I woke up this morning to blue skies and an empty dorm as everyone had gone to watch the spectacular sunrise at Angkor Wat. The one day I lay in…Oops! Pai and the gang picked me up at 7.30 and I was introduced to our guide for the day; Narin. If you’re going to Siem Reap I really recommend booking a guide, and I particularly recommend Narin (http://www.angkorbesttourguide.com/) for stories, vip routes, history and amazing photo spots. We saw, learned and shot things we would never have known about if it weren’t for him; which, in addition to his excellent company and cheeky humour makes him well worth the $35.
I wanted to start the day with Ta Prohm, to take in the temple before the crowds arrived and disturbed the peaceful ambiance. We managed around 10 minutes before the first tour bus arrived. Luckily Narin knew enough secret spots (VIP route!) and was friendly with all the guards so, even though there were people there, we still felt as though we had the place to ourselves much of the time. Ta Prohm, or the Tomb Raider temple, was the one I was most looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. Majestic 400 year old trees have taken root in the walls, with gigantic roots slithering down the ancient stones like serpents in search of water. The canopies tower hundreds of feet above, offering little shade.
There’s a huge conservation project going on here at the moment, as the Indian government try to bring the temple back to some resemblance of its former glory, without disturbing the trees which attract so many tourists and movie companies each each. Quite the task! If you go there see if you can find the dinosaur carving tucked away in the corner of one courtyard. If you’re with Narin he’ll point it out. Along with a temple which only echoes if you have your back to the wall. The idea is that you beat your chest to rid yourself of bad energy. The hollow sound suggests you are free from bad karma, and ready to exit to be filled with good luck. Pretty cool! I could talk about Ta Prohm all day, and could have stayed for hours, but our stomachs were rumbling and so with lots to see we waved goodbye and headed back to Pai and the car.
Having not had breakfast, Narin provided some snacks for us. We asked for ice cream and to our surprise he came back with delicious fresh pineapple and what looked like a short mini milk each. Dad, Joy and I all took our first lick…’I recognise this flavour’ says dad, ‘no like’ from Joy…’it’s onion!’ says I. Onion ice cream…one for the experience books!
The next stop was the victory gate, used by the King to enter Angkor Thom, a great city back in its day. From here we returned to the terrace of the elephants which looked far more impressive under blue skies. Narin showed us the story depicted in the carvings, how elephants were used for hunting and fighting as well as prestigious transportation. The terrace was once a viewing platform for the king, and would have been covered in wooden awnings with many beautiful silks and materials. From here the king and royal dignitaries would watch events at the stadium, which is now just a car park around which stand 12 towers. The towers represent the 12 months of the year and also the Kings 12 daughters who would watch the events from inside.
The next temple on the list was Bayon, the last state temple to be built by king Jayavarman Vll, with some 216 faces depicting the king who built it. As with many other temples the Buddhas had been destroyed by Hindi rulars, leaving Hindi symbols in their place. Here you feel as though you are constantly being watched as face after smiling face beams down at you. We had a lot of fun with photos here, as you can stand nose to nose with the king, and even pucker up if you like! Bayon also has a great many carvings, all depicting stories of grand marches, naval battles and every day life in the temple. This was one of my favourites; can you see the dog biting the soldiers bum? The further into the centre of the temple you go, the more the carvings change from life to religion as they pay homage to the gods. It is the upper levels also which host the 49 towers, each one with 4 smiling faces. Can you imagine how long this must have taken to build and decorate? And how many men were involved? Amazing!
We had saved the best till last, and arrived at Angkor Wat mid afternoon when most tour groups were enjoying lunch in the shade. The sheer scale and magnificence of this temple is hard to depict in words. Narin spent time with us outside the grand moat (one of the only temple moats to still contain water) showing us the tour we were about to take on a map before we entered. This was so that we would not lose our bearings once inside the ginormous walls. This is the largest religious monument in the world, one of the seven wonders and, at the moment, the top rated global activity on trip advisor, and we were going in!
There are five gates on the west side of Angkor Wat, the central one for the king, one to the left and right for dignitaries and one either end for elephants (no steps). We went to the right to see the statue of Vishnu which used to stand in the central temple until replaced by standing and reclining Buddhas. Travelling with Narin you don’t only get an insight into the history of the buildings you’re seeing, but also the plant and wildlife around. His keen eyes picked up grasshoppers, shy grass and we also got to taste Palm fruits fresh from the tree.
Here we finally heard the story of the churning of the ocean into milk, where demons tried to produce the nectar of life and gain immortality. The gods and demons formed an alliance to create the milk and share it, but the gods were never intending to share and give their enemies everlasting life. A mountain was chosen as the churning rod, and a great snake Naga (so much respect for JK Rowling) became the rope which was wrapped around. The gods took the tail and the demons the head and together they turned the mountain. The churning of the ocean killed all the fish and wildlife in the water, but once it was done Vishnu threw his great disc and beheaded all the demons before they could take the milk.
I’m not sure I’ve done the best job of explaining this, but if you come to Cambodia you’ll see this story depicted over every bridge, at the entrance to every temple and in many other places in between, so it’s worth reading up on! We also learned the reason behind the holes in the walls, as they used to house gem stones to make the temple more holy, unfortunately thieves got their hands on them many years before. They’d have had to brave the bats though, which apparently used to sit calf deep on the floors of the corridors and produced an acid so potent it has worn away the sandstone! Rather them than me!!!
Our final stop was to climb the 65m temple in the centre of Angkor Wat. This is the tallest structure in Siem Reap, and no building is allowed to rise higher. An 82 year old local woman with no teeth or hair made the gigantic climb, putting many younger than her to shame! The views from the top were stunning, and as the number of people there at any one time is limited to around 140 you get a chance to appreciate it without battling for space.
At 5pm the bell tolled for closing time, and Narin led us to the east gate to avoid the hoards exiting from the front, yet another route we would have missed without him. The east gate is home to kings landing, an entrance with no steps as the king would always arrive by elephant! Damned good way to travel.
I’m not sure this blog has done justice to how incredible this day was; I learned, saw and felt so much. We had the perfect blend of history, fun and moments to just stop and take it all in. There’s a reason Narin’s website is called best tour guide! I’m sure the blue skies also did a lot to help my mood, but think it would be hard to be anything but smiley in such an amazing place.
Tomorrow I’m off to Battambang for the next adventure! I’m sure there’s much more to see and do in Siem Reap, but for a the main sights I’d say 3 days was just about right.