Winter Break: Angkor Wat

Previous: Hello Cambodia
Next: The rest of the Angkor Temples

Our first night of sleep in Cambodia was more of an extended blink. In order to arrive at Angkor Wat in time to watch the sun rise we had to meet our tuk tuk driver in front of the hostel at 5:00am. To make this happen we had to get up at 4:30am. But we didn’t actually fall asleep until somewhere between 1:00am and 2:00am. The lack of sleep due to wanting to familiarize ourselves with the new surroundings the night before as well as the long day of sight seeing in Vietnam prior to traveling to Cambodia would soon be taking a toll our bodies.

It was still dark when we walked out the front doors of the Siem Reap Hostel. There we found Mr. Viet patiently waiting, as well as another passenger that we weren’t expecting. Turns out we would be joined by a French traveler taking in Cambodia by herself. We thought we were paying to have the tuk tuk to ourselves for the day, free to come and go as we pleased and do the sights at our own leisurely pace, so this new arrangement left us a little perplexed. There was a mix up between Frenchy and the hostel over what time she was to be picked up at the airport the day before. When Mr. Viet later explained to me that he was trying to make it up to her by showing her around the temple ruins the next day, I understood. After our experience trying to get out of the airport that same day, I sure was glad that didn’t happen to us. Our hook up with Mr. Viet was about the only thing that went smoothly. It would have been nice to be alone, but she was pleasant enough to be around. Other than having to sit awkwardly facing the rear, so that the ladies could sit on the cushion facing the front, it wasn’t so bad.

The city was also starting to wake up as our tuk tuk drove all 3 of us through the dimly lit morning streets of Siem Reap. People were setting up stands, washing vegetables and arranging souvenirs. Trucks were delivering long, rectangular slabs of ice that were being hacked in to individual pieces in the truck beds. And you could smell delicious Cambodian food being cooked.

As we entered the country side, leaving the awakening city behind, it became more difficult to make out exactly what we were looking at off in the distance. Really, only visible were the many other tuk tuks taking the same journey. All the headlights shined in line through the dirty air. We wouldn’t know what was out there until the ride home after a long, hot day of tackling the ruins.

It was still pitch dark as we pulled up to the Angkor ticket check point. The fee for a one-day pass is $20. We weren’t holding US dollars, so now the game began. They hate their own currency, the Cambodian riel, and don’t ever seem to have correct change available. As a traveler packing their currency, it’s not smart to freely volunteer your small denomination bills unless it’s necessary. So I tried to pay the lady behind the glass with the larger bills, and of course she didn’t want to break them. When I responded that I didn’t have any other bills, the sneaky lady monitoring the line butted right in and said, “yes you do” as she pointed them out in my money clip. With some explanation from Mr Viet, I learned later to appreciate the aggressiveness of the Cambodian people when it comes to earning money and taking what they can for themselves from the tourists that are visiting their country. But in the moment, I was ready to throw blows. I had to get over it quickly however, because with our official one-day Angkor visitors pass in hand, we were able to advance on and prepare to watch the sun rise over the legendary Angkor Wat.

Angkor refers to the region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer empire from the ninth to the thirteenth century. Some describe the temples of Angkor as heaven on earth. It has been said that there is no greater concentration of architectural riches anywhere else in the world. For years, many of them remained untouched, hiding in the jungles of what is now the region’s largest national park. Originally constructed in the 1100-1200’s, these hidden treasures were rediscovered in more current times.

The most significant and well known is Angkor Wat. It is the world’s largest religious building and is often mentioned along side such amazing ancient places such as Machu Picchu. Angkor Wat is basically everything Cambodian. It is on the flag, the national beer and cigarettes. Every other restaurant and hotel has the word Angkor in it, and is littered with paintings and renderings throughout. Every t-shirt, hat, beautiful painting and piece of artwork offered in the the mess of market space has something to do with Angkor Wat.

There was still no sign of the sun when our tuk tuk pulled up to the dirt parking area across the street from the main entrance, the west gate of Angkor Wat. Mr. Viet provided a flash light to help us maneuver the trek. A sandstone walkway carried us over the giant moat, the same as it had for a countless number ancient worshipers and modern day tourists on their way to catch their first glimpse of what some consider to be a wonder of the world.

We crossed the moat and walked up, through and over the area referred to as the library, which brought us to the other side of the outer wall. It was here that we finally caught our first peak of a distant Angkor Wat temple in the very faint light that occurs at the earliest stages of the sunrise. We definitely were not the only people with this bright idea. There were tons of tourists resting on the wall of the library, crowding every space of the outer wall, lining up on the main walkway that takes you all the way up to the temple and hanging out in the field space on either side of the walkway. They were all positioning themselves in just the right spot to watch the sun come up, avoiding the trees and hordes of other people that might block it out.

My girl and I made sure to wear our Trail Blazer Rip City gear. During every Blazer basketball TV broadcast a photo is shown of some lucky fans sporting their Blazer gear in various exotic locations all over the world. We were lucky enough to be featured on a Wear in the World segment during the game at Golden State last November. And although I’m not confident that we’ll get air play twice in one season, this once in a lifetime event was definitely worth a shot at another 5 minutes of fame. How many lame Great Wall of China photos can they choose?

The sunrise was epic. It was nice to finally share the moment with my lady because we had been talking about it for months and months. Truly beautiful. And the travel books were spot on, this place sure does empty out after the sun comes up. As the majority of sunrise watchers returned to Siem Reap for breakfast, or more likely going back to bed, we were just starting our sight seeing extravaganza. And it was already damn hot.

Angkor Wat kept us busy for a good 2, maybe 2.5 hours. We lazily took a stroll around the outside of the inner wall, inside it and through the middle this giant religious mega structure. I read that it has remained so well preserved because it is the only temple of Angkor that never surrendered to the surrounding jungles. We stopped to watch the monkeys for a while on the northwest corner of the temple grounds, on the edge of the esplanade. Then we walked through the forest for a bit, crossed through the North gate and sat on the moat to watch the water. It was peaceful because there were no other people around to bump in to. There were however tons of ants.

We figured it was finally time to return to the entrance, meet up with Frenchy and Mr. Viet, and make our way to Angkor Thom. Our return route was along the north side of the lilly pad pool, where all the stands were set up selling water, snacks, souvenirs and coffee. We deemed this stretch “harassment row” as it is inhabited by some aggressive tourist hecklers. The Cambodian people are persistent, cat calling hustlers doing their best to drain as much foreign money from the pockets of tourists as possible. I am not trying to knock them, because there is good reason for this. The persistence and dedication is a bit endearing, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. So we did our best to avoid eye contact, not demonstrate any interest what so ever, and politely make it through harassment row untouched. As we walked away, the voices of at least 3 children could still be heard, shouting, “Lady, you want my bracelets? Lady, you buy my postcards! One dollar Lady… one dollar!” My lady did end up buying some postcards that looked like they had been dropped in a mud puddle, but at least the kid got her one dollar.

Because I keep mentioning it, it’s worth noting what Mr. Viet shared with us regarding the people of Cambodia. It’s a corrupt place, where you have to grease palms to get anything done. Students bribe their teachers. Apparently payoffs are required in order to get anything done politically. The little hustler children that were annoying us had to kick down to a police officer to gain access to the tourist havens in order to sell their junk. Even most of the money that Cambodia takes in through admission fees to these amazing, world renowned ruins, goes to Vietnam. Something to do with Vietnam helping Cambodia out during the crazy times of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

Nothing seems to be theirs. So they have to do everything imaginable to profit from this publicity and travel destination status. This includes doing their best to appeal to you by reciting information about your country of origin, tugging at your heart strings with their sad stories, and flat out pestering by following you around blowing their whistles, yelling louder and louder as you walk away.

All that said, we did feel a difference between the Cambodian people and those from other countries we’ve been to. Most of them do all of this with a giant smile on their face, and you really do get the impression that it is done out of necessity, not just to pad the already cushy pocketbook.

Harassment Row

We said goodbye to Angkor Wat and jumped in the ride. Soon we would be on our way to Angkor Thom, smiling as the breeze cools us down while traveling the back of the tuk tuk.

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on February 2, 2010.

5 Responses to “Winter Break: Angkor Wat”

  1. This is well-written. Makes me feel like I just relived the moments in detail. Epic vacation! 🙂

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