Up extremely bright and early, I wished I had scheduled my driver to leave for the Angkor temples at 6am. But he showed up perfectly on time – just as I finished my breakfast at the Golden Banana Bed and Breakfast. We loaded my luggage into the car and off we went for what I thought would be a full day temple viewing.
After over 24 hours of continuous travel and only 4 hours of fitful sleep, one can have delusions of grandeur about their capacity to trek through kilometers of temples. Angkor Wat is not included in the new seven wonders of the world because it is small. Meanwhile, June in Cambodia is not considered the shoulder season to travel because it is temperate. In fact, it is almost oppressively hot and humid.
As I sat eating my breakfast that included curious sausages very much resembling hot dogs on Friday morning, I meditated to become one with the heat and humidity surrounding me. To just let it envelope me like a warm damp comforting blanket so that I might glide smoothly through the oncoming hordes of tourists to see as many of the temples as I could in the single day I allotted to do so.
My skillful driver got me in and out of the temple park entry gate and registration area just before the mobs of Chinese tourists started pouring out of the tour buses.
Day pass in hand we headed out to Ta Prohm – otherwise known as the "tomb raider" temple thanks to Hollywood and Angelina Jolie. Wait a minute, I had said I just wanted to do Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – my woman traveling alone in India PTSD started to kick-in. My driver calmly and wisely replied to my concern, "The Chinese will all go to Ankgor Wat now, you see Ta Prohm first, and no one will be there." He was right.
It was just me and a couple Brits, who still managed to get in the way of my wide angle shot of the entrance. But there were hundreds of digital photos yet to come accompanied by a reverent solitude inside the ancient stone complex.
I walked through the temple and touched the walls and ancient large tree trunks. I chanted with the Buddha statues I found scattered throughout
and felt paranoia as Angkor temple staff quietly followed me as I curved around on the various labyrinth-like paths.
Eventually other people started to appear inside the temple with me and I knew it was time to go. I stopped to take one more picture before leaving – then high-tailed it back to my driver so we could avoid the incoming throng of tourists.
When I left the temple I waved at my driver and made a beeline for the facilities. I found this sign in the bathroom and I could guess what two out of four of the symbols meant so I took a picture.
Then it was time to take on Angkor Wat.
Heaven on earth built by ancient Khmer kings trying to best their predecessors – a perfect place for ambitious street vendors to sell a bright white tourist walking alone with much purpose into the mid-morning sun a hat. You have to be appropriately clothed to climb Mt. Meru, the home of the gods.
Angkor Wat is believed to be the world's largest religious building – and it is still an active temple today despite its being crowded with onlookers like and unlike me. Unlike the other temples of Angkor, Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the elements and has been used, almost continuously, since it was built.
You are supposed to go around the temple counter clockwise because of its orientation to the west. But all of the loud large groups of Chinese tourists were going that way so I went clockwise and found myself in an almost abandoned section of the gigantic complex.
Then I remembered what the guidebook said about bas-reliefs and decided to climb some stairs to see what these were all about.
I saw the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and Vishnu Conquers the Demons – and Krishna & the Demon King. Thousands of figures intricately carved into the stone wall. I heard one tourist ask her uniformed guide "What does bas-relief mean?" and I saw the look of slight confusion and horror on the guide's face as he attempted to find the words to translate the not-exactly-computing question. His answer "These are large pictures cut into the stone." Pretty good, I thought, the woman seemed a little less than satisfied with the answer, but what are you going to do? Language barriers and art history do not really mix.
I took the long walk out of the temple and skipped the hour long line in the sun to meet Vishnu at the top of Mt. Meru.
On my journey I chased some chickens, warded off some vendors and finally made it out the front gate
to a cold refreshing beverage involving tomato, basil and lime juice.
"It's just juice," said the vendor. "I know," I said. "You want mango smoothie – with yogurt." She said. "No, I'd like just juice, no yogurt." I said. Awkward staring. "Thank you, just the refresher juice please." I said again. Smile and slight bow, then 10 Chinese tourists walked in the door and started yelling "Mango smoothie!" and the nice Buddhist monks in the corner left. I got my juice and wiped my sweating face and neck with a cucumber towelette from my backpack. Every part of my body was sticky with sweat including my formerly comfortable cotton leggings and dress. I missed my clothing from India and wondered why on earth I didn't pack my pant suits for this weather.
No rest for the tourist with only one day to see so many temples. I drank my juice and made it back to the car. As we entered Angkor Thom my driver posed the question – "Do you want to see just Banyan? Or do you want to do all three?" The heat of the day was only beginning to boil and my stomach was already growling – because I had just juice instead of a mango smoothy. "How about we do Banyan, then lunch, then I decide if we do more?" I told the driver. My driver said, "OK then I'll park here under this tree. You find me here when you are done with Banyon. It should take you an hour or so." I wandered into the temple without taking much note of the details of my entrance or the tree he was to park under, finding myself immediately entranced by the heavenly faces looking down from above.
54 faces to be precise, on three different levels.
I initially got a little lost because I couldn't figure out how to get up to the next level. Then I decided to just follow the signs that were directing me because there really weren't a lot of people there (it being very hot and the sun directly overhead).
I paused in the shade of the lower level to breathe in some incense then climbed the steep staircase to the next level.
And found myself staring almost eye level at the serene mystery faces.
Eventually, I could not deny, no matter how fascinated I was at the structure, that I was disgustingly sweaty, overly hot, hungry and in need of more electrolytes. In fact, I felt impending sun stroke. It was time to make my way out of the face maze. I inched down the steep staircase from the topmost level slowly, afraid of taking a nose dive with my reduced sundrenched motor skills, and made my way out to first level again. Then I started walking toward what I thought was my exit – but every stone and crevice and face looked the same.
After some minor panic and extra walking around I felt reasonably sure I found my exit and made my way through the obstacle course of stones to get out of the temple and found a group of people circled around a monkey with a backpack.
A brave young woman went up to the monkey and distracted it in order for the owner of the backpack to grab said backpack and take it away. He abandoned the fruit the monkey had found within. The monkey was not happy about losing the backpack and almost attacked us all, but he got the fruit in the end, and decided to cut his losses and retired into the shade of a tree to eat his bounty.
After the monkey incident I realized I was in the wrong place. My driver was no where in sight, and it was obvious that I had chosen the wrong door. I made my way back into the temple through the stone obstacle course with my now hurting feet and searched for clues to my exit. I couldn't remember any landmarks so I just kept walking around and peering out of the temple "doors" until I found my driver.
Just as my blood sugar was critically low and sun exhaustion was really kicking in I found my driver and stumbled out of the temple. I pretended to be perky and he took me to a "lovely place" for lunch. I didn't argue for something that would be more authentic – as I would eat anything at this point. I had the best green mango salad, chicken wing and rice combo ever. Although anything I ate at this point could have been the best ever – the chicken wing really was spectacular with some type of sweet, sour and and umami action going on and perfectly crisp in my fingers and teeth. The sour of the salad was balanced by notes of basil and peanut and I was happy as I sipped my cold beverage. At lunch I realized that despite all of my intentions to see more of the temples, I was done for the day. It was too hot, I was too tired, and it was really time for a shower.
I headed to my new lodgings where my writing and photography workshop, the purpose for this trip to Cambodia, would be taking place. It was luckily already time to check-in. I paid my driver, wished him the best of luck, and entered the front doors of paradise. The staff of the Viroth Hotel handed me a cold wash cloth soaked in something that tingled and cooled my face and allowed me to wash my sticky sun screen and bug dope covered hands, then handed me a tamarind cooler in a champagne glass to enjoy during my check-in process.
They brought me up to my suite. Were my eyes deceiving me or could you fit my entire room at the Golden Banana into the bathroom of my new accommodations? Jimbo and I were definitely moving up in the world. This was going to be an amazing retreat.