Just for the record, let me say that Siem Reap, Cambodia in March, is remarkably devoid of biting insects when you have 100% DEET sprayed all over you. Based on the dust on the plants, it hasn’t rained here in a while, though water is standing in various ditches and ponds, so perhaps that accounts for the tourists walking around in shorts and t-shirts. Disembarking, we noted hazy skies and a slight bitterness of residual smoke in the air, likely from burning fields somewhere. And it was HOT, 94 degrees and Scott wants to say 94% humidity.
Right away, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Tuk-tuk motorcycle-powered-carriages are all over the place. The highways of wires that decorate buildings in third world countries hang here as well. We went past a number of hotels on the way to ours, which is an older, colonial establishment with… wait for it… excellent wi-fi. Scott gradually persuaded everyone but me that we should get up for the 5:00 am morning tour of Angkor Wat. This meant that I would be awakened for it as well, so defensively, we all hit the sack at about 8:00 pm.
Here’s a photo of what Angkor Wat looks like at about 5:30 am in March:
What you are missing, but becomes clearer as light slowly fills the sky, is loads of other people have had the same idea:
Besides the people that are taking photos, quite a number of young women come out to sell silk scarves. One woman who I will refer to as a girl because she looked about 14 was very assertive and having a hard time taking “no, thank you” for an answer. I told her her wares were pretty, and we would buy them from her if we were going to get any.
“You buy from me,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“From me,” she said.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“Na-fa-ge,” she said.
“Na-fa-ge,” I repeated.
“Mom,” Aili said, “She’s saying,’Don’t forget.’”
Of course, then, we went and bought another scarf from a girl who looked a lot like her. But we were able to make good on our commitment because we still needed to buy gifts for Aili’s friends, and we found her later, or rather, she found us.
Aili and I proceeded to sit on a wall, waiting for the next phase of the tour to begin. I watched a little boy digging through a trashcan to pull out food; he was unaware a man had just reviewed its contents.. Someone went over to the trashcan and handed him something to eat; he set it down on top of the trash can and continued digging through the trash can I sent Aili to him with $5. He put the $5 in his pocket, and went back to digging through the trash can.
But we weren’t there just for the sunrise, we were there to be blessed by Buddhist monks. This was an approximately 7 minute ceremony involving sitting on the floor and being liberally doused with holy water. As the monks sat down to begin the ritual, I smiled at the young man opposite me, and he smiled back and then quickly became serious, as if monks aren’t supposed to smile. — though they take selfies, as we learned leaning out our window in Peru. They take selfies here, too, with iPhones.
Then, we toured three temples with a brief stop for a box breakfast. Constructed in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat was a religious center, and as the largest (known) religious complex in the world, is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is surrounded by what was once the city of Ankgor. The three temples we visited are called Angkor Wat, which was a temple of prayer; Ankgor Thom, which was a royal palace; and Pra Thom, which was an arts education center. While very different from one another in many ways, they were built within about 100 years of one another and therefore share similar “galleries,” walls covered with bas relief, stairs, towers and stone carvings. Most of the statues were long ago hauled away. Some are in the Angkor Wat museum.
When one arrives in complete dark, the most treacherous thing about the temples is that the flagstones are broken in places, so you have to look carefully with your flashlight (supplied by Nat Geo in our original suitcase… we didn’t realize its purpose until now). Once the sun comes up, you do a fair amount of stepping carefully on uneven or steep steps. Many of the stairs or transoms are covered with wooden staircases that are more “to code.” When we came to the end of the three temples, Nat Geo was offering us interesting afternoon alternatives, but we were pretty spent. Up too early, too hot, too humid.
This part of Cambodia has seen an overlap of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Wat temple was Hindu, though it ultimately because a Buddhist temple, and I believe people have been continually practicing in it, or at least more continually than in the other two, which were “found” covered with jungle. The bas relief stories on Wat's walls are those of the god Shiva and others in epic battles. Fun fact: the Wat temple used to have quite a number of phallic statues which were removed when it became Buddhist. Angkor Thom’s walls are covered with smaller scenes of daily life underlying a foundation of massive battle scenes of the king defeating the Cham people. So: war again. Prah Thom’s walls were covered with Buddhas… it was a Buddhist temple… until it was converted into a Hindu temple, and most of the Buddhas were chipped off the walls or artfully altered into Shivas.
What is hard to explain is the magnitude of the sites. The images you find on the internet don’t do them justice. Before we came, we had looked some maps of the sites, and still it feels as though you walk a long way to get through from one side to another of the temples; I was reminded of the gardens at Versailles. In fact, we didn’t even see all or most of Angkor Wat; we were on a tight time schedule, given the pending heat of the day and the itinerary. As the bus drives down a road from one to another, the guide points left to another temple, right to another; here a temple, there a temple, everywhere a temple, temple. It really seems we could have come here for several days, if we could have withstood the heat. Of course, we WERE all wearing long pants or skirts and long sleeve shirts, out of concern for the mosquitos.
The hotel has a printed message for all guests: the grounds are sprayed Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so, “Should you encounter thick, white smoke appearing outside your window or balcony, please do not be alarmed as this some will clear within minutes and is not considered to be hazardous to the health as the chemicals are safe and approved by the American Pest Control Association.” (!)
In lieu of potential afternoon activities, many of which would have been tempting had we not arisen so early, or if it had been cooler, we Skyped with Liam and my Dad. Also, Aili and I had a manicure and a pedicure respectively. Only after my feet were soaking did I suddenly think, "Wait! What are the pedicure hygiene regulations in Cambodia? We're not even allowed to drink the water! What if I get a disease?!" This made for a not-very-relaxing pedicure.
In the evening, we were treated to traditional Cambodian dances: the Blessing, Golden Mermaid, and Aspara Dance.
We're off to Cheng-du tomorrow, with only our small suitcase. From there, part of the group goes to see the terra cotta warriors in Xian, and we go the next day to Lhasa.