Lifting the Mists of Time

Temples 6People swirl past in little eddies of noise. I’ve put my camera away, found a comfortable spot, and am allowing myself the luxury of unrushed time. I am simply observing the constant stream of tourists as it flows past with different rhythms, occasionally bottlenecks, and even fizzles out. There is peace and tranquillity amidst the frenzied activity of sightseeing and picture taking. The many temples, each one special and unique in its own way, threaten to become a blur of stones and names: Angkor Wat, Baphuon, Banteay Kdei, Bakong, Phimeanakas, Ta Som, Preah Khan, Bayon, Prasat Kravan, Chao Say Tevoda . . .

The history of Angkor as derived from inscriptions and the existing temples began in the 9th century when the young king Jayavarman II declared himself supreme sovereign. And so began the rise and fall of the mighty Khmer empire; once one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful. Each ruler added to the temples that dot the landscape, infusing it with life unique to its time. The reign of Suryavarman II (1112-1250), builder of Angkor Wat, brought a multitude of military campaigns to expand the empire. Detailed murals at Angkor Angkor 1Wat tell various stories of this period that is now seen as the peak of Angkor’s power and influence.

Trade with India brought Hinduism and Buddhism to the region, and heavily influenced the architecture, iconography and art of the Khmer empire. While Jayavarman VII’s predecessors worshipped Hindu gods, he was a fervent Buddhist, who embarked on a massive building programme during his 30 year rule (c1181-1220). Not only did he build temples, but many hospitals and other buildings across the empire.

The kingdom of Angkor endured until the end of the sixteenth century when it slowly sunk into the mists of time, and gave up the fight against the relentless onslaught of the encroaching jungle. The more durable building materials of laterite, brick and sandstone were no match for the forces of nature, and although worship continued at Angkor Wat, all the temples fell into different states of disrepair. It was only with the publication of the posthumous notes of the French naturalist Henri Mouhot in 1863, that Western interest in the marvels of Angkor was aroused. The slow and painstaking process of restoration began in the early 20th century, with a long interruption during the civil war. In December 1992 Angkor became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 1993 the International Coordinating Committee was established to oversee restoration at Angkor.

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The hard, cold stone that has been carved and placed here many centuries ago presses against my soft skin, as I lean back to soak up the quiet spirituality of dawn. The tepid morning air settles like a cloak around my shoulders, and I inhale deeply, while closing my eyes to listen to the forest around me slowly awakening. Roosters announce the new day with shrill voices, while the bird calls in the forest echo into the distance at a more soothing volume. I wonder whose hands chiselled the blocks of stone I am leaning against, what their lives were like, and what forest sounds greeted them each morning.

On this morning there are creaking bicycles slowly pedalling past on their way to work, with the occasional motorised vehicle cutting through this peaceful hour like a steel blade, reminding me that thousands of tourists will soon find their way to these stone steps.

For now though, flimsy strands of mist hover like a ghostly image just above the water surface, and the smell of wood smoke and mud gently scent the air. I savour this tranquillity as a gift, while watching the sky as it gradually sheds its palette of pastel colours in exchange for a deep golden glow. A lone fisherman slowly walks through the lake of liquid gold to check on his fishing net, moving slowly and deliberately.

Highlights in Siem Reap:

* I stayed for 8 nights in Siem Reap, and it afforded me the opportunity to visit most of the temples in the area at a comfortable pace. I bought a 7 day pass to the temples (valid for 1 month @ $60), and also hired a guide for three days. He made the temples come alive with stories, both old and new, and the $25 a day was money well spent. The rest of the time I hired a tuk-tuk driver (about $15 a day) to take me to all the temples I wanted to see, and who patiently waited for me while I took my time exploring.

* Visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise is wonderful, but you will have to share the space with hundreds of others if the only thing you want from this experience is the quintessential picture of the sun rising behind it. If you are just interested in soaking up the energy of dawn in this magical space, there are many other places you can be alone in such as the south or north side, or even inside the temple itself. Be prepared for a noisy setting even if you find a ‘quiet’ spot, as loud pumping music are blasted from speakers at the parking area.

* I love sunrises and perhaps the most beautiful and tranquil you will see in Angkor is from the steps at Sra Srang. There were hardly any people on the day I visited. I followed it up with a visit to Banteay Kdei, just across the road, which in the early morning light filtering through the trees quickly became my favourite temple setting.

* I went to Pre Rup for yet another sunrise and had the whole temple to myself from 5h45 until the arrival of the first stray tourists at about 7h00. It may not be the most spectacular spot, but it has a great view of the forest, and being alone in a temple as ancient as this when it is still dark, is something really special.

* Siem Reap is a town that caters for every type of tourist, and there is an array of accommodation options (approximately 150 hotels and 300 guest houses). I chose the beautiful Golden Temple Hotel, a short distance from the Old Market and what is considered the ‘old town’ where I was thoroughly spoilt. After a morning or day visiting the temples there was nothing better than coming back to copious amounts of hot or iced tea and snacks by the pool. I whiled away many happy hours reading, while gently swinging in a hammock after a refreshing dip in the pool.