As I sit here writing about my day it is with a full stomach and a glass of mango juice next to my computer. I will freely admit that my tank is running on empty but it was such an exciting day. Brian and Nicole opted for the luxury of extra sleep while Araceli and I were ready to head out the door at six o'clock. The temples at Angkor Wat are so enchanting that we couldn't stomach the idea of losing a day. Even with as much time as we've spent there already we've seen just a small fraction of the splendor and we couldn't possibly claim any real familiarity on such whirlwind visits.
So with heavy lids and anxious excitement we departed our hotel. Our first stop was at Preah Khan, the temple of the holy sword where King Jayavarman VII's princely weapon was housed. Originally this was the site of a city, temple, and university where thousands lived. There were reputedly over a thousand dancers who were trained in the Hall of the Dancers and over a thousand teachers at the university. Such a large complex needed a lot of servants, some estimates suggest up to one hundred thousand servants and other such attendants.
Today the jungle has swallowed much of the structure. Hallways have been reduced to rubble and giant trees have worked to pry the temple apart with their roots like ghostly hands moving inexorably to destroy man's creation. As we walked through the complex we passed through a junction and entered an open area where the structure was largely collapsed. Perched on a fallen stone with her offering to the Buddha was a wizened nun. Her skin was the color of mahogany and crisscrossed with wrinkles. She is obviously a woman who has lived through a lot but every line of her face looked to be the result of constant smiling. I doubt she had a tooth in her head but when she grabbed my wrist and offered her blessing I could feel strength in her grip. She didn't offer a single line of prayer for any of us either, it was a long blessing followed by a warm smile and a slightly mischievous twinkle in here eyes.
In the 1920s and 1930s the temple city was cleared of most minor vegetation but the larger trees were allowed to remain. Some restoration has taken place but most of the work done has been with an eye to preservation and safety. The current group responsible for Preah Khan's maintenance has said that to do much more to restore the temple would be to create a risk they are unwilling to take. That cautious approach has made it a stunningly beautiful and romantic place.
Soon the large tour buses began to arrive so we fled to Neak Pean, a unique island temple. It is a place of purification and is still visited by people who feel the weight of their sins burdening them and are looking for relief. It is made up of five square ponds with a large pond in the center and a smaller one on each side. In the center of the large pond in a circular temple the base of which is entwined by two naga. Along the walkway to the temple that is now submerged is the figure of a mythical horse that saved fishermen from the island of an ogre. While beautiful recent changes allow viewing only from a distance which is too bad because the temple is in a pretty and rather secluded location.
After our brief excursion to Neak Pean we moved on to Ta Som. It is a small temple built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in memory of his father. Ta Som is another temple that is as much trees as it is stone. The tumbled ruins are scattered around and numerous trees can be blamed for the destruction. Given its small size and rather remote location it was a nice place to stop.
By now the sun was getting really hot and with the really high humidity we were beginning to wilt. So we returned to the air conditioned van and continued around the temple loop that would take us out of the Angkor complex. We passed a few small temples and Mr. Mony told us about them from in the vehicle but we asked the driver to pull over at East Mebon.
Mr. Mony asked if we were interested in getting out and Araceli looked at me, asking the unspoken question, "Should we?" and "Will you survive?" I was sweaty and tired but we are in Cambodia for only a few weeks and it seemed silly not to stop so we jumped out of the van.
East Mebon was built in the 10th century by Rajendresvara II and designed by the only known architect of Angkor, Kavindrarimathana. It used to sit in the middle of East Baray, a reservoir, that has since dried making it more easily accessible if perhaps a little less impressive. This is one of the Hindu temples and East Mebon is dedicated to Shiva. Eight elephants reside of the four corners of each of the two levels and there are numerous carvings depicting scenes from the Hindu mythology that still survive in rather good condition. It is hard to believe as we stood looking down on the jungle and red clay roads surrounding us that this temple was once accessible only by boat.
If I was tired before the additional adventure sapped my remaining energy. I was ready to trade in my Indiana Jones hat and my whip for some food. We had skipped breakfast so we asked Mr. Mony if we could be dropped off a little ways from our hotel so we could eat. So we left him at Pub Street and started wandering past restaurants and down little alley ways to little and not-so-little cafes. I think both Araceli and I have been enjoying the food so we stopped off at the Khmer Kitchen.
Being so early, I think just past ten thirty, we were the only ones seated but we got great service. I indulged in another passionfruit shake and we ordered dumplings, vegetable soup, and tofu with mixed vegetables and cashews. The shake was cold, sweet, slightly tart, and completely refreshing. Unfortunately the dumplings weren't really my cup of tea, the dough was too sticky and chewy at the same time but the soup was excellent. There were notes of lemongrass, galangal, lime, and garlic in the broth; it tasted of a slightly mellower version of tom yum. Finally there was the tofu which was very exciting for me because it seems like it has been forever since I had tofu. That's not even close to true but I usually have it a couple times a week so I was missing it. The vegetables were nicely cooked and the sauce was a light garlic flavored affair with beautiful whole cashews. After eating Araceli took a much needed walk through the Old Market to burn a few calories and jump start the digestion process.
So we rested, dozed a little and whiled away the hottest part of the day until about three o'clock when Mr. Mony returned to collect all of us. He told us we were going to head out to Ta Nei, a small temple that is rather remote. As we made our way our of Siem Reap the sky opened up and it began to rain. Soon there were claps of thunder and forks of lightning illuminating the sky. We were a bit worried but by the time we arrived most of the rains had passed. Because it is so small it too has not received much attention until recently and many large trees have broken down walls and corridors. What remains is a beautiful ruin made all the more attractive by the storm that broke just minutes before we arrived.
From Ta Nei we went to Ta Keo, the "bad omen" temple. It is called the "bad omen" temple because during its construction one of the towers was struck by lightning and it was decided that the damage was an omen so all further work was abandoned. It remains a work of two tiers with five towers but there are no carvings because they would have happened during the last phase of construction and it never got that far. Today there is a Buddhist shrine at the top of the central tower which is where we were when the clouds turned black and the thunder began again. Not wanting to build on the bad omens we descended the steep stairs and fled to the van, excited and exhausted.
As we pulled away the sky opened up again. Our timing was perfect and fortune was on our side. We returned to our hotel before heading out for dinner. We left looking for a Mediterranean restaurant we heard about but after half an hour of wandering we gave up. Araceli and I went out for organic local vegetarian Khmer food while Brian and Nicole opted for something a little more familiar and had Italian food. Our dinner was delicious and we met a nice couple from Austin on the last night of their honeymoon.
Full to bursting and exhausted from the days' events we returned to our hotel. Once we had scrubbed the dust and dried sweat off it we decided to take a little time to relax before heading to bed.
Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
35mm, f4, 1/100 sec @ 100 ISO