During the course of the four days that I spent exploring the ruins of Angkor, Cambodia, sunset atop Phnom Bakheng rapidly became a necessary ritual.
As the day waned, the tour buses, cars and motorcycle taxis that ferried the day’s visitors around would gather below the hill, and foreign tourists in their dozens would traipse up the stairs, past the ranks of souvenir sellers, to the only hilltop temple at Angkor. Vendors would run around selling cold soda and beer; I would buy a can of Tiger Beer and sip it as I watched the sun go down over the vast manmade expanse of the Western Baray lake.
The flat landscape, an endless plain covered by dense forest and broken by occasional rice paddies, stretched out to hills on the horizon near the Thai border where the Khmer Rouge lurked. Looking north and east, the jungle hid almost all traces of the dozens of huge temples dotting the plain, as it had hidden them for most of the last 700 years.
Only to the southeast did the sunset light up the main spires of Angkor Wat and the waters of the huge moat surrounding it. All around me, the faces of my fellow travellers glowed with excitement, as the enchantment of a day in the ruins erased all thoughts of fatigue after a long day of exploration. Everybody was feeling the thrill of discovery.
Angkor is truly a magical place, and I spent the entire four days there under a sort of spell. Everything about the ruins was special: their huge extent, the number of temples, the sheer size of individual buildings, the quality of the stone carvings, the eerie faces on gateways and temples and the setting of the whole place, surrounded by dense tropical forests, Of all of the manmade wonders that I saw during a year-long trip through Asia, nothing came close to matching Angkor for its overall capacity to inspire awe at the creative artistic talents of its creators.
The trip from Phnom Penh is either by airplane or, for the less wealthy, speedboat. The speedboat goes along the Mekong River and across the Tonle Sap lake at 70 kilometres an hour, while you soak up sun on the roof and watch the fishing villages and fishermen flash past. Once in Siem Riep, there are a host of cheap guesthouses for US$1 a night per person, and a few higher-end hotels as well.
Once accommodation is sorted out it’s time to head to the ruins, which start 6 km from town. Tourists are no longer permitted to propel themselves by bicycle or motorcycle; allegedly this is because of safety fears, but it is more likely to be so that tourists aren’t tempted to evade the main entry gates and thus avoid paying the hefty entrance fees: US$20 for one day, US$40 for three days or US$60 for one week.
Of course, since this is Cambodia there are plenty of US$35 three-day tickets for sale at the guesthouses; they’re counterfeit of course, but since everyone from the ticket collectors to the Governor of Siem Riep gets a cut, they work well. However, since I would rather enrich the Department of Antiquities than a series of corrupt government officials, I bought legitimate tickets instead.
For transport there’s a choice between taxis (US$20 a day, seating up to 4 or 5 people) and a seat on the back of someone’s motorcycle (US$6 a day). Being alone and relishing the chance to cool off in the breeze, I chose a motorcycle; since motorcycle taxis are also the primary means of local transport all over Cambodia, it seemed a fitting touch of local colour as well.
Unless you are pressed for time, or you have little interest in ruins (in which case why would you be here in the first place?), the one-day ticket will likely prove too short. Those with a casual interest might find three days ample, but serious ruins-hounds will probably want to stay for a week.
The twin high points of the ruins would have to be Angkor Wat itself and the Bayon temple. Angkor Wat, built in the 11th century, is a spectacular Hindu temple (later taken over by Buddhists) on an epic scale, decorated with acres of exquisite bas-reliefs. The Bayon is a hulking Buddhist temple, covered by dozens of huge stone faces with enigmatic smiles playing across their lips. The stone faces, with their haunting, brooding expressions, are reminiscent of pictures I’ve seen of the Easter Island statues and are the signature of structures built in the reign of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), Angkor’s most prolific builder.
The main city gates have the same faces facing in the four cardinal directions, and whenever my motorcycle sped through the gates, I always turned around to see the inner face impassively watching me recede down the road.