Cambodia Day 1: Angkor

We start out early for an all day tour that should have us back after sunset. We don’t have a guide which is still frustrating to me. I should have made more inquires to know what I was paying for, or really just found the company with the best record on TripAdvisor and used them.

The first thing of the day is to get a day pass. They cost $20 per person and have your picture on them so they can’t be shared or passed around or counterfeited. It’s a pretty sophisticated system, but with this being about the only draw to Siem Reap, and perhaps Cambodia in general, I can see the need to be on top of it.

We’re starting at Banteay Srei which is an early Hindu temple depicting a story from Hindu mythology dedicated to Shiva. Not having a guide, when we get out of the van, people are trying to sell us a guide book. We’re shit at negotiating and pay $15 for it. Banteay Srei isn’t even in the book.

Our hope was with so many westerners here, we’d find an English guide, and just latch on at the edge of earshot, and sure enough we do. We’re told it was a secret library and not just a temple. Inside texts had been hidden away. The buildings themselves have amazingly detailed carvings. And it’s one of the oldest in the area at 967 AD. Many of the statues have been replaced by replicas with the originals moved to safer museum locations.

On our way out there are more guide book sellers, and their starting price is $6. Wow we sure failed on that one.

From there we move onto the jewel of the trip, Angkor Wat. Impressively large, these ruins are ringed by a perfectly square moat that is surprisingly wide. At the gate a guy saying he’s a guide is selling his services. Jenn and I walk off and Chuck and Pam listen. He doesn’t have credentialing, and I have no idea if we might just lose him partway through. They hire the guy and we’re skeptical from the start. His story is he can’t get a job as a guide because he’s too hard to understand, but we get what he’s saying, though when he says “represents” it sound like “rapists”. We probably should have told him.

Angkor Wat was built by Hindus at the end of the 12th century in 3 layers in, with the outer wall having motifs of Hell. Inside is a large courtyard, and another set of walls representing Earth. The final layer was Heaven, built as a pagoda with an area at the top supported by columns with an atrium in the middle. The steps up were quite steep, and by now it’s also gotten quite hot. So it felt a bit like an accomplishment getting to the top, like you earned a little something.

I’m a bit distracted because I’ve seen these amazing photos of overgrown temples, and this isn’t it. Angkor Wat itself is well restored as far as I can tell, and I’m looking in our book for what it’s called, trying to match pictures with destinations. I can still hear the guide telling us about how the temple was never quite finished with much of the detail worked stopped at the King’s death, pointing to places where relief carvings are complete on one pillar, sketched in on another, and then nothing at all on the next. When the King had passed away, it was also a point of transition for his kingdom from Hinduism to Buddhism, and I’m told Buddha statues were installed with the new King, so now it’s a bit of a mix of both.

For lunch we found a restaurant outside of the bustle and had a decent meal. They also had working wifi, and I swear all the jokes about millennials aren’t fair, Pam and Chuck were as focused on their phones as anyone. It was nice though, we got to google questions we had, read a few things. See what people back home had written us. The restaurant also had a picture of the place I was trying to find the name for Ta Prohm.

We talked to our driver and told him we wanted to go to Ta Prohm and he almost seemed offended, like “I was just going to take you there now, you don’t need to tell me my job”. This one is known for being one of the ruins the French had selected to leave untouched and in disrepair, left half eaten by the jungle. Of course they also set about making it accessible as well. It really is a special place with strangler fig roots wrapping their way around and between bricks of the ruins. There were a lot of people too though, and one particularly interesting spot had a line of people waiting for photos. Pam and Chuck continued on without us. The ruins themselves are inside a wall, so visitors are directed in a loop of sorts. At the far end a road leads off towards another set of ruins and a road. I stopped to take a photo or two, and when I looked up Jenn was gone. I waited for a while hoping she’d come back for me, but she didn’t. I thought she must have gone off down the road not seeing the loop back, so I walked down the road eventually ending at a parking lot with no Jenn or Pam or Chuck. Frustrated, I walked back and found the returning loop following it until I found them. I don’t like being separated like that with no way of communicating.

Our next stop was Angkor Thom which has an even larger footprint and moat, but the section we visited was largely a single pagoda. At a number of points this set of ruins had towers filled with bats chattering away making the air quite pungent. Each of these towers was connected by narrow tunnels as they looped around the outside. At four cardinal points were stairs up to the raised center. All over are amazingly dense details with large raised faces of Buddha, this having been built after Angor Wat. On top there were throngs of Chinese tourists all taking photos of each other posing, or taking selfies. Jenn and Pam waited patiently for a specific photo they wanted but kept getting cut in front of until they just stood in the frame of the photo until the other person got so frustrated they relented. The number of people here was so thick it was nearly impossible to pass through doorways. That kinda took the shine off things for us so we left.

Our last stop for the day was for the sunset. I’m not sure what this particular monument was called, but it was at the top of quite a hill, and our driver said the tour buses all arrive around 4:30, and the first 300 people at the top get a spot to watch the sun set. It was 4pm now. We hiked our way up, passing plenty of people, only to find ourselves 100 people behind the front of the line, with 300 people already inside. Full. We needed to come even earlier. With sunset around 6:30 I can’t imagine sitting around that long. No one wanted to make a decision, so I decided we bail, no point just sitting around without seeing anything, maybe our driver has a back of spot? As we started down, rain clouds moved over head and started dropping their load. I don’t think many people would give up their spots, but it meant not much of a sunset according to our driver. I hope I didn’t miss out, I do get a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out) sometimes. So we headed back to the hotel.

We decided a swim sounded nice so we put on our swimsuits and took a cooling dip. The pool wasn’t as cold as the one in Hoi An so it was much tolerable.

We tried to decide what our priorities were for the next few days, and it seems like the dinner cruise in Bangkok has moved up leaps and bounds since we first talked about our options. I made a mental list of all the things I needed to do. Who I needed to email, reservations needing to be made and headed back to the room.

We decided to have dinner at the hotel, and it was pretty decent if not spectacular. We’ve learned that prices in Siem Reap aren’t what I’d expected, and were pretty normalized to American costs, so even though the hotel restaurant had seemed expensive, in retrospect it wasn’t that bad.

I still had one thing I was toying with in my head I’d need to make a decision on. I’m tempted to go buy another $20 day pass and go to the sunrise at Angkor Wat before continuing to the airport where I’d meet everyone else. It’s that FOMO. But when I looked at google image for images of Angkor Wat I realized the place everyone takes their pictures is a little lake inside the first wall that is hardly much more than a puddle with people crowded all around trying to get the same shot. And all the charm left it. I’m content.

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