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CAMBODIA | Friday, 28 November 2014 | Views [548]

Big day!! We got up extremely early to meet our tuk-tuk driver at 4:30 am. We had to go get our entrance ticket for the Angkor temples. Popular place, and ticket lines can be long; I wish I'd remembered that to get our tickets yesterday. We could have slept another half-hour. Luckily, when we get to the ticketing, (my God!, what time do these people have to report to work?!), there are only a handful of people and we get our tickets right away. The two-day and three-day tickets are the same price, so we get a three-day one. There is a lot to see here! 

Our plan for today was to leave before daybreak, to go to Angkor Wat while it was still dark. We walk out in pitch blackness, using the light from our iPhone, and join the assembling crowd at the edge of the reflecting pool to await the dawn. The crowd was more than I expected; apparently the early hour is not the deterrent I had imagined it to be. There were easily 500 people amassed at the water's edge, some rudely jockeying for position. I had to firmly stand my ground. Not quite as serene as I had hoped, but I was determined to enjoy this spectacular vision no matter what. 
As the first light began to turn the black sky the slightest bit of gray, I could start to see the outline of the five towers of the temple. Awe-inspiring!  I got some beautiful shots of the sky and temple reflected in the pool. As ancient wonder and natural beauty combine, it really doesn't get any better than this! Before the sunrise was truly "over," we decided to break from the crowd and head to the temple itself to try to beat the majority of the crowd entering. We were rewarded with a good amount of time in a side courtyard of the temple all to ourselves. We felt pretty fortunate, as few others that day would have had that experience. I felt so humbled just being in the presence of these famous towers and carved images. There is a continuous bas-relief that wraps almost 1 km around the outer wall of the temple. It depicts both historical events and mythological stories, including the fascinating creation myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which involves a contest between gods and demons to extract the elixir of immortality.  Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world. The amazement I felt was overpowering, and I had to finally remind myself that there were more temples and wonderful things to see today. 
Next stop was Angkor Thom, actually much larger than Angkor Wat, and encompassing many areas. This is the site recently made famous by the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" movie, which I guess I will now have to see. My favorite part of this was Bayon, which features 54 towers, each with 4 giant serene faces, looking out in four directions. It is debated whether the face, identical on all 216 visages, is the Buddha, the king Jayavarman VII, or a combination of the two.
Occasionally, there is a small inner shrine with an adorned Buddha, with flowers, candles, and sticks of incense. Sometimes there is a monk or someone in attendance there to ensure proper respect is paid: removal of hats and shoes, or covering of bare shoulders.  We are sometimes offered lit sticks of incense to pay our respects at the shrine. Becoming a bit jaded at being offered things at every turn, I am not certain if the incense is for sale or merely available for nothing, so I am hesitant to engage these offers and avoid the shrines in search of other areas to see. 
But at one particular shrine, there was an old woman attendant who saw me across the way (I was not even that close to the shrine) who walked out at me and shoved the lit sticks of incense right in my face demanding that I take them and come in near the Buddha. I breathed in the thick, strongly acrid smoke and began to cough. I tried to wave her away, but she became very aggressive, yelling, "Pray!  You pray now!  Pray now!"  All the while waving the incense close to my face. I tried to get away by starting down some steep stairs, and she followed me!  I finally yelled out to Aaron that I was freaking out on the stairs and he shooed her away. She shot us a dirty look and walked off. It seemed shockingly un-Buddhistlike behavior, and I now refer to the incident as the Temple Witch Encounter. 
Our last stop was much-anticipated: Ta Phrom, described as "the ultimate Indiana Jones fantasy."  When we arrive and start to walk down the path to the temple, it begins to rain. We duck inside a small ancient stone shelter to wait out the rain. It lasts a good while, and we contemplate having our mail forwarded to us there. "Aaron and Dina, old small stone structure, Ta Phrom, Cambodia." Drenched local children selling cheap plastic rain ponchos try to sell us their wares. They laugh when I point out that it is they who need the ponchos, as we are quite dry in our stone hut. 
Here at Ta Phrom is where we expected to see the temple overtaken by large tree roots and all-but-forgotten in time. We arrive to the sounds of construction!! Ack!! So much for fantasy. 
 But even ancient temples need to be maintained, and we could see throughout our day different areas of repairs, patches, and replacement. Here and there were metal bands holding together a pillar, or newer mortar keeping a wall from crumbling down. While the idealistic purist in me felt like that was sacrilege, I realize that quite a lot of what I was seeing today may have fallen into rubble long ago if it hadn't been for these efforts. In fact, some of the repairs themselves looked pretty old.
Construction aside, this was a pretty amazing sight. And as we explored, we found that the site was large enough to actually get away from the machine noise after awhile. We love this sort of thing: where natural forces take over and make things more beautiful in their age and decay. We decided this was our favorite place of all. 
For dinner, we decide to have another cultural experience. We make reservations at a very large buffet hall that has dinner and then an Apsara Show. Apsaras are the beautiful heavenly angels that appeared as a result of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Cambodian traditional dance is based on the postures and mudras (hand positions) found in carvings of apsaras on the temples. After our buffet dinner with a mind-boggling number of tourists, we see the show composed of several dances and traditional music depicting the story of Hanuman the Monkey God, the apsaras, and local traditional village fishing and courtship. The dances are often slow and deliberate, carefully executing very specific poses and movements that are one of the only remaining record of ancient Khmer customs. 
We discuss later the Khmer civilization, and that the term 'Khmer' has such a negative association now due to the Khmer Rouge and time of Pol Pot. The national language here is called Khmer (though they also speak French), and we have learned a lot about the Khmer history and culture. It must have been incredible to see Angkor at the time when it was a thriving civilization of a million people when London was a burg of a few thousand.

Tags: angkor thom, angkor wat, bayon, cambodia, siem reap, ta phrom

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