Siem Reap, Cambodia, Part 1
Marie was sold on Mr. Hart as soon as she heard his name. I suspected I knew why: “Because that’s what the chauffer on Hart to Hart called Robert Wagner?” I asked. Yep, sure enough. When we pulled into the bus station Mr. Hart was there holding a sign that read “Mister Rob.” He dropped us off at our hotel and agreed to meet us again the next morning.
By the time we checked into our hotel it was late afternoon, so we just caught a ride to the downtown area of Siem Reap and had dinner. At sunset I had a chance to recreate a photo I took four years ago.
Angkor Wat is the heart of Cambodia. Its image is featured on the country’s flag and currency, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southeast Asia, and the national beer is called “Angkor.” Why all the fuss?
If you’re impressed by history, Angkor Wat has been used as a place of worship – first by Hindus and then by Buddhists – for almost a thousand years. If you’re impressed by size, it’s the largest religious structure in the world. The outer moat measures almost a mile on each side. The place is massive. And if you’re impressed by style, it’s just plain cool-looking. Someone who knows a lot more about architecture than I do said that it “attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions.”
And that’s just Angkor Wat. The broader Angkor complex includes over a thousand other ancient temples constructed by a series of Khmer god-kings between 800 and 1300 AD. Some of the minor temples in Angkor would, by themselves, be the primary tourist attraction in most other countries.
Normally I struggle to get out of bed to take pre-dawn photos. But with Angkor waiting, waking up was no problem. Mr. Hart met me and Marie, as planned, at 4:45am. We made a quick stop to buy our three-day passes and then went right to Angkor Wat. In the pre-dawn darkness we had to use a flashlight to find our way to the best spot for photos, although we had plenty of help from Cambodian entrepreneurs who, even at that hour, wanted to sell us breakfast, coffee, or the use of a chair while we waited for sunrise. At first there weren’t many other tourists around, but by the time the sun rose at least 100 of us were trying to get the classic Angkor Wat shot.
Bayon is my second-favorite Angkor temple. From a distance it looks like a crazy, jumbled pile of rocks. Up close it still looks like a crazy pile of rocks, but you start to feel a sense of balance and harmony in the design, and you realize you’re being watched by hundreds of huge stone faces carved into the temple’s towers.
Next up was Ta Prohm, my third-favorite temple, which boasts a Hollywood claim to fame: it appeared in the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider. Parts of Ta Prohm were reclaimed by the jungle a very long time ago and roots of large trees now cover several of the buildings.
No tour of Angkor’s highlights would be complete without a trip up the hill to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. We rode an elephant up to the temple, saving us energy and marking the first time Marie had ever traveled by pachyderm. “Walking is for suckers,” we agreed.
We knew Phnom Bekheng was a popular sunset spot, but the crowd swelled to the point of being a little ridiculous. By 5:30 there were at least a few hundred people on the top of the temple, including an older Malaysian man who seemed intent on having a conversation with me and Marie, with or without our participation. At one point he told us that a lake we could see in the distance was the biggest lake in the world. “Bigger than Lake Superior?” we asked. He promised it was, despite the fact that the entire country of Cambodia is only about twice as big as Lake Superior. Then he started regaling us with stories about the sunrise at Angkor Wat that morning.“Beautiful!” he gushed. “Very beautiful this morning.”
“Lots of red in the sky?” I asked.
“Oh yes, very red,” he assured us.