Thursday, December 11, 2008

Discovering playgrounds

All right, time for another confession: Angkor Wat was not my favorite.

I realize that that is practically sacrilegious to admit, but when you see it on your third day of "templing" in sweltering heat, the kind of heat that pushes down on your chest while your ears fill with the muffled symphony of thousands of insects, well, maybe then it's easier to understand how its sheer size could leave me feeling a bit blasé. Plus, did I mention that this was my THIRD straight day of temples?

Don't misunderstand me, Angkor Wat was, no, is amazing. It's just that there were so many other temples, slowly surrendering to natural ruin, covered in winding tree roots that were much more fun to explore and interesting to photograph. The ruinous ones felt like my personal jungle gyms.

I used the first day of my 3-day pass to explore some of the temples that were quite a few clicks out of town.

Banteay Samre seemed to have been designed as if it were surrounded by water. Between walkways, there were sheer drops 10 feet deep, reminding me of moats and dragons. This temple was also home to a monk, seated beneath an offering and a bowl of incense, who gestured to me with a rather charming smile. Once I removed my shoes and kneeled next to him on his mat, he chanted while lighting another stick of incense, then wrapped and tightly tied a red string of good luck to my right wrist.

The River of 1000 Lingas showcased technical ingenuity. Reached after a two kilometer hike through the woods, I wasn't even sure what I was looking for, until I followed the gaze of a few other travelers to the riverbed. There, carved underneath the gurgling water, were literally hundreds of carvings.

Most of them were lingas and perfectly circular stones, but I also spied some Vishnus for variety.

The icing on my cake was found at the end of the trail. Before looping back to the tuk-tuk parking lot, the trail led me to a waterfall where I splashed around and cooled off.

My second day did not dawn well for temple exploration. I woke up to the pouring rain clattering on the tin roof of my guesthouse. After a leisurely breakfast of stir-fried mixed vegetables and rice (not exciting, perhaps, but such delicious breakfast food). The storm abated and I made my way to "my" deserted temple.

Of course, Preah Khan wasn't completely deserted, but its maze of rooms and walkways, many blocked by fallen walls and columns, allowed me to wander off from the major halls, down, over and around a few piles of ruined stones to find myself completely alone in total silence for minutes.

As I previously mentioned, by my third and final day at the Angkor temples, I was nearly templed out. Though its sheer size and preservation were, I admit, impressive, it was the intricately carved bas-reliefs that held my attention, as well as proved useful as shade from the hot noon sun. Plus, when there's another temple awaiting you that afternoon that is covered in faces, it can be a little distracting.

Bayon was constructed to have hundreds of stone Buddha faces (by huge I mean faces bigger than I am tall) facing in all four directions. For extra fun, the Buddhas are said to bear a distinct likeness to the king at that time, Jayavarman VII.

Vanity seems a small price to pay for such a magnificent relic. Spooky though...I had this weird feeling of being watched.

No food news today, guys. Siem Reap was the city of temples, not of dining. I promise to provide a good introduction to Laotian cuisine in the next update to make it up to you all!

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