It was a cheap calendar that first sparked my interest in Cambodia’s famous ruins. I’d prefer to be harbouring a deep-seated Khmer history obsession, but the calendar offers a more simple brand of inspiration.
So, from June last year, after a month staring at spindly plants entwined with ancient stones, I was aching to see the Angkor temples in Cambodia. Of course, I had no idea what the temples represented, or if they were even temples at all. In fact, I had no idea what Angkor meant and only a hazy idea of where Cambodia was.
But, my love for pretty things prevailed and today I conquered the Angkor dream.
Along my travels I had collected a few meagre facts about the place from backpackers heading in the opposite direction. It’s not just one temple, as I’d ignorantly assumed, but a collection of temples spread out over about 140 square kilometres. Clearly, this was going to be a hectic day trip.
Another traveler informed me that it’s not essential to see all of the ruins, although three-day tickets are available. The idea of spending three days strolling around mossy, tree-infested stones in severe tropical heat appealed to me as much as one of those revolting fish massages where the fish eat your dead skin.
One day would be enough, I thought, planning to treat the temples like a cheese platter.
With this armory of facts my two Swedish pals and I set the alarm for 4.40am, our dedication to seeing the sunrise as firm as a bitter papaya.
The sunrise, luckily, was stunning. The colours were superb with the ruins basking in the sun’s morning glow. A few pigeons flew noisily around the tops of the temples, greeting us.
The place had an eerie quality about it in the dawn haze. I got the feeling some nice stuff had happened at the place, which was refreshing after visiting the confronting and poignant war museum yesterday.
Once we were at the temple, however, the question we’d been avoiding reared it’s complex head. “What was this place, anyway,” someone asked.
We sat around, struggling to rouse our minds with a strong coffee, watching the colours change, toying with the question.
We pooled our knowledge of the ruins, discovering that construction began in the ninth century and continued for a few centuries after that.
After we exhausted our communal supply of Angkor facts, we began congecturing. Perhaps it was palace for the King, after all it has a moat around it and I could see some horses trotting around the paddocks. Or perhaps it was just a place for the village meetings?
In our confusion, one of the ubiquitous hawkers grabbed my tired mind.
“You want book, lady,” he asked me. “Do I,” I wondered. I nodded, then shook my head, then looked away, then said hello, then asked the price, then said no again and looked away again.
“You’re giving this guy some weird signals,” one of the Swedes pointed out, rather astutely.
I mucked around with the poor sucker for a little longer before settling on $5, which I thought was a good deal. He’d started at $28. But, alas, the next guy offered me the same book for $1. Oops. And, it was far too wordy to figure out what had happened at Angkor Wat, so we decided it’d be best to stroll around, leisurely, making up different uses for the stunning buildings.
Perhaps it had been a paintball field? Or a home for pretty girls to learn some manners?
The ambience of the place struck me, with Hindu-type music playing in the background and the smell of incense haunting our noses. The carvings which were etched upon most of the walls, were incredibly comprehensive, detailing all sorts of animals and deities going about their business.
I could not help imagining the place in all of its splendour, or thinking of the guys who must have toiled for years to make the incredible stones.
At Angkor Thom, the next temple on the list, my jaw dropped as I saw the huge faces that had been molded into the stones far above our heads. The profiles were impressively accurate. It was like a Magic Eye puzzle, seeing the stones and then the faces and then just stones again.
Our expert knowledge came to the fore again as we looked at each other with blank faces, wondering where the temple was with all the trees growing around the rocks. That was the original calendar image that sent me into a fever of wonderlust last June, so I thought I should pursue that.
The book paid for itself here, and we bargained with our surly tuk-tuk driver to take us to Ta Phrom.
For an extra $5 he took us the extra one kilometre. We rode along in our motorcycle-drawn chariot, checking out some smaller ruins and indulging in fantasies of ancient royalty and chauffeurs.
Ta Phrom did not disappoint. The silk-cotton trees (you can see the book coming handy again) had captured the old rocks and twisted them to their will, creating a sense of the time that had passed. The carvings stood proud against the branches, defiant.
I ambled around those ruins like Alice in the rabbit hole, overawed by their size and age. It was a powerful place, for me.
As we debriefed at the cafe, indulging in some cheesy snacks and wondering how we’d been awake for almost six hours when it was only 11am, we shared our impressions of the morning.
“It’s mysterious,” one of my pals pointed out, redundantly. “That’s all I know about it, that it’s mysterious.”
“It’s… ahh… yeah… they were good, I guess,” the other noted.
I’ll put their enthusiasm levels down to tiredness and a bad bout of diarrhoea one of them is suffering from.
I reckon they were bloody fantastic, the best ruins I have ever seen and definitely a highlight of my travels so far.
Clearly, favouring calendars over sleep-inducing history books is not a disadvantage.