Little did I know when I arranged to visit Cambodia that I would be doing so during the Khmer New Year celebration. While the crowds at the temple ruins are bad on any day, the traffic during the New Year is truly horrendous, so I have concocted a plan to avoid the worst of the crowds. I will rise at dawn and be at the site by 6AM, investigate the temples until 10:30 or 11 AM when the tour buses start arriving, then escape to my hotel and lay around the pool until late afternoon. Around 4:30 PM I will return to Angkor Wat to (hopefully) see the temple bathed in the golden light of sunset. This plan also has the benefit of keeping me out of the worst of the midday heat.
I began the day with a visit to the enigmatic Bayon ruin within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom. Into each of the mythic towers of the Bayon four Buddha heads have been carved, one facing in each of the cardinal directions. The effect, unsettling at any time of day, is even more so at dawn, with mists rising and curling up into the towers, alternately hiding and revealing the 356 eyes that watch from the 178 giant carved heads.
The meaning of these heads is still a mystery and experts cannot even agree on what religion they represent. The best they have been able to do is to identify three types of heads – the long narrow face; the round face traditionally associated with royalty; and the square-jawed face. Even within these distinctions, the right and left sides of the faces do not match and speculation is that each of the heads were fashioned by two different carvers, one that specialized in the right side of the face and another that specialized in the left side. Beneath each of the heads, passageways lead from one side of the tower to the other, crossing through an ever-narrowing series of doorways, then out again through ever-widening doorways. Each of these doorways is located precisely so that it frames one of the giant heads in the distance, thus the effect is like looking at an image through an never-ending series of mirrors.
After a brief stop at the Elephant Wall, with its long procession of elephants carved into the sandstone, I headed for Ta Prohm. While Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples, Ta Prohm is the favorite of many. Nicknamed the Jungle Temple, it features giant trees that took root as seedlings in the cracks between the temple roof blocks and grew downward over the centuries, sending their roots downward in search of soil and water. This ruin seems eerily familiar to many tourists until the guides explain that Ta Prohm has been the set for numerous movies, including Anglina Jolie’s Tomb Raiders and Harrison Ford’s Temple Of Doom.
By the time I reached the ruin of Ta Keo I was getting templed-out and this particular ruin didn’t look like it offered anything out of the ordinary, so I decided to concentrate on photos of the landscaping crew at the site, along with their ancient bicycles that were scattered about the grounds. Mostly made up of women, the crew was raking huge piles of dead leaves onto large canvas tarps. When full, two women grasped the tarp by its opposite edges and hauled it to the edge of the forest. I motioned to my camera, asking permission to take their photos. Although shy about granting permission, they eventually agreed.
After each photo I exclaimed, “Good!” motioning them to come over and look. Each of them peered into the digital display, their eyes growing large with amazement, and said “oooh!” Then they would cover their mouths with one hand and giggle while pointing to the photo with the other hand and commenting on it to their friends. I did this countless times and the result was always the same – they were astounded at the images of themselves. After each encounter I placed my hands together in front of my heart and bowed in the traditional manner of showing respect. I made some friends there, I think.
After my afternoon break I headed back to Angkor Wat, fervently hoping for a good sunset. I was not disappointed! Made me feel like I have the world at my fingertips – literally!