I went overland from Bangkok to Siem Reap, a journey I only advise for the very young or the very adventurous. There were eight of us on a very long boring bus ride with a mean Thai driver who flipped out when the Romanian couple started kissing in the back seat. Mind you, this is after leaving Bangkok, the Sodom and Gomorrah of Asia where I saw girls running around the streets in mini skirts with no panties. I very conflicted country, Thailand. It was a big drama with me and another American finally talking the driver, who insisted he was very religious, out of throwing these heathens off the bus. Finally, he drove us to an immigration stop outside the border crossing were they heisted about $50 from me for a Cambodian visa. Then I was put in another van and taken to the Thai border, where I had to lug my bags out and over to the Cambodian border and then to another taxi, which I shared with the Romanian couple and a very sweet Thai girl. Living like a refugee. We ended up having a good laugh about the mean driver and the whole fiasco trip. It was another five hour drive, but I finally made it to my hotel, The Salina in Siem Reap. At first I was a bit disappointed because it seemed to be in a off beat part of town and was completely empty, but after I was there for a day or so, I ended up loving it. The staff were wonderful, they had a great pool, and the room was really comfortable.
I started my tour the next day and my first sight of Ankor Wat stopped my breath. I have seen, both on this trip and in my life travels, many sights. Although I am not yet jaded by the wonders of the world, I am also not easily astounded. We drove around a moat the size of the Colorado River, and I got out of the car to walk across the first of many bridges and stand in front of the first of ten temples. It is the most awe inspiring sight I have ever seen, truly. Ankor Wat was first built about 900 years ago, and lay completely undiscovered by the western world for several hundred of those years. It is now very much discovered, and may only have a few years left before it has lost its astonishing charm. What might save it from being completely overrun is the fact that it is not an excursion for the faint of heart or weak of limb. I spent two days touring all ten temples, and at the end of the first day I literally thought I would not make it through the next day’s tour. I walked to the top of every temple, except for the very last section of the last temple, and I could not have made that last climb if I had been promised absolution from all my sins.
I hired a driver and a guide at the hotel because I only planned to stay a few days in Siem Reap, and wanted to get the most out of the trip that I could. My guide was an enthusiastic young father and college graduate who knew as much about the history of Ankor Wat as I imagined possible for one person. His English was not perfect, and it was challenging understanding all of his explanations, especially of the detailed minutiae of kings and sons of kings who had built each separate temple. He did have some wonderful stories about the various statues and artwork, but most of the time I was breathing so hard after having hiked up a thousand tortuous steps that I could barely concentrate through the blood pounding in my head. Most of what I loved was the feel of the place, a feeling of something so old and so powerful and so filled with the reality of a culture that has, for the most part, disappeared. Several times I had to ask my guide to stop talking so I could just absorb my own sense of being high above the ground in the middle of a jungle in Cambodia surrounded by a temple carved by long dead rulers in their homage to old gods. This was the experience, the scene, the feeling that motivated this journey; to be standing on the top of a temple in the middle of a jungle in an ancient land.
Great writers, poets, and artists have described Ankor Wat over the last few hundred years, and I am not sure I am up to the task. These are my impressions. Standing at the top of a temple looking down steps so steep one man later told me he literally froze and could not walk down the steps until a monk and guide took his arms and helped him down the steps. I had a few times when I was going down these very steep and high stone steps feeling as if I could fall off into space at any moment, but for some reason I was not afraid. Walking over a four car wide stone bridge toward a temple decorated by the surrounding jungle and seeing a wall stretched into infinity, covered with stone gods so elaborately designed with jewels and cloth they could have easily peeled off the wall into the trees around me. Walking down a wooden walkway suspended over water that reminded me of a world in MYST, with an algae covered lagoon on both sides, and trees draped with moss hanging overhead. We came to an open space with a number of statues sunk into algae pools. There was a group of monks following us, and my guide said they had come to do a special ceremony, but were unable to complete it because the pool was dry for this time of year. I kept being reminded of games I’d played, including Laura Croft and Myst, where so much of the game worlds looked exactly like what I had stepped into. Ankor Wat is a fantasy world come alive; it is truly the place of dreams.
My other favorite place was the palace of trees, where the temples are actually encased in these huge trees that have grown over and around them so that you can’t tell if the tree is a temple or the temple is a tree. Wandering through these structures was magic. I felt a tug of ancient druid blood, which I’m sure is buried somewhere in my DNA.
There were at least three times during the two days that I came upon a shrine where I felt it was not intrusive to make an offering, and lit incense or a candle. The last time I did this was after a long hike to the top of a temple. There was a shrine which was being tended by an ancient Buddhist nun. I went up to the shrine and lit some incense and made my offering. While I was standing there, she came over to me, stretched to reach the top of my head and ran her hands gently over my head and down my body, patting me as she softly chanted. It was such an amazing feeling of holiness. A pure blessing. The day I was leaving Siem Reap, I received the email saying that the mother of my husband had passed away in Hawaii the past weekend. I truly believe that nun blessed me as Helen was leaving this world.
The second day, we toured the flat land temples which I was very glad of because the first day was a lot of climbing, and I was exhausted. I also insisted that we go up in the hot air balloon ride. It’s not that great as a balloon ride because you are in a very large basket with about fifteen people and the balloon is raised in the air about 200 feet on a steel cable, but my main reason for going was to be able to take pictures of Ankor Wat from the air and I got some great shots. I asked Won, my guide, if he wanted to go to so he could tell his children about it. He was thrilled, but we couldn’t talk the driver into going with us.
The balloon ride made us a bit late for the climb up to the top of the mountain, which is the temple spot where everyone goes to watch the sunset. I had several people who have been to this site tell me not to miss this event, the sunset over Ankor Wat. Won was really anxious that I not miss it. He had planned for us to go the first night, but it was a bit cloudy and I was exhausted at the end of the first day. Then, we were a bit late after the balloon ride and it was a holiday weekend, so the hike up another very steep rocky hill was packed with people from all over; China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, America, Australia, Japan. They only allow 300 people on this temple site at one time and we ended up in a very long slow line at the top of the mountain. Also, most of the people who had gone up were not coming down until after the sunset, which made line move even slower. I was very tired after this second long day and standing in a slow line to climb up one more very steep set of endless stairs to sit and watch a sunset over Ankor Wat, which would have been oh so romantic with my husband, but without him? Well, to be honest, I just couldn’t do it. Won was much more disappointed than I was when I told him, “Let’s just go back down the hill.” I assured him I was more than happy with all we had done and seen, and missing out on the sunset was not that big a deal to me. I told him we have the most wonderful sunsets in the world in Hawaii, and Ankor Wat was so spectacular in so many other ways. Even though I was in Siam Reap another few days, and I thought about going back for the sunset later, in the end I just couldn’t face another climb up another hill, even for Won’s sake.