5.00 a.m. We stumbled out of our beds and into Narin's car. We weren't the only ones up early. Wending our way around the Angkor Wat moat, we could see the headlights of other vehicles in the dark.
Angkor by starlight
As we made our way into the temple complex, not for the first time I wished we had brought a torchlight on this trip. The temple was not lit and crossing the causeway with its uneven cobbled stones was just about manageable for me. We did our best to keep pace with others who had brought torches, but in the almost pitchblack entranceway, I nearly smashed my face into a Buddha statue.
Once we passed through the entranceway into the temple complex proper, we were met by a sight to behold. We were by no means alone - there were tour groups already there, but all watched in awed silence as the sun rose slowly. The air was surprisingly chilly, forcing HM to appropriate both my spare shirt and sweater, but that meant clear skies. The famed spires were sharply silhouetted against the brightening backdrop with its changing hues. We could only imagine what impact such a vision might have had on the denizens of Angkor in its heyday.
first look, at 5.30 a.m.
and then the hordes rolled in
We decided to leave before the crowds spoilt for us what had been a moving morning thus far.
the Angkor Wat moat
resident of the temple
Breakfast at Angkor Wat
It was time to turn our thoughts to something more mundane but no less important - breakfast! We found Narin in the carpark, or rather he found us. (Throughout the next two days, he would spot us more often than we spot him. Fortunately for us, his was the only blue Toyota Camry; everyone else drove a green one. That and the elephant hanging from his rear view mirror.)
"Breakfast?" he asked, then swung the car around to deposit us at the doorstep of a restaurant just metres away, in front of the temple complex.
well, that's one way to sterilise cutlery
noodle soup with pork
the American breakfast set - omelette with cheese and ham
fruit platter that came with the American breakfast
We were not impressed with the food - again, the soup was MSG-laden - and the bill came up to US$12. As my Cantonese mother would say, expensive and not nice!
The Ancient City of Angkor Thom
After breakfast, we headed for the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Narin dropped off at the top of the driveway leading to the city's South Gate and told us to take our time walking across.
Angkor Thom's famous South Gate
demons or warriors?
It was a beautiful morning - the light was soft, the air was crisp and, surrounded by woodland, there was something quite otherworldly about the place. It made me wish that we could explore the park on foot or horseback. Alas, Narin was waiting for us just past the gate, with the car, a fact that we would appreciate more a little later in the day.
heightening that wonderland feeling
Our next stop was THE face of Angkor - the Bayon temple. It was a good move to forego breakfast downtown. Now, we had a headstart on the masses who had mostly left the area to grab a bite. We practically had the whole place to ourselves and so took our time to climb up and down and around.
the many faces of Jayavarman VII, the king who built Bayon
a mysterious smile to rival Mona Lisa's
the bas reliefs of the Bayon
The Bayon was stunning. Jayavarman's profile at every turn lent the place a surreal quality. The bas reliefs were equally fascinating, particularly those depicting everyday life in Angkor.
the crowds caught up with us
All good things have to come to an end. By 9.30 a.m. or so, we noticed that the tour groups were beginning to return. We would spend the rest of the morning, trying to stay one step ahead of them.
one way of exploring the temples
The other temples in the area were scattered around the Bayon, so we wandered through the woodland, zooming in on a site whenever a tour group left it.
the trees grow tall here
Terrace of the Elephants
on top of the terrace - the road to antiquity
Terrace of the Leper King
Part of the fun of exploring the temples was walking around in the peaceful leafy grounds between the sites, at least it was till the growing heat finally defeated us and we retreated to the comfort of Narin's car where he plied us with ice cold water and wet towels.
Suor Prat Towers
Just before we left, we drove past the Suor Prat Towers. Baffled by the structures, we asked Narin what their function was. He told us that games were held at this location. Ropes were apparently hung in between the towers and competitors would use these like tightropes, walking between the towers. How interesting! (Our Dawn Rooney guidebook would pooh-pooh this theory, calling it "nonsense"...)
We were back in town early enough to pop by Siem Reap's largest and most established craft workshop. Set up first as a training facility for talented young Cambodians, Artisans D'Angkor aims to "reclaim the tradition of Khmer craftsmanship and promote fair and sustainable development of Khmer crafts".
As soon as we arrived, we were whisked away on a tour of the premises by a young, eager English-speaking guide. We went to the stonecarving, woodcarving and lacquerware workshops...
walking in the steps of yesterday's artisans
nothing like a fresh coat of paint
a copy of the real thing
Amongst young Cambodians selected by Artisans D'angkor for training were the hearing impaired.
khmer sign language
Much of the craftsmen's work revolves around reproducing Angkorian artifacts for the tourist market.
How to make an "genuine" artifact - Step 1
Step 5 - voila, a lovingly made reproduction
At the end of the tour, our guide deposited us at the showroom cum retail outlet. The products on sale were by no means cheap but the quality was clearly outstanding, a fact not lost on the hordes of marauding tourists. Never get between a Japanese lady and her silk scarves, we learnt. Anyway, we had the luxury of time on our side; we were going to return to Siem Reap at the end of our trip. We didn't have to buy everything at one shot; we could always come back after viewing what the rest of the country had to offer. That didn't stop us from walking away with the following:
no ugly plastic bags here
Lunch at Blue Pumpkin
It was time for lunch and a rendezvous with the highly acclaimed Blue Pumpkin cafe. We arranged to be picked up by Narin an hour later and sat ourselves down along the walkway outside the cafe.
Everything on the menu looked good but here's what we ordered:
our drinks - a Lolita (apple, ginger, lemongrass, wild honey) and a Garden Party (carrot, red cabbage, tomato, basil, green lemon)
fish amok ravioli
grilled pork and pepperoni sandwich, with yogurt sauce
coconut sherbet and ginger nougatine
There was not a note wrong. The two highlights though were the fish amok ravioli and the ice cream. The ravioli reminded me of a richer creamier version of my favourite laksa pesto from back home and the ice cream, especially the coconut sherbet, was oh so delicious. In the end, despite our distended bellies, we couldn't resist buying something to take away:
ginger bread for a smackeroo
The bill? US$15.75 - more expensive than breakfast, but infinitely more worth it.
The Grand Circuit
After lunch, we hit the temple trail again. This time, we went the way of the Grand Circuit.
Pre Rup - the funerary temple
a closer look
view from above
Pre Rup was our favourite for the afternoon. Austere in its lack of ornamentation, it was a sombre place (that didn't stop us from nicknaming it the "hairy" temple though). We took our time, especially on top where we could contemplate the view in silence.
a quick glance at East Mebon
The afternoon was glaringly hot. Fortunately it wasn't too humid. Still, it was nice to be able to hop into the airconditioning of Narin's car once in a while. As we tumbled in and out of temples, Narin ran a little sideline from the boot of his car - selling shoes, overruns from a local factory, to the other drivers and the local people living in the vicinity of the temples. We watched in amusement as he hocked his wares, although he never failed to put an abrupt end to his wheeling and dealing as soon as he saw us coming.
first taste of tree wrapped temple
It was Narin who told us to run right through Ta Som, to the other side, where we would get a preview of Ta Prohm's temple-in-the-jungle feel.
eh look, so rustic
the long walk in
a friendly passerby
Much of the afternoon's ramble was made more pleasurable by the long walks through picturesque scenery.
Neak Prean - something completely different
a horse is a horse of course of course
first view of Preah Khan
Man proposes, Nature disposes
To end a most rewarding day at the temples, we returned to Angkor Wat for what was left of the afternoon.
back to Angkor for the sunset
the reliefs - the Kaurava army advancing into the Battle of Kurukshetra
This time we had a little more time to take in the details.
Dinner at Khmer Kitchen
That evening, we returned to Pub Street, to look for THE khmer restaurant. We found it, aptly named "Khmer Kitchen".
the flavour of home
pretty plate I
pretty plate II
Here's what we ordered:
khmer soup with shrimp
oven baked pumpkin with minced chicken
Finally, an outstanding meal! We were really pleased with the food. It was simple, yet tasty and satisfying. The baked pumpkin in particular was a revelation. And at US$6.50 for the meal plus drinks (lemongrass tea and a diet coke), it was a steal.
It was a fitting end to a very gratifying day. It was difficult not to be impressed by the scale and grandeur of the temples which time had not dimmed nor nature destroyed, not that we had any intention of denying the impact the experience had had on us. Even HM who would blatantly have sworn that all wats looked alike, she who had not been moved by Ayuthaya's ruins or Bali's many puras and who had initially agreed to but ONE day at the temples, was looking forward to a second day of temple-hopping.