We wanted to rent bikes to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, the only bike rental place we found that was open at 5am was owned by a tuktuk driver who had tried to sell us a day’s worth of services, and who we had, rather unsuccessfully, tried to bargain down to a much lower price. It was pretty awkward (we’re not exactly naturals at the bargaining thing) and we decided to look elsewhere. We did take a tuk-tuk out to the wat, and made it in time for the sun to come up; but the haze in the sky, combined with the scaffolding on the wat, the coffee hawkers and thousands of other tourists made for a sort of anticlimactic sunrise. We decided to head in before the crowd, and were able to see a lot of the wat a little ahead of the crowds. Angkor Wat itself is an incredibly large three-tiered pyramid temple, the sheer size of it impressive until you see the intricate detail inscribed on every surface. The entire first ring of walls is paneled with ancient bas-relief carvings representing Hindu mythology: perfectly proportioned celestial apsaras, the churning of the Sea of Milk in which the gods and demons engage in an epic tug-of-war that produces the elixir of immortality, and dramatic battles that collide at the center in a mess of soldiers, elephants, monkeys and demons.
After wandering through the rest of Angkor Wat, the crowds thickened until it became difficult to find any parts without people all around us, and we decided to beat the massive crowds to the next attraction. Of course, we were on foot while most other people had gotten bikes or tuk-tuks, so there were plenty of people already there when we crossed through the south gate into the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The gate in the city wall still stands, straddling a modern road crowded with tour buses and tuk-tuks fighting to make it through the single lane. The bottleneck does give you some time to ponder the fantastic bridge over the causeway, decorated on either side with a life-sized rendering of the same churning of the Sea of Milk myth we’d seen in the wat. Long ago Angkor Thom was a superpower in southeast Asia, and one of the largest cities in the world, the area within the walls filled with people. The Khmer at the time believed that only the gods were allowed to dwell in stone buildings, and now everything but the temples has disappeared entirely; there’s little to see entering Angkor Thom from the south but forest and monkeys, until you arrive at Bayon in the center.
The Bayon was the main temple of Angkor Thom, and unlike most wats it doesn’t appear to have a wall or a moat to guard it, until you understand that Bayon’s wall was the city wall itself. Angkor Thom’s wall was short without battlements, and would have provided little protection to the city, however it was symbolically fitting for the city’s temple. The best way to describe Bayon in a single word would be “cramped”, with so many passages and chambers crammed into the lower tiers that you can rarely cross paths with someone without turning sideways. As you ascend to the upper levels it begins to open up, but the other tourists quickly fill in all the open space and it’s impossible to walk through a doorway without being in someone else’s picture. The trademark smiling faces, said to represent either Lokesvara the Buddhist deity, or Jayavarman VII – the god-king of 12th-century Angkor Thom, seemed a little less mysterious in the company of our fellow tourists, so we decided not to dwell too long and headed east, which according to our map led to the Gate of the Dead.
The current road that travels through Angkor Archaeological Park leads north past the Bayon, and passes near additional ruins before heading east and leaving the city through the Victory Gate, which leads east from the Royal Palace and is the one gate not centered on the Bayon. The standard way to explore Angkor is to travel one of the Circuits, which leave via either the Victory gate or the north gate; we, being on foot without a tour guide, decided to head along the dirt path towards the Gate of the Dead, being intrigued by the name. Dead is an apt description for its current state, because it lacks any easy outlet to the rest of the ruins (the dirt path we took would have been unpleasant in a tuk-tuk and impossible by bus, and didn’t continue beyond the gate). There were also no other people there except for two Cambodians in hammocks. The detail on the gate was fantastic, the huge serene faces overlooking the roads and the walls made up of thousands of smaller carved stones with little perfect holes covering their surfaces, although we weren’t sure if this was for anchoring decorative coverings now long eroded, or for lifting the larger base stones underneath. There were cavernous doors within the gate that seemed to lead into secret passages in the walls themselves, and our flashlights were useless to illuminate the interior.
We walked most of the rest of the small circuit, including to Takeo, with a few sets of imposing stairs (the Khmer used excessively steep stairs in temple architecture to force visitors to stoop in the presence of the gods) and Tah Prom, which are the ruins that house some of the more iconic sights of the ruins, including ancient doorways completely choked by wild tree roots. In fact, many of the ruins that we saw were engaged in a very slow battle with huge, wrinkly tree roots, and much of the funding for conservation goes towards saving the ruins from nature; there were plenty of seemingly makeshift wooden props counteracting the force of a tree’s weight, keeping certain walls from crumbling completely.
The next day we decided to give in and hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day (having stubbornly walked 9 to 10 hours the first day in the intense sun) which was actually pretty pleasant, and we were able to see some of the outer farming edges of Siem Reap. The city is dry and beautiful in March, with kids swimming in mucky green water reservoirs, houses with blue window sashes swaying high up on stilts, and motorbike drivers with three full sized pigs stiffly strapped over their back wheel.
We toured the grand circuit, which would have been unwalkable anyhow due to its size. We wanted to see East Mebon, located at the center of the Eastern Baray, a now-dry manmade reservoir of water measuring 2 by 7 kilometers that had at one point provided water for the entire city and which represents a great engineering feat of the era. The Mebon was originally only accessible by water, and had landing docks on all four sides guarded by monolithic stone elephants; we were unclear whether the Khmer had built the temple and then flooded the Baray to the appropriate depth to match, or vice versa. We also liked, among many of the other ruins, Prah Khan, a city sized, walled in giant similar to Angkor Thom. It’s a geometrically fascinating structure with small galleries in the center nestled within increasingly larger walls, and corridors extending to the cardinal directions from many of the small rooms. Unlike many of the other temples, this one was mostly empty of people and refreshingly explorable, with no paths cordoned off.
From the road to each of the sights, there were vendors outside, many of them children, all competing for the same clients, offering cold water and soda, fresh pineapple, and souvenirs. On the longer paths there were often bands comprised of landmine victims, missing limbs and eyes and skin, a reminder that the Khmer Rouge genocide and destruction is still living history for all Cambodians (over 25% of the population was brutally murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge, and the entire capital city of Phnom Penh was completely emptied for 4 years), and that landmines are still hidden in many areas, injuring and killing people every month. The Khmer Rouge also considered the ruins (and the restoration efforts, mostly by French-led teams) to be irrelevant to their mission of an agrarian society, and some temples which had been disassembled for repair were left with pieces scattered and exposed to the elements. Visiting the ruins was also forbidden, robbing Cambodians of a chance to experience their cultural heritage. It was strange to think that only a decade or so after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime, we were casually wandering through the ruins, eating pineapple pizza and mango shakes in Siem Reap, and haggling with tuk-tuk drivers over a few dollars.
The next day we took a taxi back to the border (100% unstressful compared to the taxi ride in) and crossed back into Thailand without problems. We took a songthaew back to the tiny Aranyaprathet train station, had lunch, and waited for the ticket counter to open. While we were waiting, two tourist police officers came up to us and handed us a brochure, and proceeded to take a bunch of pictures with us: posing with the brochures, shaking one police officer’s hand, shaking the other police officer’s hand (handshaking isn’t customary in Thailand, and the officer’s grip was comically similar to that of a mannequin). It was really strange. We took the train back to Bangkok, stayed overnight in the same guesthouse by the train station, and got up bright and early the next morning to catch a flight to Beijing.