I had done what I thought was a fair amount of research, prior to getting on a plane to Cambodia. I knew the temples contained in the Angkor Archaeological Park were architectural wonders of the ancient world. I knew I would see beautiful works of art in the carvings and sculptures still remaining. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, when faced with the reality of what was, to my eyes, a place of wonder and glory, concentrated in a few square miles carved out of the Cambodian jungle, centuries ago. I was absolutely overwhelmed. I found myself regularly moved to tears. I stood gape-mouthed in front of beauty I had never imagined. I was absolutely joyous at the marvels before me. I experienced moments of profound peace. In the course of three days of touring Angkor’s grandeur, I felt so many emotions, it is almost impossible to convey. This is my best effort at doing so, with some of my favorite pictures of the temples we visited, taken by both myself and the nice Roger.
I am not accustomed to having staff, but we thought it a good idea for touring an area of Angkor’s size and had arranged for both guides and a driver through our hotel. Our guide for the first two days was Thearith Moeun, a chatty and quite cheerful gentleman, who asked us to call him ‘John’ (left, with me at Ta Prohm), and regaled us with detailed historical background or told us the legends illustrated on many of the beautiful carvings. Our guide for the last day was a soft-spoken former monk named Hem Sothea (with me at Banteay Srei), who was also deeply knowledgeable. Both guides were university-educated and government-certified. Having Cambodian professionals take us through the park gave us an invaluable perspective, and they were appreciative of our obvious enthusiasm and eagerness to see as much as possible.
Our driver for all three days was a quietly competent gentleman named Polin Polin, who went by ‘Pin’. The glimpse we had of Siem Reap’s roads and traffic upon arrival made me grateful that we had employed his services. Additionally, Pin’s apparently bottomless cooler in the trunk kept us supplied with both water and cool clothes to wipe our sweaty faces after each temple. This small courtesy was incredibly appreciated.
Our first stop was Ta Prohm, of Hollywood movie fame. We parked, then walked a short distance down a red dirt road to the temple. It is beautiful, mysterious, an altogether glorious wreck. It is also crowded.
There were people everywhere, with everyone seeking to get the best shot of whatever they were told was in the movie, ‘Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’. There was even a bridal party taking wedding pictures. And that’s ok. Everyone was pretty congenial, and the ruins of this late 12th century temple are beautiful. But what I found most wonderful was seeing how nature takes back her own, with the trees enshrouding the temple over the course of the centuries. Even Buddha seems bemused by his confinement.
Our next stop was far less crowded, as we drove over to Ta Keo, a gorgeous late 10th-century structure. Roger captured my glee.
This was our first encounter with the stairs of Angkor.
But the views were beautiful.
And the nice Roger and I had fun photographing each other taking photographs.
There was much to admire here, but we moved on, to Chau Say Tevoda, where I was entranced by the ornamentation.
Across the road was Thommanon temple, from the early 12th century. Most of the exterior wall has disappeared, so the interior temple and other buildings, while standing together, seem separate. I was simply awed, gazing up at the temple mountains.
However, I had also realized by this point, as we went from one sublime temple to another, that sometimes, it’s good to just sit for a minute, and take it all in.
We had seen a great deal, and decided to break for lunch. While it appeared to not be the usual practice, both John and Pin graciously accepted our invitation to lunch, at one of a number of restaurants along the roads leading to the main temples. The food was excellent, with a wide variety of choices and terrific service. We ate very well at nearby restaurants all three days of temple-touring.
Our next stop was the south gate of Angkor Thom, once a great city, surrounded by a broad moat. There are four gates to Angkor Thom, but the south gate has had the most restoration work. The artistry of the elephant carvers is evident, and this was one aspect of touring these masterworks that fascinated me. The temples and other structures are attributed to the great kings who built them, but they were, in fact, designed by ancient architects and built by both skilled artisans and artists, as well as laborers. These glorious sculptures are their lasting legacy, even if their individual names are lost in time. When I looked into these elephants’ eyes, I felt I was gazing into times long past.
After the south gate, there was the Terrace of the Elephants.
Met one of the locals. I was ignored.
We walked a short way, through a quiet area. I was struck by how peaceful it was, and that this was once the middle of a bustling city, a millenia ago. Then we were in sight of another glorious ruin, settling into the earth, Phimeanakas. And once again, I photographed the temple,
and Roger photographed me.
On our way from Phimeanakas to Baphuon, we stopped a moment to rest.
The trees were just extraordinary. Spung trees, strangler figs, banyans, in fantastical shapes and convoluted structures, embraced and enfolded everything they came into contact with.
I think it may be this aspect of Angkor as a whole that seemed the most marvelous to me. How, as many of these magnificent structures diminished and decayed, some magical alchemy occurred. With nature playing a large role, they became something else, something more. A union, perhaps, of structure and nature.
The last temple we visited the first day was Baphuon, also in Angkor Thom. I was awestruck by the reclining Buddha which comprises the entire west side of the temple.
It was late afternoon, and our first day was all I had hoped for, and more. My eyes were full. Rest was needed. Reflection was also necessary. As I scrolled through my photos on my phone, I had a sense of disbelief, as if I hadn’t actually seen what I had seen. Even now, six weeks later, I am still experiencing a little bit of that, but what I’m mostly feeling now is wonder, that this place had come into being in the first place, and gratitude, that I was able to see it. With my own eyes.