South East Asia on a Hamstring – March 11

Angkor Wat, Cambodia – March 11, 2000

I crawled onto the minibus in the dark. We left promptly at 5:30am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.

Again, the sun was not up for cooperating. Angkor Wat became slowly less gray in the hazy morning, disappointing the hundred or so tourists that waited with tripods and cameras.

We saw a vibrant, red sun over the ruins for about 20 seconds before it disappeared behind a cloud. I gave up and went into the Wat, scrambling around the ruins and struggling up the narrow steps to the highest point.

The funny thing about Angkor Wat and most of the other ruins of ancient civilizations is that they are all quite similar. The Incans, the Mayans, the Egyptians and now the Khmers – all built these vertical, triangular monuments to their gods. Briefly, I wondered about the influence of aliens and then decided that humans just think alike instead.

Angkor Wat is, of course, the central temple of the 100 or so Khmer temples and monuments built between the 9th and 13th centuries in the area now known as Siem Reap. “The world-famous temples of Angkor constitute one of humanity’s most magnificent architectual achievements,” according to Lonely Planet and most other sources. Angkor Wat and its sister temples rate up there with Macchu Picchu, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Staten Island Landfill and the Great Wall as “must-see” sites of the world. Pol Pot’s regime and the instability that followed kept Angkor Wat off-limits for 25 years or so, but tourists have started to dribble back in since the capture and subsequent death of Pol Pot in 1997.

Back at the hotel I ate a banana pancake and Stuart, who hadn’t bothered to go for the sunrise, admitted that it wasn’t really the right time of year for spectacular sun action. But he hadn’t wanted to discourage us.

After going back to the ruins for a second look, I hopped on a motorcycle taxi for a ride to town to the Bangkok Airways office to track down my plane ticket from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Intrepid hopes to eventually offer the Siem Reap-Bangkok bit as an overland option, but until now, the roads haven’t been very good and it hasn’t been considered a safe area to travel in. After our trip ended in a few days, Stuart would go off to research Cambodia and perhaps the next Intrepid brochure would feature more Cambodian options.

My moto driver, Mr. Han the Official Motorcycle Driver (according to his embroidered t-shirt), took me back to the “Old Market” and dropped me off. He made a great show of his misgivings when I pressed a dollar for his services upon him. He only wanted half a dollar, but I had no rials to give him, and the rial currency is used whenever the amount is not an even dollar.

The market sold typical Asian market materials – food, housewares, clothing, strange meats – as well as the obligatory tourist products. Tourists were welcome to drop by and haggle for reams of cloth, silver dishes, embroidered bags, ornate compasses, or Tin Tin t-shirts.

Tin Tin has really come into his own as a t-shirt star in Asia. According to the local t-shirts, Tin Tin has visited both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. He was also ubiqutous in Thailand and Vietnam (although hasn’t hit Laos big yet). He looks a little strange on most of the shirts and in Cambodia they appear to be confused as to his skin color and hairstyle but you always know that it’s Tin Tin because the logo invariably says so.

I purchased a few Tin Tin shirts – one in brown skin, one in orange skin and one in pink skin – and decided that they beat those “Hard Rock Cafe” shirts that people are always wandering around in. I had suggested a new Tin Tin design the night before – Snowy on a

spit in Vietnam – and had been promptly shouted down by my dog-loving group.

We spent the afternoon following our local guide, Mr. Omnoth, from ruin to ruin. We saw giant stone gates through mountains, terraces featuring stone elephants, the temple of Bayan, more limbless beggars and finally the jungle temple of Ta Prohm.

According to the guidebook (all right, I admit that Lonely Planet’s “South-east Asia on a Shoestring” is pretty good), Ta Prohm has been “left exactly just as it looked when the first French explorers set eyes on it more than a century ago.” This isn’t strictly true, unless the unruly jungle just happened to be polite enough to not grow vines across the paths and throughways.

Still, Ta Prohm is a crumbling beauty. Its walls sag under the enormous weight of giant treetrunks, their roots inextricably linked to the stone. Vines and moss cover the walls and the jungle canopy overhead is lush and green and rich with the sounds of cicadas and birds. It is right out of the movies, or maybe I have that backwards. I pulled Mr. Omnoth aside.

“This,” I said, “is the best temple.”

“No,” replied Mr. Omnoth. “This is the second-best temple. Tomorrow we will see the Pink Temple. That is the best temple.”

I was skeptical. W. Somerset Maugham had agreed with me when he visited Angkor Wat before the second World War. Could we both be wrong? I was going to find out in the morning when we visited the competition.

We hurried back to Angkor Wat to have another go at the sunset thing.

Groups of Buddhist monks, draped in their orange sheets, were visiting Angkor Wat and snapping photos. They posed for photos with us while their fellow monks shot pictures and then we asked them to return the favor. Paul, our young Australian, asked the monks to pose “like this.” He struck a Backstreet Boys pose, crossing his arms and leaning over.

The monks murmered amongst themselves and said a firm no. Paul look disappointed and the monks and tourists shared a laugh.

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