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Temples of Angkor

Today I felt orders of magnitude better. My illness of yesterday is mostly gone - as is the wicked lightening storm that blew in last night. More lightening flashed than in a bad horror movie. The rain fell as though forced from a fire hose. The power went out across the city and trees are strewn across the roads.

By morning, the storm passed - leaving in its wake a nice canopy of clouds and the occasional pleasant breeze. Though it was hot and beyond muggy by San Diego standards, it was infinitely more bearable than yesterday’s omnipresent heat.

I started the day before dawn at an ornate temple, Bayon. Even in its reconstructed state, the complex of domes and massive carvings was amazing. In it’s original state, it no doubt rivaled if not exceeded the masterpiece churches of Europe. We got there not long after dawn to take advantage of the morning light. The heavy clouds left over from the storm, nixed that, leaving instead a soft, low contrast light.

Being the first there made it easy to get photos without dozens of other tourists ruining my shots. To all who are planning on photographing the major temples, I recommend getting there as early as possible. Once the tour bus hordes start showing up around 8:00, forget about getting a wide shot without lines of people spoiling your image.

To us, these buildings appear as ruins. Back when they were constructed, the surfaces would have been painted with vibrant colors and gilded with gold and silver. What a dazzling sight this must have been!

Next it was off to Angkot Thom, a huge temple and royal palace site. It’s size and scope rivals Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula - and it even has it’s own pyramid.

Though the temples are mostly in ruins, they’re still considered holy places and used by Cambodians. As part of the Khmer New Year celebrations, people came to visit the monks at the site for a cleansing ritual. Here these kids draw water for a monk to pour over the heads of the worshippers.

In the midst of our strolls, we stopped for breakfast which consisted of pancakes and tea at one of a long row of outdoor diners. And I use the word diner loosely considering none had running water and all were housed under thatched roofs. Condensed milk is the local sweetener - which was used both for syrup and for tea. Nothing goes down so easy on a hot day as iced tea with condensed milk. Oh so good! Meanwhile, our local guide, Kimleng, stuck to his rice and fish dish.

Later that afternoon, we headed over to the mother of all temples and the most famous of all, Angkor Wat. It’s the largest, most famous and most restored of all the sites. It’s surrounded by a large man-made lake. The lake is at least a couple football fields in length and extends for several miles. It’s hard to believe that in addition to creating the vast temple by hand, a lake of this size could be dug out without anything more than strong backs and crude shovels.

Though it was claimed to have been “discovered” by the French in the 1800’s, the Cambodians never stopped worshipping here so it was never lost to them. They still decorate the statutes and give offerings to the deities.

This young monk spoke English, which he was eager to practice on us. He asked a lot of questions about America. When he saw my iPhone, he asked how much it cost. I was reluctant to say since $400 is probably more than he might see in an entire year. (I didn’t even bring up AT&T’s ridiculous monthly pricing.)

As I strolled through the corridors and walkways, camera and tripod at the ready, I imagined how everything would have looked back in the day. The interiors would have been lined with wood and the exterior surfaces all painted. I also thought about the large army of laborers, craftsmen, architects and artists that were required to build these fantastic structures within the short lifespan of an ancient king. (Once the king died, the construction stopped.)

Despite its size and sprawl, Angkor Wat wasn’t my favorite temple. Maybe because of the sometimes excessive crowds or because it was the most restored, it just seemed a little cold. I’ve grown use to the more overgrown temples that bring together stone, lichen and forest to create a more organic feel to the space. 

Although I felt much better from my sickness of yesterday - the intestinal thing cleared out by midday and my cold had mostly run its course, except for a dreadfully runny nose - the heat still feels oppressive to this San Diegan used to cool ocean breezes. I moved slowly and sat down when I could. I knew that coming to Cambodia during its hottest month meant taking things easy - though it’s much easier to accept in the abstract, sitting back at home planning out the trip.

Before visiting Cambodia, I had little idea of what to expect. I had no idea how developed and tourist friendly it would be. Siem Riep is definitely tourist friendly - especially if you speak English. Most everyone who deals with the public speaks at least broken English if they’re not fluent. Though there is much room for development, the cities all have good roads, decent infrastructure and air conditioning in the hotels.

Siem Riep, though smaller than Phnom Penh, is rapidly growing and is far from a small village. There’s all manner of hotels - from grand and luxurious to cozy-but-comfortable. It’s pretty easy to find a room for $25 to $30 a night with all the amenities and is in a good location. If you’re looking for adventure far off the beaten path, this isn’t it. You can no doubt find it in Cambodia (watch for land mines), but tourism on a ever increasing scale has hit this particular town.

That said, you can still get a decent dinner and a beer for less than five bucks. All is not lost!


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