Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list since I don’t know when. I was enthralled by pictures of those soaring corn-cob towers. Black and white images from the end of the day, long shadows cast eerily across the stone causeways. Glowing skies of the dawn reflected in the lily ponds. What I never really knew was just how much more there is to Angkor than this one breath-taking, iconic temple.
We finally visited Angkor over Christmas, the last stop on our trip to Cambodia. It didn’t disappoint. Temples and temples and temples, some restored, some left to the kapok trees, each with a different atmosphere and feel. You feel compelled to return at different times of the day, to see how the light affects the stones, casts shadows and streams through windows and doorways. A place full of moments, details waiting to be discovered in the hidden corners.
We began, like so many others, with Angkor Wat itself. Hours can be lost wandering through the temple, exploring the exquisite detail of the carvings. Bas-reliefs telling the stories of the Gods and the beautiful Apsara, elegant dancing girls, gracing the walls in their hundreds.
From Angkor we headed into the city of Angkor Thom. Entering through the gates, just wide enough for the elephants carrying tourists in and out, you get your first glimpse of the stone faces awaiting you within. The bridge is lined by stone giants, handsome warriors flank the left, grotesque evil demons, with their bulging eyes and terrifying features, line the right.
As you first approach the Bayon, the state temple of the city, all you can make out is a mass of rock, piled high and lost to the sky in the late morning light. As you cross the pools, and walk into the outer walls you begin to see the faces. Once you’ve seen one they all become clear, dozens and dozens of faces, taller than a grown man, staring out in all directions. It is the face of Lokesvara, the compassionate, repeated and repeated and repeated. The gently closed eyes and smiling mouth look out benevolently. I wonder how you would feel here, alone and after dark, when everywhere you turn in the maze like structure you greeted by the same giant features.
Ta Prohm has been left to the jungle. Its here you see those iconic tree roots. The jungle taking back what is rightfully his. Rubble piles up everywhere. Huge stones stacked on top of each other. A sign reading ‘be careful’, Cambodia’s nod to health and safety. We climbed through windows, scrambled over heaps of rock, and ducked under supporting masonry. Squeezing past the collapsed stones, blue green with algae, into little pockets of quiet, away from the noise and cameras of the tour groups, you can imagine yourself an explorer, coming across this place for the first time.
Too early the next day we came back to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. Cloudy skies limited us to a purple glow, and etherial shadows. There is a strange, almost cult-like feeling walking through these ancient temples at 5am. Hundreds and hundreds of people silently streaming in, lit only by torch light. Standing together on the edge of the lake, waiting for the dawn. Cafe owners dip and dive through the crowds, offering hot coffee, milk tea. Orders placed, they run them back to their recipients on little round plastic trays.
Later that day we explored the smaller temples on bikes. The deserted Baksei Chamkrong, it’s four tiered tower accessible only by a gravity defying climb up century worn steps. The great pyramid of Baphoun, with it’s terrifying ladder-like wooden stair-cases, precariously balanced on the edges of crumbling steps and scraps of car tyre, taking you up and up towards the sky. Prah Khan going back and back and back through endless doorways and chambers. Engraved archways, dark rooms, collapsed roofs. Neak Pean, very different to the other temples. A water temple, it sits on an island, surrounded by a series of pools
I find the water of Angkor fascinating. Lakes, streams, moats. One, a vibrant emerald green. Others perfectly clear, a surface like glass. The dawn light in the moats around Angkor Wat. Misty, murky tree filed lakes. The sun setting over rice fields, water buffalo trudging towards the end of the day.
Riding around there are moments where you feel utterly alone. Away from the bustle of Tuk Tuks, you could have been lost to time.
We watched the final sun of 2013 set over lily spotted waters, kissing the corn towers of Angkor Wat with it’s golden glow. We said our goodbyes to the year, and cycled back into the darkness to join the Cambodians in bringing in the New Year.