile. Its hard not to grin back when so many gods have taken time out of their busy schedule to come and beam at you.
The Jungle Temple (my personal favourite) has to be one of the quirkiest temples in the world. In fact, I’m still not convinced that it isn’t just the set of some old unreleased Indiana Jones film or the original setting for that scene in The Jungle Book where the monkey king does his dance. Never was the fight between man and nature more apparent than in the gnarled walls of this temple where the trees, outraged at having their friends and family cut down to make room for yet another stinking temple, have staged their revolution. Dragging their heavy roots out of the soil they have spread their tendrils across the stone walls, greedily dragging the temple down into the earth inch by inch, year by year. Sitting on their stone perches they are a testament to the superiority of nature over man.
Although I know it is a crime against a beautiful ancient civilisation to admit it, one of our favourite parts of The Temples of Angkor was all of the monkeys. Obviously in cohoots with the Tree Movement, they have staked the temples out, swaggering down the hallways of Angkor Wat and plonking themselves in front of half full bins for a feast of Snickers bars and Fanta. Every night when the tourists leave and the guards go home, they crank up the bass, crack out a few Tiger beers and swing from lotus tower to lotus tower saying things like “Yo momma and a blue whale, same same but different.”
More pictures from Siem Reap are available in the gallery