I have just spent two full days at the Ankor area. I have only one important suggestion to those of you romantic enough to want the Ankor experience to be a special one. DO NOT go to Ankor Thom the morning of the first day! Find some out-of the -way ruins free of the numerous hawkers that will drain you body, mind and spirit before the first morning is out!
I hire a driver for the two days to get me around, but quickly find out that in Cambodia they are not allowed to take you around the ruins as tour guides. There are certified others to do that. Sarin is a great guy, and will help you out in any way possible from morning to evening. A very hard-working and dedicated fellow.
Our first stop is the entrance to the park. I’m charged $40 for a three-day pass. There is a very efficient process for you to obtain your photo ID… I just want to get to Ankor as quickly as possible! I find out later that an interesting thing is going on here. Seems like the concession for the area was contracted to a Vietnamese oil company years ago when the Cambodian government needed some ready-cash… which is still true. (I immediately sense that this a Halliberton deal, but realize that the oil company is owned by the Vietnamese govt.!) Well, anyway, UN funds and international efforts are helping to restore the temples scattered over a very wide area.
The first stop after the entrance was a gate, the approach lined on either side with figures that echo the themes of Hinduism throughout the entire complex. To explain Ankor Thom is impossible to do in a short entry. It is made up of several individual temples and remnants of the royal palace. The most impressive parts are the Baphouan, a magnificent temple built to represent Mount Meru and the approach to Heaven. It is now undergoing restoration by a French team. It will be stunning when it is completed. Next to Baphouan is Bayon, a temple area that has faces everywhere looking out to you with the most benign yet omnipresent expression. It is actually the face of one of the former kings who built the structure in the 12th century, but later on it was determined to be the face of Buddha when the complex was taken over by the Buddhist priests! How flexible it all is! I love the structure to the other side of Baphouan, the Phineanakus! This temple, located next to the royal palace was the residence of the snake who would appear every night as a beautiful woman. The king was obliged to “visit” her every night that he was in residence or the kingdom would be in great danger—- don’t mess with the snakes! I climb to the top not just for the view, but escape the relentless hawkers! Here there is also the Elephant Terrace where games were held for the king’s amusement in the field below and the Terrace of the Leper King, so named because the beautiful statue of a king was found here missing fingers and toes on one foot and hand.
In the afternoon Sarin directs me down a pathway leading to the temple of Phreah Khan…. It’s quiet… somewhat in conflict with the battle scenes that line the walls of the temple. I believe it was built to honor the spot where the Cambodians defeated the Champa king. I delight in the experience of this place. There is a group of people who were injured by land mines playing classical Cambodian music that adds to the wonderful atmosphere that you will find here. Few people are here as it is off the main path of the tourists who prefer to walk through the complex. I am grateful for the break…. but it is a gem of a place not to be missed.
For the rest of the day, however, I want to experience Cambodia today…. Sarin takes me out to a village along the route to the lakes. I ask him to drop me off and meet me about two kilometers down the road. I spend the time wandering and meeting the people there who are very friendly and love having their picture taken…. especially with a digital camera so they can see it immediately! This is a village made up of very poor people who work in the town or eek out a living fishing in the rivers and lakes in the area. In a way, this is as pleasant an experience as visiting the temple complex!
The next day I asked Sarin to arrange an actual tour guide to take me through Ankor in the morning. What a gold mine I found in Savuth! During the course of the day, he not only opens my eyes to Ankor, but to the nature surrounding us! A whole other experience of Ankor! He does not take me directly to Ankor but we circle it, as if we are in some strange seductive dance as the Aspara dancing figures that are carved wherever you look. We make the complete circle around Ankor Wat. And then go in through the east entrance. At the entrance is a median channeling the spirit of a relative of a group of people assembled there. He thrashes one minute and then is completely focused, becoming the vessel for the spirit to talk to his relatives. But he is talking in ancient Bali, so he must act out and have the people guess what he really wants… It is quite a show to be sure!
We climb the stairs to enter the first level of Ankor. Again we walk along the causeways Savuth explaining the meaning of the carvings on the walls or pointing out a butterfly, lizard or spider of interest. We then climb the steep stairway to the next level. The stairway is built of short, steep steps to that you are forced to look down at your feet as you climb or descend. This prevents you from looking up .. which would mean you are looking into the face of the god– not a good thing! We finally get to the top of Ankor Wat. On the four sides there are remains of pools dedicated to the four elements—- earth, wind, fire and air. If you have an ailment, you would climb here to bathe in the pool that would cleanse you according to the affliction you are experiencing. Savuth allows me half and hour to walk around and reflect alone. There are few people here in the morning as this is usually the afternoon stop after a morning at Ankor Thom nearby. A gentle rain is falling that adds wonderfully to the feel of the ruins.
It is finally time to leave. We climb down a side opposite to the one we came up as it has a railing to help you down. We circle back to the front of Ankor and walk down the causeway. (A representation of the Rainbow Road to heaven. )
We take a break for lunch and journey out of town to a small farming village. Again I enjoy walking through the town meeting people with Savuth’s help…… I think I would like to come back someday.. just to spend a few days in a village…. such a fascinating and open people. We see weavers, farming techniques and sugar making from palm trees. Everyone not in the least concerned you are from another culture and willing to explain everything you ask.
We return to Ankor toward sunset. We first visit Ban They-kdai, a magnificent temple that has trees growing out of the ruins. You want to photograph everything you see. You wish you had a camera loaded with black and white film for the experience! Savuth takes the time to point out an interesting insect, a line of ants that lose their way if the line is disturbed, and an interesting plant that curls up to the touch and will not open again until the sun shines on it the next day. I love seeing this level of the complex. You are so taken by the massive structures before you that you forget to notice the little things there too. I’ve very grateful to Savuth for this experience. Savuth takes me through Ankor Thom from the other direction and we find ourselves just in time on the western side of Bayon to watch the setting sun play with shadows on the southern and western face of Bayon…. ever-changing and beautiful! As we sit near the temple, the monks begin their five o’clock chanting. In the temple complex a monk is pouring water on some people to cleanse them and heal them of this or that affliction.
We end the day by climbing up Phenom Baking to the temple remains up top along with many other people. Many of these making the ascent on elephants along the winding pathways. It is fun to walk beside these gentle creatures patting their rough hide. We stay long enough to take pictures of the view of Ankara Watt and the setting sun. We elect to leave early as we can see rain clouds approaching in the distance. We no sooner get to the car and the rains start.
We ended the day at the market saying good-byes and reliving the day. I ate in a Vietnamese restaurant in the market area with a Swedish guy I met on the bus coming to Siem Riep. We finally realize ourselves yet another part of Ankor….. there’s a “Cambodian Zone” and a “Tourist Zone.” Now this is true of most places, but it is really apparent in Siem Riep. Two different experiences and prices! In the “Tourist Zone” you negotiate everything in US dollars…… and rials in the Cambodian Zone. It would have been interesting to explore this more if I had been staying for more than three days!
The next day Sarin took me to the airport…… I can scarcely believe that the return trip to Bangkok takes a total air travel time of 35 minutes from gate to gate. What a contrast with the 13 hour trip it took going overland…….. How is wish I had taken the bus back…….