One would think it is hard to get out of bed at such an ungodly hour. It’s 3:45 a.m. and I spring from under the covers, wide awake, like a kid on Christmas morning. The early morning air is crisp and chilly as I head outside to meet Lee. He is, as usual, early and waiting on me.
The ride to the entrance of Ankgor Wat is short, albeit cold, with the wind whisking by the open air tuk-tuk as we drive through the darkness of early morning. The gates are open and I show my ticket at no less than three different check points. Lee lets me off at a point where he can no longer drive and I rush through the waning night to try and find a spot to watch the sun rise over the main temple.
The pitch blackness fades as a faint light, which can be more felt than seen, starts to glow. Black turns to navy as purples, reds and oranges bounce off the clouds that have gathered in the sky. There are hundreds of people around me but they too fade away as the beauty and serenity of the moment overtakes me.
The sky continues to lighten as I walk from the reflection pools and inside Angkor itself. There are so many details and architecture to take in, it is overwhelming. Reliefs seem to adorn every stone as I discover some new facet around each corner. Two monks have taken up residence near a statue of Buddha in the outer courtyard area. They are offering prayers and bracelets to visitors. I kneel and reach out my arm to one of the monks. He says a prayer as he ties a bracelet on my wrist. For good measure he finishes the prayer by taking a bunch of small reeds in his hand, dips them in water and flings the droplets onto my newly braided bracelet and head.
The ritual complete, I continue to explore the massive temple. It is hard not to try and imagine what daily life might have been like for the Khmer people who were alive during the 12th century when King Suryavarman II completed Angkor as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. To help protect some of the bas-reliefs and flooring, wooden walkways and steps are now everywhere. I climb one such set of steps up to the Bayon in the middle of the temple. It is the highest and most holy point in the complex.
From this vantage point I can see some of the other temples and buildings and the jungle that surrounds everything. A hot air balloon is off in the distance as I see thousands of people make their way on their own adventure through Angkor.
I climb back down and start to head back to find Lee. I look at my watch and I can’t believe I’ve already spent five plus hours in this one temple and there are so many more to see. I find my way back to the entrance to the complex. To my surprise there are monkeys sitting in the tall trees and strutting along the grounds near the moat that surrounds the temple. They are minding their own business. Doing what monkeys do, that is, until humans get involved… which is why I would like to go ahead and say Please, please, please don’t feed the monkeys or something like this may happen.
I’m watching and waiting for the right moment. I see this woman out of the corner of my eye. She is excited about the monkeys as well. So excited she throws a banana at the one closest to me. It lands at the monkey’s feet and this is where things go horribly awry. The seemingly docile monkey goes from zero to ape shit in less than a second. The monkey bears all of its teeth including the four large, fang type, incisors and launches at the woman. It’s howling the entire time as it closes the distance with a single bound and proceeds to swipe at the woman’s legs and feet. The woman makes a hasty retreat and after the brief encounter the monkey saunters back to the banana, picks it up and eats it. Back to a docile state, it may be easy to confuse this calm with tame but I cannot stress enough that monkeys are wild animals and should not be fed or approached too closely.
The excitement having subsided, I find Lee among the throngs of people and hop in. We drive through more of the massive complex, stopping at smaller temples and different gates that separate sections of the ancient city. At one of the gates there are two rows of Buddha statues lining the road. I notice that the heads and bodies of the statues all vary in color and look a little strange. I ask Lee if he knows why. He tells me that before Ankgor became a World Heritage Site, people removed the original heads to sell at markets and display in museums. It was a different time in Cambodia and the massive temples were unknown to much of the outside world.
We pass through the gates on our way to Angkor Thom. This temple is known as the “Face Temple” due to the 216 gigantic smiling visages of Avalokiteshavra that adorn its Bayon in a mesmerizing way, much like an M.C. Escher painting. As I make my way through the temple more than a dozen of these faces stare at me at any given time, and if it weren’t for their smiles, I would have felt like I was being watched by an antagonistic presence.
I shake off that feeling as I exit the temple and again find Lee. He is taking a short nap in the afternoon heat so I let him sleep for a bit as a statue of Buddha catches my eye. There are Cambodian women sitting in front of the statue talking, waiting for people to come by so they can say prayers and tie more bracelets meant to bring luck. A few children are playing as well as their laughter echoes off of the stone pillars surrounding the statue. I walk back to the tuk-tuk and Lee is awake and ready to go.
We cross over a bridge and through another gate or two and arrive at the final temple. Ta Prohm is unique, at least from what I have seen today. Massive trees grow straight out of the stone blocks that make up the complex and their canopies create some much needed shade towering above in the air. The roots seem to consume the ancient structure and sunlight filters in through the large leaves and dances on the stone as I pass by. Originally a Buddhist monastery and school, Ta Prohm is also somewhat recognizable and famous, having been used as a backdrop for the original Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie in 2001. I walk past piles of rubble in different stages of reconstruction as I make my way towards the center of the temple through narrow passageways and an eerie feeling comes over me that the jungle is alive and slowly devouring this ancient structure built by man. I reach the Bayon and the Crocodile Tree. Hundreds of years old, the tree seems to dwarf the others around it. I stand in awe as I stare up into the green abyss.
I don’t know exactly how long I stand entranced by the beauty but when I do regain my composure I continue my exploration through the maze of vegetation and constricting corridors. I finally make my way out of the temple and again find Lee and his tuk-tuk. I am content with my adventure into Angkor and we turn back towards town. My heart is full and yet I feel the tug of sadness. It’s my last day in Siem Reap and two days is just not enough time to spend in such a wonderful place.