The Angkor temples are billed as no less than heaven on earth – they are the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Hindu equivalent of Mt Olympus, home of the gods. It's the world's largest religious complex, and considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. With a lead-up like that it's hard not to get the expectations a little out of proportion.
As one of the must-see's of South East Asia, it was my main reason for coming to Cambodia. Reason enough to hop on the bus, not quite enough to get me reading up on it all in advance. What with one thing and another, and mainly not feeling like it, I didn't get around to going through the write-up before I was facing the entry and looking for a spot to sit and open my book away from the crowds.
The Lonely Planet advises going at sunrise to see Angkor Wat, and getting in and out before the morning crowds begin (8-9 am) popping in at lunch while the morning tour groups leave for the restaurants and before the afternoon tour groups arrive. Because as the temples are monumental in size, so now are the crowds they attract. T-shirts in the bars in Siem Reap have a stylized Angor Wat image with the words 'Wat Disney' underneath. While it's obviously a contradiction to object to the presence of so many other tourists when touristing myself, it was hard not to feel overrun by the crowds and the resentment of having to share it all. I tried to tap into the sense of magic and wonder that the first peasants and early explorers must have experienced, but what with trying to avoid the photo shoots and side-stepping around the foreign tour groups to eavesdrop on the English ones, my senses were occupied with navigation.
My guidebook reading had me prepared for a 'spine-tickling' sight upon entering the inner causeway and being hit with the full scale splendor of Angkor Wat. I was all set for a tingle, but what hit me instead when I looked up was a feeling of being cheated – the temple appeared to be … hollow. The front three lotus bulb spires pointed up from what looked like an open gateway, contradicting my idea of it being a solid type of building you could enter. It wasn't until I stared at it for a while that I realised that the roof of the scaffolding covering some of the entranceway was reflecting the same dull colour as the sky. An optical illusion at work, and that effect combined with the unavoidable evidence of modern tampering, eroded the sense of authenticity and time-worn presence more than the passage of hordes of tourists.
I took my time wandering around Angkor Wat, reading about each of the bas-relief murals stretching around the complex, climbing up and up the steep narrow steps ascending to heaven, and taking a break on the grounds to stretch out in my hammock that I had purchased from a market in Phnom Penh precisely for this purpose, following a piece of travel advice I got on the road. Unfortunately, while I'd got a good deal on the hammock and managed to find some coordinating cord to hang it with that morning at the local market in Siem Reap, I hadn't thought of the bug spray. Lying stretched out in the trees pressed against the taut hammock strings, I must have resembled some kind of long kebab-shaped mosquito feeder, and it was lunch time. My efforts to nap were further thwarted by a family of six who declined to follow the path to the toilets and came over to pee in the trees in front of me.
Of my first day, and probably of my whole three day visit, my favourite temple was not Angkor Wat but Preah Khan – a smaller, quiet, moss-covered temple lying partially in ruins in the north end of the complex. Miraculously, it was almost empty of tourists – surrounded by large trees and glowing in the late afternoon sun, it exuded some of that time-worn atmosphere I had been looking to find. I didn't have much time, but I stayed until the temple closed at 5:30pm.
It was the end of the day but not the end of my visit as I biked back out toward the town, passing a few elephants coming back from their tourist rides, and I stopped to get closer. I had some leftover jackfruit that I had been my lunch for the day, and one of the elephants took the large piece out of my hand with his sandpapery snout, sucking it back like it was a little piece of popcorn. Excitedly I rooted through my bag to bring out the sweet buns that were the remainder of my food for the day. I put my hand out again but the offering was declined. The elephant sniffed and turned away – not nutritious is not delicious if you're an elephant, it seems. I hadn't expected them to be so discerning, after being surrounded by assorted dogs, rats and others feeding off available scraps throughout the rest of Asia. Elephants are certainly a breed apart.
I spent my remaining two days visiting the temples biking around the small circuit and the grand circuit, which form the main itineraries for visits to Angkor. I visited the two other top draws of Angkor – the Bayon, with the omnipresent smiling faces of the god-king (Avalokiteshvara resembling King Jayavarman) peering down from every vantage point, and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, where the movie was filmed. This is billed as the most atmospheric of the temples, where the jungle is more visibly in the process of reclaiming its territory. Enormous light-skinned, mottled trees that look like smooth snakes are in the act of swallowing the temple stones mouthfuls at a time, while lichens in shades of pinks and greens cover and eat away the stone in a more discreet and colourful manner. Unfortunately this temple is another tourist hub, not quite as bad as Angkor Wat but with not enough of the calm and quiet of Preah Khan.
Riding around on the bike, passing through kilometres of jungle filled with temple after temple, passed large statues of decapitated gods holding the serpent Vasuki churning the ocean of milk, through gateways where the smiling King Jayavarman stares down, and seeing the immense river-like moats surrounding the grandest of the temples, this was a real taste of the wonder of this place. Getting away from the tourists, that was heavenly.