Thursday, September 17, 2015
Siem Reap II: The Many Faces of Angkor
Our temple tour started the next day. Both of us woke up at 7:00 AM, freshened up and had complimentary breakfast. It was ala carte affair at the small cafe. A fixed list to choose from. I went for the Khmer noodles (instant noodles with some add-ons!) and KH ordered the omelette with baguette. In addition, we were given a platter of fruits with a couple of croissants. Beside us, a whole bunch of Singaporeans (the accent was unmistakable) were also having their breakfast.
With our bellies full, we were ready to go. Our driver came at 8:00 AM in a small Honda SUV. He was a round-faced fella with kind smiles and a harmless smile. Picked up our guide some where down the road. We called them Dar and Nat. Nat had more prominent features, the usual tanned skin and thick lips that usually curled into a broad smile. Nat was dressed in an official tour guide beige long sleeve shirt with embroidered shield on the sleeve. And I found it weird that he had a scarf with him in that superbly hot weather. He explained it was to wipe his sweat. Didn't expect that! He also explained that Siem Reap meant "Defeat of Siam", some bad blood between the two kingdoms from centuries past. Didn't take long to reach the Angkor Archaeological Park. Just twenty minutes from the hotel. The first order of business was to get our Angkor Pass. Paid USD40 for a three day pass that includes a permit for taking photos and using the little boys rooms. A tip for visitors: do bring a lanyard to keep your pass safe and for easy inspection.
On our first day, we did the so-called Small Circuit, a 17 KM route starting from Angkor Wat. Had a first hand view of the Angkor Wat complex, the huge moat and outer wall. First stop was Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple made famous by the Tomb Raider movie. A great first stop really as the place is very photogenic. The temple and jungle was aesthetically-merged as one could see huge Spung trees growing out of the stones and roots flowing over the galleries. According to my guide, it was built by King Jayavarman VII (a name that would keep cropping up in the coming days) and dedicated to his mother. Did not need to use my selfie stick even once because Nat always volunteered to take photos for us and he knew all the good angles. Sometimes, strangers would also ask for his help and he would say in a deadpan manner, "One dollar one photo". Haha. We were also given our first taste of the Apsaras which are often seen on bas reliefs. Always depicted as lithe and buxom, they are forever ready to dance. For some reason, they are often depicted with three towers on their headdress. Wonder if there's any significance. Also had our first taste of the tenacious Cambodian children who peddle souveniers outside of the tourist spots. One even followed KH right up to the restroom (or happy room as Nat called it).
Unlike Ta Prohm, our next temple Ta Keo was high and bare. It's possibly the first sandstone temple-mountain built by the Khmers. Jayavarman V left it as a projek terbengkalai after lightning struck the central tower, a very bad omen. Hence the main pyramid was lacking in decorations. Nat didn't scale the temple with us, leaving us to climb to the top. The sun beat mercilessly down as we made our way up the steep stone steps. At the top, we were given an unofficial guided tour by a youth who spoke quite excellent English. Of course he was looking to make a couple of bucks. The next stop was Angkor Thom, home of the Bayon. Nat admitted that he liked the Bayon more than Angkor Wat, and I agree with him after seeing Angkor Wat at the end of the day. We approached the great ancient city from the South gate, the best-preserved. Like the 3 other gates at each cardinal point, the South gate was connected to a causeway across a moat. The railings of the causeway depict a popular Hindu mythology-- The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. On both sides, 54 stone devas and asuras play a game of tug of war using the great snake Vasuki. Sadly, most of the statues had lost their heads to looters and vandals. The gate itself is topped by 3 face towers and is flanked by Indra riding on Airavata on both sides.
First stop in Angkor Thom was Prasat Bayon. One can't help but be amazed by how richly-decorated and dense the temple is. At every corner one can catch a glimpse of one of the 216 impressive stone faces adorning the multitude of towers. Truly the centrepiece of Jayavarnam VII's building spree. It was there Nat popped 'the question':
(KH was dawdling, taking pictures in another room while Nat and I had moved on)
Nat: Is KH your lover?
Moi: (3 second pause) Yeah :)
Were we THAT obvious? LOL. The Bayon was amazing, unfortunately, it was high noon when we reached there, so the effect of the serene stone faces was a little loss on us. Should have stayed longer to take more pictures. However, we were already feeling hungry and tyred by then. Nearby was a collection of food stalls and souvenier shops. We had our lunch break there. Every tour guide would have their 'preferred' stall. Not wanting to eat amok again, we tried samlor kako, a thick traditional soup with lots of vegetables. Really hit the spot. The other dish we tried was beef lok lak, sliced beef on a bed of vegetables. Delicious, except that the meat was a little chewy. Nat did say in jest that Cambodian beef is not tender cause all the cows are so skinny.
Feeling sleepy after lunch, we moved on to Baphuon with it's long, pedestal-ed causeways. On the West side is a 70 metre long reclining Buddha. Moved on to the Royal Palace grounds where the Phimeanakas was located. Legend says that the temple is where the king spends the first watch of every night with a woman thought to be a Nāga. The queen must have been 'thrilled'. The last stop of the day was Angkor Wat, the main attraction. As usual, Nat gave us all the history and statistics. They roll so easily off his thick lips. As we walked the length of the causeway to cross into the temple grounds, one can truly admire the sheer size of the complex. The layout of Angkor Wat was modelled on Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, the home of the gods; the outer walls represent the mountain ranges enclosing the world; and the moat as the cosmic ocean. The moat is already nearly 200 metres wide. We walked behind a Cambodian couple who were cradling a baby not more than two months old. Nat brought us to the side door where a statue of an eight-armed Shiva was installed (even the gods get prosthetic arms judging by the different coloured stone). Bumped into the earlier couple who there to get blessings for their newborn baby.
We didn't go in straight away but walked away to get the classic Angkor Wat shot with all the five towers, palm trees and reflection in the pond. To get all the towers in one frame, one had to approach it from an angle because like the other temples, its aligned to the cardinal points. Got a few clear shots and walked back to the temple. We explored the many concentric galleries surrounding the central tower with Nat leading the way. Due to some reason, the central tower was not open to the public that day. Moved on to the famous bas relief of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk and the Ramayana. Amazing details. Before leaving, we tried our hand with a little stone stacking using the leftover stones. Supposed to bring good luck. Was so tyred by that time. Back at the hotel, we took another dip in the pool to nurse our poor sun-burned skin. Even multiple sunscreen applications didn't help.
We took a tuk-tuk to Khmer Kitchen Restaurant, Pub Street. Its located at one of the quieter side streets. Prices weren't that much cheaper than Viroth's, but portions were bigger and mains came with free steamed rice. KH wanted amok fish again and I decided on some fresh spring rolls (full of yummy sweet basil). Right after dinner, we went hunting for cheap beer. Found it Lim Kim Cheng just opposite the road. USD0.50 for a pint of local draft. The farang next to our table had downed 4 glasses the whole time we were there. To accompany our beer, we ordered a plate of stir-fried frog with ginger from a menu that looked more like a bible. In my opinion, the dish wasn't very hot and they didn't clean the frogs very well. Ick. Before heading home, we made a visit to the Art Center Night Market located just across the river. Not a very popular spot for the tourists I think. Too quiet, but it was clean. Didn't linger long there. Ordered a cup of fruit shake and walked back to the hotel. Unfortunately, even after I slurped out the last of the fruit shake, we hadn't reach our hotel. Got lost on the dark, dusty roads. Finally got on the right track after KH made a couple of enquiries. Better just take a tuk-tuk at night. I was worried, but he wasn't. With his hand in mine, he led us back to the safety of our room.