You’ll have to excuse me: this entry is a shambles. The temples of Angkor. I’m sure others have said it better. Makes a girl feel all whimsical, writery; brings all my bestworst cliches bubbling to the surface.
They don’t even look real at first. They materialise out of the haze like a desert mirage: unreal, a Hollywood film set. A vague sense of disbelief stays with you the whole time. Surely this can’t be real. Surely.
You get up close, real close, closer than you’d be allowed at home. You stand on their stones, wander their walkways. Run your fingers over their walls and you’re touching history. Everywhere you look you see something incredible. You feel the importance of every glimpse: it’s the first and last time you’ll ever be here, your first and only chance to see. Fix it in your memory. Hold it tight.
You try to imagine what it would have been like – how grand! how mystical! You read stories in the reliefs, the carvings, the statues. Naga the snake king held back by giants. Buddha carvings, removed. The faces of the Bodhisattva watch you at every turn. You imagine a pilgrim from the past walking up through a row of walkways, first impressive, then intimidating, the last magnificent and humbling; you imagine them ascending to tall towers on stairs so steep they are force to climb bent over, prostrated, face skimming stone in a deep bow.
What was it like back then? What happened here? The imagination runs wild. Worlds build themselves before you.
And it’s not just the tumbledown oldness, or the creeping moss, or the painstaking effort now sandblasted and fallen; it is the sudden welcome coolness as you cross thresholds into stone corridors – the temperature drops and everything draws in: voices, space, light; the glare from the sun blocked by deep shadow; the walls a dense separation. The world out there is not the world in here.
On the second day we cycled through empty roads in the dark to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We cycled for hours down red dirt roads in thick forest being hailed at every turn, the voices of tuktuk drivers, stall-holders and hawker kids merging with the heavy drone of cricket calls. We saw elephants, monkeys, wandered under the grinning faces of the Bayon, the original adventure temple, Indianna Jones eat your heart out. Ta Prohm filled me up with stories of my own. I touched the tree roots I’d seen in pictures as a child, a tick off a list I’d never written down. In the grounds of each temple there were little piles of stones, one atop the other, forming tiny temples of their own.
The heat was often unbearable and the shade, life-renewing. There were monks and backpackers and hundreds of tour groups all over. We tried to move to where the crowds wouldn’t be. We frequently failed, but it didn’t matter. We watched a young guy painting in the grounds of Ta Prohm, abstract brush strokes building temples in seconds. We ate crisps. Drank liters of water. Tried not to notice the restoration work, the stones now clean and placed neatly atop one another like lego, like new. It’s stupid but the stonework loses something in the cleaning, the reassembling. It no longer looks ancient, inspires less wonder. It’s harder to connect with the great age of the place, and the incredible effort it must have been.
We cycled back at dusk, darting through tuktuks, motos, cars, vans, coaches. An exhilarating way to experience Siem Reap at rush hour. Almost collided with a slow-moving motorbike.
I can’t give a proper description. Apols. It was otherworldly, exciting, dreamy. I could’ve stayed there for weeks just looking. But we needed to move on: we’re on a schedule, there are other places to see and not nearly enough time.
Next stop: Phnom Phen for some atrocity tourism.
Be there or be elsewhere.