Cambodia (Angkor Wat)

May 21, 2012

Sweating profusely on my first visit to Angkor Wat back in 1999.

Now I know to arrive at sunrise, the coolest, most tranquil time to visit.

When I first visited Angkor Wat in 1999 tourists were no longer being killed or kidnapped by remnants of the Khmer Rouge, but Siem Reap was still a small dusty town with only one nice hotel. It was quite an adventure.

When I walked toward one hillside to take a photo, my guide said: "Please sir, they haven't checked that hill for land mines yet."

Today the land mines have (all?) been cleared. Siem Reap has enough tourists to pack many hotels, fill the now paved streets, and fly into a handsome modern airport. It even has a tolerable Mexican restaurant, a vital element of progress.

The ancient temples must be crowded during the day in high season, but at least now ― in the off season around sunrise before 8am buses invade the calm ― it's still magical and mystical.
Built as a Hindu temple in the 1100s, Angkor Wat later became a Buddhist center.

Two young apprentice Buddhist monks preparing their saffron robes for the day.

Meditation at a stupa on the east side of Angkor Wat.

Photos fail to convey the massive size of the whole Angkor Wat complex, plus the outer walls (not shown) and then the wide moot.

Sadly taking the challenge out of climbing, since 1999 easy wooden steps have been built over the narrow, slippery, eroded, dangerously steep steps.



Don't remember seeing monkeys in 1999, but they know now tourists adore them.


Hot air balloons lack enough empty fields for landings, but now a tethered helium balloon is one kilometer west of Angkor Wat. It ascends to a height claimed to be 200 meters and floats around for about ten minutes, nice but not quite close enough to get the dream view.  My photo below required my maximum zoom.


This pic from the balloon required the most zoom (12X) on my little Canon PowerShot had, followed by tinkering with contrast and so forth to try to cut through the morning haze. My eyes did not see anything not this large and clear.




Ta Prohm, the unreconstructed "tree temple," famous for its dazzling decay and octopus-like banyan trees, is my second favorite temple among the many scattered around this area.


Unfortunately, an Indian group has begun to aggressively "restore" (i.e., rebuild) the tree temple. Even if some of the sprawling trees are left intact, the power of this place is its mix of nature, rubble, and ruin. Couldn't this one temple be left in its glorious deterioration?


Another day I visited Angkor Thom and its main temple Bayan (my third favorite site). Again arriving at 6am in the off season, it was wonderful to share the place with only a handful of reverential visitors (not loud, squawking busloads).

Temples here are filled with stone bas reliefs of apsaras (pretty celestial spirits). This juxtaposition offered a dramatic contrast between an eroded, lichen-covered apsara and a beauty with carved details protected by dirt for many centuries.

Angkor Wat and its environs have been worth a second look, still every bit as extraordinary as I'd remembered. Modernized Siem Reap was a shock but not bad.