PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Lure Of Angor Wat

When discussing with Jen what I wanted to do in Cambodia, I made it clear that my first priority was to be of service to the Young Adult in Global Mission program and to her in any way possible and that I had no reconceived expectations.

That said, I added, if it worked out, I would really love to see Angor Wat. Jen responded by telling me that the Cambodians she knew would be most upset if I visited their country and did not get a chance to tour Angor Wat, a place of majesty and beauty that is rightfully a source of great national pride.

We set off for Angor Wat, a 350-kilometer, 6½-hour ride by bus. The buses in Cambodia are of varying quality, but I have by in large been impressed by them, their frequency and efficiency. Because of timing, we took the cheaper ($6) bus there and were the only Westerners, returning on a fancier $15 bus with reclining seats and wifi that had more of the backpacking crowd. Both were great, however.

Angor Wat is located near Siem Reap, a lovely tourist mecca that has a great vibe. There are numerous upscale hotels but also a great market area and lower budget “hang-out” place in the neighborhood of Old Market. We had a great meal and then bargained our way through the market as I bought items to share with others upon my return. Jen is much better at bargaining than I, so I got a few great deals, I think. I am not made for bargaining.

Our hotel was incredible — for $20 a night we had a lovely room with a king bed and a double, breakfast, free transport to and from the airport or bus station, two 30-minute massages and free dinner one night. Oh, and the place had a pool.  With a fine meal for two including beer running about $8, Cambodia is definitely a good stop for a budget traveler.

We arranged with a tuk tuk driver to leave the next morning at 5 a.m. so we could head out to the ticket area to buy tickets — an incredibly organized affair where they process thousands of tickets with your photo on them in short order — and then out to Angor Wat.

Angor Wat is the name of the both the Archeological Park and what is often the first, and most well-known, stops within the park. A Wat is a seminary, or monastery, where priests gather and study. These temple-like structures were built by each ruler as a sign of their connection with God, with high stupas that reach toward the heavens, where the ruler’s cremated remains are placed after their death. Each Wat in the area we visited seemed to get larger with each ensuing ruler, with Angor Wat being the largest.

As we approached it, the iconic spires set against the rising sun gave off one of those views that is every bit as amazing as you would expect it to be. There were some clouds in the area that allowed for shades of pink and yellow that added to the glory.

People arrive at sunrise largely for two reasons. One is because with the sunrise behind it, Angor Wat is astounding at that hour, and the light hits the whole area in a magical way. The other is practical — it is HOT and the humidity is stifling so one wears down quickly with a heat index that goes over 100 degrees early in the day. It isn’t cool in the morning by a long shot, but it is slightly less oppressive.

After walking though the Wat once on our own, I opted to hire a guide because I find that you get insight you would not otherwise receive, and I preferred to have it told to me as opposed to looking up and down from a guide book. I am glad I did.

The guide we hired was helpful in giving us the history of Angor Wat and pointing out details that I would have otherwise missed. One of my favorite facts was that if a Wat was not complete before the ruler died, his successor might finish off the external structure — like finishing  a spire — but not the decorative pieces, like the astounding bas reliefs on the walls. Most of them were complete, but there were spots when you could see the stenciling that had been done prior to the carving that was never complete.

Built in the 12th century, Angor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world.  However, when the rulers of the Khmer Kingdom moved  the capital south to Phnom Penh, in part to get away from continuous wars with nearby Siam (Thailand) and in part to be better positioned for agriculture production and transportation on the Mekong River, the place fell into disrepair and faded into the jungle. It was never completely abandoned, unlike some of the other spots we visited on our tour, but it nonetheless bore the effects of time, weather and neglect.

It largely remained intact during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although they used whatever wood remained. Even though Pol Pot sought to destroy anything connected with religion, Angor Wat was a symbol of the power and ingenuity of the Khmer people.

It was during the Vietnamese rule and the civil wars in the 1980s and early ’90s when smugglers came in and lopped the heads off of many of the Buddhas and statues of the gods because they are easier to carry. The temple was originally created to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu, but as Cambodia became a Buddhist nation, the temple became a  home to Buddhist monks.

The tour was fascinating, and the view from the top spire was astounding. Well worth the steps up to the top. The reliefs told stories of Hindu gods, and our guide helped us understand them more, which was definitely value added.

After our tour — we were there over three hours — we had breakfast. I was amused that the breakfast spots, which was a series of little restaurants linked together under a tent, had funky names. We ate at Harry Potter, Spiderman and Lady Gaga. Jen said it was the way the propieters got you to remember their names when they accosted you as you entered the park. “Come back and eat at Angelina Jolie. I give you a good deal.”

I did find the vendors particularly aggressive around this space, but that makes sense. It’s a place rife with tourists. They encourage you at every stop not to buy from children as it encourages them to sell and not be in school. That was good to see but didn’t affect a rather strong child marketing campaign.

From Angor Wat, our tuk tuk driver took us to a series of archeological sites throughout the park. We saw the main town (the Wat is always away from the town) and  several temples in various states of repair. They each had their own unique character. Most visits involved a lot of climbing on sometimes precarious stairs or steps but the view was always worth the risk. They each had their own

One of the temples had been painfully taken apart for restoration in the 1960s because overgrowth and erosion had sunk it into the earth. But before it could be restored, the Khmer Rouge took over and although they didn’t destroy the spot, they destroyed the plans and maps of how to put the rocks back together, so countless cleaned and numbered stones lay around, as no one knew how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Jen and I were well matched for our tour, since we both have active imaginations and a love for stores like “The Chronicles on Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As a result, we really enjoyed the various entryways, catacomb-like spaces and portals and often kept looking for the magical ones that would take us back in time — perhaps a time before Trump first declared his candidacy — to warn people.

It was hot and exhausting, so we would at times have to sit down and catch our breath (OK, I had to. Jen is much younger.) On one such occasion, I sat down on a rock that I failed to see was covered in red ants. When they started biting, I leaped up.

Throwing modesty to the wind, I threw up my skirt to remove some from my torso as Jen removed them from my socks. For the next while, we kept intermittently stopping as I felt a bit, and we found another ant, and after that was done, more “ghost feelings” of bites and crawling of ants that weren’t there.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm, the site where the movie “Tomb Raider” was filmed.  It was my favorite stop, with overgrown trees that literally encompassed the ruins in their roots. It all felt very surreal. Except for being a bit bothered by a European family that spent over 10 minutes literally doing their own photo shoot at a spot where I wanted to take a photo (reminding me that tourists can be real jerks), it was a truly astounding and peaceful place for a last stop of the day, as I sought out spaces where it was quiet and I could be alone to soak up the majesty, mystery and magic of not just Ta Prohm but all of Angor Wat Archeological Park.

As I was leaving the temple near the end of my tour, I slipped on a wet stone and slowly fell to my knees — my legs weary from the nearly 12 miles we had walked in the past 11 hours — and it felt like an apt metaphor for this amazing, spiritual journey through Angkorean Temples. The place literally brought me to my knees.

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