Cambodia – Day Two – Angkor & Temples

It was a wet morning, drenched actually. We find Sohm and three other tuk-tuk drivers awaiting people to rise in the lobby of the hostel. Much debate among our peers whether the trek out to the temples is worth it in such weather. With very limited time to travel, we did not really have the luxury of choosing. Sohm bit at the first takers and off we went. Sohm, I would later find out, is a father of three. His eldest, a daughter, had just begun her studies at university. She is studying English and he was visibly proud. The next in line, his son, is in secondary school and you could tell was expected to make it to uni as well. The youngest, his second daughter, is still in primary. For a country that had very recently slaughtered people for knowledge, educations, glasses, you name it, it was nice to know some people were not afraid to send their kids to school.

This topic is not one often talked about, but I would have loved to have some color on the subject from Sohm. He, no doubt, had lived through the Khmer Rouge while young. It was also nice, in my mind, to know that the money we were spending with Sohm was going towards worthwhile causes. Many children are not afforded this opportunity in Cambodia. Either they have no parents looking after them, their parents need them to work for income, or there is no access to schooling. Uni, is quite a feat. As I write about the good sides of having Sohm along with us, he was not much of a tour guide. We arrived at our first stop, Angkor Wat along with several bus loads of Koreans. He ushered us into their group and told us to follow them. He would be waiting by the coffee stands just outside the grounds. We don’t understand Korean, so the tour did not serve us too well.

We walked along a very long and wide promenade across the expansive moat in complete darkness. No guard rails, no lights, just deep water on either side with who knows what creatures living beneath. It is impossible to fully explain, but without flashlights, it was hard to discern how far down the water was from the surface of the promenade. Actually, it was hard to discern where the path edged off and the moat began. If you had asked me before the sun broke on our way back, I would have told you the water was a few inches down from the surface on which we were walking. Wrong. It would have been quite a leap. We split from the Koreans once we made it across and no longer needed to be guided by leftover rays from their flashlights. We wandered a bit, but with it being so dark there was not much to take in. A bubbly Cambodian man met us along the way promising us because of the rain the sunrise would not be seen. Logic prevails. He introduced himself as Bond, James Bond, “You know, double-O seven!” The number of his booth. Others, after witnessing the success of his creativity, had numbered theirs too and taken names from Harry Potter or other western media. His three children were playing on the tables, laughing and poking at one another. We decided to heed his advice and warm up to one of his coffees.

Coffee in SE Asia is a whole thing. They harvest Robusta beans which are more earthy and pungent. Pour in some condensed milk and it becomes a sweet blast of coffee flavors and caffeine. Zoning laws do not exist in the least in most places, this would-be national park has plenty of live-in ‘merchants’ on the grounds. Selling breakfast, coffee, umbrellas and whatever else might earn them a dollar. James Bond knew how to operate, his English was tidy and easy to understand, he carried a large smile and happy demeanor – in contrast to some others. The 007 trick makes the Americans and Britons smile. He offered us Banana Nutella pancakes, but we had not yet gotten hungry and I was on my hell-bent attitude of no western food. We declined, but sat watching loads of Asian tourists, mostly Korean and Japanese, stroll in for the cloud masked sunrise.

Most my photos of this time are dull and gray. You would be better served by National Geographic. Here, Shell and Kalysa smile with the towering lotuses of Angkor Wat behind them. Cambodia, being a victim to the peoples surrounding it and its own mismanagement has had pieces of their history looted. Most of the statues of Buddha lay headless. Thai had come over to steal them and sell them in their ever growing tourism industry.

Later on, I would learn that the moat around Angkor Wat is instrumental to keeping the structure intact. The wet and dry seasons are quite extreme in Cambodia, which can lead to the ground moving ever so slightly as the water table level expands and contracts. This movement should have caused the collapse of such a heavy structure, but the moat helps to keep the water table underneath at a constant level year round. It is essentially a floating structure atop the water table. It would also serve as a water supply through the dry season to both its constructors and inhabitants. The Angkor area was one of the largest preindustrial settlements on Earth with a population greater than 1,000,000 people. At a time when London and Paris were but large villages.

The structures are made of sandstone, a soft stone, with the inner core construction of laterite. Rather amazing how they got them there. Considering the amount of rain this area of the world receives is another reason to be astounded with the construction and staying power of the temples through time. The German government has been donating money to projects to protect and restore some of these temples. The funding has been going through some rough times under corruption allegations. Cambodia has seen some level of upheaval since their latest national election. We saw abundant evidence through political signage, but we seemed to have avoided any demonstrations or clashes that had been going on while we were there. Days after leaving Phnom Penh we read that tanks had been dispatched.

As you can see, the water is not at the level of the stone walkway. It is several feet down. The view behind us is the entrance, not of the main lotuses inside. This place is big. We find Sohm, and head off for our next stop.

The Angkor area is covered with temples and ruins, we had imagined the area to be several square miles. What we did not know, was our next ride would be more than an hour. Honestly, we had begun to fret exactly where we were headed. We simply did not know the expansiveness of the area. We covered a lot of countryside along the way, it was a beautiful ride.

Next stop, the waterfalls and stone carvings of Kbal Spean. We made a 1,000 meter hike up into the dense jungle and this time Sohm guided us to the site. Keep in mind our trip was made during the monsoon and wet seasons. While this did not ruin our days at the beaches later on in our trip, it did make for a mad rushing river here. Many of the carvings could not be seen as they were engulfed in the flow. The link above has some pictures that tell a bit more of the site.

After we got back down from the hike Sohm and I got to know one another. This is when I learned about his children. I was getting myself back together and a woman approached us selling sticky rice. I was hesitant only because I had begun to always say no to anyone selling me anything, which happens about every three minutes. A habit very easily employed since I live in New York. But I realized I could use some calories, and Sohm wanted some too. So we bought ourselves one each. A sticky, semi-sweet stick of rice wrapped in bamboo it is not unlike the local’s Clif Bar. Dense clean energy that is easily packed with a few sporadic black beans thrown in for protein.

We journeyed off once again to our next stop, Banteay Srei. This temple is made of red sandstone which always takes me back my time in Mannheim, Germany. Many of the Baroque churches there were constructed of red sandstone. They were constantly under maintenance for cleaning. Soot from our modern air would collect in the porous rock and darken it. Being a soft stone lent itself to intricate carving, and at Banteay Srei was on very proud display despite being built more than 1000 years ago.

Have you ever seen Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie? Did you know she adopted a Cambodian child after being on set there? I won’t delve into the intricacies of that mess but our next stop is where some of the filming was done. I am sure it brought some needed funding to the area, but as with all western money fed endeavors, it is not exclusively benevolent. Ta Prohm is an impressive site. The jungle has been fighting to take its land back and is most evident here with silk-cotton trees, thitpok, and strangler fig growing over the temple.

This post is of our “Day Two” and is a tour on fast forward. Each stop deserved hours and hours of exploration. Angkor Wat deserved days. Our last stop, Angkor Thom could have spanned weeks. This expansive capital is full of hidden gems. I knew before going that it had much to offer, and a few keen writers had left little tips hidden in their prose for where to explore without many tourists following. We did not have the luxury of time, unfortunately, but this place has much to offer the curious wanderer and gazer. Not to mention archeologist and historian.

This complex served as the Khmer capital in the 12th century and covers 3.5 square miles. I can offer to show you but a minor glimpse. As you drive in, on either side of the road are stone carvings that stare you down. Imagining what this must have looked like when it was most pristine, coming in on the back of Khmer elephants, I cannot fathom the sights and smells.

Each of these towers has four faces on it with lotus crowns. The highest of them would have been adorned in gold leaf. Imagine. Many sculpted images expressing the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of Lokesvara (compassion), Prajnaparamita (wisdom), and the Buddha (enlightenment) were all over. Angkor Wat and many of the other temples were of Hindu inspiration and later converted to Theravada Buddhism, but Angkor Thom is tied more to Buddhism from its beginning.

By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.