Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Typical Day of Tomb-Raiding in Angkor (with many photos!)

(note you can click on any photo for a larger view)

We just finished a week in Siem Reap, Cambodia and are the most mentally and physically exhausted since starting our Extravagasia. The temples of Angkor are amazing, inspiring, mysterious and frankly, tiring. I'm saddened they're just now emerging as a wonder of the world and must-see for ancient civilization buffs because the myriad, magnificent temples, breathtaking sculpture, unique cultural traditions and jungle setting of Angkor is absolutely on par with the Pyramids and the Parthenon.

However, I don't want to impart a history lesson on god-king civilizations that sprang from Hindu-Buddhist traditions on the blog. Instead, I thought I'd give you a glimpse of a typical day for us.

We didn't know much about the ancient Khmer civlization or Angkorian temples going in, and learned a ton on our independent tour with two guidebooks and private driver/kind-of guide. Andy and I were truly stunned by how steep the temples are -- each layout is like a five-tier wedding cake of stone with giant, slippery steps for scaling to each level. But the views from the top which include jungle, lakes, rice fields, monasteries, monks and villages are fabulous and unique to the world. And, despite the maddening crowds, there is nothing like scaling temples of rock and stumbling into a quiet alcove filled with nothing but Buddhas, the scent of incense and meditative energy.

Here's how we spent our days:

7:32am -- Wake up and will legs to move. Wonder if somehow, magically, the rules of society have changed and we can just go naked since it's so damn hot and there's nothing in our backpack cool enough to wear. Sigh. Slather selves with sunscreen.~> read more (with more photos)


8:00am -- Meet our driver/guide Heang and get in his tuk-tuk, which is a motorcycle pulling an enclosed backseat on trailer wheels. Zoom off to Angkor Archaelogical Park.

8:33am -- Fight through horrific group-tour crowds filing off buses and try not to end up in some Japanese tourist's photo.* Sigh...impossible. Head away from the crowds with our two guidebooks and start learning about bas reliefs and sculptures endemic to that particular period and temple.

* These big groups, which rivaled only what I've seen around the Mona Lisa in The Louvre, brought out a very impatient side of me which resulted in a breakdown to Andy including a "This is NOT how you take pictures!" bellow because there were SO MANY tourist sheep blocking the path, holding their digital cameras one foot away from their face and trying to take a landscape shot using the screen on the back. Aaaarrggghh! *

8:56am -- Have fun noting specific sculptural relief or recognizing recurring theme of Siva, Vishnu, elephant mounts and celesital Apsara nymphs, and any differences from previous temple or prior century. (we are geeks at heart, after all!)

9:27am-- Stop for small break and eat Quaker Oatmeal Breakfast bar. (I'd never seen these in the States, but we found them for $3.40 in a mini mart and were psyched for breakfast-on-the-go!)

10:14am -- Finish temple. Get accosted by children and women selling postcards, cold drinks, fruit, t-shirts, temple rubbings, bracelets and more. Fight off and buy from first water seller, since there's an etiquette and someone will be pissed if you buy from the person who didn't first yell, "Cold drink, sir?" at you from 50 feet away. (Not kidding!) Pay 400% more for bottled water than we paid in Phnom Penh -- and that's after we bargained!

10:41am -- Visit next temple, which is thankfully off the less-touristed track. (Or at least out of their strictly-scheduled order!) Climb up five levels of stairs, carefully using hands to cling on rock during last part of ascent. My palms and all of me are sweating as it's approximately 900 degrees in the shadeless sun, and Andy looks ready for a wet t-shirt contest in the heat. (that sounds weird -- what I mean is that his shirt is totally soaked through!)

11:01am -- Marvel at view from top. Enjoy various temple colors. Red-brown-gold-gray slabs of rock, laterite, stucco and brick, many of which have a growing tapestry of misty green lichen or velvety emerald and egg-white moss over their rough texture.

11:51am -- Visit third temple, which has less decoration and climbing, but awesome jungle landscape. Essentially, it's 'manmade vs. nature' here and we're climbing over wild fig trees which are choking a temple entryway and walking through leafy vines amongst ruin and rubble. VERY COOL! Take many photos and hope one turns out in the high sun and shadow environment.

12:54pm -- Beg Heang not to take us to another Khmer roadside stand for lunch and more overpriced ramen noodles. Opt for Blue Pumpkin Cafe with its Western-selection of pasta, salad and sandwiches and gift-shop setting. (yes, Blue Pumpkin had something for us all -- Andy could be air-conditioned and eat meat-sauced spaghetti and I could shop, all in non-brain-taxing situation!)

1:53pm -- Go out to "parking lot", which is a sandy sea of tuk-tuks, buses and child sellers, and ward off more armies of cuteness hawking postcards, t-shirts and bracelets. Sigh...

1:57pm -- Enjoy quiet, breezy ride in the tuk-tuk on temple-filled jungle road. See monks and monkeys. Excellent!

2:06pm -- Embark on another temple adventure of steep climbing and beautiful bas-relief sculptures. Feel triumphant that we're schooled in "the churning of the ocean of milk" myth and recognize various elements on the causeway and pediments. Also happy that we visited India first as the ancient Khmer civilizations were greatly influenced by Hinduism and India, and we're noticing some trends.

2:42pm -- Wonder how Angelina Jolie EVER filmed "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in the exact same place where I now am without looking like she'd just rolled in a slick of oil and sweat and sucked a lot of wind. Damn, is it hot!

3:26pm -- Alight from tuk-tuk at next jungle temple. Take break in shade, hide from sellers and read about its history before hiking 2 km down the leafy, viney path and crossing serpent-covered causeway.

3:51pm -- Enter top-level tower and find Buddhist shrine awash in candlelight and golden statue glow. Colorful prayer flags zig-zag across the stone ceiling and sweet-smiling, shaved-head monk points us to the incense sticks and donation box. We take off our shoes and hats, kneel down with feet behind us and bow heads three times in meditation, then light incense sticks and plant them in ancient, sand-filled urns. Monk smiles approvingly and bows, and we press our palms together in symbol of thanks and bow.

4:36pm -- Buy sweet, fresh pineapple from Khmer lady in sarong...the first one who asked us, of course...for blood sugar surge and eat from plastic bag with giant tooth picks in the back of the tuk-tuk.

5:02pm -- Heang drops us off at one of the four best Angkorian temples for watching the sun set. Unfortunately, other drivers and tour operators also drop their hordes and it's a mass of humanity scaling another root and rock covered hill.

5:04pm -- Spray deet on skin with ferocity. Buy one more overpriced bottle of water and give legs a pep talk. Start the climb.

5:43pm -- See searing pink orb settle into the lavender-gray sky atop a temple with tourists and monks...their colorful robes nearly upstaging the sunset...and watch as the towers and shadows of an empire fade to black.


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