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16 June 2015

Tuesday, 16 June 2015: Angkor Wat Sunrise and More Temples

4:30am. That was my scheduled departure time. I was scheduled to be taken by a tuk tuk driver from my guesthouse/hostel to Angkor Wat to see the "can't miss" sunrise over the ancient and famous temple. So I somehow responded to my phone's alarm and made it downstairs to be picked up.

I had the same driver as yesterday, Van (or Vaughn?). He knew exactly where to take me, but thanks to language difficulties, we didn't get to talk much.

It was a 15-minute ride. Because I had bought the 3-day ticket, we skipped the ticket office, merely stopping to get my ticket validated. The first streaks of sunlight were piercing the stratosphere as I arrived at Angkor Wat.

I wasn't alone. A steady stream of tourists poured out of tuk-tuks and buses. A row of 7 Cambodian employees used flashlights to check each person's ticket as they rushed, on uneven stones, across the moat into the sprawling temple complex.

Through the entry gate and into the pre-temple yard. Two ponds (more like giant puddles) lay there; a solid mass of people crowded around the left puddle.

The right pond, however, was open. So there I went. The view was similar. The water was equally invested with insects buzzing from the water. The sky slowly transformed as dawn broke.

It was beautiful. The grand silhouette of Angkor Wat reflected in the water (even if the water was shallow, muddly, and full of mosquitos). I'm sure it's much more picturesque toward the end of the rainy season.

As the actual moment of sunrise approached, crowds gathered around me on the right puddle. A Spanish-speaking father and his two sons sat to my left. A German man claimed my right side, and his girlfriend choose a spot a meter or two in front of us.

The serenity of the moment was broken. "Excuse me," barked the Spanish man. "We are trying to take pictures, and you are in my view."

The German recoiled and moved back toward her boyfriend. "I'm sorry, is this ok?"

The man grunted, still obviously angry.

"Where are you from?" she asked, in a forced politeness that made me grit my teeth.

"Colombia," he answered.

"We are from Germany. I am sorry again. No hard feelings?"

"No, no, it's ok." He forced a smile.

"It would just be too bad to start a day with such a bad feeling, no?"

She was right. And the tension was diffused, albeit with a dose of awkwardness. But awkwardness is entirely one-sided and doesn't stick with you as long as anger. She understood this, and even though I said nothing, it made me smile as well.

So, big surprise: The sun rose! With daylight, it was time to actually tour the premises. I was especially eager to see as much on this day before the heat of the day became unbearable. So I started moving while most people were still snapping photos of the sunrise.

I ignored all the poor hawkers coming up to me and saying in broken English "hello sirrrr, you have breakpast!" while waving menus of coffees toward me. Determined, I walked to and around the Wat.

There are open spaces, but no "grand view" of the temple that made for a great photo.

Wat means? I had to recreate my famous photo from the Taj Mahal in 2013.

I relied on other tourists to take my photo, which never results in the best photos. I mean, they just want to take your photo and go on, anyway. The best travel partner is someone who knows how to take good photos, especially of you. A photo-savvy friend who knows not only your good angles, but takes great candid shots.

Short of this, I resorted to using my camera's 10-second timer to make photos of myself. Even if this involved getting accidentally photobombed

But what about the Wat? It is big, old, with crumbly stones and uneven pathways everywhere. Inside, it did not impress me that much, because I had seen this same kind of layout before, multiple times, at the other temples/sites I had visited. However, I did notice that Angkor Wat was the most well-maintained. There were very few piles of stone rubble lying around. Much of the interior was cleaned; no signs of any plants overgrowing the structure, nor insects/lizards around.

There were a few chambers that had buddha statues decorated, along with the locals there who wanted to lead a prayer for you ("for good fortune"), similar to what I experienced yesterday. But I would have none of it.

It was nevertheless impressive to think about the significance, historically and culturally of this site; I was also taken aback to think about how much history the world had seen during this building's lifetime. I can't think of other 12th-century sites that are as impressive or as well-preserved. It is truly a gem for all humankind to discover.

I reflected on this fact and also rested to cool down; even at 7am, the sunlight was already bearing down on me and my sweat had started to pour.

But that was that. Since I didn't hire a personal tour guide, I didn't get the full story on what each room meant, etc., but I didn't feel I needed to. I got a strong feeling of history and reverence from just being there and touching the 800-year-old stones.

I found my way out and back outside the gates, where I was greeted by some playful primates.

So onward we drove. It was only around 8am but the sun was bright and the heat building as if it were midday.

Next stop was Angkor Thom, which is the actual capital city within the broader Angkor complex. First stop is Bayon, the central temple of this city and known for having lots of stone faces on its exterior.

The nose-to-nose thing is apparently a thing. Although, I would never wish 700 years of facial erosion on anyone. Most of the faces seem to have endured quite well.

Bayon was mostly uncrowded. I was approached by a friendly Cambodian who told me where to take pictures for good views. It was only after the second viewpoint that I realized that his routine was way too rehearsed to be authentic. I didn't mind though; I was getting good shots and enjoying my visit quickly. A couple dollars wouldn't hurt me anyway.

I thanked him and paid him; then I finished my visit, climbing up to the top of the temple (this would be a recurring theme). I then proceeded to the next temple: Baphuon.

This temple was similarly magnificent, with ancient stones forming a towering center. And equally impressive were the steepness of the stairs ascending to the top. Going up and (especially) down these in my half-recovered, ever-exhausted, sweaty state was not straightforward at all.

Was pretty, I walked around and followed the visiting route, which led me outside the temple (and a view of the big 15th-century reclining buddha that had been constructed there much later on). I trekked quickly through some gardens/jungle before the next attraction.

The Phimeanakas was, frankly, one of the least impressive of the temples. Turns out, it is one of the oldest. Didn't know that at the time. Oops.

Ok, it was now nearing 9am and it was really hot. My brain was starting to fry, and bullets were emerging from my forehead. I then just started taking pictures and didn't really care what I saw. There were few other tourists around anyway.

I made it back, and my tuk tuk driver noticed me and brought the cycle right up to me. He was smiling and joked that "it's hot?"

I skipped breakfast, deliberately. I had no appetite and knew that I had been gaining weight anyway.

We drove on to the next stop: Ta Keo. There was another tower, which I (perhaps foolishly) climbed. Meh.

Then, to the next temple: Ta Prohm. This "Tomb Raider Temple" was undergoing renovation work that made the entire interior courtyard off-limits to visitors.

It was already 10am, and I was changing hostels, so I needed to check out of my room by 12pm. This added an unnecessary layer of urgency that did not help my sweating problem.

Drove to the next, and hopefully final stop: Banteay Kdei. As always,my driver dropped me off outside and told me that he would be waiting for me right outside the entrance. So I kept my bag with him, as I had been doing at each previous temple, to lighten my load.

Another temple, lots of ruins, many rooms. Luckily this one didn't have any towering staircase for me to climb. Just another tree growing over the ruins.

I was all templed out and wanted to get back, so I returned to my tuk tuk. Except that my driver wasn't there. I walked around the entire tuk tuk parking lot, and none of them were mine. Maybe he went to fill on petrol? Or food? I waited for 15 minutes in one of the few shaded areas.

"You lost your driver? Maybe he left you," said one of the nearby drivers. Great. "Or maybe he's waiting at the other entrance."

Of course! It was already 10:45 and I wanted to get out of there, so I walked briskly back into the temple and through it to the back exit. (Mind you this is a 1-2km walk in total, in extreme midday heat.) I walked through the gate and there was - no one! Execpt another woman who was waving her cheaply made clothes in my face and saying "where you from? I give you special price, best deal. You buy."

I chuffed a blunt "no" and walked away, as I had learned to do to these hawkers. I powered back to the front entrance, wiping away the waterfall of sweat that was pouring down my face. There, in the mass of tuk tuks parked outside, was my driver! He pulled up and picked me up as if there was no big deal. I told him, "You left me" and let out a smile. He also smiled but said nothing. "Let's go back to the hotel," I said, opting to skip the last stop.

And so I returned to the hotel, tipping him $5. I saw the housekeeping cleaning the rooms already, so I rushed up 3 flights of stairs to my room and started packing. Exhausted and sweaty, I had to take a quick shower, even if it wasn't very clean. I moved my stuff downstairs, checked out, paid my debts, and ordered a ride to the new hotel where I would be staying. And guess who my driver was?

The same guy, Vaughn. :)

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