Siem Reap, Cambodia: Angkor Wat

Nothing could really prepare me for the grandeur of the Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples. It is truly stunning, soul-stirring, mystifying.

I woke up at 3:50 a.m. and was finished with my shower just as J.P. knocked on my door. Everyone else was on time, apparently enthusiastic about what we were going to see as we board a van.

It was still dark as we approached the Angkor Wat complex. Sunrise-worshippers were streaming in from various hotels and guest houses. I didn't know there were this much people curious about the beauty of Angkor Wat during sunrise. J.P. led the way in the semi-darkness and took us in front of the reflecting pool just in time for daybreak.

Angkor Wat's silhouette with its huge five towers gradually appeared like a ghost but steadily built up my anticipation. As the eastern sky became a melange of orange and yellow, Angkor Wat stood before me clearly, looming like a giant apparition. I was speechless. Everyone was. Before I knew it, I had goose pimples all over.


Kun was our local guide for the day, a thirty-something Cambodian whose passion is leading overland journeys around Indochina. With his solid grasp on Khmer history, Kun brought us back to the many battles this fertile country has seen with its succession of rulers and invaders since pre-Angkorian era.

The ruins around the main Angkor Wat complex is located in a wide area of lush tropical forest. Some areas are still off-limits due to uncleared land mines. Touring all the ruins by foot is thus not only going to result in callused heels but possibly an amputation of a leg as well.

We first went through the South Gate of Angkor Thom and into the ruins of Bayon. It felt eerie to be surrounded by Bayon's smiling faces - they're looking at you at every angle. Bas-reliefs on the exterior walls are also aplenty, worth looking as it depict real-life scenes during that bygone period.

Kun had the group rambling through the Terrace of the Elephants, the Preah Palilay - a tower right in the forest - and winding up at the Terrace of the Leper King. By this time, it has become uncomfortably hot and humid but thankfully, our next stop was in Ta Prohm, a monastic complex still creeping with jungle overgrowth. This was in fact the site where a scene of Angelina Jolie's movie "Tomb Raider" was shot.

We went back to Angkor Wat after a delightful Chicken Amok lunch. The group clambered-up steep steps on one of the beehive-like towers which gave us panoramic views of the complex. It's so incredible that people in the 12th century could build a mammoth stone structure without today's modern implements. Thanks to King Suryavarman II, he made sure this temple will rise up imposingly. It did, for about 4 centuries only to be outgrown by the forest centuries later.


On our way back to the guest house, J.P. brought us to the Land Mine Museum, a small museum just off the road leading to Angkor Wat. It's a poignant reminder of what victims of land mines had to go through. Actual victims were there, armed with their crutches, now smiling and still full of hope, selling souvenir items as their means of business.

We all know how Pol Pot and his goons ravaged the lives of so many Cambodians. But imagine what would have happened if Pol Pot, in an act that would have antedated the Taliban's destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas, smashed the Angkor Wat to smithereens as well?

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