They say to save the best for last so we had saved Angkor Wat for day five, our last day of templ-ing in Siem Reap. We set our alarms for 4:30 and met Hon at 5:00am to get to the mother temple before sunrise. Things started out great – it was pouring rain when we stepped outside and Ben’s glasses somehow flipped out of his glasses’ case and out of the tuk-tuk on the way to Angkor Wat. After a 20 minute delay of trying to find them in the dark pouring rain we had missed sunrise at Angkor Wat. When we did get there, it was raining even harder. After venturing 50 feet out on the main bridge leading to Angkor Wat, we turned around, told Hon to take us home, and took a nap.
3 hours later the rain had stopped and we returned. Angkor Wat Is massive – the walkway connecting the outer gate (and massive moat) and inner gate stretches at least 3 football fields.
Once inside the inner gate, you are compelled to gaze upwards at the massive towers stretching skyward. Just like the temple in Phimai each tower has 28 rounded corners, but much much bigger. Every square inch of the outward-facing wall of the inner gate is decorated by carvings on an epic scale. Carved wall murals must stretch, again, at least 3 football fields around the perimeter of the gate. A steep hike to the topmost 4 towers within Angkor Wat gives you a chance to see the temple from above and the massive courtyard within the walls of the inner gate.
The rear part of Angkor Wat was providing a playground for a group of about 60 monkeys. They were busy with many important daily tasks – jumping up and down the stairs, climbing the smaller towers, grooming each other, eating fruit, or just chasing each other around.
After Angkor Wat, we headed through the South Gate of Angkor Thom. The causeway has 54 gods and 54 demons on each side engaged in the same tug of war carved in the wall at Angkor Wat – the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
Angkor Thom is another massive temple enclosure housing roughly 5 smaller temples. My favorite temple in Angkor Thom and favorite of all the temples I’ve seen so far in Southeast Asia was Bayon. Not surprisingly, this is another one built by Jayavarman VII. This guy certainly made sure to leave his legacy in a tangible form. Bayon has impressive chaotic symmetry, 54 towers each decorated with 4 faces of Avalokiteshvara.
Thats a grand total of 216 smiling faces of the bodhisattva, but being the modest man that he was, J7 made sure the faces also resembled himself. No matter which way you look in Bayon you have at least 9-14 of these eerie facing smiling at you from every angle. Not a big temple but leaves an impression.
Next we explored Phimeanakas, the top of which provided a great view over Angkor Thom. To finish off Angkor Thom, we checked out the Royal Palace and Preah Palilay.
On our way out of Angkor Thom we lounged in the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
We ended our long day tour with the less-explored Preah Pithu Group and North Kleang.
At one of the markets outside the Preah Pithu Group, a younger female market vendor stopped me to buy something from her. Like all other vendors, she started with a very common technique – “Where you from?”
My answer is always the same – “America – Chicago”. Saying Chicago is easier than trying to explain where Iowa is, especially considering there are large number of people in the states who couldn’t point Iowa out on the map. Same goes for traveling just about anywhere outside the states. The only time people from the outside the states (typically Europeans or Aussies) do know where (or what) Iowa is it is because they know Slipknot, the hardcore metal group that got their start in Iowa. Seriously, everyone I’ve met only knew “Iowa” because of “Slipknot”. Regardless of the quality of their music, I’m not sure how I feel about a band that wears terrifying masks being the main thing known about Iowa for many non-Americans, but I guess its better than ignorant. At least I hope it is.
I told the young woman that I had no money but she was ready with a counter I’ve heard from several vendors – “Then how you have camera? How you have money to come see Angkor?” I clearly wasn’t fooling her with the “No money” line – this wasn’t her first rodeo.
After patiently telling her “no” for a few more minutes, I turned the conversation to her. Asking her where she was from and how she got here. These are questions I’m guessing she doesn’t get as much. She told me she born in Siem Reap and had been working her little stall within the Angkor Temple group since she was 13.
She said she envied that I was from the states and even more, she envied that my skin was white. There is a million dollar industry in the United States where women (and some men) are shelling out hundreds of dollars each year to get darker – spray tan, tanning beds, tanning lotion, the list goes on. And here in Cambodia, this girl was telling me that all she wanted was to be white. Maybe its just a case of “grass is always greener”.
I also asked her about her shop and more specifically, how she had chosen to pick this random spot (near the Preah Pithu group) for it. I was wondering if vendors can just set up anywhere, because it certainly seems random and willy-nilly to me. She directed my attention to a thin metal cable that we were both standing over. Tracing the cable lengthwise along her stall and the adjoining stalls, I quickly realized that there was indeed some order within what seemed to be chaos. She said that she could come across the line to solicit sales when the police was not around, but when they rode by she was always squarely within the confines of her marked cable lines.
After our conversation, not missing a chance, the young woman noted that she had “made me happy” with conversation and that I should buy something from her. I thanked her for her time and bought a cold water from her, which did make her happy.
Have to admire that persistence, but sometimes you actually have to laugh at it. Let me explain. Earlier that day, I’d walked next to a Cambodian woman trying to sell silk to another younger European woman as she was leaving a temple. The European woman was trying to walk away, and was repeatedly saying “NO!” while the Cambodian woman followed close at her heels, persistently shoving her silk in the European’s hands. The “silk?” – “NO!” banter reached an absurd level when both of the parties involved started laughing about it! As the European woman repeated what must have been her 101st, 102nd, and 103rd “Nos!” she started smiling and then chuckling at how ridiculous the “hustle” had become. Laughter being infectious, incredibly the Cambodian woman also started laughing, but not missing a beat in forcing her silk in front of and on the stubborn target. It was a bizarre spectacle – the European woman nearly sprinting away from the Cambodian, shouting “No!”, the Cambodian hot in pursuit full basket of silk in tow, and both almost doubling over in laughter at the silliness of it all. But guess what? After laughter had lightened both their moods and seeing that the Cambodian woman was not going to relent even while laughing at herself, the European woman finally stopped and bought a silk. Admire and laugh.
Hon took us over to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. From the top of Phnom Bakheng, you can see Angkor Wat and can see the sun set over West Bayon, a massive pool to the west of Angkor Thom.