I spent Friday at Angkor Archaeological Park and again learned a lot about Cambodia’s past. The first thing I learned is that Angkor Wat isn’t the whole park. Like so many other uninformed people, I didn’t know that it was just 1 part. But, no. A bigger area is Angkor Thom, which was actually a temple complex. For that day, I visited Angkor Wat, a couple of areas of Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm.
My tour guide’s name was Chanra and he was very knowledgeable about Angkor. In fact, at some points I felt like he was too knowledgeable because he would stop and talk endlessly about what we were about to see when I just wanted to go see it! But he was unceasingly pleasant, his English was great and he gave me quite a lot of information, much of which jived with what I had learned at the museum the previous afternoon. However, he seemed either confused or misinformed about the Khmer Rouge. At 1 point he told me (unsolicited, I didn’t ask) that it was a Vietnamese conspiracy and that the Khmer Rouge themselves were Vietnamese. I was stunned. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying, but a few delicately asked questions later, I finally understood: it was inconceivable that Cambodians could kill other Cambodians like that so it must have been the hated Vietnamese masquerading like they were Cambodians and fooling the whole world into thinking that Cambodia did such a horrific thing to itself.
I avoided that subject for the rest of the day.
We began our day’s touring at Angkor Wat’s east gate, which was blessedly free of throngs of tourists, because most of them entered by the west gate. I saw the famous relief that tells the story of the tug-of-war in the sea of milk between gods and demons, using Naga (a snake) as the rope. I thought it was simply brilliant that 900 years ago, people created such a work of art.
There are 3 levels at Angkor Wat and Chanra and I made our way through the first 2 pretty easily. But when we got to the third level, from where the view is apparently quite lovely, there was a long line to get up there because only 100 tourists are allowed on that level at any one time. This is for safety’s sake – remember that we are talking about a 900-year old ruin that’s up a very steep set of stairs. It looked to be a wait of at least 1 hour so I decided that we should keep it moving; as much as I wanted to see the view, I wanted more to see as many ruins as possible.
We wandered through a couple of other sections of Angkor Wat, with Chanra telling me that this particular temple is actually managed by the Germans right now. He started to go off on a tangent again, shaking his head sadly and talking about those wicked Vietnamese. I gently brought him back on topic so he could tell me about some of the temple renovations that are currently underway. Eventually, we made our way to the west gate to exit to our next destination.
Let’s pause here for a brief side note about elephant pants, otherwise known as harem pants with elephant designs on them. Men, these are women’s pants. I’m begging you, do not wear them! Over the course of 2 weeks, I saw way too many male tourists wearing these pants and I cannot understand how their friends, wives, and girlfriends allowed it. Don’t do it! You look ridiculous. And did I mention that they’re women’s pants, for goodness sake?? I wasn’t going to talk about it – honestly, I wasn’t – but I saw 1 too many men committing this crime of fashion and I’m just not able to hold my tongue any longer. Consider this my community service for the day.
From Angkor Wat, we made our way to Bayon temple at Angkor Thom. Bayon is known as the smiling Buddha temple and Chanra really turned up his photographic skills there. Since I travel alone, I usually take lots of selfies, not because I’m a fan but because it’s usually the only way to get shots of myself in front of places and things. I generally don’t like to ask people to take pictures for me because it seems intrusive. But Chanra wasn’t shy about grabbing my camera and snapping away. He wasn’t half bad.
From Bayon, temple, we strolled to Baphoun temple and saw the Royal Enclosure Wall and the Elephant Terrace. By this time I had already demolished 2 bottles of water and was sweating like a pig, so when we made our way back to the car and the driver gave me a lemongrass-scented cold towel with to refresh myself; I was immensely grateful. As I relaxed in the back seat of the car enjoying my cold towel, we made our way to a restaurant for lunch (I had fish amok), after which Chanra invited me to relax in a hammock beside his. I had a lovely 10 minute doze and then we were off to Ta Prohm.
Ta Promh is known as the Tomb Raider temple and we got there during a downpour. But Chanra was well-prepared with big umbrellas so we struck out to the temple instead of waiting it out in the car.
I thought this temple was beautiful, the way the jungle is taking it over. There are trees growing through and on top of various walls and it really looks like something out of an adventure story. I felt a little stab of regret that I couldn’t go down into its bowels (I’m not sure there even are bowels) and battle an ancient statue come to life, like Lara Croft. Chanra smiled benignly at me like I was crazy when I said that to him.
We were supposed to watch the sunset from a final temple but it was still overcast and I was tired and had plans for that night, so I had Chanra and the driver take me back to my hotel.
After a little relaxation and a shower at my hotel, I was off again with my tuk-tuk from the previous night; this time, I was going to see the Cambodian circus. It’s not a circus with clowns; it’s actually a bit like Cirque du Soleil. That is, it’s all about the acrobatics. In fact, this was literally performance art. It’s a story that is told through music, art (an actual artist painting art live, as a part of the show), drama and acrobatics. All of the performers are formerly disadvantaged Cambodian children whose lives were given direction and purpose through training with the circus. The music, all original, was skillfully performed by 2 musicians on several different traditional and contemporary instruments, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them half the time. This was the perfect way to wrap up my visit to Cambodia.
After the show, my tuk-tuk driver took me back through the quiet town to my hotel, and I settled down with a satisfied sigh. The day had been splendid from beginning to end. My brief Cambodian adventure was just about over.
Onward to Laos.