It’s early. Too early. We’re up and out of bed at 4.30am to get a tuk tuk out to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Dragging our corpses down in the lift, we shuffle across the lobby to the front doors and out into the driveway. Mr Sam is waiting for us. “Hello!” he says, cheerfully. We try to make small talk. It doesn’t go well. Not through lack of trying. Never mind. Into the tuk tuk and out onto the road to the Angkor temples, Mr Sam is being overtaken by other tuk tuks as the sky grows gradually lighter. We pull into the ticketing area and buy our one day passes (entry comes at three price points: one day for $20, three days for $40 or a week for goshknowshowmuch – we’re only here for two days and don’t have $80USD on us for the three day pass so figure that financially, it doesn’t matter if we buy the three day or just buy another single entry tomorrow).
Back in the tuk tuk, we begin a slow crawl towards Angkor Wat. Then slower. Then slower. Then slower. Then... oh, you know what happens now, don’t you? The tuk tuk breaks down. Fer serious. The sky is lightening more quickly now. Mr Sam hails another tuk tuk driver who allows us to clamber in with his passengers, two lovely ladies from Hong Kong. Scott tries to tell Mr Sam not to worry about picking us up. Mr Sam doesn’t speak enough English to know what the hell Scott is on about and just says “OK, see you seven hours!” We’re cranky but on a mission so jump out of the second tuk tuk, thank the ladies and the driver profusely, beat off (no, not literally) a bunch of yoofs trying to sell us water and trinkets, and leg it along the bridge across the moat to Angkor Wat.
Amongst all this kerfuffle, our first impressions of Angkor Wat are slightly tainted. It is spectacular to come around the corner and view the first silhouette against the early morning sky.
Heading along the bridge, there’s a quiet calm about the place, despite the hoardes of tourists doing the same thing as us (hopefully sans tuk tuk incidents). Entering the outer wall and walking through into the “front yard” of the place is amazing, the sunrise isn’t as vibrant as others we’ve seen, but hey, we’re at Angkor Wat!
We wander around the suggested path oohing and aahing over the bas reliefs, stair cases and sheer size of the place. We reject a guy in a uniform’s suggestion that he can take us up to a blocked off renovated area for a price.
We laugh at the various domestic animals trotting around like they own the place. We come across the first of many still-utilised Buddhist shrines. We take a lot of photos. A LOT. They won’t do justification to the place, of course.
And then we get hot. It’s only 6am and the sweat is literally pouring out of us. We decide to stick to an adapted version of our original plan of seeing sunrise, seeing Angkor Wat, going back into town for a nap, then having lunch at the temples and seeing Ta Promh, the jungle-covered ruins, most recently seen in Cambodia’s favourite western actress Angelina Jolie’s film “Tomb Raider”. Well, that’s according to the tourist guides, anyway. We curse Mr Dorn for sending us a b-grade tuk tuk as we walk back along the moat. Exiting the site, we’re accosted by the same mass of children as earlier. As we clamber into another tuk tuk, one little hindu girl jumps on and tells us she's coming with us. Argh, our hearts!
We down an excellent bacony brekky and hit the sack for a while, realising that we've managed to dehydrate quite thoroughly in a very short space of time. Once we're rested up, we head next door to a restaurant which we figure, seeing as it's next to a 4 star hotel, has to be OK. Some scummy barely washed glasses make us think we're heading for some severe sickness, but in the end it's all OKish. Some average faux chinese fare for bugger all dollars, and a fine lesson in how much Cambodians like it when you make a poor attempt to learn their language: a request for ice for our drinks and a thank you in Khmer improves everyone's outlook dramatically, and all of a sudden the waitress is testing out her english on Meils.
We negotiate a cheap price to get us back out to the temples with one of the half dozen tuk tuk drivers who hang out next to the hotel, Mr Lika. We're on our way to Ta Prohm. Passing the hospital, where possibly a hundred people are waiting outside in front of Haemorrhagic fever sign is a wake up call: firstly, the juxtaposition of this borderline third world scene against the 4 star hotel just back over our shoulder reminds us just how frontier Siem Reap really is, and secondly it reminds us to get the mozzie repellant out of the bag and start applying liberally.
After a very pleasant, breezy ride through farm land we reach Ta Prohm. Blessing of blessings, it's the one which has been left to look like it's still under attack from the jungle, and that means shade, and 32 degrees celsius instead of the 38 or so out in the sun. Ta Prohm is super awesome. While Angkor Wat is impressive in size and endless sculpture, Ta Prohm makes you feel like you're in Temple of Doom or King Kong.
It's falling down, the trees are attacking and holding up the walls simultaneously. Mosses and lichens create wonderful colours and the combination of stone and jungle help you understand the time that's passed since construction.
In reality, this site is just as cared for as any of the others, and it is a great example of the hand wringing that goes on in relation to these archaeological treasures: what's the appropriate ratio of restoration to preservation to tourist access?
Angkor Thom is the next stop. It's the biggest complex out of the lot, a collection of temples inside a massive total area which originally housed tens of thousands of people. On the way there we pass through gates where hundreds of games of vehicular chicken happen every day.
Heading in through the stone elephant guarded inner walls, we head north hunting one of the minor temples when we happen upon a small settlement. Chanting is coming out of what we later find out is a buddhist nunnery, and people on the steps are being drenched in water thrown upon them from above while they hold a praying posture. Nearby, a couple wash in well water while we bashfully make our way past. The line between people making their livings at a tourist site, and living at a tourist site is thin here.
There are two major temples inside Angkor Thom: the Baphuon and the Bayon. The Baphuon is worth a look, but pales in comparison to its neighbour.
The Bayon is one of the most recognisable spots in the Angkor temples. Covered in "enigmatic faces" which depict it's "god-king" sponsor, it's a badly packed pile of rocks from a distance which up close becomes an amazingly complex collection of towers and murals and sculptures. It's a 1.2km walk around its walls, well worthwhile for the massive murals which cover that entire distance, telling the story of Cham invasion and sacking of the city, followed by the Khmer's victory and reclamation of the city.
We planned to take in sunset at the Bayon, but it's taking too long to arrive so we decide to head back to Angkor Wat to take see it in a different light. By this time, Meils has decided that ancient cultures suck for having not invented travelators.
We notice something we recognise from Sarajevo: a mortar shell/grenade impact crater on the bridge across to the city. Other tourists wonder what the hell we're looking at. It's noteworthy that so much of the history around here is quite unrecorded; we've spent all day reading about the events of 700 years ago, and here's a story from 20 years ago. The Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese fought around and occupied these temples up until around 1983.
Sadly, the temples close at 5:30PM. You have to drag your heels and pretend to be walking out slowly in order to photograph them at sunset.