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December 22, 2003

Faces & trees on the first day

Today's our last day in Siem Reap. We're keeping it pretty chill. Claudia's at the hotel relaxing, and I bicycled into town to wander markets, scout out some shops and, of course, geek out. Last night over a can of Angkor beer we watched children from an orphanage perform traditional Khmer dances, and we toasted surviving 3 days of intense temple-touring. I think I'm finally ready to talk about all this... and will try to keep it kinda brief...

Day 1
Earthwalkers rents bikes free to guests, so we snagged a couple and thought we'd be ballsy. Our little Siem Reap tourist pamphlet had a pretty spiffy suggested 3-day itinerary, so we followed that (for the most part):

  • Day 1: South Gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Victory Gate, Thommanon, bridge ruins, Chapel of the Hospital, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, loooooong bike ride back to the hotel that had Claudia ready to kill me.

    Angkor Thom was the last and biggest capitol of the Angkor empire. There's a large wall and moat around it, and you enter and leave through gates with 4 heads, and a drive-up with a bunch of figures in a tug-of-war with a giant serpent (naga) on either side of you.

    Out of these, Bayon, the Chapel of the Hospital and Ta Prohm were the faves. If you're familiar with Angkor photos of the towers with 4 faces on them, each face with the same eerie yet serene expression, that's Bayon. You walk through this sprawling, tight-corridored complex, with about 37 towers (so 148 faces) starting at you. Several altars remain, and people with incense accept offerings in exchange for you saying a prayer. I gave $1 and asked for Angelina Jolie to drop in like she does in the first Tomb Raider movie, but no luck.

    The Chapel of the Hospital was a surprise. We were biking to Ta Keo when we saw something at the end of a turnoff, so we headed down to explore. Our pamphlet noted that "102 hospitals were built throughout the empire under Jayavarman VII [J.V. the 7th, as we dubbed him]. The hospital itself was probably constructed of perishable materials such as wood and bamboo, which has long since disappeared". All that remains now is the dirt road, some ruins, and a stone tower. Dense jungle surrounds it — it's hard to believe that this used to be the middle of a hospital. The chapel was one of my faves because it was so secluded, and while right off the road, hardly anyone came to see it. There was a calm there, unlike the eeriness and buzz you get in the more-touristed temple areas.

    Ta Prohm, though, was the winner of the day.

    If you've seen the signature photos of Angkor, where massive trees grow on top of and through temples, you were most likely looking at Ta Prohm. The pamphlet says that it was "intentionally left partially unrestored". I'm glad. Walking through here, seeing these ruins, I could get all deep and note that sooner or later any city falls and nature takes back over, but I'll err on the side of eerie. We walked through what used to be a monastic complex so powerful that it controlled 3000 villages and required thousands and thousands of people just to keep it running. Now ceilings have fallen in, and huge trees, some upwards of 100 ft, crash through the walls or grow on top of temples, roots stretching down the sides.

    The bike ride itself was pretty easy, flat terrain, paved once you're inside the temple complex. From our hotel, through the temples, and back again, we probably cycled about 30km, and we handled it fine. There is a kinda freaky gravel bit that runs for a few km between the ticket checkpoint and Angkor Wat; we didn't care for that, but managed. The gravel stretch did remind Claudia of the gravel road in China where she got a pretty nasty leg injury though. After riding this part twice, she wasn't too thrilled at my zeal for us choosing to ride bikes today. I don't blame her, but she did fine.

    Posted by Ant on December 22, 2003 01:44 AM
    Category: Cambodia
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