I don’t think I was able to get much sleep last night. It was one of those nights that you’re so certain you didn’t sleep a wink, yet cannot account for all hours you spent supposedly awake. Nevertheless, I was able to get enough rest to stay awake the whole day. I guess I was just too excited about exploring the Angkor temples that I couldn’t stay asleep. My alarm went off around 6am, and after a couple of snoozes, I finally got up to get ready.
I’m not much of a breakfast person, so I made sure that I have something for breakfast handy in my room. Of course, that’s the main reason for my stop at the convenience store last night. I finish my two slices of banana loaf while watching Overhauled on the Discovery Channel, and headed down to meet my driver and guide to the temples.
Kim Soryar came highly recommended online. He was mentioned in the notes my sister-in-law’s officemate’s Cambodia trip research document. I googled his name, and found several forums that has members raving about his services. So I took a chance and e-mailed him, inquiring about his rates and itinerary. It turns out he’s available for the dates I needed a guide, and that his rates (and the tuktuk and driver’s) is within my budget, so I went ahead and booked for today.
Though the sun was shining when I woke up, it was still pretty overcast. I was hopeful that the clouds would go so I’d have gorgeous blue sky in my photos, yet I’m glad for the clouds because it’s not as hot. Still, I dressed for the weather: my Columbia Titanium Omni-dry shirt and convertible pants, paired with my very comfortable Nike Free 7.0. Soon enough, the sky started clearing up and the temperature started rising. It’s definitely hot directly under the sun, but when you’re in the shade or inside the temples, it’s a notch cooler.
I was so glad I hired a guide, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have understood what the temple’s history is or why it’s laid out the way it is. True, you can read these info in the guidebook, but it’s different coming from a local and getting answers to any questions you may have. Another great thing about getting a guide is that you don’t have to worry about holding anybody up, which means you can take your time taking photos and nobody would be bitching about it. Speaking of photography, Soryar really knows the temples — he knows where to position yourself to get the best photos. Then again, even if you get the best angles, if your exposure is off, you’re still at the mercy of Photoshop.
When I went to the temple yesterday, I just went on a straight path. I followed the bridge over the moat, passed through the gates, walked up to the libraries, and walked back the same way to where the tuktuk was. We did walked up the bridge, but when we reached the gates, we turned right to where the statue of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Yup, you read that right, Hindu god. It turns out that the temple of Angkor was originally a Hindu temple. It was built in the 11th century by King Suryavaraman II. The temple is covered with elements of Hinduism. The carvings on the side of the temple walls dipicts stories from the Hindu mythology. The temple is Buddhist now, hence the name Angkor Wat.
The temples of Angkor has a common formula. First, you have the moat as a protection, then a gate. Beyond the gate, you have the concourse that runs for a couple of hundred meters. About a third of the way in, you have libraries on both sides of the concourse, and further in, a pond on each side for cleansing. Then you reach the first gallery of the actual temple. The Angkor Wat is build with three galleries: the first is for the pilgrims, the second for the high court officials and the third for the king. It also follows the temple mountain style, which means that as you go further in, the higher the structure becomes. Another interesting thing about Ankor Wat is that though you commonly see pictures of it showing only three towers, there are actually five. There’s one in the middle, and two on each side. The two on the side are perfectly aligned to each other, that’s why you hardly see the one behind, unless you’re standing off the side.
Another great thing about getting a guide is that he’d take you to routes within the temples you probably wouldn’t think to take. Also, there are elements of the temples that you probably wouldn’t know about, like the echo room (which was really really cool, and no I’m not going to tell you about it). Instead of exiting through the West gate — this is another interesting thing about the Angkor Wat: while all the other temples in Cambodia face East, it faces West — we exited through the lesser used East Gate. It was a pleasant walk down a path lined with trees on both sides.
On the way to where we were having lunch, we stopped by a small temple with hardly any tourist in it. Like the Angkor Wat, it was also a Hindu temple. Though unlike Angkor, it is made with bricks, rather than sandstone. While Angkor Wat was impressive, this smaller temple (whose name I totally forgot) was more endearing to me. It wasn’t really impressive, it was really tiny, but there was hardly anybody there, so you pretty much have the temple all to yourself.
We drove off to have lunch inside one of the restaurants inside the Angkor complex. After lunch, we were back on the road going towards Ta Prohm — the Tomb Raider temple. It was under major restoration, so some areas are blocked off for your own safety as the men worked. The temple was pretty much in ruin, due to the massive roots of the trees growing in and around the temple, as well as the elements. Nevertheless, it’s still a lovely place to explore. There hardly any arrows to guide you though, so it’s pretty easy to get lost. There’s also about a hundred meter or so walk from the main road to the temple, through a path among the trees. As we were walking back, the rain started pouring. The rain eases off as we drive towards Angkor Thom, the largest city during its time. This city is where the King used to live, so aside from the Bayon temple, this is also where his palace is.
The rain started pouring again, and it poured hard. There was no place to take shelter and our driver has driven off to where he was supposed to met us after the tour. Soryar walks to the vendors underneath the huge tree to borrow and umbrella, while I vainly tried to take shelter underneath a stone elephant. When the rain eased off a little, we made our way underneath the shelter of the tree, and it poured and poured even harder. Soryar continued his spiel, though there was no way we’re exploring the palace inside (there’s no way I’m heading in there with all the water and mud). As the rain eased up again, we walked towards Bayon, the biggest temple in the Angkor Thom city. What’s unique about this temple is that there’s about a hundre]ed faces of the Buddha all around the temple. There’s about 54 towers and on all towers, there are four faces of the Buddha facing the four directions (North, East, South and West), and representing the four elements (fire, water, air, earth) and the four virtues of Buddhism (charity, compassion, empathy and equanimity). Like the Angkor temple, it has intricate carvings on its walls, and it’s also built as a temple mountain. However, unlike Angkor, the carvings depict the daily life of the Khmer people.
I was thoroughly exhausted, and the rain didn’t help any (though surprisingly, it did not totally dampen my mood). Luckily, Bayon was our last stop of the day. We drove out of the South Gate. The bridge beyond the south gate of the Angkor Thom is lined with 54 frowning demons on the left and 54 smiling gods on the right. Most of the statues have been looted or deteriorated in time, while some have seen restoration work from the French. However, most remain intact. As we drive out of the temple, I sat back on my seat, tired yet satisfied. This trip was well worth it, and hiring Soryar as a guide was US$25 well spent.
Thinking of visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site? Here are some tips for you: wear comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. There is much walking to be done to and from the temples, as well as inside the temples themselves. The floors of the temples are mostly uneven and there are plenty of stairs. The thing about the temple stairs is that they’re tiny, uneven and quite steep. Bring an umbrella with you, if you don’t like being under direct sunlight, and as a precautionary measure against rain. There are vendors inside the temple complex (but not inside the temples) selling food and drinks. You can bring in your own, but just don’t eat them inside the temple. As I said in my previous post, you really need to hire a vehicle to get around the complex. A guide is optional, but it would greatly help you in getting a better understanding of the temple. Otherwise, it’s just a very pretty pile of rocks.
After today’s tour, I am now one of the people putting forth a glowing recommendation for Soryar’s services. Soryar is very professional, and it’s obvious that he has really trained for this. He has five years of experience, and he really know how to take care of his clients. The tuktuk driver he assigned to me was actually his brother Soryean (not Prem as I wrote before). He was equally nice, and made sure the cooler was always full of bottled water — a great way to refresh after each foray into the temples. To book Soryar or Soryean’s services, you can view his website at www.kimsoryar.com. You can also e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.