I hope you like crowds because a visit to Angkor Wat is overrun with them. It is the heart and soul of Cambodia featured on everything from stamps and the riel (currency) to the architecture of modern buildings and hotels. On my first day out I hired a TukTuk for the day for just $13. We stopped to purchase a pass, you have a choice of 1 day for $20, 3 days for $40 or 7 days for $60. I chose the 3 day pass thinking that would be enough temples for me to see during my week long visit. They take your photo which is printed on your pass. Make sure you keep it with you at all times because they check it at every temple entrance and the tourist police will even stop you on the roads and ask to see it. Without it you face heavy fines. We bypassed the massive crowds in the morning to return later in the day when they would be more manageable. We instead made our way to the East Gate, or the Victory Gate, of Angkor Thom, passing through the main gate, built with a high entrance to allow fully decorated elephants to pass through. Today pedestrians have to dodge cars, tuktuks and tour buses. It is decorated with stone elephants and in front of each gate there are 108 statues, 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. As you enter you are faced with the Bayon complex. There are 54 towers decorated with the smiling faces of the Buddha of Compassion along with intricate carvings in the stone walls throughout the site. But the crowds are massive, even first thing in the morning and you are constantly dodging people and cameras. What is funny is how everyone, me included, would wait in line at certain spots all taking the same photos from the same angles. Once you leave the temple it is a short walk to Baphuon Temple, taken apart by a team of archeologists for restoration but when Pol Pot took over, the records were destroyed so work continues today trying to piece it all together again, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Most of it is still closed off to the public so I kept walking to the Terrace of Elephants, once used as a victory stand by the king and dignitaries during public ceremonies and today the main focus is the Buddha draped in orange cloth and still a site of worship. I was baking under the hot sun (about 40c) and guzzling as much water as I could stand but when I went to find my tuktuk driver I had to wander among dozens of tuktuks for 15 minutes before we connected. Next stop was Ta Prohm, a 12th century Buddhist temple that had been claimed by the forces of nature, massive trees cascade over the walls and their roots pierce through the walls, the stonework patinaed red and green from water, moss and lichen. Many of the passageways are impassable because of the crumbling structure, used as the set for the film Tomb Raider. There were also kids playing around inside and outside the temple, and that’s where I first saw the victims of landmines playing for donations. On to the next temple, Takeo, a massive structure being restored with the help of the Chinese. There are signs out front with the rules… no dogs allowed, no smoking, no littering, no eating, no coughing (?), and you must wear a shirt, basically they want you to show some respect, although many tourists ignored most of those rules (and I didn’t see any evidence of dogs in or around the temples). It is still a work in progress, though there’s not much evidence of that like I saw at other temples. Still you have to take great care as you climb the hundreds of steps to the summit, somewhat narrowed over the centuries so you can barely step up, it’s a hand over hand effort similar to rock climbing. It is a big climb up, with beautiful views from the top, but also a big climb down. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant and one little girl approached, offering me bracelets, “one for a dollar” “No”, “two for a dollar” “No”, “three for a dollar” “still no” “please so I can go to school.” She had the lines down pat. I said “no but I will take you and your friend’s photo for a dollar”, so they flashed me the peace sign posing for the camera and then argued after about who would get the dollar. As we reached the entrance to the next temple I had to walk the gauntlet of several persistent touts. One girl approached and just started chatting with me. I was already on guard and said I wasn’t interested in buying anything. She said, “no no I just want to talk” and then pointed to my nose ring and earrings and said “very nice. Where you from?” I said, “Canada” and she replied, “capital Ottawa, it is a beautiful country and one of the biggest in the world. Where do you live?” I said “Toronto” and she responded with “oh a very big and beautiful city.” I asked her how she knew all that and she told me she was 14 and had been tops in her classes since first grade, and she had just come from school. She asked my name and told me hers was Borramy. We talked some more and she told me about her family and how her grandparents suffered under Pol Pot, her grandfather killed and her grandmother sent to the fields to work. Then she told me how she is scared by the war with Thailand. The day before I was reading about a battle along the border between Cambodia and Thailand over disputed land around the Preah Vihear Temple. It had been damaged in the latest attacks and 2 people had been killed and several villagers wounded when mortars were launched 20km inside Cambodia, and the government had issued an appeal to the UN Security Council to intervene. At the time the world was focussed on the protests and clashes in Cairo as the populace stood up to overthrow the Mubarek government. She said the King had said ‘if they come here, we should all go to the temple (of Angkor Wat) to protect it.” I said, “not to worry, the world won’t let that happen.” I knew it was a hollow promise since the global community doesn’t have a very good record when it comes to protecting one country from another if there are no particular economic or political interests, like oil. She said she wanted to give me a bracelet as a gift. I thanked her and offered her a dollar but she refused the money, something for nothing? something I hadn’t come across in my travels. I left her and went inside Banteay Kdel and was immediately picked up by a tour guide who started showing me all the best vantage points for photos. I should have brushed him off immediately but appreciated his knowledge about the site and we were able to move quickly through the temple, me clicking numerous photos of elaborate carvings, different angles of the temple and the entire site. When it was over he hit me with the pitch, demanding $10 for his services. I decided he did deserve something (I’m such a sucker) so I handed him $7 and walked away. When I approached the gate again, Borramy came running toward me and said, “Hello Darren, my friend.” She asked how I liked the temple and then came her pitch, did I want more bracelets for gifts or postcards? I said ‘no’ and her face fell. She said, “but I gave you a gift and you took my photo and you are a friend.” She looked like she was going to cry so I handed her $3, ignored her dejected look and walked away, wondering how such a young girl managed to work me like a pro. As we drove the tuktuk to Angkor Wat we saw a crowd gathered on the side of the road. It wasn’t until we were passing by that I saw a tuktuk on its’ side and an Asian woman unconscious curled up inside. A little further up the road an ambulance raced passed us on its way to the scene. We arrived at Angkor Wat before 4pm and while the crowds had still thinned out there were still people everywhere. I wandered around the site, clicking dozens of pictures in awe of the size and the ornamentation. It was built in the 12th century around the same time as Notre Dame. Before you climb the Bakan Temple steps you read over the rules, even stricter at this site… but few people followed them. When one young American woman showed up in a halter mini-dress and they handed her a scarf, she looked at them quizzically and then put it on her head, I guess that was more important than covering up the rest of her. Also one large group of Chinese tourists were the worst, spitting inside, dancing around for photos, and so loud their voices echoed through the holy site. I wandered through the site until sunset capturing some beautiful photos of Angkor Wat but I was ‘templed out’ and decided I would need a day off before getting up to catch sunrise over the temple.
I set my alarm for 4:30am to get an early start to watch the requisite sunrise over Angkor Wat and my TukTuk arrived on time at 5am. As we drove out through the darkness there was increasing traffic as we approached the temple, but it was a chilly ride. I have only felt intense heat since arriving in Siem Reap so I wasn’t prepared for the morning cold, and wrapped myself in my Krama, the Khmer scarf that locals and tourists all use for everything from protection from the sun (and cold) to a blanket to sit on while riding the TukTuks. When we arrived at the temple there were lots of people already there, and a line of traffic following behind me. I’m glad I had my pocket flashlight with me, as it was a little tricky making my way to the best viewing site on the edge of a pond with the temple silouetted in the background. I got there just in the nick of time and had a front row seat. As we all waited, kids would come buy offering us everything from coffee or tea to a full breakfast. Soon the sky gradually started to turn from darkness to light, and the temple became more visible across the pond. There were hundreds of people there, some just there for the experience, others set up with full tripods and expensive camera equipment. As the sun rose, I managed to get a number of great shots, but I was only mildly impressed. I’d already seen a beautiful sunset from the other side of Angkor Wat, a couple of days earlier. When the sky was lit up, I decided to move on to the next big thing, but as I wandered toward the gate, I noticed an increasing flood of people coming toward me, (no doubt the late-comers) and they all had their eyes on the sky and their cameras focussed. What could be so interesting now? I glanced back and saw the sun appearing to emerge from an eclipse, a burning orange ball partly covered through invisible clouds. It was magnificent, so I quickly turned my lens on the spectacle and started shooting. When I was certain I had captured the best of it, I continued on my way and as I passed through the gate and over the pedestrian bridge the morning haze had created spectacular silouettes of the forest. After a short relatively short search I managed to find my TukTuk driver who suggested breakfast, a good idea since I’d been up for about 3 hours without eating. So I stopped off for bacon, eggs and a pancake at one of the conessions set up, a little more elaborate than most. I should have kept a closer eye on my driver though because when I finished eating I had to wander through a maze of hundreds of TukTuks searching for his purple shirt. I wandered for about 15 minutes, accosted by bands of children hawking postcards and bracelets (‘only one dollar sir’) with every step I took. We finally spotted each other, and it seems he’d taken the opportunity to use the washroom and didn’t think he had to rush so he’d stopped to chat with some of his friends along the way. I decided my next highlight would be an elephant ride. I had already checked into them and was reassured by everyone from The Lonely Planet to locals that they were well cared for. They are ‘owned’ by the nearby village and kept well since they are a major source of income for the community. I had to wait about an hour for an availability, so I wandered through the Bayon temple again, and was glad I did. The morning light did change the faces of the Buddhas from the high sun in the afternoon when I had visited before. There also appeared to be more detail in the ornamentation as light and shadow showed it off to perfection. There was also about a tenth as many people at that time of day, and dozens of work men already on the site doing their restoration. This was a totally different experience. The Apsara Dancers were bored waiting for the tourists to decend… but the sitting Buddha appeared to be smiling a little more. I headed over for my big ride, paid my $15usd and climbed the platform to await my chariot… or pachyderm as the case may be. It finally ambled up to the platform and I climbed on. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride I’d been on, my legs didn’t hang over the sides like on a horse (can you say groin pull!) and as we moved out of the paddock area I noticed a small pocket behind the neck of my ‘driver’, a special place for tips. It was an interesting perspective on the Bayon Temple, getting a higher vista of the entire site. I was also the focus of a lot of tourist cameras and I’m sure my photo is being passed around by countless Japanese and Chinese tourists. Taking photos from the back of an elephant is certainly a challenge. The rise and fall of each step made for a lot of bumpy and lopsided pictures. The ride was over before I knew it (about 15 minutes), but in that timethe traffic had grown considerably and we had to dodge all kinds of TukTuks, tourist vehicles and even truck loads of workers. I hoped my ride was used to the mayhem. I had visions of the elephant rearing up and throwing me to the ground, but he maintained his cool and as we approached the platform again there was a new group of tourists who had paid their 15 bucks for a ride. I met up with my driver and we zipped off to the next temple, Preah Khan, which was under a huge renovation project. It seems everyone else had the same idea, there were hundreds of people everywhere and they were all trying my patience. Every time I wanted to take a photo, someone would be standing in the middle of my shot. I waited patiently before trying to take the picture and at that moment someone else would step in. At one point I waited on the sidelines for some people to take their photo of a giant tree that had overtaken part of a temple. When they finished, I stepped up and began to focus when a German woman behind me loudly cleared her throat and told me to move. First my jaw hit the ground, then my blood boiled, then I raised my hand and gave her the finger. They had finally got to me. I was more disappointed in myself than with her. I left the temple and told my driver I had already had enough. He was crestfallen, no doubt worried that he wouldn’t be able to charge me for the full day rate so he suggested another temple about 45 minutes away. Yes, I thought, it should be free of the hordes way out there. I was wrong. It was a beautiful drive through the countryside and I’m glad I got a chance to experience some rural Cambodian life. There were villages full of houses built on stilts, school children cycling to school, and families cooking over their unique outdoor clay ovens. The TukTuk needed to refuel so we pulled over to a ‘service station’, basically a stand with old plastic pop bottles filled with gasoline which the ‘attendant’ proceeded to pour into the gas tank. The temple of Banteay Srai is one of the smallest but the intricate detail that has been salvaged is exquisite. It dates back to 967AD and was commissioned not by the king like the other temples, but by his chief Hindu Brahman advisor. As you move through the passageways you reach the inner sanctuary guarded by kneeling figures with monkey heads. It was definately worth the drive and the hordes of tourists. I just wish I had prepared first and read up on the area because another 20 minutes away is the River of a Thousand Lingas (Hindu symbols representing male fertility usually in the form of phalluses) most carved into the river rock and arranged in a grid like pattern. I also learned when I read up on the site, that Banteay Srai was a favorite target of art thieves and as recently as 1995 was the scene of bandit violence. An American woman and her guide were killed en route to the site, by 5 armed gunmen who ambushed the group. The temple was off limits to tourists for several year, until it was deemed safe again to go back, gradually easing restrictions by making it mandatory for tourists to have an armed escort to take them there. It’s now perfectly safe, as evidenced by the huge crowds that gather there. The sun was now blazing full strength, and my thermometer read 38 degrees so I told my driver we could head back to the guesthouse, about an hour away. As we drove past Angkor Wat I spotted something on the side of the road and yelled at my driver to stop. It was a family of monkeys that was lazing in the shade. We stopped and I took some photos, careful not to attract them too much since I had already heard how they liked to bite and scratch tourists who wouldn’t hand over any food. Sounds like some of the touts I had met. I had purchased a 3 day pass, after all the guidebooks warned me that one or two days was not enough. After my second day touring the temples I was done… I had seen the best of what Angkor Wat had to offer and more time with the ‘hordes’ would only push me over the edge.