Do you remember the mobile video game Temple Run? It was a running game with no end — at least until you made an ill-timed swipe or the crazy monkeys caught up with you.
The temple stones at Siem Reap in Cambodia are as moss-covered as those in the game. The monkeys here are dueling kings however, pink and still in the ancient stone.
We arrived in Borei Angkor in the afternoon, September 2014. We wasted no time in hiring a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat, the “temple city,” the largest religious monument in the world. We read that the outer walls and moat surrounding the complex symbolized the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively.
Unusually for Khmer temples, the Angkor Wat faced the setting sun, a symbol of death.
The causeway leading to the temple was lined with vendors selling pirated guidebooks for as low as a dollar. There were too many tourists with impractical shoes. Some of them spat on the ancient stone.
Wooden steps were constructed over the original steps — not only to preserve it but because the older ones were too steep. The sensual apsaras lined the walls in an assortment of poses, jewelry, and headgear.
Angkor Wat was worn and understandably so, having been built in the 12th century. But oh, how strong was my urge to see for certain what it looked like in its original glory.
The rest of the architecture at Angkor had its own pull: Banteay Srei To Baphuon, with its salmon-colored stones and delicate reliefs…
… and the surreal Ta Prohm, which was deliberately restored in a way that cut as little of the surrounding jungle as possible. Hence the giant banyan trees continue to hug and crush the temple buildings, as they have for hundreds of years. In time, nature will finish its work and the temple too will fade.
The effect of leaving the trees untouched is stark when you compare Ta Prohm with the maze-like Preah Khan, located in the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Preah Khan has undergone restoration by the World Monuments Fund and had many of its trees cut down to preserve the site.
We had drinks at The Red Piano on Pub Street that night. Its claim to fame was Angelina Jolie’s visit more than a decade ago. A cocktail was named after her film — for every 500th cocktail sold, the pub gave away a free t-shirt and $100.
Personally I liked The Bayon, also in Angkor Thom, the best. The pyramid shaped temple-mountain rises on three levels and features more than 200 stone faces, all with smiles as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.
The reliefs at the Bayon featured not only apsaras but also daily life — cockfights, festival celebrations, market scenes, meals being cooked.
The Baphuon was once one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, built in the 11th century, but parts of it have long since collapsed. There is a giant reclining Buddha inside. Since the temple was dedicated to Hinduism this was probably added centuries later.
We had time to visit Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of what I call the Dead Marshes (it looked so much like how I imagined the marshes would look!). The temple’s pools were meant to cure diseases.
It would be remiss to make a trip to Siem Reap without visiting Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We made our way to Kompong Phhluk, a floating settlement on the lake.
A local boatwoman took us to a flooded forest in a small canoe. The experience, easily one of the most memorable on this trip, was equal parts eerie and serene. Here in Siem Reap, I thought, it was easy to imagine what the world looked like once and what it might look like again, once nature reclaimed what was hers.
It was so quiet, save for the soft splashes her oar made when she dipped it into the lake.
She then handed us over to two local men who had a bigger boat. They spoke little English but we eventually understood they were trying to convince us to dine at their restaurant. We said no.
I remember the mild but mounting sense of panic I felt when I realized they were taking us further away from land, from the houses on stilts, from the quiet watery forest — to god knows where. I feigned calm by continuing to take photos and tried to make sense of the urgent discussion going on between the two men. Eventually, thankfully, they turned the boat around and headed back the way we came.
After our trip I tried to search online for images of how Angkor’s temples probably looked like in its heyday. Google did not disappoint. Scholars have produced colorful overlays that show you the old and the new side by side. The Smithsonian digitally reconstructed Angkor Wat, brightly-colored and gilded with shiny gold, a far, far cry from its present state.
The last lines of a poem, ‘The Gloomy Academic’, by Louis MacNiece came to mind (though it’s written about Greece and may be more appropriate for my last post).
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.