*whirrr, click, chonk*
I’m staring at a drop down movie screen as a new slide appears, a stone bas relief of two bare-breasted women.
“And here’s another pair of lovelies,” chirps the professor. I glance over at my friend Gordon and we do a tandem eye roll as we take notes. We’re sitting in a large theatre classroom in a survey course called Eastern Art, not something we’re really interested in, but in our strict liberal arts university curriculum it ticks several boxes of required credits, and most importantly, fits into the increasingly tight upperclass schedule of our major in filmmaking.
Week after week I dutifully memorize the faded and scratched slides and filter out the tired jokes and sexist comments of the tenured professor, who often seems as bored as we are. One day a slide appears that gets my full attention. It’s a monumental stone structure being devoured by the surrounding jungle. Subsequent slides show closeups of intricate carvings and I’m transfixed. It’s spooky and beautiful and I learn that this is Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex. I know I’d heard about it, perhaps in a National Geographic magazine, but still, even these worn slides are enough to spark a lifelong interest in ancient architecture.
It’s forty years later and we’re on our way to see the extraordinary ruins of Angkor, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jack shares my interest in these archaeological wonders and we plan three full days to explore the park, which covers 100 square kilometers. Part of me worries we’ll tire of temples and carvings after one day.
We opted out of joining the inevitable crowds on the day we arrived in Siem Reap and instead booked a tuktuk driver for the following day to take us to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. That involved a 4:45am departure from the hotel and a long queue at the main ticket office where we bought our three-day passes complete with photo, and don’t we look cheerful and law abiding at 5am before coffee! With ticket lanyards around our necks we were dropped off at the main gate and only then realized that a flashlight might have been a good idea. We hobbled gingerly over the uneven ground in pitch darkness until we could just make out a small group of people perched on a stone wall, obviously camped out for dawn. We couldn’t see at all where we were in relation to the temples but we found an empty spot and settled in to wait for daylight.
When the sky turned pink we saw that we were outside the city walls, not exactly where we would have liked. We grabbed our packs and hightailed it onto the wobbly floating causeway over the moat and through the nearest outer gate as the sky got brighter and brighter.
We didn’t realize until we were inside the outer walls how massive the space is and it took nearly half an hour to make our way through the inner gate and along the main boulevard to the distinctive three pagodas of the temple itself. All the while tears were streaming down my face in disbelief that I’m finally here, and at the sheer magnificence of it all.
For the first time since Bali I feel at home and in my element. Angkor, and Cambodia in general, is largely Buddhist, although much of the temple iconography combines elements of Hinduism in a confusing mixture. I think most westerners assume the two are interchangeable, and in history and geography they are related, but Hinduism is polytheistic and Buddhism is atheistic, so seeing images of both in the same place is confounding. If you’re interested, there’s a quickie comparison here.
We spent several hours exploring the narrow passageways and open courtyards of Angkor Wat, occasionally eavesdropping on a tour guide. We decided against a guide for ourselves because we like to move at our own pace and find that more time at fewer stops works best for us. Those first few hours saw us pretty much mouths agape as each corner or doorway revealed a breathtaking view or stunning art. It was our on location survey course and we made little attempt to sort out the fine points of what we were seeing and just surrendered to the beauty and wonder.
In the middle of the temple a Buddhist monk offered blessings in exchange for a donation towards the upkeep of the many statues of Buddha throughout the grounds. I eagerly joined the short queue. The monk tied a braided yarn around my wrist and chanted a prayer while dousing me with water and flower petals. At the end he said, in English, “Long life for yü!”
From Angkor Wat our tuktuk driver took us through the South Gate of Angkor Thom to Bayon, then on to two more temple compounds before dropping us off mid-afternoon at the French bakery near our hotel where we decompressed over coffee and pastries. It’s obvious we’ll need to pace ourselves in the next two days and we made an effort to prioritize the sites we want to see most.
A few interesting conversations: A guide overheard us talking and asked where we’re from. He told us few Americans visit Angkor, and that the greatest number of tourists come from China and France. I heard quite a few Australians, some Russians and the occasional German group, too. Our driver told us later the German-speaking guides cost extra.
As I walked through a long corridor I overheard an Indian woman ask a guard when the temple changed from Hindu to Buddhist. He didn’t understand her question but I stopped to say I was also puzzled about the two religions sharing the space and we chatted for a few minutes but didn’t come up with an answer. That mystery will have to wait for another day.