Legends of the Hidden Temple

I beat my alarm this morning and woke up at 4.30 after a restless night’s sleep.  Lynn was shortly behind me, and we packed up our day bags and headed down to meet Raya, our tuk-tuk driver from yesterday.  He was already waiting for us as we got downstairs and we loaded up and set off across the dark city towards Angkor Wat where we planned on watching the sunrise over the temple.  The air was pleasantly cool as we motored through town and Lynn and I both took note of the surprising number of people still populating the bars that we passed, we assume still out from the night before.  It was 5 am people, go to bed.

As we neared Angkor Wat the tuk-tuks became more plentiful and it became clear that we were not the only people strong willed enough to wake up at 4.30 in the morning to catch the sunrise.   Raya dropped us off in front of the temple and we followed the crowds through the dark across the first bridge into the complex.  We didn’t really know where the best spot to watch the sunrise was, but this being one of the most photographed buildings in the world I was pretty sure it wasn’t a secret and all of these other folks probably knew, so we just followed them.  We ended up at the corner of a reflection pond at the base of the main temple just as the sky started to turn a muddy yellow.  It seems there was a lot of haze in the air today and we wouldn’t be in for a record setting sunrise.  The crowds could have fooled us though, every direction we looked there were hundreds of people taking selfies or setting up tripods in front of now angry other people who had gotten there first.

All of the people waiting to take a picture of sunrise of the temple.
All of the people waiting to take a picture of sunrise of the temple.

After watching the people and the sky for twenty minutes we decided there was still plenty of time before the sun was actually above the horizon so we walked around the basically deserted temple and explored what we would be coming back to later in the day.  The sky was still a brownish yellow, no doubt from all the trash fires we had noticed the night before that were likely still burning, but Google informed us that sunrise was imminent so we headed back to our corner of the pond which was now even more packed with flashing (amateurs) cameras.  We arrived just as the sun peaked between two of the towers and we got some decent pictures before heading back to the tuk-tuk to make our way to the tour company we would be spending the rest of the day biking with.   On the way back to the tuk-tuk we both noticed that the gate was looking much better than the temple itself since the sun was shining on it and not from directly behind it.

Here it comes!
Here it comes!
Tada!
Tada!
We thought the gate looked better with the sun shining on it.
We thought the gate looked better with the sun shining on it.

We found Raya amongst the sea of other drivers and made our way to the bike shop with only a little confusion from him about where we were going in this obviously not often visited by tourists part of town.  We said goodbye to him and he made us promise that if we needed a driver the rest of the time in Siem Reap we would call him first and we headed into the shop a bit earlier than we were expected, hoping we could ask about a place to get a quick breakfast.  Everything was closed it turns out so we settled for some peanuts and dried mango we had brought just in case.

Back at the shop we met the other four people in our tour and our guide who would be leading us on a 28 km mountain biking tour of the main temples of Angkor.  The tour had come highly recommended by way of TripAdvisor and we were excited to get some more information and context about the temples than we had just wandering on our own the day before.  We all signed some release waivers, gave our bikes a test, and were off on the now bustling Siem Reap roads towards Angkor.

We made our way along the Siem Reap river through a steady parade of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and cars, slowing at every intersection to feather our way through traffic that does not observe stop signs.  After two miles we jumped across the river and onto a pothole filled dirt road that ran through a neighborhood of corrugated steel houses, more burning trash, and a lot of friendly children waving and practicing their “Hello’s” in English.  This was not the part of Siem Reap that tourists normally see (well tourists who don’t get lost thanks to TripAdvisor at least) and we enjoyed seeing how the locals actually live, even if it was a bit depressing.

After 30 or so minutes biking we arrived at our first temple, Ta Prohm, more commonly known as the Tomb Raider Temple, because the movie of the same name was filmed here.  Neither of us really cared, since we have not seen the movie but it seemed to be a big deal to our guide who kept talking about it and showing us all of the places around it that the movie was shot.  What we did like was the huge trees that were growing in and around the collapsing buildings and we tried to take good pictures of it but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to take good pictures into the mid-day sun while you’re in a forest.  We resigned ourselves to this just being one of those things you need to experience if you want to see how cool it actually is and wandered the grounds taking it all in.

Starting out on our mountain bike trek through the jungle.
Starting out on our mountain bike trek through the jungle.
This is a 200 year old spung tree growing out of the Tomb Raider temple.
This is a 200 year old spung tree growing out of the Tomb Raider temple.
Posing by the tree in the movie, or so we are told.
Posing by the tree in the movie, or so we are told.

At this temple we also got our first real experience with our guide and decided he wasn’t very good.  His English was a bit hard to understand and he didn’t really get questions you’d ask and instead of asking for clarification he would just give you an answer to a different unrelated question.  It seems my TripAdvisor expectations had been set a little high.  We also chuckled as we started noticing how odd the three Australians in our group were.  They seemed to want nothing to do with the group and would wander off to do their own thing, and then complain that the guide wasn’t telling them anything about the temple…perhaps it’s because they were hardly ever with him?  Topping it off, one of them tripped on the way back to bikes and injured her knee, which does suck, but she was really milking it and we noticed her selectively limping the rest of the day when it got hot she didn’t want to walk anymore.  Needless to say, we were not fans.

We stopped next at a smaller temple called Ta Keo.  It was mostly deserted, perhaps because Anjelina Jolie has never been to it and it seems to have been left largely unrestored.  Most of the buildings were at least partially collapsed and there were large piles of moss covered stones where they had once been.  This was Lynn’s favorite temple because of the way the jungle has reclaimed most of it and how collapsed it was – it seems she likes jungle ruins.  Every so often you step over a large stone and, looking down, notice that behind the moss was a very intricate carving of a face or a lady dancer.  It was exactly how you imagine jungle ruins and we spent 20 minutes exploring without our guide who was back guarding the bikes.

Collapsed portions of the temple, thick with bright green moss.
Collapsed portions of the temple, thick with bright green moss.
A happy face, fallen and covered in moss.
A happy face, fallen and covered in moss.

We got back on our bikes and headed towards the main complex of Angkor Thom, which at one time was home to over one million people and was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.  On the way we noticed that the floor of the jungle was almost entirely sand, which made bike riding difficult, and also seemed odd, since we were no where near the ocean.  Our guide wasn’t much help explaining why, and he instead told us about sandstone being used to build the temples.

We soon arrived at the Victory Gate, one of five gates into the old city, and learned about some of the carvings around the gate and their (mostly) Hindu origins, including the three headed elephant and the gods and demons holding the snake across the bridge.  All of it comes from the Hindu epic, The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which was very convoluted and we didn’t really understand, but seemed quite important.  We also learned that the Victory Gate was where departing armies would leave the city and victorious ones would return.  We apparently, were a victorious army, because we rode on through into the city towards the palace and Elephant Terrace.  Along the way we noticed that anything left of the one million people who lived here has long been covered by the jungle because all we saw were trees and vines for days.

The victory gate.  The smiling faces on the tower represent the compassion of the king.
The victory gate. The smiling faces on the tower represent the compassion of the king.

We parked under a shady tree and were given a quick run down of the Elephant Terrace.  So called, I’m sure you can guess, because of the large number of elephant carvings around it.  The terrace was where the king would hold court, receive dignitaries, and send off armies.  It seemed like it wasn’t very important because we didn’t actually go up, instead riding on to the main temple of Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom.

The elephant terrace.  This is as close we really got so it must not be that important.
The elephant terrace. This is as close we really got so it must not be that important.

Bayon, is famous for its 196, 3m high smiling faces that are on all of the towers of the temple.  We also learned that the temple was built very quickly and so was not well constructed, meaning it has collapsed more than some of the other restored temples.  We walked around with our guide and learned about the switching of religions from Hinduism to Buddhism, and then back to Hinduism as different kings reigned over Khmer.  During the switch back to Hinduism, all of the images of Buddha were destroyed and a lot were very crudely converted into images of Hindu priests praying which were comically bad.  Our guide was also very excited to show us the spots around the temple for the best pictures, including where you can look like you are kissing the smiling faces.  We were a lot more interested in staying in the shade because it was now the heat of the day and very humid outside, but we did indulge him occasionally.

The Bayon temple with its 49 towers and 196 smiling faces.
The Bayon temple with its 49 towers and 196 smiling faces.
Our guide explaining the carvings on the gallery of the temple.
Our guide explaining the carvings on the gallery of the temple.
Smiling faces!
Smiling faces!
Me kissing a smiling face.
Me kissing a smiling face.

After Bayon it was time for lunch and we got to see how truly bitchy the Australian with the knee injury actually was.  Our guide had given us the choice of ordering our own lunch or having him order for us. Lynn and I, who have been rather unimpressed with Khmer food so far, chose to have him order for us and everyone else didn’t seem to care so that’s what he did too.  When the food came, Nicole (the knee girl) was very unhappy and was rather outspoken about how she doesn’t know why we didn’t just all order for ourselves.  Our guide told her she could order anything else she wanted and handed her menu but she just said “No, it’s fine” and gloomily ate what had been ordered. When the food arrived it was mostly okay, though Lynn really liked the sour fish soup.  We have decided Khmer (Cambodian) food it just bland Thai food without any of the flavor or spicyness.

Monkeys! On our bike to lunch we found them playing among the ruins.
Monkeys! On our bike to lunch we found them playing among the ruins.

After lunch it was time for our return to Angkor Wat and we set off walking across the street to it.  We stopped at the first moat for some pictures and our guide talked for 20 minutes about Buddhism and the Khmer New Year, which was actually kind of interesting.  Our guide was finally starting to prove his worth.  As we walked across the first bridge we also learned about him growing up in refugee camps around Cambodia in the 80’s and 90’s which was also quite interesting.  It seems that every family was given $50 for every adult and $25 for every child by the UN and that’s why they now use dollars as their main currency.

A mortar blast in the stone bridge leading to Angkor Wat.  A sad reminder of the Cambodian Civil War fought in the 80's and 90's.
A mortar blast in the stone bridge leading to Angkor Wat. A sad reminder of the Cambodian Civil War fought in the 80’s and 90’s.
A bullet embedded in one of the sandstone carvings at Angkor Wat.
A bullet embedded in one of the sandstone carvings at Angkor Wat.

As we entered Angkor we learned about Buddhist monks, and how they had looked after the Wat (which means monastery) when Angkor was abandoned in the 1600’s, so it was in the best state of repair of all of the temples.  We walked through the it, admiring much of what we had seen this morning, but now in much better afternoon light and climbed up the main center temple to admire the view.  Only 100 people are allowed up at a time, and in the high season you can wait up to an hour to be allowed up.  Luckily for us it was still the low (read that as rainy and hot) season, so we managed to walk right up the very, very, very steep steps to the top.  The views were quite neat, but again, hard to capture on camera, so you’ll just have to come visit yourselves.

There it is, Angkor Wat in the afternoon sun.
There it is, Angkor Wat in the afternoon sun.
Us in front of the central temple.
Us in front of the central temple.
Celestial dancer carvings.  Also from the story about oceans and milk.
Celestial dancer carvings. Also from the story about oceans and milk.
View from the top of the central temple.
View from the top of the central temple.
Here you can see the difference between the cleaned and uncleaned parts of Angkor Wat.  Our guide later in the day said it was moss but it looks like pollution to us, probably from all the trash fires.
Here you can see the difference between the cleaned and uncleaned parts of Angkor Wat. Our guide later in the day said it was moss but it looks like pollution to us, probably from all the trash fires.

We came back down and met the rest of our group, some of whom had not been allowed up because they were wearing sleeveless shirts and headed back to the bikes for a quick 20 minute ride back to the tour shop.  Upon arrival we were given a cold towel and a freshly cut open coconut which were both quite refreshing after the heat and dust of the streets.  Overall, we would rate the tour good, but it certainly had not lived up to my high expectations.  I was also a little frustrated with how slow we biked through the jungle and would occasionally find a parallel trail so I could go faster but I don’t think the tour company can really be blamed for that.

Lynn re hydrating with some fresh coconut water.
Lynn re hydrating with some fresh coconut water.

We said goodbye to our group (including the quiet Swedish girl I have not mentioned yet) and headed back out for a walk across town to our hotel.  We stopped at the market along the way, interested in some cheap hammocks for our upcoming beach stays in Kep and Bali, but didn’t find any that we liked.  On our way back, we also walked down Pub Street and stopped in a place that advertised Belgian beer for something that wasn’t a bad local lager and some potatoes bravas.  It seems we are both becoming tired of bland Southeast Asian food and ready for a change of pace.  While there, we looked up other Khmer food and found something called lok lak that looked decent and we decided to try and find it for dinner.

We found a couple of placed that served lok lak after leaving the bar and settled on one called Cambodian Food that was cheap and near our hotel.  I didn’t want to trust TripAdvisor anymore after our Austrian experience the night before.  We each ordered a watermelon shake and a lok lak plate and split some fried morning glory stems.  The power kept going out when the shake machine was turned on but we eventually got our food, and can now both say that lok lak is our favorite Khmer food.  It’s kind of like the beef and sauce from beef and brocolli, but served over a salad and with a lime and black pepper dipping sauce.

Beef lok lak with lime and black pepper dipping sauce.
Beef lok lak with lime and black pepper dipping sauce.
Fried morning glory stems.
Fried morning glory stems.

As we went to pay our $8 check we handed the lady a twenty and then ran into issues when she couldn’t make change.  We had to wait for her to go to the neighbors to break some other bills, and for another table to pay before we were able to get our change.  Similar to Mongolia, I don’t understand how a business cannot make change for the money that comes out of ATMs, especially in a tourist part of town.  We also learned that they are very particular about the bills they will accept and don’t take worn or torn bills.  Awfully picky for someone who doesn’t even use their own currency if you ask me.

Finally paid up, we headed back to our hotel for an early night, we had been up since 4.30 after all.

Daily Walking Mileage : 7.7 miles

Daily Biking Mileage : 17.3 miles

Fun Facts:

  • 95% of Cambodia is Buddhist, as we learned over and over and over again from our tour guide.
  • The doorways in the temples are too short and the stairs are really steep to force people to bow as they enter.  The king’s stairs and doors are normal, he apparently doesn’t need to bow.
  • Cambodian farmers make $75 a month on average, which isn’t really enough to live on.  This means a lot of people illegally immigrate to Thailand where they make 300 baht a day in construction.
  • Most Buddhist monks come from very poor backgrounds and they are sent to monasteries as children because their parents want to take advantage of the free food and education novices receive.  Monks can choose to quit at anytime.  One of our tour guide’s friends quit after 8 years because he just wanted to eat dinner.

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