Around Siem Reap in a Tuk-Tuk

Getting around Siem Reap is easy. The Big 3 temples in the archaeological park are within easy reach from each other, and if you are physically fit, you can rent a bicycle for about USD$3 – USD$5 per day. However, since you’ve made it all the way there, why tire yourself out when your energies could be better conserved for exploring and getting lost in the temples?

I would rather ride in a tuk-tuk (US$15 – US$18 per day). Siem Reap does not have a public transport system in the form of buses and taxis. Visitors and locals get around by just getting into a tuk-tuk which can be found outside the hotel and around every corner! I found tuk-tuk  drivers to be generally patient, honest and accommodating. In the absence of a tour guide, they can even take you to the lesser-known temples and attractions in Siem Reap. They will keep a watchful eye on your belongings while you spend your day exploring, and uncomplainingly pull up at the roadside for you to capture that photo moment. If you offer to pay for their meals, you would have made a friend for life!

 

It’s also well worth considering hiring the services of a tour guide when visiting the temples (US$35 per day). Tour guides generally speak at least one other foreign language and need to pass an examination on Angkor’s history before being issued with a licence. They are recognisable by their uniform comprising brown trousers, beige shirts and name badge. Having a tour guide around gives you a local’s viewpoint without having to fork out a lot of money. They are able to work around your preferences and schedule and you can ask as many questions as you want, without having to waste time referring to guide books and maps. The travel experience is also enhanced because tour guides can recommend interesting spots less visited by independent travellers and tour groups.

IMG_0449a
Sorn the Tour Guide/Driver

I felt lucky to have Sorn as our tour guide for the stay in Siem Reap. He was conversant in both English and Japanese. Not only did he take care of the logistics like transfer, transportation, entrance fees and meals, he went a step further by inviting us to his house to meet his family and experience a typical Cambodian home-cooked meal by his wife. Sorn was the translator during our interactions with the locals in the area. When the school we were supposed to visit turned out to be closed for that day, Sorn took immediate steps to find another primary school to visit. He successfully convinced one resident of Kampong Khleang to allow us inside her home (on stilts) for a look around. I passed up on this offer because I was afraid that the thin wooden staircase might not hold my weight! He is contactable by email at yannsorn@yahoo.com.

Angkor Wat

Bayon

Phnom Bakheng

Ta Prohm

Banteay Srei

Kulen National Park

It’s a pity that not that many visitors go to Phnom Kulen as it is a very interesting place. Phnom Kulen (Kulen Mountain) is situated about 50 km from Angkor and you need to be prepared for a long ride. The big challenge up the mountain is that half the journey is on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach the top and you need to make your way up before 11 o’clock in the morning. Once there, visitors can only leave the mountain after midday to avoid on-coming traffic. To get to Phnom Kulen, it’s best to hire a car with a driver. Avoid going on motorbike or tuk-tuk as the road is rather precarious.

The park has a temple, Preah Ang Thom, that houses a massive reclining Buddha. The statue is 8 meters long and was carved from a single sandstone rock in the 16th century. To see the statue, you need to climb a very steep flight of stone steps leading up to the summit.

Downstream is the River of 1000 Lingas, a series of Hindu-inspired motifs and designs carved into the sandstone bedrock. However the water level was high on that day and I only got a blurry view of the lingas!

The last attractive spot in Kulen is a beautiful 25m tall 2-tier waterfall. The water is considered holy and Cambodians like to bottle it to take home with them. The lower-tier waterfall is accessible by climbing down a flight of narrow, rickety stairs. In retrospect, I took a big risk going down and up the wooden stairway with my camera still attached to the tripod.

Lunch was under an attap roof shelter in the picnic area (USD$20.00) comprising a simple meal of chicken rice and fresh coconut juice.

Street Food

I am not much of a foodie so I didn’t take many food photographs. The tuk-tuk drivers seemed to enjoy eating balut, a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. You can actually see the wings, feathers and eyes of the underdeveloped chick when you crack open the shell. I was invited to try this “delicious” street dish, but could not bring myself to do so!

The People

A place can be very scenic and culturally significant with plenty of attractions but in the end, it all comes down to the people. In Cambodia, they were friendly, soft-spoken and always hospitable.

IMG_1433a
A last look at Angkor Wat before heading for the airport in a tuk tuk, of course!

Ta Prohm – Beauty In Neglect (#46)

IMG_0993a

While it may seem as if Ta Prohm has become a victim of unfettered nature, this appearance of neglect is, in fact, deliberately maintained. Can you imagine that during its heyday, the walls were elaborately decorated with precious stones, while music and dancing filled the halls?

This is one of my favourite photos of the Tree Temple. I guess it’s because of the lone figure quietly sweeping away. Her presence strikes a quiet balance of the opposites – young and old, past and present, decay and renewal, inevitability and continuation, life and death.

Banteay Srei – Hidden Gem

The charm of Banteay Srei lies in its well-preserved state, small size in relation to other Angkor temples and decorative wall carvings that showcase some of the finest examples of classical Khmer art. Indeed the highly intricate carvings that grace this temple gives the first-time visitor a feeling of discovering a mysterious sanctuary in the middle of a magical forest!

IMG_0759a

Banteay Srei loosely translates to ‘Citadel of the Women”. The belief was that only a woman’s handiwork could have been responsible for creating something so beautiful and delicate. Dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, the carvings on this pink-red sandstone temple cover virtually every available stone surface, with a predominance of apsaras — celestial maidens who excel in the art of dancing and seduction.

Banteay Srei has quite an impressive moat with lotus plants growing in the water. But more remarkable is that Banteay Srei was completed  in 967AD – some 150 years before Angkor Wat!

Banteay Srei lies 38 km from Siem Reap, requiring extra time for travel. The journey by tuk-tuk takes about forty-five minutes each way, costing around US$20-US$25, including any stops you might make along the way. Renting a car with an English-speaking driver will come up to US$40, but the upside here is that you get to travel in air-conditioned comfort.

To access Banteay Srei you will need an Angkor pass. I would go for the 3-day pass for US$40. It costs the same as two single-day passes (US$20 for one day) and gives you unlimited access for 3 consecutive days to Angkor Wat, Bayon & Ta Prohm, as well as to some of the lesser-known temples.

The best times to visit Banteay Srei are early morning or late afternoon when there are no tour groups. I walked along the circular route, which took me past a small wetland nature reserve before arriving at the temple. It was rather pleasant to stroll down the gentle, shady path of this bird haven, complete with wooden walkways built across the lake for a better viewing experience of the surrounding landscape.

The sanctuary is entered from the east by a doorway only 1.08 metres high. What this means is that you need to stoop when making your way in and out to avoid knocking your head. Inside the temple, six stairways lead up to the platform, each guarded by two kneeling statues of human figures with animal heads.

It is out of the way, but Banteay Srei is one special temple that you should not miss.

Ta Prohm – Walking On Nature’s Green Carpet (#45)

Huge trees tower above Ta Prohm, their leaves filtering the sunlight, providing welcome shade and casting a greenish luminance over the carpet of lichens, moss and creeping plants.

IMG_1089

IMG_1092

IMG_1090

IMG_1093

 

 

 

 

 

Ta Prohm – Whispers from Walls (#44)

IMG_0999a

Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over Ta Prohm, probing stone walls and terraces apart. Nevertheless, the haunted charm of this Jungle Temple never ceases to fascinate.

Angkor Thom (#43)

The last and most enduring city in Angkor, built in the 12th century. It is configured in a near-perfect square and protected by a 100-meter-wide moat which has since dried up. The moat is said to have contained crocodiles!

IMG_0448B

Its easy to go round in circles and lose your sense of direction in Angkor Thom. I took this photo while while waiting for the other three to show up, thinking that this was our meeting point. After 20 minutes, we decided to walk along the perimeter of the huge complex to look for them. We found them waiting for us on another side of the complex! Luckily I was with the Tour Guide – which just goes to show that even tour guides lose their sense of direction sometimes!

Of Roots and Ruins – Ta Prohm

One of Angkor’s most popular temples must be Ta Prohm, sometimes called the Jungle Temple or Tree Temple. Its unique combination of stones and trees growing out of the ruins with roots coiling and blending into the walls of this Buddhist monastery has made it one of the most visited temples in Cambodia.

IMG_0967a

Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, Mother Nature shows that she is still all-powerful as Destroyer and Healer. Over hundreds of years, she has silently but surely strangled and split the carved stones apart, dressed their wounds with branches, leaves and mosses, and then bound them with her tendrils.

When Ta Prohm was discovered in the late 19th century, it was already extensively ruined. The giant trees had become so intertwined with the temple’s walls, that wood and stone had forged together. Restoration of the temple was not possible without destroying the trees that were enveloping the injured monument in their firm grip. So visitors to these unique temple ruins are actually seeing Ta Prohm in the same condition of neglect when it was first discovered, except for the wooden walkways, platforms and roped railings that have been put in place to protect the temple from further deterioration and damage due to the large tourist inflow.

IMG_1021a

Despite its condition, you can still explore numerous towers, closed courtyards and tight corridors behind the encroaching foliage. Some of the corridors are impassable due to the jumbled piles of stone blocks that clog their interiors. Others are accessible only by narrow, dark passages. You can get lost inside the ruins so it’s best to have a local guide or keep to the directional signs.

IMG_1056b

The scenes of Ta Prohm remained quite faithful to the temple’s mysterious appearance during the filming of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. I was watching a re-run of this movie a few days ago and had a good time identifying and matching some familiar scenes from the film with the photographs I had!

Ta Prohm was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1992.


Tonle Sap – Water, Sky and Sunset (#42)

The boat ride leading out to the massive open waters of Tonle Sap lake was very relaxing. We had the boat to ourselves and the open top deck gave me an uninterrupted view of my surroundings. Tonle Sap was huge, with its quiet calm waters expanding into the horizon. I felt I was in another world where time stood still.

Slowly, the sky turned orange, creating a spectacular painting of golden hues across its borderless canvass. Does the boat driver realise how lucky he is to witness this transformation every evening?

Angkor’s temples are magnificent, but if you ask me about my happiest memory from this trip, it would have to be the leisurely boat ride on Tonle Sap, touching the wind, breathing in the natural scent of my surroundings and watching the sky change colour.

What a beautiful way to wrap up the day!

IMG_0645a

 

IMG_0650a

 

IMG_0653a

 

IMG_0656a

 

IMG_0658a

 

IMG_0665a

 

IMG_0668a

 

 

Tonle Sap: Lady of the Lake (#41)

IMG_0623a

A Cambodian woman paddling a boat with two children in tow. One of my favourite images caught on camera during my boat ride across Tonle Sap Lake.

The life of a Khmer woman is in constant motion. Her role is manifold. She is a wife, mother, home-maker, breadwinner, co-worker, labourer, trader and businesswoman. She is expected to work for a living, yet attend to all household tasks. Her day begins at about 5:00am or 5:30am where she does the laundry, cleans the house and finishes other chores before going to work. In the late morning, she does the shopping on her way home, cooks the mid-day meal, returns to work in the afternoon, cooks the evening meal and performs other housework before retiring for the day.

In many families, women are the only wage earners. The female children usually end up taking on the household chores at the expense of education. Amazingly, the success of Khmer women in business has meant that in many families, the woman brings home more income than her husband. Many men (even those with government jobs) live on their wife’s income derived from some form of market selling.

   –

Kampong Khleang: Life Afloat on Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap Lake offers the chance to see a different side of Siem Reap aside from Angkor’s temples. It is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia with a unique cultural landscape and eco-system covering 7,400 square miles when it floods. The Lake is the richest fishing lake in the world, resulting in the emergence of floating villages whose residents make a living from the rich waters of Tonle Sap. A floating village is just like any other village on land, complete with houses, schools, markets and businesses – except that it rises and falls with Tonle Sap!

IMG_0621a

 

IMG_0608a

 

IMG_0642aOur tour guide took us to Kampong Khleang, the largest, but least visited floating village on Tonle Sap Lake.

Not many tourists come here because it is 55km east of Siem Reap requiring 1.5 hours of travel on an uneven dirt road for some parts. Due to its distance, Kampong Khleang remains untouched by commercialisation. The six of us were the only visitors that day!

Kampong Khleang is a sprawling community of about 1,800 families or 6,000 total residents living in houses built on very tall stilts, while others live on floating platforms (pontoons) that “go with the flow” of Tonle Sap.

Our visit became somewhat of a novelty, especially when we were armed with goodies for the children. We attracted a small following and were made to feel welcomed with lots of friendly smiles, waves and enthusiastic hellos. At no time did anyone ask for money or try to sell something to us. Most of the residents carried on with what they were doing and didn’t seem to mind when we stopped to photograph them. Our tour guide played the role of interpreter and this helped a lot in our interactions with the residents in getting a first-hand account of life on water.

kleang2

kleang3

We stopped by at one of Kampong Khleang’s schools to distribute some supplies. Our visit was unexpected and the children were in the middle of their lessons when we walked into their classrooms. They were thrilled to receive stationery sets, bubble straws, sweets and titbits. These are children from the floating village who walk, cycle or paddle boats to school everyday, depending on the water levels.

kleangschool

Life for the residents is hard. Everyday is a fight for survival. They are desperately poor and their primary concern is to fulfil their basic needs for food and shelter. Their existence and livelihood are determined by Tonle Sap, whose water levels can rise between 20 feet to 40 feet high.

kleang4

 

IMG_0616aIn order to survive, they build houses on giant stilts along the banks of the lake  – sometimes as high as 30 feet. The residents get in and out by long wooden ladders.

Children as young as 4 years old are very nimble at going up and down the steep wooden stairs without any hand rails. No one seems to be worried that they might just accidentally slip between the steps and fall into the water! This fear only exists for urbanites like us!

Other people live on boats, or floating pontoons. So when the flood waters rise, their houses rise right with it. Whole families live in one room and cooking stoves, general stores, schools and even medical clinics can be seen floating along.

Interestingly, there is a class divide between the inhabitants of stilt houses and the floating village people. Those living in stilt houses are considered to be of “higher class” even though they are just simple one-room huts. However, when the water levels of Tonle Sap rise during the rainy season, the floating villagers have the advantage of being able to “rise” to the occasion, whereas water can come right up to the floorboards of the stilted houses and even partially submerge them!

After two hours walking in Kampong Khleang, we boarded a private open-top motorised boat for a ride to the open waters of Tonle Sap lake to catch the sunset. A good thing about Kampong Khleang is that the boat service is still owned and operated by the locals, which means that every dollar spent on the boat trip goes back to the community.

IMG_0617a

It is only when the boat navigates away from the stilt houses and makes its way through the waterway that you see several dozens of wooden houses floating on the river. There are small gardens, house pets and pigs out on balconies, as well as bicycles and motorbikes parked inside the floating houses.

People dry their laundry on their floating homes, burn cooking fires and bathe in the lake. They cultivate fish farms contained in water, haul in catches with huge nets, sun-dry them and go to the next town to sell their catch. The water also serves as a huge playground for children who paddle canoes or amuse themselves in buckets around the river banks.

Angkor Thom’s Bayon: Faces On High Places

IMG_0447aAfter visiting Angkor Wat, many people head for Angkor Thom, which is situated just 1.7 kilometres away. Angkor Thom is well-known for its four-sided faces and towering southern gate. Established in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII, this royal city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire.

On the way to the temple grounds, you cannot fail to be impressed by the 100-metre-long stone causeway, flanked by 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other. The demons are distinguished by their round eyes and grimacing expressions, while the gods have almond-shaped eyes and look serene.

entrace

moat
The road to Angkor Thom is flat and wide. Gigantic trees line both sides and provided welcome shade from the hot Cambodian sun. Tuk-tuks are a common sight and you can spot the occasional elephant plying the temple grounds.

 

A laterite wall, 8 meters high, reinforced by a wide earth embankment, runs around the full perimeter of Angkor Thom’s moat. Angkor Thom has five entry gates – North, South, East, West, plus an additional gate at the eastern entrance.

IMG_0458a

While Angkor Wat is Hindu-inspired, the sculpted images in Angkor Thom lean towards Buddhism. Symbolically, Angkor Thom represents the universe. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Mount Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolises the cosmic ocean.

angkorthomexternal

Bayon

At the exact centre of Angkor Thom’s axes stands the pyramid temple, Bayon. Most people will recognise Bayon for its four-sided smiling faces and extraordinary bas-reliefs. From afar, Bayon looks like a haphazard pile of stones. On closer look, however, there are some interesting bas reliefs on its outer and inner walls. Most of them are in pretty bad shape, but intact enough to give some insights into the Khmer way of life back then. The storyline carved on the bas reliefs are varied, depicting historical events, mythical stories and offering rare glimpses into domestic and rural life during that period.

IMG_0397a

Bayon symbolises the link between heaven and earth. It has some 50 towers with four faces carved in stone for most of them. Each face is four metres high with closed eyes bearing the same enigmatic smile. This gives the faces a mysterious yet serene countenance, perhaps portraying an all-knowing state of inner peace. I prefer to describe it as the “I know something that you don’t” look!

faces

bas reliefs
In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, apsaras are beautiful dancing girls who have ability to change their shape at will. They use their charms to seduce men – appearing with their torsos bare and wearing gold round their wrists and ankles.

When looking at Bayon, two questions came to mind. How did the Khmer people manage to pile one huge stone on top of another? How did they manage to fashion faces from stones without using cement or mortar?

A Japanese team working on Bayon’s restoration estimated that more than 200,000 blocks of stone, some weighing 300 kilograms were used for its construction. While it would have been possible for four men to carry each huge stone with a sling, it still does not explain how the blocks could have been lifted to the heights of the central tower!

Time to revisit the Alien Theory, perhaps?

The east gate was used as a backdrop in Tomb Raider, where the baddies broke into the ‘tomb’ by pulling down a giant apsara. While the scene may have looked convincing on-screen, Hollywood actors are clearly no match to the ancient Khmers when it comes to strength because the apsara was made from polystyrene!

One Very Early Morning at Phnom Bakheng

If you are wondering where tourists in Cambodia go during sunset, you’ll probably find half of them at Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill). The hike uphill is challenging but manageable. Once you reach the base of the temple, you still need to climb up some steps before reaching all the way to the top. At the summit, you have to fight with 300+ other people for a small space to sit while waiting for the sun to set. After sunset, you need to quickly make your way down the path while there’s still some daylight left to see where you are going. 

That’s if you want to catch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.

In order to beat the crowd, we decided to catch the sunrise instead! Not taking any chances, we left the hotel 1.5 hours before dawn. Our tuk-tuks took us down the road along the glistening Angkor moat and pulled up beside a forested area. At 5:00 in the morning, there was no one else around except a security guard. Looks like the six of us are the first ones to arrive! Yippee! A few feet behind the guard, I could see the faint outline of the entrance leading up to Bakheng Hill.

We are told to wait while our tour guide speaks to the security guard.  They are talking in Cambodian and in hushed tones. What’s going on? Our Tour Guide walks towards us. Bad news! The guard will not allow us to go up. It’s way too dark and unsafe to be walking up the deserted pathway. We will have to wait until 6:00am for daylight before being allowed entry. 

Some more discussions. Another 3 minutes go by. We are asked to show our Angkor Passes. The guard gestures us to go past. Bribery is too strong a word. We should just say “coffee money” instead.

It took us about 18 minutes to hike from the base of the hill to the base of Bakheng Temple. The entire path was in darkness. We had to use flashlights to make our way through a winding trail along the hill. Except for the sound of our footsteps and noises from the jungle, the pilgrimage up was eerily silent.

The trail opened up to a plateau. To my left were huge stone walls and beyond them, the quiet silhouette of a huge structure under the night sky. We made out way around the walls and in front of us, standing on raised ground, was Bakheng Temple!  Then, it was undertaking the steep climb up the narrow flight of wooden steps that leads straight to the temple’s summit.

IMG_0685a

If you would like to experience how the kings of ancient times went from one place to another, you might want to go up Bakheng Hill on the back of an elephant. Elephants were key to the construction of the Angkor temples as they provided the main mode of transport in view of their strength and obedience. The rides are only available from about 5:00pm till sunset. It’s about $20 for a ride up and $15 for a ride down. Each elephant can carry two persons. The uphill climb takes about 20 to 30 minutes whether walking or sitting on an elephant.

Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill), was the first major temple constructed in the late 9th and early 10th century. This is the most solitary place in all of Angkor. Today, only ruins remain but what is left behind is enough to give an idea of the glorious days it enjoyed many centuries ago.

IMG_0686a

 

At the summit it is very still. The air is crisp, smelling of an early morning. We are isolated from the world. We position our tripods and wait.

A few minutes go by.

The darkness begins to lose its intensity. The dawn breaks so unobtrusively that you are not aware of it…until you look up and realise that the world is no longer dark.

A new Angkor day has begun!

IMG_0694a

Angkor: Sunset Play (#40)

There is just something very ethereal about watching light being embraced by darkness and disappearing silently into Angkor’s still waters.

IMG_0205

IMG_0212

At the spot where I was standing, some Cambodian boys were playing nearby and showing off their diving prowess. Judging from the gleeful shouts and laughter, they were enjoying themselves, climbing higher and higher up the tree’s branches and daring each other to jump down into Angkor lake. It looks like everyone can swim in Cambodia – even the very young children!

playtime

Angkor – Behind the Scenes (#39)

Did I fail to mention in my last post on Angkor that there are no toilet facilities in the temple grounds itself? Angkor’s public toilet is found a short distance away from the food stalls located across the road from Angkor Temple. You need to produce your Angkor Pass to use the facilities.

If you didn’t visit Angkor’s public toilet, you wouldn’t even know that there is a beautiful lotus lake just behind it, with lotus flowers growing everywhere! I even got to watch three Cambodian workers doing their morning chores of clearing the plants.

Sometimes, we find gems in the most unexpected places!

IMG_0719a

IMG_0363a

IMG_0364a

IMG_0717a

IMG_0724a

Angkor Wat – An Architectural Wonder

IMG_1459aWhen I first told my friends that I had decided to go on a photo trip to Cambodia with four other photo enthusiasts, I was met with incredulous looks. They could not fathom how I could bring myself to go on a trip with perfect strangers.

I, on the other hand, welcomed the idea of going with like-minded people who shared my enthusiasm for photography. At least there would not be a need to justify myself for setting the alarm clock for 4am, and postpone dinner to a much later time. And so, five strangers met for the first time at the airport’s departure lounge, embarking on a journey together to Siem Reap to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Tuk Tuk

Road to Angkor

This trip turned out to be a wonderful experience of discovery from the moment I stepped out from the plane. We were met by our Tour Guide, Sorn, who introduced himself in English and ushered us to three waiting tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are motorbike-drawn carriages that can seat up to a maximum of four people. I was thrilled to use this form of local transport. The adventure had begun! After leaving our luggage in the hotel, we climbed into the same tuk-tuks and headed for Angkor Wat. At the entrance and checkpoint to Angkor’s Archeological Park, we got down to have our photos taken – a pre-requisite to be attached with our 7-day Angkor entrance passes.

The Angkor Pass gives you entrance to all the temples and monuments in the Siem Reap area. Three types of passes are available for purchase – One day (US$20), Three days per week (US$40) and Seven days visit per one month (US$60). Remember to bring your passports with you. It would be such a shame to go all the way there and be denied entry because you left your passport in the hotel!

The straight road to Angkor leads up to a beautiful lake. The tuk-tuk makes a left turn and then a right, giving the visitor an uninterrupted view of the lake on the right-hand side. From a distance, I can already see moving figures crossing the causeway connecting the mainland with the temple. The heart starts to beat a little faster, with a heightened sense of anticipation. My eyes stay glued to the structure that becomes bigger and bigger until at last – I am in the presence of the iconic Angkor Wat!

The first glimpse of this architectural masterpiece from the road never ceases to amaze, etching itself in the memory forever.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s best preserved temple. This iconic Hindu temple comprises five soaring corncob-shaped towers and is surrounded by a wide moat. The laterite and sandstone complex of towers, moats and stone walls are believed to represent a mini universe.

IMG_0089a

IMG_1315a

Angkor Wat was built around 1150AD. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, venerated as one of the five primary forms of God . The 5-meter tall statue of Vishnu stands at the entrance of Angkor Wat. It is carved from a single piece of sandstone draped in colourful clothing with offerings from pilgrims visiting the temple. This stone statue has eight arms and the head of Buddha! De??? Apparently, when Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple, the head of Vishnu was replaced with the head of Buddha!

vishnu

angkorinside

As you walk further in, the intricacy of the layout becomes more obvious. Every nook, corner and door entrance is filled with fine detail. The bas-reliefs with plump figures and battle scenes are exceptional in craftsmanship, boasting of a history that was once vibrant, colourful and robust. The intricately-carved stone walls tell stories from Hindu mythology and a military procession led  by Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat.

angkorinside2

The heart of the temple, the Pyramid, is built on three levels. During my first visit to Angkor some years back, the Pyramid was closed to public. A look at the photo and you can probably guess why. The stone steps are very steep, narrow and sloping down. One slip and it’s an agonising slide all the way to the bottom! Since then, a wooden staircase has been erected so that visitors can climb up to the third level. There are usually long queues to go up and down. However, if you are willing to make the steep climb to the top, you will be rewarded with fantastic views in every direction.

angkor pyramid

Here’s the burning question. Why was Angkor Wat built in the first place? Was it for worship or funeral purposes? This confusion arises from the fact that entrance to the site is from the left, and the gallery of bas reliefs is viewed anti-clockwise; the direction associated with death. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that Angkor Wat was used by Suryavarman II for worship during his lifetime and then became a mausoleum upon his death.

angkor1

 To Catch the Sunrise

Dinner on our first night was at the Red Piano Restaurant. I discovered only much later that the Red Piano was Angelina Jolie’s favourite eating place when she was filming Tomb Raider. My new-found friends ordered Cambodian Curry Chicken, while I tried the Chicken Vol au Vent. After dinner, it was a quick walkaround in Pub Street to check out the night life. Then it was back to the hotel to catch some sleep before setting out at 4:30am to shoot the sunrise.

It was still pitch dark when we made our way across the causeway and turning left towards the lotus pond. What a difference in atmosphere from our previous day’s visit! The whole place had a quiet air about it – a bit eerie, I felt. People were using torch lights to find their way around. To my surprise, quite a number of people were already at the lotus pond, laying stake on the real estate which commanded the best views of the sunrise. Worse still, about 50 red plastic chairs had been carefully arranged at the edge of the pond, making this prime spot out-of-bounds to the rest of us! Fortunately, the really big crowd had not yet arrived, and I managed to find a small space at the water’s edge to set up my tripod. Any closer and it  would have fallen into the pond!

About 10 minutes later, the crowd descended upon us, calling out to one another in loud tones, pushing and squeezing to get the best vantage point to watch the sunrise. I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep, an empty stomach, the jostling and loud voices, or trying too hard to achieve lense focus and correct exposure in the ever-changing light. All of a sudden, I felt like throwing up! It was a scary few minutes with all kinds of thoughts going through my mind.

Angkor Wat - Pre Dawn
This was all I managed to get of the sunrise.

The only available spot to throw up is the lotus pond right in front of me. How embarassing to be sick in front of everybody!  Another option. I could ask the lady on the red chair if I could please have her plastic bag of fruit.  Not the fruit. Just the plastic bag. On the other hand, this might not be a good idea. I might throw up all over her before finishing my sentence. Have you even heard of anyone being sick at Angkor Wat? Not me! I don’t want to be the first one either! The gods would not like it, that’s for sure. Guess I could consider the third and last option. I always knew my camera bag was destined for a greater purpose!

I decided to do some stand-up meditation in the hope that the feeling would go away. By and by, I noticed that the incessant talking had stopped. The place had become much quieter.

What happened?

The clouds had blocked the sun’s rays during those crucial few minutes. By the time the clouds cleared up, the sun had already made it’s way up to the sky!

We packed up and decided to go for breakfast at one of the local stalls across the road from Angkor Wat.