My day in Angkor Wat was as near a perfect day as I could have imagined. I was up before dawn and went into Siem Reap town centre for breakfast. I‟m a coffee addict and this one was special. It came in a small, steel container filled with grind and water and the coffee dripped into a cup beneath. The result was a thick, nutty and super-strong coffee that was sensational; why isn‟t all coffee made this way? Two cups later and I was jumping. Add this to hot „pho‟, a noodle beef broth with liberal amounts of chilli, Thai basil and bean sprouts, with the temperature already at 28 degrees at just 7.30am, and you have one of the world‟s perfect breakfasts.
Angkor Wat is usually explored by hiring a motorcycle driver and shooting around the complex. Tourism is clearly the biggest income of Siem Reap and everyone wants to be your driver. I found a keen young guy called „Mr Go-Go‟; (that‟s how he introduced himself! “Hi! What‟s your name?” “Just call me Mr Go-Go!” “Er, is that your real name?” “Sure! I‟m Mr Go-Go!”) and off we rode to the temples about 10km out of town. Angkor Wat is the name that people use as an umbrella term for the temples in this area of Cambodia; however, the temples here are in fact a huge complex of temples, only one of which is actually the temple “Angkor Wat”; the name sticks as the collective label perhaps because it is the most famous of the many temples in the region. I decided to leave Angkor Wat until last and let Mr Go Go direct the order of events. We hit the smaller, less well known temples first.
The temples are incredible! They were generally built in the 11th or 12th century and are magnificent. They are generally constructed out of huge ancient blocks of stone (each block around two cubic metres) and built to several stories high without mortar. The blocks are then ornately carved with images of Buddha, Hindu Gods such as Vishnu and scenes from history. There‟re at least 50 of these temples in the area, about one kilometre apart from each other, surrounded by thick forests. There are lots of tourists visiting the temples but it‟s always possible to find some quiet spaces to enjoy. The access to these world heritage structures is unbelievable; you can just clamber off on your own standing on huge blocks of stone; you can touch the temples and step over the fat, giant roots of the unique trees that flourish here. The mystery, like with Stonehenge and the Pyramids, is working out how the Cambodians achieved such a feat of construction and engineering; the sheer will and ambition it must have taken to conceive and construct this incredible, monumental complex that long ago just shows what human beings are really capable of achieving.
That day, I saw Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, the immense water temple Sras Srang (where I met my first of many sellers; a preternaturally persistent and gifted young salesgirl “You want buy book? Very good book? You want t-shirts? I have no money? I should be in school? You want cold drink? Cold water? Very hot today, yes? Ed, you said you would buy book?” “Okay! I‟ll buy it!”), the tree-root infested Ta Prohm, climbed the steeply terraced and mighty Ta Keo, Chau Say Tevoda, the wonderful, small but perfectly formed Thommanon, the phenomenally huge Angkor Thom with its four walls and huge gates (inside these walls stands the mighty Bayon (used in the movie Lara Croft – Tomb Raider) and the Terrace of Elephants battleground (a huge lushly green park studded with trees and ornate tiny (relatively) temples with a terrace on one side for royalty. Here, elephants used to fight each other for the pleasure of the King!)), the eerie maze-like Preah Khan, and finally, the mighty and awesome Angkor Wat itself, an unfeasibly enormous walled complex surrounded by the biggest moat (200m wide) I have ever seen, with perfectly still, mirror-like waters, and accessible only by a bridge. Angkor Wat is the biggest religious building in the world, bigger than the Pyramids, and way, way, way bigger than any Cathedral or Mosque. The four outer walls are a kilometre long each! And once inside it‟s a long walk to the temple itself which is styled on the Hindu Mount Meru, the Home of the Gods. The temple is set on a terrace and there are three rectangular galleries rising to the pinnacle, a central tower. “Stunning”, “magnificent”, “jaw-dropping” don‟t even come close to adequate descriptions! I finished my tour with a walk up a hill behind elephants to the highest temple ruin in the complex where, with about a hundred other travellers, I watched the sun set over the surrounding forest which extended all the way to the horizon. The Temples of Angkor are truly phenomenal – one of the greatest things I have ever seen; up there with Machu Picchu and the Bolivian Salt Flats. It‟s the apex of Cambodian and Khmer culture and justifiably immortalised on the country‟s banknotes.