“And these, our lives, exempt from public haunts,
Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
So Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, and so it was traipsing around the seventh Wonder of the World and the surrounding temples.
Actually, on our first day of exploring, we did not go to the eponymous temple/palace, but took the long slow route through most of the other sites within the UNESCO park area.
Our first stop was the main temple of Bayon in the Angkor Thom area. Our driver was a man who knew the secrets, and always chose to drop us off in places where we could face the temples for the first time alone, or nearly so. We entered Bayon from a little used side way, through halls empty of the tour groups, echoing and filled with the intermingled smells of incense and guano. Climbing upwards, into the light, we finally stumbled into the second tier central terrace…home to the famed stone faces. Imagine giant Buddha faces, smiling serenely and wisely at you from all angles…but not watchful, as their eyes are all closed, as in meditation or repose. Even with the touring herds, it was a magical moment.
Our continuing explorations brought us to the nearby Baphuon, which has just finished being fully restored. Behind that, we wandered a little off the beaten trail and found some simpler ruins that are being slowly consumed by the jungle again. Eventually, we found our way back to the ruins of the Royal Palace and the Elephant Terrace, where they used to watch elephants battle each other and had an ivory market, taken from the losers of the battles. Adjoining that is the Terrace of the Leper King. The king used to bathe in pools in his own level of the central complex, and that water was cycled down to the lower level for the subjects…which all works great until the king contracts leprosy and passes it to everyone.
Our driver took us onto the quieter temple of Preah Khan, which housed a few very impressive trees and a band, made up of landmine victims, playing traditional music that filled the air with haunting sounds. After that we stopped for a bite to eat (and a coconut) before we visited Neak Pean, which is an island surrounded by a man-made lake. The holy water temple area was under heavy construction, but the surrounding lake/swamp was a nice place to wander and take a break from the onslaught of history.
Our last stops that day were the large Pre Rup and the shy, quiet Banteay Srei. As the afternoon sun beat down, we climbed and wandered as the crowds dwindled, wilting in the heat. With the large loop almost complete, we decided to leave Angkor Wat for the next morning, when our eyes and minds were fresh.
Our driver arrived at 5 AM on the dot the next morning for our sunrise drive. But, like before, he had a few “best viewing” tricks up his sleeve. He took us to watch the sunrise at the little lake that lies across the road from Banteay Srei. Instead of herds of tourists with cameras jockeying for position, we had a quiet sunrise with less than 20 others, watching the local fishermen and the serene ducks. From there, he took us to Ta Prohm in the fresh dawn light. This is the temple of Tomb Raider fame (I did not know that…figures) and the melting candlewax appearance of the trees has inspired writers and photographers the world over. And at that time, it was practically deserted, almost chilly, and unutterably beautiful.
At which point, it was finally time for the main event. We were taken to the oft-ignored eastern entrance of Angkor Wat, giving us our first view of it totally alone on the path and seeing the eastern face bathed in the strengthening morning sunshine. As our driver pointed out, the sunrise crowd had all left and it was fairly quiet as we started our own inspection of all the galleries. All the attention that is paid to the iconic three towers totally ignores the impressive detail and storytelling of the galleries that span 800 meters on each side of the base. That is 3200 meters of carvings…TWO MILES OF CARVINGS!
Finally we climbed up through the Gallery of a 1000 Buddhas and up into the main courtyard…and finally up into the top tier, where the king lived. It is one thing to see the famous shape of Angkor Wat’s three large spires…it is completely another to stand at the foot of one and notice the details of the nagas and dancing Vishnus intermixed with Buddhist iconography.
We called it a day, but we were back the next day to see all our favorite highlights again…but this time with Duncan Weiss, a fellow Watertown-Mayer alumni. In high school, we spent a lot of time in the same circles, but we had not seen each other for more than 13 years. And yet here we were, meeting up for a couple dinners, beers…and touring one of the most stunning sights in the world. On the exact opposite side of the world from the 2500 person town where we grew up together. Life is strange and wonderful. As an extra bonus, on our second night in Siem Reap, my belly dance sister from Seoul, Hyerim (alias Lara), messaged to say that she was also in town. We met her that night, met Duncan the next, and then we all hung out together the last night.
It was like magic, seeing two disparate halves of my life come together in such a grand atmosphere. Serendipitous. What better way to experience something as fantastic and speech-defying as Angkor Wat than with friends, old and new. And with that warmth in our hearts, we headed off to our next destination, the capitol of Phnom Penh.