With the grime of Phnom Pehn still sticking stubbornly to our shoes, we continued our journey north, this time in a relatively comfortable bus. Our destination was Siem Reap, the so-called gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat. There is much more to be said about the history and culture surrounding both the town and temple complexes than I have the time or space to get into. What you should know, however, is that the temples number over one thousand, Angkor Wat itself is just one such – though as the largest single religious monument in the world, it has given its name to the entire complex. The Angkor complex was the largest pre-industrial city, sprawling to roughly four hundred square miles.
The temples welcome about two million tourists a year, and it shows (you wouldn’t believe the pains I went through to avoid having my photos filled with these swarms). We beat the rush by heading out just after sunrise, choosing Ta Prohm as our first taste. We hired a park licensed tuk-tuk for the whole day (including an afternoon return to town for lunch) for a humble 15 dollars, arranged by the wonderful Two Dragons Guesthouse where we spent the duration of our time in Siem Reap.
Our driver, who went by the mildly hilarious name of Mr. Tud, was a veteran of Angkor, demonstrated by the number 86 on his requisite vest. We saw others with numbers over 9000, a testament to the growing tourism scene.
Ta Prohm played backdrop to the unfortunate film Tomb Raider, and has since become one of the most recognizable of the temples. Unlike many of the other major temples, Ta Prohm has been left much as it was found, allowing the jungle to continue to grow in and around the ruins.
It is difficult for me to describe my first views of Angkor. If I could it would be all crisp morning air, sunlight on the canals, white Brahman cows, and the ever present feeling of history. Yet somehow, the history of Angkor is not the obsessive weight of ancient dust, or echoes of dying races, but rather the thrill of discovery, the heady realization of an unbroken connection to our ancient kin.
Ta Prohm was my first of the temples so even were it mundane it would still be memorable. As I hope these photographs can impart, there is nothing mundane about it. The trees, oh the trees, are like beings from another time. They wrap around the crumbling stones like lovers, stepping over walls, sliding in through cracks, refusing to be kept away from the beloved.
There are moments and spaces of such profound quiet that one can almost hear the strains of ancient hymns on the air.
The architecture is another wonder. Perhaps this photo taken upwards towards the tip of a stupa’s roof sheds some light.
We next visited Ta Keo, an unfinished monolith, which brings to mind Mayan pyramids. The only temple to have been preserved without any cravings or reliefs, it has a certain gravitas to it like none of the others.
Mr. Tud obliged us on an off-road adventure through the forest to Ta Nei, one of the rare, remote temple ruins that receives few visitors. As such, Ta Nei lacks any of the ropes and restriction of the other temples, leaving us free to cavort and clamber (carefully and respectfully) about the stones.
Our last stop on the first day was the double temple complex of Thom Manon and Chau Say Tevoda. These gave us our first taste of the true intricacy of Angkor period carvings. I feel in love anew with each apsara.
To be continued…