Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Temple Trip

I've been traveling long enough that I should know better.  I've lost my luggage before, but it hasn't happened in a long time, and never when time was limited, so I guess I was lulled into a false sense of security.  When I left Mandalay, I put pretty much everything into my checked suitcase and carried light in my backpack.  So, when I got to Siem Reap and my suitcase did not, it wasn't exactly the best day ever.  I had no clean clothes.  I had no toiletries.  I had no sunscreen and no hat.  Basically I was screwed, and it sucked.  It would have been okay if Bangkok Airways had brought my luggage that evening, but in actual fact it was almost 1 the next day when my luggage finally did arrive.  Live and learn, I guess, but Cambodia was a rough leg of the trip thanks to that start.
I arranged with one of the drivers from Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse to take me around to the temples.  The first morning was another early roll-out...we left at 5:30 in order to be out at Angkor Wat before sunrise.  And then we got to Angkor Wat and I saw the hordes of tourists and I developed a new philosophy on sunrises, and it goes something like this: Fuck the sunrise.  Of course it would have been ridiculous to turn around and go back, so I asked him if we could go somewhere else to see the sunrise, and he took me to Sa Srang,  It was once a royal bathing pond, and it made for a nice sunrise, since there were almost no tourists.
Another nice thing about Sa Srang is its proximity to Ta Prohm.  From what I'd read about the Angkor group, this was the temple I was most interested in seeing.  I was fascinated by the way nature had pretty much raised her middle finger here regarding what humanity built up.  You can see the devastation of time in most of the Angkor temples, but Ta Prohm has really been wrecked; trees started growing and basically just strong-armed their way through the place, roots pushing between the blocks of stone and taking it over.  Walking through its wildness in the post-dawn glow, nearly alone, I could almost imagine myself as an archaeologist-adventurer.  And although other parts of the Angkor group were nice - gorgeous, or impressive - I think Ta Prohm really was my favorite because of that untamed feeling it had.
When I was finished imagining myself as Lara Croft, we went on to Angkor Thom, which is actually the largest complex in the Angkor group, since it was not just a temple, but rather a city, where the sacred and the profane walked together.  My driver urged me to have breakfast, so I stopped for some fried rice.  I wasn't particularly hungry, since it was so hot, and didn't get my appetite back until I returned to Thailand, but the coke I drank with it did me a world of good.  Then I started exploring Angkor Thom with the Bayon, followed by Ta Phuon, and took pictures of the terraces of the elephants and the Leper King before calling it a day.  I explained that I needed to go back to the guesthouse so I didn't get sunburned, and since he had to get up even earlier than I did, I think he was glad to oblige me.  We made a plan for the next day, and I settled in to wait on my luggage.
At 7:30 the next day we headed out to see #2 on my list: Banteay Srei, which is considered the jewel of Khmer art.  It's way the hell out of the city, and I told myself that maybe it wouldn't be too crowded.  This was a lie.  As we puttered down the road we were passed by bus after bus of Chinese tourists.  I remember a time when Japanese tourists with big cameras were the traveler's bane, but those days are long gone.  I had to maneuver around groups of 20-30 people, all listening raptly to their guides and taking tons of pictures.  The carvings on this temple were totally worth it, though.  I wished we were allowed to get closer to the central buildings, though, because the carvings were really spectacular.
After a couple of other temples I finally made my way to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  I asked my guide when it would be the least crowded, and he said that people start to thin out around 11, and that they get busier again around 3, leading up to sunset.  We got there maybe around 12:30, and it was immediately apparent to me why there are fewer people in the middle of the day: it is hot as hell.  All I'd eaten that day was a cherry coke and a banana and I still wasn't hungry, but I allowed myself to be persuaded in favor of, "Cool drinks, madam?" and sat at the "Harry Potter" stall, which should have been numbered 9 3/4, but was disappointingly #5.

When I finished my drink and the afternoon's entertainment of watching tourists beseiged by 5-year old touts, I moved on to visiting Angkor Wat in earnest.  Unlike its brother and sister temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned, so you're seeing the temple as it has always been, minus expected wear and tear.  It's the largest religious structure in the world (by which I assume they mean the entire complex rather than just the temple proper), and it's a doozy.  The temple has three levels to it, the third of which you access by some pretty steep stairs.  As I stewed in my own juices under the roasting sun, I asked myself if I really needed to climb up there.  I'd seen lots of carvings and appreciated the architecture just fine from where I was, right?

In the end I decided I would regret it if I didn't climb up there, and I was right.  The view of the grounds was stunning.  The temple itself was stunning.  It wasn't swarmed with tourists, and the climb down wasn't bad, although I recommend doing it backwards (your feet fit better that way).  I sat up there for a while and just took it all in.

As I was gearing up for the trip, I came across some comparisons between Angkor and Bagan on WikiTravel.  They were quite poetic and also accurate, but missed out on what I thought was the real difference between the two - while both are tourist sites, the Bagan temples are used by actual spiritual seekers.  Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe my passive-aggressive loathing for Tourists, but I think there's something about taking your shoes off that makes a place special, that inclines you to feel more.  Don't get me wrong, I liked them both and wouldn't have wanted to miss either, but there was just something breathtaking about Bagan.  

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