She imagines how she might have lived
back when legends and history collide
Being at the the temples of Angkor one can’t help but imagine what life must have been like some 700 odd years ago. The Temple complex is vast. Building of the Angkor temples by the Khmer empire took place between 800-1200 CE and as with many of the large temples in SEA, Angkor temples began as Hindu & then as the populous converted to Theravada Buddhism, the temples became monasteries. It is estimated that in it’s heyday Angkor was home to over 1 million people. No one is sure what happened to Angkor & why it was abandoned. There are lot’s of theories & also lots of info on Angkor, if you are really interested in Khmer architecture & Angkor history you can find it here.
It’s easy to get temple fatigue. There are an unbelievable amount of tourists, It’s hellishly hot & the touts are relentless. The postcard touts are cute & sadly desperate little kids. “no money for school” they shout. and if that doesn’t sway you:”madam, postcards, only one dollar for ten. one, two, tree, four, fibe, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!” Then there are the disabled touts. Usually they are missing one or more limbs & as they lean on crutches, (or if they are unable to stand, they position their disfigured bodies on mats in front of the entrances) they hold out hats & in a throaty, pleading whisper they say “please, madam, please”. It’s heartbreaking & exhausting. But I can’t even imagine what life for them must be like so ……..I now have about 30 more postcards than I will ever need and my wallet & my conscience are both a little lighter.
Sunrise at the temples is something all tourists do. So, at 5:15 my driver & I head out into the darkness. I decided to be a bit different & go to the Bayon at Angkor Thom vs Angkor wat. I was hoping for fewer tourists. I had been at the Bayon the day before & while I thought it was beautiful, and wanted to see more, I was so overwhelmed by the crowds & the heat that I became claustrophobic and had to escape.
I arrived at the Bayon & the parking lot was empty. good sign. It was still dark & I needed my headlamp to scramble up the narrow steps to the top. Once at the top, it was eerie. and beyond belief: I was ALL ALONE. (Well, except for the monkeys & the bats) I had the entire Bayon of Angkor Thom all to myself. As the sun came up, the light turned a dreamy pale blue & as the light illuminated the large eastern facing towers, I felt not only awestruck but privileged.
When i got back to the tuk tuk, I said to Mau giddily “I was all by myself!” he said, “yes, people only go to Angkor Wat at sunrise”. So for all you travelers out there, If you want a temple all to yourself at sunrise, choose a temple other than angkor wat. You will not regret it.
Siem Reap, despite the hoards of tourists, is a charming & manageable city. The old city has loads of restaurants & cheap massages. It’s also easy to navigate on foot & if it’s too hot the tuk tuks are ubiquitous & cheap. (well, cheaper than phnom penh. 1 USD should get you anywhere you need to go).
*you may notice that the typical panoramic photo is Angkor Wat conspicuous by it’s absence. That is because there is restoration going on & the whole bloody thing is covered in green tarps & scaffolding. Guess I’ll have to return some day
Tips for Travelers:
Avoid temple fatigue. Go early in the morning & then come back into town to relax a bit & head back out in the late afternoon. You will not enjoy anything when you are dripping with sweat.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to stay at a hotel with a pool, ask at one of the nicer hotels to use their pool for the day. Most charge between 5-25 USD per day. I found the pool at the Somadevi to be very nice & quite reasonable at 6 USD per day.
Go to the blue pumpkin. It has great smoothies, pastries & WiFi & the upstairs chillout zone is backpacker heaven. Portland definitely needs one of these.
I stayed at 2 dragons It is owned by an american who is a wealth of information about Cambodia. It is SPOTLESSLY clean, you get free pick up from bus station, free WiFi, the bed was firm & comfy, had cable TV, hot water & AC for 15 USD. The restaurant has standard backpacker fare, but the coffee is good & in a pinch the food is passable.