Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In The Hall of the Khmer Kings

Is there a word for the feeling of emotion one gets at finally fulfilling a dream? That initial moment when the dream becomes a reality and you stand there saying “Holy shit this is finally happening!” Well whatever it was called, that’s the feeling I had as we drove into the Angkor Wat park yesterday laying eyes on this amazing ancient site for the first time. Not only was it the excitement of finally being here but also the awe of Angkor Wat itself. It isn’t just one big temple, it’s a whole series of temples and complexes spread out in the vastness of the jungle north of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. For all of you travelers that read this, put this on your list of places to see!
Siem Reap, was a small sleepy town until French archaeologists stumbled across this wonder of the world covered up with jungle back in the 1860’s. Now the town is becoming a city whose main business is Angkor Wat. Big hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores, resorts and spas, you know it they’re building it. Hell why not after years of horror and war, they deserve some peace and prosperity. Did the anciet Khmer kings ever think that their huge city/temple complex would be exploited so and traipsed over by tourists from all over the world? Probably not, but I don’t think they’d mind all that much.
The question going around in my mind is “Didn’t the locals know this was here? Did they care about it or just looked at it as old ruins?” Well thank God for the French to unearth this place and let the world be able to come and enjoy it as much as they enjoyed unearthing it and wresting it from the clutches of the jungle. I’m sure as my days here progress that question along with many others will be answered.
My traveling companions are friends of yore from my Ekaterinburg days over 10 years ago. Luc, Rosie, Elizabeth and I are founding members of the Group Vacation Club and have met up around the world in a whole slew of places from Dubai, Switzerland, Maine and Mt. Kilimanjaro. We used to all live in Russia at the same time but now our homes are cast around the world: London, Manila and New York. Still we manage to get on planes and meet up in various places on the planet. We don’t really recall how this group vacation came together but I do recall being inspired back in June when I was flying to Kabul from Delhi and reading about Angkor Wat in the Indian Airways magazine. Luc and Rosie were planning to come in October, Elizabeth was planning a trip with a friend throughout Southeast Asia and somehow it all came together. Our fifth travel buddy, and new member of the group, Amelia fits in with us and we’re all having a great time. Good traveling friends are hard to find so when you find them, hold on to them.
There is so much to see here that one needs at least 3 days, and at that it’s only the surface. Amazing as Angkor Wat is though, one can get templed out so you need to take breaks. Luckily there’s plenty to do in Siem Reap to keep one occupied. We’re holed up at the charming Maison D’Angkor, a colonial-esque hotel on the outskirts of downtown Siem Reap. Post-templing we gather by the pool for drinks before heading off to a restaurant in town. We have been having some pretty good meals, our favorite being the Carnets d’Asie a fancy mix of French and Khmer cuisine. Friendly, attentive service, good wine list and delicious food. Stay away from Khmer Kitchen, bland food and bad wine. Eventhough it’s recommended in the guide books and Mick Jagger ate there, it’s a forgettable place.
The temples of Angkor Wat and beyond are endless and overwhelming. So much detail and Hindu symbolism, one would need a course on it all before getting on the plane to come here. I could rattle off all the things we’ve seen but it wouldn’t mean much to you readers back home. Intricate scenes from the Ramayana etched in sandstone, nagas (multiheaded snakes), apsaras (heavenly nymphs), lingas (phallic symbols), devas (good gods) and yoni (female fertility symbol). It’s all so overwhelming at times that I shut down. Instead I sit and take in this magnificent place. Back in my hotel room, I read up on what I saw and then it makes more sense. We’ve been traveling around from site to site, Ta Prom being the first place we hit, having to wade through ankle deep water from all the rain to get into the place. Yesterday we drove an hour out to the Kbal Spean or River of a Thousand Lingas (where Luc and I played under a waterfall) and Banteay Srei, The Citadel of Women (thus called because of the fine detail etched in the stone which could only be done by women’s hands. Today is Angkor Tom one of the more famous places to visit and tomorrow we’ll take on Angkor Wat, the granddaddy of them all. We attempted to get up at 4:30 am for sunrise at Angkor Wat but after all the wine and good food last night we decided to sleep in. There’s always tomorrow. The sunsets are as amazing as the sunrises and we’ve caught a few of those. Tomorrow is our last day so we’ll get up at the ungodly hour to experience sunrise over one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to.

1 comment:

John said...

A lot like Machu Pichu - an abandoned kingdom that was discovered somewhat accidentally. Someday after the great ice age that will result as a result of global warming shutting down the labrador current / gulf stream cycle someone will discover this ancient city Nieww Iorke.