The Journey to Angkor: Part 3

Siem Reap, Cambodia 03/'06

Note: First Part HERE. Second Part HERE.

After a filling lunch at a no-name overpriced restaurant on the side of a road (like I said, all restaurants in and around the area are overpriced), we finally headed off to what most people consider the highlight of Angkor Archaeological Park — the majestic Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is a postcard-perfect effigy. Case in point: it sells more photographic prints than all of the other temples combined. Simply put, Angkor Wat is very pretty, which makes it the rightful emblem on the Kingdom of Cambodia’s flag.

[photo via timeout.com.hk]

Flashback to 2005. This photo, taken by Gordon from Tales of Asia (the pioneering definitive source for overland travel to Cambodia), defined my eagerness to visit Siem Reap and see all its wonders — of which Angkor Wat is at the heart of.

[photo via talesofasia.com]

I turned out to love the solemnity of Bayon’s cocooned towers more, but the sheer expanse of Angkor Wat was more overwhelming. It was larger than life. And I literally felt its weight on my shoulders.

We went in through the outer wall entrance and walked on the long causeway leading up to the epicenter of the the 12th century temple’s five towers (arranged in a precise quincunx).

This is one of Angkor Wat’s best vantage points. It is the million-dollar view that has inspired a million postcards.

However, this was the last time I’ve seen Angkor Wat in all its photogenic glory. The two other succeeding visits (10/’07, 12/’10) left this facade in a state of disarray. Sure, restorations are a must, but could they have at least found a way around preserving this beautiful view?

Four years after restorations began, these unsightly green tarpaulins are still covering Angkor Wat’s front towers. A first time visit to Angkor Wat now, may not be as dramatic as it used to be. Because these tarps will bring you straight back to reality. It’s unfortunate for people expecting to see the postcard-perfect view from days-of-olde, which is no more.

[photo via http://blog.travelpod.com%5D

Occupying over 800,000 square meters, no wonder Thom (our guide) slated Angkor as the last stop. This is not the place for lazy tourists. A one or two-hour walk is necessary to get a real “feel” of the place. It’ll also give you some time to notice the little details carved on stone that are easily overlooked when you’re in a rush.

When I saw the vertigo steps, my face must’ve said it all — “Whee!!!” I wanted to climb it all the way to the top. It doesn’t look like much, but looks can be deceiving. These steps have an almost 70-degree incline. Make no mistake, it’s dangerous — which makes it all the more appealing.

My dad put on a stern look that screamed “Don’t-even-think-about-it!” But I couldn’t be bothered. I was already a few steps up when he noticed where I had gone. Helpless in the scheme of things, he then just took out the camera and snapped away at his (not so) little daredevil, then joined me up the stairs to the higher towers. iWon! 😀

Please note that this is no longer possible. Due to previous accidents that caused fatal injuries and even some deaths, the authorities have now barricaded these steps. For people who want to go up the higher towers, there are designated metal stairs installed beside some of the vertigo steps. You will need to fall in line and show your passport and pass to get through.

Our tour guide, Thom, stayed below while Papa and I meandered through the hallways and towers of the upper terraces. We even met a bunch of European backpackers, and asked them to take our photo.

I love this shot. One for the books.

Sweaty and exhausted.

Gorgeous view from the top with the monks taking a rest down below.

After about 20 minutes, we climbed down the steps — which was much harder than going up. When looking down, the 70-degree inclined barely left sight of the steps below. At that point, I momentarily regretted being stubborn enough to scramble my way up, not knowing how to go down. In the end, we did manage to get down by Papa holding me up as we descended slowly. It’s hard to explain. Haha.

Wasting no time, we then headed to the outer buildings surrounding the 5 main towers of Angkor Wat. This is one of the temple’s ancient libraries, where sacred Hindu (and later, Buddhist) scriptures were kept until the empire’s demise.

Here’s our tour guide, Thom (who I think is half-Khmer, half-Caucasian), explaining something to Papa, which frankly, I cannot remember anymore now. Heh.

I left Angkor Wat satisfied, but with a heavy heart, not knowing (in retrospect) when I will be back. (Note: I did go back — twice!)

But the day wasn’t over just yet.

I still had to satisfy one more thing on my bucket list: Ride an elephant to the top of Phnom Bakheng! Here I am with Nom, my elephant rider for the afternoon. 🙂

Yes, it’s overpriced (US$15 one-way) and touristy, but cut me some slack. It was my first time after all (excuses, excuses). Nevertheless, I hope the people who manage this tourist trap treat their elephants and elephant riders well.

Here’s my “stupid look.” Silaw much. Haha.

Papa, being his thrifty self, decided to save the extra US$15 and just climbed to the top of the hill on his own. That’s how we do it in da ‘hood, ya’ll!

Two days later, we were set to leave Cambodia for Da Nang, Vietnam (which was included in our Singapore Airlines package tour), but that’s another story for another post. 🙂

I wanted to ride an elephant again, but Papa wouldn’t have any of it.

So I just took a photo with Prince D’Angkor’s resident elephant.

Last-minute hoarding spree at the New Market… before Papa came to his senses and withheld the ca$$$h.

Last few hours in Siem Reap. Spot the Philippine flag! Pinoy pride. 😀

So, is this the end of my story? Not quite.

I came back a year later (with my mom and brothers), then two years after that (with friends) — which you’ll be reading about soon.

I witnessed the rapid change of Siem Reap’s landscape through the years since I first came to visit. Some changes were for the better, others I couldn’t care less about. But underneath the superficial make-over lies the heart of the place I’ve always known it to be: a breath of fresh air and a culturally-rich respite from the rest of the world.

Needless to say, I will keep going back for as long as Siem Reap (and Cambodia) is on the face of the earth.

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