Sunrise Over the Ruins

Along with about a thousand of our closest friends in Siem Reap, we woke up unbearably early on Wednesday morning to go see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This was not Jocelyn’s idea of a good time – nothing before 7:00am really is – but she bravely went along with the plan. As for me, while I don’t exactly like getting up that early, I’m a sucker for a good sunrise.

The scene at Angkor Wat is pretty crazy – everyone is gathered closely together in a few key spots to get the best photos.

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As you approach, all you see are the glare of iPhone screens and the jutting of selfie sticks.

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I joined the fray in standing on my toes and trying to get a good shot over the rows of people in front of me.

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I won’t show all of the huge number of photos I took in the thirty-five minutes it took the sun to rise …img_9213

Jocelyn largely stayed away from the melee and watched the sun come up in a more relaxed fashion.

img_9194After sunrise, J and I sat at one of the little cafes that sits just a few hundred meters from the entrance to Angkor Wat and had tea and a pineapple pancake.

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Angkor isn’t just a set of ancient ruins and temples – it’s really a living village. There are restaurants and shopping stalls, a good number of homes, and at least one monastery and one school spread out over the extensive grounds. Our waiter told us that he lives “just behind Angkor Wat.”

Our big adventure of the day was a visit to Angkor Thom, which is a huge complex just across the road from Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom used to be a city of perhaps a million people, so it offers a vast range of sites. This is one of the entrance gates:

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We started out at Bayon, a temple with an impressive array of towers.

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img_9256img_9257Bayon’s towers are particularly famous for having fifty-two of the giant, enigmatic faces of Angkor – but no one knows what (or whom) they were supposed to represent. They’re definitely a sight to see.

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Bayon also boasts other great architectural features.

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We played Juliet here:

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And while Angkor Wat gets all of the attention for its bas-reliefs, Bayon has even more. In fact, there are 1.2 kilometers of bas-reliefs, and J and I saw just about every centimeter of them. The focus of these bas-reliefs is largely on the battle between the Khmers and the Chams, who came from south Vietnam to attack Angkor Wat. Here is a Cham:

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The king built Bayon after he’d defeated the Chams. There’s a large, interesting depiction of a naval battle:

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And of what happens when you fall into the river…

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Bayon also has bas-reliefs of daily life, such as cooking (they still use braziers like this in Cambodia on the streets today):

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And there are lots of animals:

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There’s even a shrimp!

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They chiseled out a circus scene…

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… musicians accompanying a military procession …

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… and an scene of temple-building work (we think the top guy is on a scaffold):

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There’s almost no signage whatsoever at Angkor, so figuring out these bas-reliefs was a challenging exercise (helped somewhat by our guidebook).

When we left Bayon, we found ourselves on an elephant path (at one point, I thought an elephant might actually run into J). For a fee, tourists can take a short elephant ride and vaguely imagine what it might have been like to have been a member of the royalty many years ago.

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We wandered up to Phimeanakas, which was once the royal palace. Only kings and high-level officials were allowed to go up to the top level, though goodness knows how they got up the incredibly steep steps. (J engaged in a little photo bombing here.)

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Most people climb straight up to the top, but we stopped to get a look at the view from the second level.

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We continue to be amazed and the corbelled vaults (a new architectural term for both of us). How did such incredible artisans not dream up a stronger vaulting structure?

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We spent a lot of time at the top – it was breezy and a little cooler, and in a place this flat, you feel like you’re at the top of the world.

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img_9333 Phimeanakas is surrounded by lots of trees, some huge …

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… and some incredibly tall:

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Our next stop was the Terrace of the Elephants. The name speaks for itself.

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There’s also a long wall of gorudas:

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By this point, we were both getting meltingly hot – I wished I’d had the coconut that we’d found at lunch two days before.

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So we said goodbye to Angkor and started our drive back to Siem Reap instead. On our way, our tuk-tuk driver made a diversion to a Buddhist temple complex that includes a monument to the Killing Fields. It was pretty small, both given the magnitude of the massacres and in comparison to the size of the Angkor temples, but it was powerful.

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We learned a number of new things, including the fact that 70% of the people in Cambodia were born after 1980.  It’s hard to think about.

At the temple itself, an old woman somehow swindled me into giving her a dollar for a stick of incense that she somehow forced into my hand while dropping hot ash on me. I had to admire her chutzpah.

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Lunch was at Haven, a great restaurant with a lovely patio that has a mission of training young Cambodians in the restaurant industry (Genevieve’s, where we had dinner, has equally impressive food and a similar mission).  We liked the sign at the restaurant next door:

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We said farewell to our tuk-tuk driver, Long, who had been a helpful guide throughout our four days with him.

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Then we spent the better part of the afternoon lazing by the pool (and chatting with our new buddies Abraham and Andy, a hilarious couple from LA).

On the recommendation of friends, we had drinks at the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club. This is a modernized restaurant in the old French colonial governor’s mansion, the kind of place that makes you wonder what it would have been like to have been in Cambodia (as a white traveler, most likely) before the days of the Khmer Rouge.

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Today we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in and having a long hotel breakfast (pretty much every boutique hotel in Southeast Asia comes with a free breakfast). Then we took advantage of the hotel spa – I had a massage; J had a manicure – before going into Siem Reap for some final snacking (another ice mountain, this time lime and honey, at Fresh Fruit Factory, followed by an excellent European-style lunch at Le Pain du Coeur).

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Then we said goodbye to the Moon Boutique Hotel and to Cambodia, which we are leaving with much regret!

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If anyone needs Angkor recommendations, we would offer:

  • Temples: Bayon (only very first thing in the morning, before the hordes arrive), Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, and Phimeanakas.
  • Restaurants: The food in Siem Reap is amazing — we didn’t have a single bad meal.  Highlights included Khmer Touch, Haven, and Genevieve’s. I also had a lovely curry at Khmer Kitchen.  For more westernized food and great baked goods, try Le Pain du Coeur.
  • Dessert: I’m a bit fanatical about the ice mountains, a shave ice variant, at the Fresh Fruit Factory.

I’ll close with two signs.  I like the first one because of its high level of specificity — it’s not just, “don’t sit here,” it’s “don’t sit on the naga.”

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And this sign just sounds so hopeful:

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