Cambodia Part Three

I stumbled in the dark holding my tiny torch, tripping occasionally on the stony path that is walked upon by millions of people every year. Crowds of other tourists were doing the same, all of us heading bleary-eyed to the same destination.
It was around 5am at Angkor Wat - the largest religious structure in the world - and I was making my way through the entrance to see the sun rise over its sandstone blocks. It was also the only time in Cambodia that I ever felt cold…
The gateway to Angkor Wat (and the other temples in the area) is Siem Reap - a pulsating city that is now one of the most popular destinations in the world. I had arrived there from Phnom Penh the day before with Petia (one of the other volunteers from the NFO orphanage) after a six hour bus journey, which was broken up by a stop at a sort of roadside cafĂ©. It was here that I sampled the Cambodian delicacy of deep-fried tarantulas. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat the whole thing, I nibbled on its prickly and bitter legs, strangely proud that I had tried it. Though not entirely unpleasant, it did feel very odd to be eating, and so the spider quickly found itself being thrown away.
A few long hours later, Petia and I found ourselves in Siem Reap where, after finding somewhere to stay, we wandered around the local market and arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to take us to one of the temples later that day for sunset.
After queuing to collect our passes (which included our mug shots) we were taken to the base of Phnom Bakheng (a 9th century Hindu temple) where crowds of people were making their way to the top to grab a prime spot for watching the sunset. An elephant too was waiting to carry people to the top on its back.
Having hiked to the summit, we then climbed on to the temple itself via some incredibly steep stairs. Squeezed in between the countless number of people, we gazed out at the vast, green land stretching before us - its trees and vast fields slowly being bathed in the spectacular golden light of the Cambodian sun. The rays crept through crevices in the greying rocks of the temple and transformed the entire area into a spectacular, glowing oasis.
Moving across the sky was a hot air balloon, offering what must be amazing views of Angkor and beyond.
After catching our breath, Petia and I made our way back down the hill, this time with the help of the obliging elephant. With us perched precariously on his back, the huge animal plodded along the path, doing so surprisingly quietly. This led to hilarious encounters with the unsuspecting people walking down the hill who, after taking a quick glance behind them, found us just a few feet away and so darted to the side of the path to avoid a trampling.
Back in Siem Reap, Petia and I had some dinner and drinks before getting our beauty sleep - it would be a very early start tomorrow…
In the darkness at Angkor Wat, before the tropical heat had been unleashed, I waited at the edge of a lily-filled pond in front of the enormous temple, with my camera ready to catch the perfect picture.
Slowly the skies turned from navy to bright blue as the sun rose in front of us, bringing with it heat and life to Angkor.
Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat is to the Khmers what the pyramids must be to the Egyptians. It is a national symbol and a source of intense pride.
Surrounded by a moat that measures 190m wide, Angkor Wat, unlike the other nearby monuments, was never abandoned to the elements and has been in almost continuous use since it was built.
It is filled with elaborate friezes and carved ceilings, and after spending some time discovering them, Petia and I made our way back across the moat to the entrance (able this time to see where we were going) to have some breakfast to fuel our day’s exploring.
After seeing the Bayon - an incredible warren of a temple that features 56 Gothic towers adorned with over 200 faces - we headed to Ta Prohm, which for me was the highlight of my time at Angkor.
The crumbling towers and walls of the temple were overcome with enormous tree roots that seemed to creep down walls and through piles of rocks like tentacles.
Though Ta Prohm is used to accommodating the invading jungle, the temple once played host to a more glamorous guest, Angelina Jolie, who filmed parts of the first Tomb Raider within its shadow-dappled walls. Many tuk-tuk drivers apparently regale visitors with their stories of how they met her.
It was soon the middle of the day and time for lunch (a bowl of noodles) which was had beside a huge, gleaming lake. Children played by the edge it, cooling off in the sparkling waters.
After lunch Petia and I explored the last of the main temples, trying politely to ignore the dozens of children selling postcards and other souvenirs as we did so. We then made our way back to Siem Reap, leaving the temples of Angkor behind us in the dust trails of our tuk-tuk. If the hundreds of others tourists could have disappeared, it would have been quite a magical experience.
Now exhausted, we napped to rejuvenate ourselves for out last night in the city.
After dinner and drinks, we treated ourselves to massages, only this time they were performed by fish. Immersing our feet in a tank full of the tiny creatures, they began to nibble, apparently eating our dead skin. It was certainly odd and very ticklish.
We then wandered around the city for a little while before going back to the hotel. Tomorrow would be yet another early start when we would make our to the city of Battambang, travelling by boat on one of Cambodia’s most remarkably scenic journeys.


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