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A tuk-tuk driver’s help exploring Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat; one of the Wonders of the World, and rightly so. Once inside the temple complex, the drive to Angkor Wat enhanced arising excitement and eagerness as we sat jostling about in the backseat of the tuktuk. The temples were cloaked in trees which hide the majestic temples until you have reached the jaw-dropping, best viewing angle of Angkor Wat as the horizon opens up to reveal its imposing grandeur. As we came out of the dense woodland covering, I first noticed the glistening of the moat surrounding the temple, the blue green water reflecting perfectly the form of Angkor Wat which, even to the most unenthusiastic person, immediately sends a smile crawling across your face due to its beauty, size and craftsmanship. Beyond the moat Angkor Wat stands majestically and mightily eluding an overwhelming yet peaceful presence. Five ornately carved and embellished conical towers rise high out of the symmetrical temple towering over the jungle representing a microcosm of the Hindu universe and presenting Khmer architecture in its finest form. Eager to venture inside, we left the tuktuk and began down the lengthy, sandstone causeway lapping up the scenery like excited school children. The sun cast beautiful shadows highlighting its numerous gopuras, the temple obviously far too majestic for just a simple doorway. We entered through the west-side resting my hand momentarily on the sandstone entrance feeling like I was about to embark into a new world or at least a Tomb Raider movie.

Overgrown temples at Angkor Wat

Once inside we were faced with a decision of which direction to take. On either side of us were seemingly endless galleries that ran between the towers and the entrances on either side of the gopura. A bit like the Tardis, the inside of the temple was huge, so large in fact that the entrances are coined the ‘elephant gates’. We chose to turn right, square pillars bordered the outer side of the gallery and a closed wall covered in elaborate decorations of bas-relief friezes ran along the inner side. We ambled along, examining the reliefs intently following the stories they portrayed of Hindu mythology, dancing apsara divinity figures and strong men either battling or proudly sat on elephants. Apart from the floor, every surface, column, ceiling and lintel were decorated and carved in reliefs and carvings of either mythology or intricate, beautiful patterns. Several large baboons raced around the stonework, weaving in and out of the pillars, attempting to untie my shoe and sitting menacingly along the gallery aiming to assert their dominance and protect their territory. Which, to be fair I don’t blame them if my home was as beautiful as theirs! Standing centrally below the south tower is a larger than life stone statue of Vishnu draped in orange fineries and its surrounding area is covered in multicoulored bunting, offerings and the smell of spiced incense which all added to the atmosphere of amazement and wonder. A Buddhist monk stood calmly by the statue tying red plaited ropes around our wrists symbolizing good luck, definitely not taking it off until it falls off! Constant rectangular archways led us through the temple into the next inner layer of the complex. The height of the arches began quite low and gradually became higher as the centre of a crossover or tower approached so that when approaching the King, the subjects were already stooped low in a bowing position.

Navigating around the monkeys, we finally found ourselves at the foot of the inner temple, an endless tower which even by straining our necks, seeing the top of it was difficult although it probably doesn’t help if you’re only 5ft. Steep, narrow, crumbling stone steps to the top dominated the side of the temple almost daring you to take on the challenge of climbing them. Fear of heights and no handrail put to the back of my mind and spurred on by the image of barefooted, robe clad monks doing this climb numerous times a day, I grappled up the steps opting to half lean, crawl and drag myself up by clinging onto the steps above me wincing every time I looked down. The view at the top was stunning and reached far into the distance overlooking the jungle and the other temples in the Angkor complex. After admiring the Buddha in the inner shrine, I psyched myself up for the trip back down knowing this would harder than going up. Pride aside, I opted for the bum bump all the way down.

Steps up Angkor Wat

After dawdling back through the temple and a total of three hours later, we met up with our tuktuk driver and continued onwards through the imposing stone entranceway gate to Angkor Thom, an ancient city housing many more temples. The gate was a sight in itself with fifty-four stone gods on one side and fifty-four stone demons on the other holding the great snake Naga. The tower at the top of gate had a face on each side too that depicted, air, water, earth and forest. Once inside, our first stop was Bayon Temple, representative of the intersection between heaven and earth, which was just as amazing as Angkor Wat. It had fifty-four towers each with four faces on which resulted in a staggering two hundred and sixteen faces staring down at you making you feel as if you are standing amongst a mountain range or forest of stone peaks. All of the huge stone faces were identical depictions of Buddha with a peaceful smile or at least a curl at the end of the lips reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. It took us around two hours to walk around and had many upward climbs giving us more views of the area. It was in more of a ruined state than Angkor Wat as apart from Angkor Wat, all the other temples are left to the elements although, in my opinion, this adds to their beauty. Equally the whole structure is set in an over crowded, tightly packed space which adds to its grandeur opposing how the grandeur of Angkor Wat is its vast structure and spaciousness.

Next we walked to Baphuon Temple, a three-tiered temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. From here we walked along the Terrace of Elephants, a large wall used by Angkor’s King to look over his returning victorious army ending at the Terrace of the Leper King. Named so due to moss and consequent discolouration resulted in the statue of the Hindu God Yama looking more like a person with leprosy which fittingly relates to a Cambodian legend of an Angkorian king who had the disease. Afterwards we had lunch in the market stall area and browsed around before returning to the hotel before the afternoon rain began. Once it had stopped we went out to explore the Old Market and thought it was appropriate to have a pint of Angkor beer! On our walk back to the hotel we passed a village school in someone’s garden offering free evening English lessons to all ages. We stopped and watched for a while until we were invited inside to participate and so an overly enthusiastic demonstration and game of the hokey-cokey ensued along with chanting of the timetables.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

The next day, our tuk tuk driver met us again outside our hotel and by 9am we had arrived for our second day of temple exploring with five to see today.They were in more of a ruined state than Angkor Wat, Bayon and Baphuon temples but with all the dark passages, ruins and overgrown trees they had more of an explorer feel to them which we reveled in and took on an alter ego of a mix between Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. The most prominent temple of the day was Ta Prohm, built in the twelfth century now looking as though it was about to crumble! To walk around it we explored many dark cramped passages and climbed over boulders of stone ruins and enormous tree roots which coiled all around the structure as well. No wonder this temple was used in Tomb Raider! Luckily the rains did not appear today and so we did not get back to Siem Reap until late afternoon. We had dinner on the popular, for tourists and locals alike, Pub Street and had a traditional Khmer curry for dinner. Still not ‘templed out’ we had an early night so we could fully appreciate our last day at the temples the following day.

This time we reached the temples by 8.30am ready for ‘the Grand Tour’ which Preuk, our tuktuk driver was very excited about giving. After viewing five smaller temples our driver invited us to see his village, meet his family and cook us lunch. Being caught up in the moment we agreed and set off on his tuktuk through rice paddies and fields of livestock. Due to almost falling out of the side-less tuktuk on many occasions as a result of swerving to avoid cattle, low branches and ditches, it was obvious that this rural route was not visited by tourists. After about ten minutes we arrived at his house on the outskirts of a small rural village. The terrain was dry and dusty and the mud was cracked from the heat and lack of rainfall so much it appeared like a mass of brown cross-hatchings. A few scrawny cows and chickens wandered around the yard. His one room wooden house stood on stilts and below it was a wooden platform with a few tattered throws and cushions on it. Further into the yard were four wooden poles leading up from the ground to little more than head height with a large sheet of weathered corrugated iron balancing precariously over it. The back and the sides were also enclosed with leaning sheets of corrugated iron and the front side was left uncovered leading into the yard. Under the canopy were a few cooking implements including bowls, pots and pans and cutlery. We were told to make ourselves comfortable on the platform and soon after we had arrived his wife, mother-in-law and six children came down from the room to the platform with the oldest child being no older than ten. The children scurried around us piling more and more cushions on us for comfort, Preuk’s mother-in-law started to make lunch by picking the beans they grew in their garden whilst his wife embarked on a mile long journey to the village to buy a pig. We felt rude not being able to speak their language and thank them for inviting us to their house and putting them to the trouble of making us lunch but smiling did a good job and the blasé way in which Preuk had spoken about the walk to the shop put us at ease. We played games with the children and let them play with our cameras, which fascinated them, and it was a joy to watch them taking photos of each other and then presenting them. After about an hour Preuks wife returned, laden with ingredients and due to the word of our presence spreading behind her were five inquisitive adults and a load more children. After another hour of playing with the children, (tag was the solution to the language barrier problem and worked up a good appetite), lunch was ready. Preuk served us giant helpings of the curry he and his wife had made before sharing out what was left between his family and the locals which made us feel a bit guilty. The traditional Khmer dish of thick, coconut cream based pork and egg curry was set upon a bed of rice and smelt and tasted delicious due to the mixture of spices and herbs such as lemon grass, chili, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. The children all sat around us giggling watching us eat whilst Preuk, his wife, his mother in law and the rest of the villagers sat on the edges talking amongst themselves. After lunch and the refusal of our attempt to help wash up, we played a few more games with the children before getting back into the tuktuk and setting off again for more temples.

Preuk had worked on the partial restoration of one of the temples for four years yet due to no more funding it couldn’t be completed. As a result he was very knowledgeable and proudly led us around showing us tiny details and explaining about the restoration process. After the temples, Preuk drove us to a photo shop to develop some photos of his family to give to him. We arrived back at the hotel around 4.30pm and headed out for dinner a bit later along Pub Street and befriended a local boy selling books. He told us that straight after school he has to start selling and if he has not made $5 by 10pm, he has to stay out until 3am. Shocked by this, especially as he was only eight years old, we bought two books from him and paid for a bowl of ice-cream, which he eagerly tucked into. After dinner, the boy accompanied us for a bit of our walk back asking all about where we were from and what we thought of the temples. Exhausted from the awe of the all the temple sightseeing, the heat and playing with the children, we got a relatively early night, needless to say we were a bit ‘templed out’.

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