I knew there was trouble when I woke up feeling queasy in the middle of the night. After my second trip to the bathroom around 3:00am, it was time to act. I watched Doug go through this for days in Vietnam, and we had one important day left in Cambodia. We had Cipro and Pepto-Bismol on hand for a reason, and I started taking both.
Traveling to the developing world is tricky business. One of the reasons we are taking our time in our travels, and staying at least a couple of weeks everywhere we go, is to mitigate time lost to illness. We made an exception in Cambodia, and now I was facing the consequences of that decision. We were leaving for China in the morning, and thus far had only explored Angkor Wat, the namesake of this whole area, from afar. Day three was supposed to be Angkor Wat day. We had a tuk-tuk reserved for after lunch and were going to stay all afternoon and enjoy the sunset from this enormous temple.
But at the start of the day, I wasn’t going anywhere. Dry toast for breakfast with a Pepto kicker. Nap. Soup for lunch with a Pepto kicker. Nap. By mid-afternoon I was feeling pretty drained, but the digestive distress and fever were under control. This was not going to stop us!! We had postponed our tuk-tuk pick up time, and I was determined to make it, if only for a few hours. So when 3:00 rolled around, we packed up some water and some extra Pepto, and off we went.
Angkor Wat was built in the mid 12th century, at the height of the Khmer Empire’s reign in the area. The temple, dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, is surrounded by a giant moat, and the three layers of the central pyramid climb 65 m (~213ft) into the air. The five lotus-inspired towers are so iconic they are featured on the Cambodian flag. The temple takes up an entire square kilometer, with the exterior wall and moat beyond. Coming down the causeway, before even seeing the temple, just the outer gate is impressive.
Once beyond the outer gate, walking down the central causeway, the central temple becomes visible, its massive size deceptive from afar.
Traveling as a photographer, visiting sites of ancient temples, churches, and historic buildings can be a frustrating experience. When a building is very old, and a tourist attraction, it often needs repairs…which brings scaffolding. Versailles, St. Just Church in Arbois, Munster Cathedral in Bern, the Zagreb Cathedral, the Buenos Aires Central Post Office, the Beehive in Wellington, and now Angkor Wat. This is a much more powerful image without the scaffolding and green tarps! Arg!!
As we walked along the causeway, the wind started to pick up, causing little dust storms to roll across the lawn. The air was cooling and the sky getting darker. My health was not going to be the only thing keeping our visit to Angkor Wat shorter than planned. A storm was definitely brewing.
Once we reached the central temple, we were met with the expansive bas-relief murals that cover the four first level walls.
Hundreds of meters, on each of the four walls, covered in detailed carvings, floor to ceiling. They are remarkably well preserved, with much of the detail still evident. The murals depict scenes of great battles, army marches, and scenes of heaven and hell. As is true for the rest of the temple, the sheer size of these bas reliefs is hard to describe, or capture in pictures. There is no single occurance of anything - it all stretches out in enormous proportions. Never one column, but hundreds.
And the level of detail is much richer than one can appreciate at first glance. There is no smooth surface. Around every central carving are endless delicate details.
As you work your way around the first level past the outer wall with the bas reliefs, the vertical weight of the temple starts to tower over you in impressive fashion,
with at least one of the five towers anchoring every angle as you look up to the second level.
In the gallery of the 1000 Buddhas you can explore old pools, now dry. The images of the Buddhas are all gone as well - stolen by time or thieves. But from the pools, the volume of stone starts to become clear.
When you work your way toward the central tower, you can’t help but train your eyes higher and higher up. The achitecture calls you skyward.
I couldn’t help but take photos of the Buddhist monks seen walking around these temples, their bright robes in such stark contrast, especially to the monotone lack of color in the stone used for Angkor Wat. The monks are used to it, and were happy to pose when I asked (though I liked the natural shots better.) I don’t know if these monks were residents of the local monastery or visiting from somewhere else, but they had their cameras out as much as I did!
While the Wat was built as a Hindu temple, it has been re-purposed as a Buddhist temple for many years, since Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia a few hundred years ago. There is now a Buddhist monastery on the grounds, and monks are frequently seen all over the archaeological park.
Once we climbed the steep set of stairs leading up from the second to the third level around the central tower, we found the four Buddha images, one facing each cardinal direction.
We visited each Buddha in turn, taking in the great views from these high perches. When facing west, we could see the wall on the back side of the gallery of the 1000 Buddhas, past the causeway and reflecting pool, and out to the exterior wall. Knowing the moat still lies behind this wall, the expanse of the grounds can truly be appreciated.
The wind was really whipping around by this time, and the storm threatening to break open at any moment. We could see lightning flashing in the distance. Climbing all these stairs, I was pretty beat, so we took this as a sign to go. I was so grateful we had been able to visit at all!
We descended staircase after staircase, and worked our way back out to the causeway. On our way out, we got to say our goodbyes to the local macaques, taking advantage of day’s worth of tourist trash and discarded coconut shells.
We said goodbye to the temples, goodbye to our tuk-tuk driver, and goodbye to Angkor. We had one quiet night at the hotel, and another bowl of soup for my still-recovering tummy. :-) And the next morning we said goodbye to Cambodia. It was a short visit, but a great one, and China awaits…