So, basically, you come to Cambodia and it is compulsory to go and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It has to be done, despite the inevitably heaving crowds. It is an extraordinary place, and a world heritage site I think, I’m also told it is one of the few manmade structures that can be seen from space, this, and the Great Wall of China, and who am I to question what my guide says?
I’m actually writing up this blog post a couple of weeks after the great event, so it might be patchy, but hey ho, you’ll probably just want to scroll through to the pictures in any event. It’s not that this isn’t a memorable thing to do, it is, but so much has been crammed into my travels since, it’s all a bit of a blur. Maybe I’ll process it all a bit better when I’ve had a chance to pause and reflect.
So the four a.m. alarm was a rude awakening indeed! I decided the best thing was to go for it, not give myself the option of continued slumber, and so just immediately got up and dressed. There is complimentary tea and coffee, so I made a coffee which was too strong with whitener. Better than nothing, and worth the effort if only because of the amusement factor of the incredibly short flex to kettle. All the power points are quite high off the ground. The only way to work the kettle was by piling up my day back on some books and putting the kettle on top. Easy. Me and my problem solving skills! What is it with the kettle leads here. HOnest to god, some are about 2 inches long. Even if a plug socket was at the requisite height, you still couldn’t plug the kettle in if you had to rotate the plug to do so.
There was a short bus drive to Angkor Watt. We emerged from it into pitch dark – would have been good if they’d suggested we took a torch with us, do have a head torch with me on my travels, but alas not the intelligence to think to bring it with me today. We alighted right next too a deep ditch. ‘Dont fall in‘ warned our guide. Right on cue, a little shriek. American man had taken a tumble. He was fine, though bruised ego. We all laughed, but it was lucky, you could really do an ankle in like that. However, I think he stepped backwards into it whilst taking a photo.
We then had to walk in the pitch dark to the sound of a million frogs. That was quite fun in itself. It is disorienting and because you really can’t see anything, you have no sense at all of where you are, or what is to be revealed around you. There were trip hazards a-plenty, and it was still hot, even at this time of day. We must have been amongst the first to get on site, as it was relatively silent apart from the frogs, which might be toads actually, but sound a lot like crickets too, but I don’t think crickets are pre-dawn chirpers. Or maybe they are? Will have to google….
We wound our way to what we later knew to be moat surrounding Angkor Watt. It was just 5.00 a.m. ,. we would meet again at 6.30. I wondered why we’d come so ridiculously early, but it became clear, we secured a spot far back from the main temple on the steps of what was the library. Not a bad view. Throng at the bank of the moat was several people deep and looked grim. We’d come early to bagsy a space!
It was a curious experience, sat on the library steps. Almost immediately some coffee sellers touting drinks approached us. They will take your order and bring a drink out to you, quite an achievement in such a massive site with so many people. None of us took up the offer, but if on my own I might have done. There were scarves sellers and postcard sellers. This is not a silent, spiritual gathering. It is a heaving throng. I was glad we were sat a bit further back, I felt we were observing the crowds rather than consumed by them.
Some of our group did go for a wander, but I opted to stay put. You could sprint around trying to find ‘the perfect spot’ when really it would be impressive anywhere, but you might not get the bonus of a relatively comfy viewing spot. OK, so this next bit might sound like sacrilege, and believe me, I doooooooooo absolutely appreciate how lucky I am to have experienced this, and it is undoubtedly a wonder of the world and all that, but sunrise (like sunset) here is just so rapid. Whilst it is extraordinary to see Angkor Wat suddenly emerge before you, it is all over a bit quick It happens so fast that unlike the lingering sunrises and sunsets of the UK this was all lights on and off with a dimmer switch. It actually looks better in the photos than for real. Also, it is such an iconic image, you can’t really appreciate it as if seeing for the first time. Some of the other temples we saw, smaller but more overgrown, actually made more of an impression because it felt like we’d discovered it for ourselves. Wierd. Also, I cursed the blooming ugly tower blog right next to the towers, before having a ‘doh’ moment and realising it was of course part of Angkor Watt, just surrounded by scaffolding for renovation. How do I manage to live independently or even at all, when I am capable of moments of incomprehensible stupidity such as that. Oh well, don’t dwell on that, enjoy the photos instead!
Once sun was up, you got a sense of the crowds, and hawkers, but also the scale of what we were viewing. It is amazing, it’s so huge, it’s hard to get your head around really. It’s also such a market place really, if you want tranquility you won’t find it at sunrise. I later heard from the waiter at our hotel that he prefers to find a high spot and watch sunset on the temple. I think that might be better, also the light illuminating the temple from the front would throw up spectacular shades.
As we waited for the crowds to disperse a bit (most people ‘do’ sunrise, then go back to their hotels for breakfast, we were staying on site to explore whilst fewer people were around) there was much excitement in front of us. We saw a sprinting baseball capped escapee – a thief? He looked very much like a tourist, not a local, much physically larger than most Cambodian men who are generally quite petite. My goodness he ran though. In hot pursuit were three security officials, including one shouting into a walkie-talkie. He, the security guard, was disadvantaged by wearing flip-flops and inevitably one fell off so he was stopped in his tracks. Even so, I don’t see how the perpetrator would expect to get away, he was very distinctively dressed, large and not blending in. I wonder what he’d done. He would have to sprint past security on exit and was attracting a lot of attention. Maybe what he did was offensive or inappropriate rather than theft, or maybe dressing as a tourist is the best disguise for simple snatching – but then why run, why draw attention to yourself so spectacularly? Our guide later said it was most likely that he was perhaps a known pickpocket who had been recognised. I don’t know, they really wanted to get him though, and he really didn’t want to be got! Have to give him credit for his sprint speed and endurance though. I can’t walk here without breaking a sweat, or even sit. He ran way out of sight and kept on running!
Watching it all, I saw a very still kitten ignoring the throng of people, passing within a hair’s breadth of it on either side. It looked quite sweet, except, when you get close, you realise the reason the poor thing doesn’t move is because it is sick and emaciated with hunched back and broken tail. Poor creature. I’ve seen a lot of sick cats with apparently broken tails. I’m wondering if it is malnourishment rather than external injury, because an injury severe enough to set a tail at right angles would surely have killed a weakened kitten anyway. I don’t know. It’s pitiful though. One small child offered the kitten some bread, it perked up hopefully, then sniffing the bread rejected it as not food stuff (and to think some vegans – with whom I generally sympathise, maintain cats can be vegetarian too, I think not. This dying kitten didn’t recognise bread as such, it might as well have been a stone. Cats are mandatory carnivores people, accept this.) Poor thing, you feel powerless in the face of so many sick and thin animals.
As throngs departed, we moved down to moat where our guide had identified a perfect stone to stand on for photos. This was better photo spot than where we’d been as got the water and reflections as well. Plus, because my camera couldn’t cope with the backlighting, ironically they still looked like sunrise AND I could pose in front of the iconic Angkor Watt backdrop. Yay! I know I’m in such darkness I could be anyone, but as I’m not especially photogenic I honestly consider that to be a boon! You can see there are still a fair few crowds around though, even then.
so on to our ‘proper’ explore. Walking round, you start to realise how huge the place is, it is extraordinary. 900 years old and yet the preservation is remarkable. In fact it floats on a high water table, and to build it the king reclaimed land from swamp (I suppose) with water creating a moat around what is essentially a temple island. I learned too, that each temple is for just one king, so they are constantly moving a few kilometres along from the previous one, with each monarch trying to outdo their predecessor. This grand creation is actually the same design as all the previous temples, ‘they are all identical‘ said our guide. Implying to the untrained ear ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all!‘ True in terms of layout, not true in terms of scale. This place is massive.
Because most people vanish after sunrise it quietened down quite a bit. Still lots of people, but good-natured, and you could find spots.
A high point, albeit a contrived one, was sitting to get a Monk’s blessing. This is for tourists, but also sincere up to a point, locals will do this too at their own temples. I found the whole thing hilarious. For a donation of about a dollar, you sit down in front of a monk. He asks you to choose a wrist band colour, and then intones some incomprehensible blessing on you at rapid speed whilst periodically sploshing you with water waved at you on a wispy want thing. Allegedly it is blessing for your travels. I asked our Cambodian guide what he was saying, but my guide had no idea at all. I would say for sure the monk was definitely sniggering and going a bit overboard with the water sploshing to be honest. I would in his position, why not dunk a few unknowing foreigners, where is the harm in that? He had a cheeky smile as he did his incoherent mumbling. So allegedly I received a blessing, but could have been saying anything, we would be none the wiser! I wore my little band for the rest of the trip, but alas, have had to jettison it now I’m at CWF. It started to give me contact dermatitis, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t on the original agreement. It was a really fun thing to do though. Yes, yes, touristy but you know what I am one! Less so when I start teaching, but at this point for sure!
The temple tour itself was a bit of a blur. Our guide pointed out some particularly amazing wall carvings, pointing out the symbolism where he could, but much of it is lost on me now. It is essentially a hindu temple in origin, now used as a sacred site for Buddhists. Restoration work is ongoing, and there is debate I think about to what extent each tradition should be honoured. There is debate too about why the site was abandoned. Some say war meant the population was denuded so not enough to sustain it, the temple couldn’t be maintained; some say drought; some say too many people for the food it was able to produce. What is known, is that at a particular point in time the king asked his theological adviser what to do, and was told that they should move to a more secure spot beyond the lake we crossed to get here from. The place was literally abandoned, and with few people around did ‘disappear’ from memory. It was therefore discovered again, overgrown, by someone pursuing butterflies. That’s what I recall anyway, you want to know more, google it! Or lonely planet Angkor Wat it, that might be more reliable!
Those of you who have noticed I have a tendency to be long-winded, note that a picture is allegedly worth a thousand words, so here comes my novel:
At a central point there was an impressive third chamber Vertiginous steps took us way up high from where you had a vantage point across the whole site. You begin to get a sense of the scale of it, but it’s still hard to process.
We did mutual photographing, mixed success. The Australian duo were aiming for a shot with both their heads in and the full height of an impressive tower. This involved some crawling around, but I was game. I took loads. I handed the phone back for scrutiny of and feedback on my work. ‘They are really good‘ one said, encouragingly ‘apart from missing the top of the tower‘. So basically they were really good apart from having missed out the central directive. I tried again with more success.
Another australian chose to pose silhouetted in a doorway. I struggled to get the lighting right, and so dithered. One of the other guides came past ‘nice bum‘ he said as he did so. I thought I must have mis-heard, but he said it again. Twice! I was quite shocked! Anyway, I don’t have either of those particular shots on my camera, but I do have these, enjoy:
The heat was already building, even though it was barely 8.00 a.m. Already you could see small armies of people cutting grass with scythe like implements, back-breaking work in the in hot sun. I don’t believe you can get used to it, I think you just have no choice if that is how you make your living here.
The light made the temple radiant, but you can’t photograph it. Use your imagination to go there in your mind’s eye, or better yet, try to get there yourself one day. One thing I did notice, was here and there, children just playing amongst the temple. I suppose for some it is their home patch. Maybe when they are busy they have to sell postcards, but for now they were just running around playing hide and seek. That’s quite some playground to have on your doorstep.
Somehow around this point, I got separated from the group. Not properly lost, but enough to be a bit perturbed about what to do. Because we had arrived in pitch darkness, I had no sense of which entrance we should meet at. I got lost, but found again, so I am happy to report that crisis was averted. Thank you for your concern. I had started a mild panic, and got as far as working out a plan, and a back up plan. The plan was to go to alternative exit and wait alongside guards at the entrance point. If no guide reappeared, then I figured a tuk tuk back to Dinata hotel should see it sorted. I’d be fine, it would be our poor Intrepid guide traumatized by my absence, me going missing would be his responsibility, unfair or otherwise. As it happened he came back to rescue me anyway. Laughing and smiling which is the default response to most situations, and a good one, relieves tension. Note to self, stay closer with group, even if your fat little legs have to propel you faster in order to do so!
Also, for your information my watch has broken. Most annoying, will need to replace, not sure if new battery will do the job. This is so what happened in Vietnam. It will drive me mad to be without a timepiece. Maybe I should get a pocket watch instead, that would be fine! Or carry around a sundial, there is plenty of sun after all!
Back to hotel around 9.30, but it felt quite late. We had the dining room to ourselves for a much-needed breakfast. I was properly hungry for the first time in days. hopefully this means my innards and body clock are starting to adjust.
So there we have it, Angkor Wat off my bucket list. It was amazing and if in Cambodia you have to go, obviously, but if I return to Siem Reap I’d make a point of visiting the other outlying, quieter temples I think, or maybe return for sunset as yin to the yan of this special day.
Oh, and just as a postscript in Jan 2017, a fellow volunteer at CWF who is a ‘proper’ photographer, put together a brief album of his amazing photos at Ancient Angkor, you can see them here. Be impressed.