Cambodia (Angkor Wat)

June 21, 2012

Be sure to arrive at Angkor Wat at sunrise, the coolest, most tranquil time to visit.

First built in the 1100s as a Hindu temple,
Angkor Wat later became a Buddhist center.
In 1999, I first visited Angkor Wat. Siem Reap was still a small dusty town with only one nice hotel, but tourists were no longer being killed or kidnapped by remnants of the Khmer Rouge. I always wanted to return someday.

Today several dozen hotels, ranging from huge five-star chains to tiny guesthouses, pack the now paved streets, and travelers fly into a handsome modern airport. (Siem Reap even has a tolerable Mexican restaurant, a vital element of progress.)

The 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 tranquility ― it's still magical and mystical.

Angkor Wat sunrise another morning from a more distant vantage point out by the moot.

Sweating a lot back in 1999. (Due to bad socks?)

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 narrow, slippery, dangerously steep steps.

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

In 1999, when I walked toward a hillside to take a photo,
my guide said something I won't easily forget:
"Please sir, they haven't checked that hill for land mines yet."
Without a guide this trip, I assume that by now the vicinity is safe.

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. Not overly expensive, the nice balloon ride is not quite close enough to the temples to obtain the dream view; note qualification on the photo below.

This Angkor Wat photo was made possible through maximum optical zooming (12X) on my new compact Canon PowerShot ELPH 520, followed by a fair amount of tinkering with contrast and so forth to try to cut through the morning haze. While the actual view was not this large and clear, I still like the manipulated photo.

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?

Numbered blocks ready for the rebuilding.

Bayan Temple in Angkor Thom

Another morning 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).

Entrance to Angkor Thom

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 remarkable carved details who was lucky enough perhaps to have
been protected by dirt for many centuries. (I don't think she is a 21st century creation.)

Angkor Wat and its environs have certainly been worth a second look, every bit as extraordinary as I'd remembered.  Relaxing and hanging out in Siem Reap has been a pleasure too.