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Cambodia’s Ancient Angkor Wat

Greg and Rob Eating A Tarantula Cambodia’s ace in the hole is magical Angkor Wat located in Siem Reap.  So popular in fact that it is featured on Cambodia’s flag.  Most tourists spend less than two days in challenging Phnom Penh (our base camp at Palm Tree Orphanage for one month) choosing to focus on the ancient ruins instead.  As March 2010 drew to a close and the days with our new family followed suit, Ash and I packed an overnight bag to see what all the rage was about in Cambodia’s northwest.

Angkor Wat Sunrise Over Pond Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise From Temple The six hour bus ride was uneventful except for my crunchy dining experience of fried tarantulas.  Arriving late in the evening, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the following day and caught up on rest before our pre-dawn departure.  Ny, father of three young children, pulled into the gravel parking lot at the healthy hour of 5am.  Sleep still in our eyes, we joined the armada of tuk-tuks headed for storied Angkor Wat.  Entering the gate across the stagnate water moat, one felt transported back in time.  Ash camped out beside a pond that would offer a sensational sunrise moment over the towers of Angkor while I purchased milky coffee housed in a filthy drinking vessel.  With lilypads sprouting splendid pink flowers, the small pool of water turned a purplish hue as the sun began to reveal itself.  The daylight basked Angkor in all its majesty and suddenly our sad example of a cup of Joe became a novelty as we looked upon the 12th Century ruins.  In the refreshing morning light, we explored the surrounding stone features that offered unique looks at the Bakan (Angkor Wat’s centerpiece).

View of Angkor Wat from the Bakan Angkor Wat Beer at Angkor Wat

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Prayer Around 7:30am we entered the innermost wall of the Hindu temple, the ancient towers high above us.  Every wall seemingly had an intricate etching of women with headdresses or carvings of miniature warriors.  Each non-restored Buddha statue along the stone corridors displayed the handywork of the Khmer Rouge; their heads having been knocked off.  Even the steep steps worn smooth had elaborate engravings.  Buildings surrounding the Bakan exhibited windows with small pillars and impressive lattice work.  The man hours to quarry the stone, assemble the structures, and etch the details was nearly incomprehensible.

Buddhas Outside Wat Thom Wat Thom Entrance Faces

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng Mountain - Ash Taking It In With Ash borrowing a shawl to cover her bare shoulders, we climbed to the Bakan where we could absorb the incredible size of this ancient site.  It became apparent how Angkor Wat was swallowed by the jungle lurking outside its statuesque walls.  In fact, Angkor was consumed by the hungry forest and was “rediscovered” in the middle of the 19th Century by the French explorer Henri Mouhot.  The temperature was quickly turning from comfortable to warm so we met Ny in a dusty parking lot to continue ruin hopping before the intense heat drove us mad.

Ta Prohm Greg's Chicago Office With Angkor Wat Photos

Ta Prohm Tree A short jaunt up the paved road and we reached the entrance to Wat Thom.  Altogether different from Angkor, Wat Thom features stone faces in its gray facade.  Bridging the parched moat was a rock span complete with a railing of stately Buddhas.  Ashley looked like a miniature figurine next to the massive heads.  Further along was Ta Prohm, made famous by Hollywood’s Tomb Raider.  Incredibly unique, roots from aggressive trees grow over and through the ancient ruins.  The Chicago office I worked in had decorative photos of Ta Prohm in its lobby, as seen in the photo from my last day on the job, August 14, 2009.  By high noon, the sun’s inferno defeated us as we retreated to the shady confines of our Siem Reap hotel.  While Ash napped in the shade, I explored the local markets and watched a Buddhist parade envelope the streets.  Ny arrived ninety minutes before sunset and dropped us at Phnom Bakheng Mountain.  With four Angkor beers in tow, we hiked through the forest leading to the hilltop ruins.  Though the hazy evening stifled a brilliant sunset, it was a splendid closure to a day of exploring Cambodia’s rich history in ruins.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) There must be hundreds of tuk-tuks waiting to chauffeur tourists around Angkor Wat.  Have your accommodation arrange a driver that will fetch you before sunrise and return after sunset.

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