In Cambodia Part 2: Angkor Sunset

Two of the towers of Angkor Wat, 5:43 PM 12 April 2013There is no way that my words will be able to convey the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the feelings I was overcome with upon my initial glimpse and further explorations.  Many others have tried to describe the vastness and the beauty of this singular temple complex (four miles from end to end) and while they have succeeded far better than I would ever hope to do, none have come close.  I feel the same about trying to telling people about Arizona’s Grand Canyon!

Nor do my limited photographic skills assist in this difficulty.  One simply must experience Angkor Wat – and the hundreds of other nearby temples – for themselves.  If it’s not already there, put Siem Reap on your bucket list now!!

The view from my tuk tuk in Siem Reap.I had spent most of Friday, 12 April, wandering the streets of Siem Reap.  At 4:30 in the afternoon, my tuk tuk driver – the soft-spoken Mr. Bah – picked me up at the Angkor Wonder Hostel along with his younger brother, a tuk tuk trainee.  We sped through the streets I had walked shortly before and soon Charles de Gaulle Boulevard became the road to Angkor Archaeological Park.  Along the way, I noticed a place that advertised free Khmer cultural shows.  I’ll have to track that down on my next visit!

Ticket booth for Angkor Archaeological Park.Ticket regulations for Angkor Archaeological Park.Our first stop was the ticket booths at the park’s entrance.  There are a number of windows, each selling a different type of day pass.  All of the windows on the north (Angkor) side of the building sell the single-day passes for US $20.  The various windows on the south (Siem Reap) side of the building have the three-day (US $40) and one-week (US $60) passes.  There are two versions of each of the multi-day passes – consecutive days and non-sequential days; make sure you get in the correct line and order the pass that you require.

The cool thing is that if you purchase your ticket after 5pm, it doesn’t kick in until the following day.  However, you can still enter the park on the afternoon of advance purchase in order to view the sunset.  When you approach the window at the ticket booth, hand over your twenty dollars and face the camera to your left.  They take the photographs and then print them right on the tickets.  The process takes about five minutes.  That makes the passes non-transferable.  If you lose the pass, you’ll need to go back to the booth and buy a new one and if you are found at any of the ruins within the park without one, you will be fined and turned over to the police.  I think it’s interesting that they have fines for each of the different types of tickets – US $100 for a one-day pass up to US $300 for the seven-day pass.  If someone is found without a ticket, are they going to be dumb enough to say, “Oh, yes.  I was going to buy the seven-day pass so fine me the three hundred bucks!”

And, yes, they do check the passes quite often.  The first checkpoint is actually just after you leave the ticket booths – you can’t exit the parking lot without one!

I just loved the roads through Angkor Archaeological Park – mostly hard-packed red dirt and rather smoother than I’d thought they be.  That’s a blessing when you’re bouncing around in the back of a speeding Cambodian-style tuk tuk (a trailer hitched to a motorbike).  I only wished my driver would have driven slower as I saw a lot of interesting things wiz by (i.e., numerous food stalls, picnicking Khmers, etc.).

A small portion of Angkor Wat's huge moat.Soon we turned westward to follow the shores of a large lake.  Wait a minute!  That’s not a natural body of water – that’s the MOAT around Angkor Wat!!  Not only is this the world’s largest religious structure, but it possesses the largest manmade moat.  It is surrounded by trees so you cannot see the temple at all from the road.  This greatly enhances the mystique of the ruins as far as I’m concerned.

One of my first glimpses of Angkor Wat, rising far to the east.Turning towards the north once again, following the west shore of the moat and observing numerous people enjoying food while sitting on the shady ground next to the water, I caught my first very brief glimpse of the grand temple’s towers.  They were way off in the distance and mostly obscured by trees and a stone wall (the gate enclosure).

I thought my tuk tuk would stop near the causeway leading into the temple but, to my surprise, he sped on by.  A few minutes later, he pulled up opposite a large area where many vehicles were parked and swarms of people were heading up a steep trail.  My driver pointed that way and said, “You climb to look at sunset.”  He’d taken me to Phnom Bakheng, a hill which overlooks the surrounding area and the most popular sunset viewpoint in the area.  I’d wanted to experience the sunset from Angkor Wat and told him so.  “Oh!” he exclaimed, “No problem!”  We turned around and I was soon deposited at the entrance to Angkor Wat’s causeway.

Walking along the causeway towards the western gate of Angkor Wat.  Everything here is on a grand scale!A blue-shirted girl asked to see my pass and I was allowed to proceed, walking on the massive sandstone blocks.  I was pleased to see that it wasn’t crowded at all.  I like to do the less popular things (or, do things at the less popular times) in order to avoid wall-to-wall people.  I wasn’t entirely alone – such as when I toured Beijing’s Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China during the SARS pandemic ten years ago – but the few tourists were scattered far and wide.

Ancient AngkorThis did, however, make me an easy-to-spot target for the guys trying to sell me stuff.  The first offer was for a copy of the excellent guidebook Ancient Angkor, written by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques.  “Sorry, I already have that book!” I called out.  “Buy another,” was the response I heard almost every time!  I did buy a pack of ten postcards from a young boy, however.  I’d purchased six for 50 cents each at Siem Reap’s Old Market earlier in the day and thought I’d done well at that price!

The view from the western gate.  Still a ways to go!Okay, long story short:  I walked on the causeway towards a large columned building with a sort of tower in the middle; the moat dominating the views to my left and right.  The famous profile of Angkor Wat with its five prangs (towers) representing the summit of Mount Meru wasn’t visible at all.  Arriving at the “building”, I climbed the rough stone stairs to the entrance at the base of the single tower.  Once inside, one can see the iconic image of the temple in the distance.  It turns out that this is simply a very grand gate (something the Angkorians really thrived in creating).  On the other side, you climb down more stairs and find yourself on the causeway once again.  Only this time, there are wide fields to the left and right.  But now you can see Angkor Wat in all of it’s majesty, becoming ever closer.

Library to the south of Angkor Wat's causeway.At about the midpoint along this portion of the causeway are two grand libraries on either side and then two pools of water.  This is where most people view the sunrise – the most popular way to experience the ruins. Just seeing these in advance of my early-morning venture the next day made my sunset “idea” worthwhile.  The pool to my right (the south) was empty of water due to it being the end of the dry season while there was still water in the northern pool.  This is what I call great recon!

Central entrance to Angkor Wat interior compound under restoration with a kingly throne in front.Sunrise-viewing location scoped out, I now turned my attention to Angkor itself.  I was a little disappointed to see the majority of the entrance was covered in green rain tarps, marking the location of current restoration efforts.  As a result, I didn’t take very many photos of this area.  Also, this central entrance was blocked with a large royal throne, apparently part of that weekend’s Cambodian New Year’s celebrations.  Thus, I entered somewhat to the right of this main portal into the temple.

Most walls inside of Angkor Wat are covered with these bas-relief carvings.  The world's longest artistic mural?Due to the lateness of the hour (after five o’clock), the interior was quite dim.  I attempted to photograph a few of the bas-reliefs but they just didn’t turn out.  Well, I’d be doing a lot of that the next day – I just wanted to get my bearings.  So I walked down several long hallways pretty much in the dark.  It was very much like walking in a cave.  I saw perhaps ten people inside the entire time I was there!

Eventually, I made it to the center area where the very steep stairs to the second and third tiers are located.  Again, due to the lateness of the hour, these were blocked off to avoid unattended injuries (you fall, you could die).  While I was taking photos in this area, it began to rain.  Boy!  Did that feel good!  I took refuge with a couple of park rangers and a monk and afterwards made my way back towards the causeway.  It was very dark by then and I was glad I’d brought along my small flashlight (it would prove invaluable the following morning as well!).

Sunset as viewed from directly in front of the main Angkor Wat temple structure.While taking a few photos of the northern pool, a Buddhist monk approached me.  We quickly found that we could communicate the best in Thai and had a very nice conversation for ten minutes or so.  I was shocked that my Thai has become that good!  The monk tried to teach me a bit of Khmer but it mostly went in one ear and out the other.  I do remember “Akun” is “thank you,” however.

Dusk falls over Angkor Wat's huge moat.By the time I reached the end of the causeway, the light was quite dim indeed.  It’s a wonder I didn’t fall into the moat!  Luckily, the younger brother of my tuk tuk driver saw me approaching through the twilight and lead me to my ride.  I ended my evening with another meal at Viva Mexican Café (prolonged by a thunderstorm) and watched an odd movie on HBO before falling asleep.

It would be an early wakeup and a very long day on Saturday the 13th!

Photo Album – Sunset at Angkor Wat, 12 April 2013

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