There was something about the crunch of the leaves, the smell of the peat, the big moat and the sounds of bicycle dings in wooded area around Angkor Wat that reminded me of the park in the town where I grew up. There was a weird familiarity about it all, but there was also an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder that smacked me in the face as I rounded the corner of the moat and saw the outline of Angkor Wat against a cloudless sky.
My day did not start smoothly. The park was a short bike ride from my hostel so I peddled out at 7 am, only to find that I had to buy a ticket at the office...three miles away. So, down the national highway I went on my creaky bike, riding in the red dust on the side of the road under the punishing sun, dodging enormous water trucks and cows who had no qualms about cutting me off.
The ticket office was swarmed at 8am and we were funneled into lines. To buy a ticket for Angkor, you have to decide how many days you want to spend there. One day was $20, three days was $40 and five was $60 (in the few weeks since I visited, they've actually doubled the price. Talk about timing).
I thought that anything over three was overkill unless I decided I wanted to be an archeologist, so I went with the three day pass. It was a bit like going through customs at the airport- they used a little webcam to take an unflattering picture and pasted it on a small card-stock rectangle. I was ushered out to make room for the jostling crowds so I went to reclaim my bike that was chained to a sign in front of the office on the side of the highway. To get to the other side of the highway, I had to push it through a grassy ditch as street vendors laughed at me. Then I had to ride it (walk it) the three miles back up to Angkor.
By the time I arrived (officially a ticketed visitor) it was 9:45 am, and the sun was brutally hot, though the moat gave off a nice breeze. Me and about 300 other excited tourists walked down the long promenade through the front gate of Angkor. It all unfolded in front of me. It was sort of shocking, no pretty much completely shocking- the majesty and the grandeur of it was mind-blowing. Visually, it’s stunning but, historically, it’s almost unimaginable: Angkor Wat was built in the twelfth century by over 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The limestone used to construct the temples was mined from a mountain almost 50 km away and floated on rafts down the river to this site- in what used to be (and sort of still is) the middle of the Cambodian jungle.
It was hard work, climbing through the chambers of Angkor- rooms that used to be libraries or devotional places- but were now largely barren, except for the magnificent carvings in the wall and an errant statue, draped in gold fabric. It was cool in here, dusty, with the smell of antiquity and must: a smell that would make me cover my nose in annoyance at home but that intrigued and delighted me here. It was nice to take refuge in the cool dark, but there was no quiet. The sound of camera shutters, feet, children screaming and conversations in every language you can imagine filled the rooms, echoing loudly in the cavernous, dusty space. Lines were held up by photo hungry tourists, and I was surprised to see monks solicited for photos as well. Especially since the askers posed in mock reverence and then moved on as quickly as the photo had been taken, not interested in the moment, but in a depiction of it.
Angkor was amazing, but after two and a half hours, I was ready to move on. I refueled with an overpriced (read: 2 USD... I've been spoiled) coconut shake and unlocked my bike from the queue, peddling onward to the Bayon Temple complex. The ride to Bayon is pleasant and shady- exactly the restorative half an hour I needed out of the sun. It is less busy than Angkor, but still has an enormous influx of visitors. Even though it was probably no more than a mile and a half down the road, I felt like I was in a different world because the tree-lined promenade to the complex was quiet and strangely wild- inhabited by wide-eyed monkeys and large, muddy hogs.
I pedaled frantically, memories of my Balinese monkey catastrophe dancing in my head. If anything could distract me from the lurking monkey presence, it was Bayon: a majestic and spiky looking temple complex that greeted me with its large, carved blissed-out faces. Bayon was like its own jagged world where you could get completely and utterly lost, imagining what transpired here 900 years ago. There is no shortage of intricate temple carving and it inspires awe and also complete confusion as to how the hell they built this.
After another two hours of exploring and getting lost in the maze of dark, lichen-covered stone, I decided to call it a day. There was too much to absorb and I think I'd reached my daily recommended dose. The next day, I took a tuk tuk around the large circuit to see Ta Prohm, the temple from Tomb Raider, which was gorgeous but sort of ruined by over zealous wooden barricades, signs and photo hungry tourists.
I sort of felt like Goldilocks at times- if there were few people, as there were at the brown Hindu temples along the circuit, I felt eerily alone and slightly afraid. If there were too many, as there were basically everywhere, I felt claustrophobic and irritated. There was no in between, no matter what part of the day I went.
Ultimately, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complex is an incredibly beautiful place to visit- full of antiquity and a vibrant history. However, I imagine that it is a shade of what it once was- it is too overrun, the commercial creeps in right outside of the front gates and I cannot imagine its grandiose stone structures will maintain their original majesty under the weight of hundreds of thousands of tourists to come.