Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Jump out of bed at 4:15, into the shower and down the stairs into a melee of other sunrise watchers.  It’s a frenzy, with different tuk-tuk and taxi drivers showing up for different groups and nobody quite clear who’s going with who or whether their rides have arrived yet or not.  A smiley Cambodian lady named Kim introduces herself to us, she’s our guide and our van is outside, let’s boogie.

Once we whiz past the few remaining open shops and into the country it’s nearly pitch black, no streetlights or stars visible and just a handle of dim scooter headlights coming the opposite way.  Kim tells us a bit about the history, how it was originally built as a Hindu temple but then used by Buddhists and how the moat surrounding the site represents the ocean while the temple itself is the mountain of the gods.  There are two good sunrise places one is inside the compound, the other outside – inside sounds like a no-brainer but she warns us there’ll be at least 500 people crammed into the same spot we’ll be standing trying to get the same picture we’re taking.  I cringe a bit but I’m more claustrophobic than the rest of our gang, all keen on hitting the inside, so I suck it up and decide to follow Kim’s advice to just get to the front as fast as possible.

After a ten minute wait at the entrance the guards drop a rope and we surge forward.  Kim has a weak flashlight and Murphy pulls out his phone for a light and we rush along a stone walkway toward sheer darkness.  We take a left and there’s a very steep little staircase we climb up and then back down, the way down is treacherous with only the intermittent flickering of other people’s lighting (pro tip: bring a head lamp) and eventually I say fuck it with the steps and just jump down, right into ankle-deep sludgy/smelly water, double soaker for my sneakers and socks, awesome.  Another couple hundred feet ahead and we’re at the side of the pond that Angkor Wat will reflect from and we’re among the first dozen people there, front row seats baby.

“I wish I’d gotten a coffee before we left” I think to myself and a kid comes over and says “Coffee sir?” and hands me a menu with several types of coffee.  Wtf?  There’s a row of little shops to our left selling all sorts of breakfast.  We order up a round by flashlight.

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People fill in and we start getting elbows in the kidneys.  A surprisingly aggressive elderly Japanese couple muscle into the gaps between Drisdelle and myself; whenever he bends over to scratch one of the exponentially-increasing mosquito bites on his flip-flopped feet the man jams his phone into the Drisdelle-gap and lets it rip in burst mode.  More and more people squeeze in and now I’m getting squeezed into the lake, it’d be annoying if my sneakers weren’t already soaked.

As the silhouette of the five towers of Angkor Wat become visible, one enterprising douchebag took it upon himself to walk about ten feet into the lake in front of the 300 people ahead of him with his tripod and camera.  Fuck you man-bun.  No one directly confronted him but I think the waves of “Are you fucking kidding me?” made him reconsider and he got out of there.

Eventually A&W came out in all its glory…

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Sure enough, some more douchebags decided to walk to the other side of the lake and take pictures – not of the temple but of the crowd, hahah.  Okay, I’ve had enough of this, time to go find Kim.  A few minutes later the gang comes out (I missed the selfie) and we go to scrounge up some breakfast.

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Each section of the breakfast area has a western name associated with it, like “Harry Potter”.  We sit between Nelly (Rapper) and Mr. Rambo 2.

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Drisdelle and Queenie both go for traditional local breakfasts while Murphy and I play it seafood-safe and order up banana pancakes and completely slather them in Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

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We scarf everything down with another round of coffee, take a few more pics by the now-deserted lake and head into the temple. Kim supplies us with some group shots.

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While we’re walking in the main gate Kim tells us that the temple is built in such a way that the sun rises directly over the center spire twice a year, on the vernal and autumnul equinoxes.  We follow the recommended route signs to the right and enter a long hallway where the inside wall is covered with a massive single carving, then left into a second

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Kim tells us that the bas-relief is a victorious conquest over invading Champas. The commanders of the army are depicted riding elephants. The number of umbrellas shown in the carving was a measure of rank among the commanders. These two were particularily pimpin: 15 umbrellas!

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Here are some shots out the temple windows out at the grounds.

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Kim had this great idea for a shot along the next set of steps. I don’t know why we don’t have a guide all the time to take epically cheesy pictures of us everywhere.

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One thing we’d noticed yesterday during the Grand Circuit was that many of the heads had been removed from the figures carved in the walls.  I’d speculated that maybe the way the heads were carved didn’t hold up to the weather and the time (unlikely), or maybe followers of a different faith removed the heads to eliminate some religious significance (a handful of figures retained their heads).  We saw it again at Angkor Wat and Kim explained it was looters who’d cut the heads out for sale in Thailand.

Along with historical depictions one of the main features of the carvings in Angkor Wat were apsaras.  Half a dozen here, another dozen there, apparently a total of 1800 throughout the temple. Each one is unique and the details in their bodies and hairstyles is remarkable.

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We got in line for an extremely steep set of stairs that led to an elevated centre of the temple.  Signs warned those with heart conditions and pregnant women to stay away; they were indeed pretty steep.  When I got to the top I noticed I was feeling pretty off, a cold sweat going on and my stomach feeling weird.  I chalked it up to not sleeping well and perused the middle of this thing.

Good view from up there. Good place for a tree pose too.

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There were also a few Buddhas up there with signs pointing to them that said “Possibility of visit”. We possibly visited

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I saw Murphy, Queenie and Drisdelle a little ways behind me but I decided I need to abbreviate my visit and get outside to the facilities.  That feeling I had earlier was coming on strong, I met Kim at the bottom of the steep staircase down and told her I’d meet everyone out in front of the temple.  When you’re in a sweltering jungle temple and you feel freezing cold, something is amiss.

We walk away from the main complex back to the van. We get another glimpse back at Angkor Wat, Kim explains that the roof is built to represent a lotus flower.

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On the van ride we passed by a few travellers who had opted to get elephant rides from Angkor Wat to the Smiling Temple. Kim assured me that the elephants were not treated poorly. There was an incident years ago and one of the elephants died causing a stir among animal rights types. Apparently since then the elephants are treated better and Kim says they are only allowed to work 4 hours a day and so there are fewer tours available now.

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Our next stop is The Bayon, famously known as the Smiling Temple. It is another impressive temple built in the late 12th or early 13th century. Hard to be unhappy here, the temple towers are all lined with smiling faces

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One of the first things you see coming in The Bayon is another massive and detailed bas-relief depicting a great feast after the defeat of the Champas. You can see them feasting and dancing and being awesome cuz they deserve it.

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And then through a gate into the temple proper

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Here’s another gimick shot from professional cheester, Kim. So good.

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Coming down some steps and I had to give way to an adventurous monkey coming up the other direction.

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Actually there were monkeys everywhere. This poor lil duffer was missing his right paw

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Well that was cool. Aside from Angkor Wat temple itself I’d say The Bayon was the next coolest thing on the grounds.

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I’m keeping up with the gang but barely, I’m in a cold sweat and whenever there’s a chance to sit down I take it and just stare at the ground.  As we leave one place Kim looks at me and bluntly asks, “James, you have diarrhea?”  “I sure do, Kim.”  Another two minutes go by and I decide I’d better find another pay toilet, and with a dozen Chinese tourists waiting a few feet away I loudly vomited for three or four minutes.  When I came out they stared at me looking horrified.

We piled back in the van and booked it to our next stop. We passed by the ‘Elephant wall’ where Kim explained that the Angkor military would train on the lawn. Behind it was the Royal Palace but it was covered in jungly greens and we couldn’t see it, if there was even anything to see.

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The final stop on our small circuit tour was Ta Prohm. This place is largely unrestored and has an amazing atmosphere nestled inside it’s jungle backdrop with trees growing out of the temple walls, it is one of the more picture perfect temples in the whole massive complex. Kim explains that Birds will pick up seeds and drop them along the temple walls which then grow into the trees we see here now. This place is amazing. So amazing that they biffed it in the Tomb Raider movie.

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Here’s another phenomenal group shot courtesy of Kimmy Cheesemaster.

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All of the blocks here are numbered and cataloged. There is an effort, I think by the Indian government, to retore this place to it’s original grandeur over time. A daunting task for sure, the ultimate full scale game of reality lego. MacKay and I were joking that a lego scale model of Angkor Wat would be badass. Think of the battles you could have, storm troopers vs pirates or something, along the walls of Angkor Wat!

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The trees growing out of the temple walls were super cool. This one apparently was in the Tomb Raider movie. There was a huge line to get pics with it. Maybe it still smells like Angelina Jolie or something. We just hung back and got Kimmy C to bust another group shot.

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Look at this bad boy! So cool. They’ve put supports under it as the roots are actually knocking parts of the temple apart. They don’t want to remove the tree to preserve the temple though, just leave nature to its path.

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And here you can go under a temple overhang and look out at a tree. If you look up close there is a smiling face peaking through the roots

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The silk-cotton trees were definitely the stars of the show here. Their great canopies and eldrazi-like trunks added so much flare to an already atmosphere-rich temple. I’d say the Ta Prohm, The Bayon and Angkor Wat itself made the short circuit tour today much more unique and memorable than yesterdays. If there was only time to do one, it would hands down be this one.

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On the way back out, Kim takes us off to the side to point out a bas relief on one of the temple walls. It resembled a stegosarus! What? Why would the Khmer know of dinosaurs??

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Well that was awesome! The world’s largest religious monument is definitely worth the trip. Rivaling Machu Picchu in legendary world wonders I’d say this was way up there with the absolute coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

We get back in the van and head to Onederz again. We tip and thank Kim and the driver for a great day and for the fantastic group shots. A little weary from our early morning and full day we head inside.

I went straight to the washrooms and then straight to bed.  It was all I could do to get up the three flights and then up the ladder to my bunk.  In really bad shape.  At this point I was still the only sick one but we all crashed out to make up for our early wake-up.

I woke after about an hour and headed to the bathroom – I could hardly climb down the three ladder rungs to the floor without collapsing.  Not only was I as weak as a kitten, my joints had stiffened up and were burning while the rest of my body was still freezing. What the hell is this?  Malaria?  Dengue?  Some weird monkey-transmitted hemorrhagic fever yet to be discovered by science?  Getting back up the ladder was even worse, and a few minutes after I did I heard Murphy gurgle something about feeling like complete shit as well…

One thought on “Sunrise at Angkor Wat

  1. Thought you’d be interested in this cultural stuff. Written by James (was on Mongol Rally with J). Sounds like he and Jonathan are sick. He has a fish allergy too. Happy Birthday!!

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