While making plans for my Brothers visit to Cambodia I was pretty certain I would not be joining them for a day at Angkor Wat, after all, I had just been there a year before, I highly doubted much had changed in that time. After their arrival however, I realized that my time with my visitors was short and seeing these sights with someone would be a bit different from doing it alone. My only good reason for not joining was the $20 price tag on the admission ticket but I decided to suck it up and fork it over. While at it I decided we should pay Dara the extra costs and utilize his skills as a tour guide, something I wasn't able to do last year and would ensure a slightly different experience.
Our morning started early with Dara and his brother-in-law picking us up around 4 am, in order to venture out and secure good spots for the sunrise. Although we may have been able to avoid the crowds had we chosen a different temple, we went the traditional route and started our morning at the North reflecting pool, along with hundreds of other tourists. Sunrise was, well a sunrise, so after taking a dozen or so pictures (all of which probably looked the same) we decided to head inside. The building, reliefs, statues, and history were all the same but I was right, it was better having someone there to share it with, and a guide to explain.
It's probably not helpful that I'm finally writing this post three months later, but you can blame my dysfunctional computer for that. Also of little help is that my phone, where I saved key facts of Dara's helpful explanation, was stolen weeks after my visit. Basically what I'm trying to say is that relying solely on my memory for the details of the day is proving to be a problem, but I'll try to recall some of the key facts. The first fun fact that I should've known but don't recall ever registering is Angkor Wat's construction as a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu, only coming under Buddhist rule in the late 13th century.
Once inside the outer wall, we listened as Dara explained the numerous bas-reliefs covering the outer gallery, most of which tell the story of either The Ramayana or Mahabarata, two Hindu epics. Still early in the morning, my attention was captivated by these stories and images, but unfortunately, my memory is failing and I only have the pictures left to show.
Aside from providing us with great detail on the history and details of the images, Dara provided us with a few other secrets I missed on my first visit to the temples. The first of two of my favorites was the echo chamber, a wall in the Hall of Buddhas which I probably walked right by last year. If you stand with your back flat against the wall and beat your chest (like really pound on it) you'll hear an echoing boom throughout the rest of the room, repeat this action three times and you're promised good luck. My second favorite was a central point in the temple which provides a great photo op, another of Dara's secret skills, demonstrated throughout the day.
I genuinely don't recall scaling the steep staircase to the third level last year, if I remember correctly it was closed, but I could be wrong. Apparently, this level only opens at 7 am so we had to wait in line a few minutes before we were granted entrance, climbed the stairs and were awarded magnificent views of the entire Angkor Park complex. Knowing we had plenty more to see and hearing our stomachs begin to rumble was took a few final pictures and headed for the exit (entrance?) where Dara shared one last fun fact with us, pointing out the only smiling apsara on one of the outside walls.
Rather than paying for breakfast the three of us dug into our snack bag, granola bars and bananas, accompanied by strong Cambodian coffee, while Dara fueled up with a heaping bowl of noodles. Full of food and with a bit more energy we made our way to Angkor Thom, home to one of my favorite temples, The Bayon. Again the history of this temple escaped my memory (or never existed there) so I was surprised when Dara informed us of its changes. First built as a Buddhist temple (under the rule of King Jayavarman VII) in the late 12th century, the temple later underwent alterations when Jayavarman VIII ruled with the Khmer empire reverting to Hinduism. Most interesting about this is the fact that almost all images of the Buddha were removed from the temple, replaced with linga (read: penis) as a representation of the god Shiva. Interesting as this may have been it was a bit disturbing the number of times I had to listen to Dara direct our attention to "penises and vaginas" throughout the day.
Also within Angkor Thom are the Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, and Terrace of the Leper Kings. I was pleased again when Dara showed us just where the sleeping Buddha was hiding at the Baphuon as last year I convinced myself it didn't actually exist. See, I was looking for something a bit more obvious but it turns out this huge, sleeping guy is built out of stone and lying behind the temple complex in the back. Similar to the prior year, by this point, my attention was fading, stomach growling and bladder screaming, so I was ready to move on. Dara did provide one more fun fact though, informing us that the Elephant terrace was actually used for public ceremonies, often including the use of elephants...I thought it was just about the sculptures, silly me.
I think this is the point we made a break for a stupidly overpriced lunch, before continuing on to Preah Khan, one of the many temples I didn't get a chance to see last year. I asked Dara if we could add it to our itinerary making the day a bit different from what I did last year and he had no objections. The temple is similar to Ta Prohm in that it hasn't been significantly restored, leaving a lot of the natural deterioration and tree growth intact.
By this point in the day we were all started to grow tired but we still had a few more stops to make. First was a brief stop to view the East Baray a man-made body of water whose purpose is still a bit of a mystery, followed by a visit to Neak Pean which used to serve medical purposes years ago. After driving by East Mebon and Pre Rup (where we viewed the parlor sunset the night before) we arrived at our last destination and another of my favorite temples, Ta Prohm. Built in honor of king Jayavarman VII's family, but made famous by the movie Tomb Raider, this temple features trees growing out of the ruins.
I guess I timed my visit better last year because I didn't have to battle with the crowds we faced this time around. I much preferred the temple without the vast crowds and lines for photo ops but the people are there for a reason, this temple is pretty cool. I think we were all pretty tired by this point so our patience for picture taking and historic explanation was running low, signs that it was time to head home. Although I was hesitant to join I'm glad I shelled out the $20 for a ticket and hired Dara to come along as our guide, although it was long and a bit tiring the day proved to be worth it. Even after two visits (within a year) I somehow believe I'll still be returning to Angkor for a third round, there's just something about this country (and the friends I've made there) that leave me knowing I'll be back for more.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.