It was five in the morning, but the streets showed plenty of activity. Like a school of fish, all traffic – mostly tuk-tuks and bicycles – were headed in one direction. We were all driven by the same urge to get to Angkor Wat by sunrise.
Angkor Wat is one of those monuments, like Machu Picchu or the temples of Bagan, which has added effect when seen in the light of a golden sunrise or sunset. Which explained why so many foreigners were swarming to the site in the pre-dawn darkness. But the problem – which I shall add seemed to bother no one – was that today, there was no visible sunrise. We headed to Angkor Wat as a depressing drizzle saturated the surrounding landscape.
Along with the hordes, we crossed the causeway over the 190 metre-wide moat to Angkor Wat and through the preliminary gate. Large crowds congregated before a murky pond to the left of the temple, while stragglers climbed two cubic library buildings placed either side of the causeway. But as we watched and waited, it became clear that our early rise was needless. We didn’t even know where the sun was as the grey sky gradually lightened overhead.
Perhaps it was those circumstance that led me to believe that Angkor Wat didn’t seem all that much, but I can’t deny that my first reaction was (though I tried to shake it off) simply, “I thought it would be bigger”.
It doesn’t help that guidebooks champion Angkor Wat as the world’s largest religious building. Sorry Lonely Planet, St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City felt bigger than this. My rant may also be tinged with a bitterness that canvased scaffolding covered half the temple, destroying my otherwise atmospheric photographs. I understand that these buildings require upkeep, but I prefer it not to be during my visit.
Ok, Angkor Wat does exude a certain mysticism, most especially in the bas-reliefs that surround the building’s outer wall. These stones carvings of battles and religious occasions are truly captivating and it’s possible to spend a lot of time admiring the details.
But there are many more buildings in the Angkor Wat complex far more deserving of admiration.
There is the Bayon, with its 216 huge smiling faces on each of the four sides of 54 towers that comprise the site. This is a haunting vision. Every which way you look, these faces – a strange blend of harmony and austerity – look at you without seeing you. Unfortunately they are also looking at the armies of Asian tour groups that stampede through the place and obliterate any surrealism you may have felt in their peaceful absence.
These same crowds marred our experience at Ta Prohm, perhaps Angkor Wat’s most beloved complex. Ta Prohm is a series of rambling corridors and buildings all in various stages of collapse and restoration.
Piles of rubble spill into former courtyards, but this precinct is most familiar to fans of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, where Ta Prohm plays a prominant and stellar role as haunted ruins safeguarding potentially life-altering artefacts (… or something along those lines. Apologies to Croft fans: I clearly do not belong in this category).
Yes, I see you nodding your head now as you realise I’m talking about the tree ruins. Indeed, this is where enormous stately trees have grown right over the tops of walls, their tentacle roots creeping over the tumbling brickwork.
They offer winning photo opportunities, only we struggled to capture anything picturesque without a ubiquitous Asian tourist’s cheeky grin sliding into the frame.
It’s worthwhile to escape these crowds by venturing further afield to Preah Khan. This complex offers the same mixture of mossy piles of stones tumbling into ancient courtyards and strangler figs consuming ancient buildings, except we had the place almost to ourselves. The ruins were filled with beguiling yellow butterflies and racing dragonflies and a heavenly stillness rested on the air.
While these butterflies and dragonflies made have eluded our attention at other sights, one of the most memorable scenes I came away with were of the equally graceful locals.
It may be true that some shop keepers, cafe owners, and begging children can be a little pushy. But the locals of Angkor Wat can be just as enchanting as their surroundings if you give them the chance.
There was the young girl cradling a basket of knick-knacks to sell, sitting beside roots three times as thick as her body. Or the painter in Banteay Kdei who learnt his art from an Australian volunteer at the orphanage where he grew up. He had politely ignored us when we walked past, but was happy to engage in conversation after we bought one of his paintings.
And there are the gamelan orchestras, stationed at the entrance to nearly every set of ruins. Played by landmine victims, their exotic music rent the air as we entered equally exotic, beautiful ruins.
Because the fact is that sometimes there may not be a sunrise. Sometimes there may instead by thousands of disruptive tourists intruding on your every photo (and it’s important to remember that you’re one of them).
But what is the point of travel if you cannot overcome these minor annoyances? I had to search harder, but I found the evocative nature of the Angkor Wat complex.
People lived here. People worshipped here. People carved every stone here and they hauled every brick into place. And they did it (in some cases) almost 1,000 years ago.
It can be easy to dismiss that when the sun beats down on you and you’re tripping over rocks while trying to swat away a begging child. But people today still live here. People still worship here. And people are picking up each fallen brick and hauling it back into place. And that makes this complex simply marvellous.