Monday, December 25, 2006
The temples at Angkor are incredible. Everything you've ever heard is true. This was the highlight of our trip, which is great, because it's the reason we decided to come back to southeast Asia. The previous times we were in this part of the world, 1987 and 1995, Cambodia was a war zone off-limits to tourists.
Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, was the first we saw. I don't know how to describe this spectacular evidence of a great civilization that flourished a millenium ago. The scale of it is overwhelming, the carving and architecture unbelievable. It was reclaimed from the jungle in the 19th century and now receives hundreds of visitors daily, many of them Korean and Japanese tour groups. Not fun to be in the midst of these folks, but our guide managed to take us around in such a way as to avoid most of them.
There are three levels to Angkor Wat, and in order to get to the top one has to climb up a 50 foot long 70-degree steep staircase (and down again!) There is one metal pipe handrail to which people cling for dear life. Gene climbed up on all fours...Shelli watched...and watched...and finally, god knows why, decided she could do it. You don't look down. There is no photographic evidence of this feat since she's the one who had the camera and no way was she going to let go of the rail, but she did it, and back down again.
We managed to visit 3 major temples in one day, with a pool break in the middle of the day. This is apparently the standard round and it was exhausting but thrilling. Ta Phrom is the temple that remains half swallowed by the jungle and one sees huge tree roots growing over and through the walls, reminding you once again of the inexorable power of nature left to its own devices. Those of you who salivated over Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider will remember Ta Phrom, where it was filmed.
That same day we also visited Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples that includes Bayon, the site of the photo at the top of this post. These wonderful faces of the king as a god are carved over and over on all four sides of multiple towers. It was hard to pull oneself away; the faces seemed so warm and welcoming somehow.
The next day Gene went off to visit two more recently recovered temples upcountry while Shelli rested her aching quadriceps (that was a really long and high staircase, and not the only one!) Each of us was happy with our choice of activity for the day.
Finally, the last day, we visited Banthai Srei, a perfect little jewel of a temple with the best, most intricate and well-preserved carvings of any of the temples. The scale of this one is quite small, with everything feeling sort of 4/5 size, a little like Legoland, but gorgeous.