Sunday, November 18, 2012

2012, Day 322 - Tomb raiding

Today is our last full day in Siem Reap.  It seems like we just got here even though we've had a marathon of tomb raiding Lara Croft style.  The Angkor complex is huge and there is so much to see that even a couple hours at a temple doesn't do it justice.  Each is so different that you don't want to limit yourself by seeing too few but it is tempting to spend a day or more at each.

This morning we got up and left at a decent hour for Beng Mealea.  On the way we stopped at an ancient stone quarry that is now the bed of a stream where large rectangular pieces were removed to build some of the magnificent temples we had already visited.  As we walked back to the car an ox cart approached and we stopped to take pictures.  I don't know if it was all the attention, the cameras, or our foreign appearance but they were a little shy about passing.  Still, I got some great pictures.

Beng Mealea was named for the fragrant flowering trees that encircle it and although smaller than Angkor Wat it is still one of the largest temples in the Angkor complex.  The history is unknown Beng Mealea the style suggests that it was built in the 12th century.  It is much as it was found; many walls have tumbled and countless trees are entwined through the remains.  Araceli commented that the engineering in the construction of this temple is not as sound as those of the other temples including those similarly consumed by the jungle.

When we entered there was a nice wooden walkway that had been erected but we were soon scrambling over piles of fallen stones ten or fifteen feet high.  The footing in areas was precarious because the moss growth is incredible thanks to the near-constant shade of the jungle canopy.  There were little rooms taken over by huge trees, some that had fallen and then adapted to their new less vertical stature by changing direction and growing upright again.

This was perhaps the most exciting temple we visited.  It might not have been as pretty as some, there might not have been the magnificent carvings or statuary, but we did feel like we were on an old school adventure. Granted we weren't wearing our good English colonial style gear, none of us carried a whip or a torch, we found no human remains, but it still felt like a jungle expedition out of Hollywood.

Parched from our near-death experiences and in need of refreshment we stopped at a riverside restaurant.  We ordered drinks and almost stayed for lunch but when we saw how slow the service was we decided better of it and left.  Though we still had plenty of time Francene was returning to Phnom Penh this afternoon so we could go to the wedding tomorrow.  Back to Francene's hotel we went to collect her luggage and embark on our next adventure.

Before our run to the airport we went to a local silk farm.  There we saw the silk from the birth of the tiny worms to their death in boiling water to extract the silk.  Artists were weaving the thread into beautiful patterns that shimmered in a rainbow of colors every time the light caught it.  The whole process is fascinating and, as Araceli asked, how do people think to take worm vomit and make it into beautiful fabric?

Unfortunately we had to get moving, it was time to get Francene to the airport.  It was a short drive and we said our brief goodbyes as we will see her again tomorrow night when we return to Phnom Penh and the wedding is over.

So it was back to our hotel to drop off our stuff and head out to dinner.  It was nothing special, just close, quick, and convenient.  I didn't want to waste too much time because not only was I starving but Mr. Mony was coming back at seven o'clock for the past installment of my Angkor adventure.

By the time we returned to the room I had about an hour to rest before meeting Mr. Mony again so I cleaned off a little of the day's dirt and put on a whole bunch of bug spray before gathering myself up again and heading out the door.  For this jaunt Araceli opted out but I was excited.  When I got into the van Mr. Mony informed me that we needed to stop and pick up a senior government official.  I will admit to being a little unnerved but said I understood.  We pulled into a residential area and he hopped off a motorbike which he passed to the guy riding tandem and he got in the van.

This gentleman was our ticket into Angkor Wat after hours.  He had called ahead and ensured that the roadblocks would be removed and that the guards were aware he was coming with guests.  The van made its way through the dark jungle, illuminating only the closest trees with its high beams.  They were like ghosts that quickly disappeared into the shadows.  We passed through one gate and then a guard post, waved through each time my a bored looking officer.  Finally we parked and as my night vision adjusted I could make out the silhouette of Angkor Wat.

First we walked down the main causeway to the temple and then we entered through the royal gate.  Insider we had free run of all levels but the third, the tower level.  I set up my tripod, fired off a few quick test shots, and started the long exposures.  It was rather cloudy tonight but some stars broke through the cover.  As we sat inside this icon of Cambodia I was struck by the peace that was lacking when we came yesterday.  With no other people we could hear the frogs, the crickets, the humming of what I am told are snails, the barking of geckos, the baying of dogs, and, in the distance, the sound of drums.

I asked Mr. Mony about the drums and he said that there was an apsara performance, the celestial dancers, being held on the Elephant Terrace for the delegates in town for the ASEAN conference and among those attending was the United States Secretary of Defense.  To say that I was struck dumb would be an understatement.  I couldn't believe we could get anywhere near the Angkor complex with the heads of state from so many nations less than a mile away.  No doubt they were enjoying the peace and tranquility of Angkor at night as much as I did.

We stayed for about an hour in total.  I didn't want to wear out my welcome and with the kind of security that must have been in place I was worried that even with our official host that we might get into trouble.  It was a magical way to see Angkor Wat for the last time, at least on this trip.

So we headed back into Siem Reap where we dropped off our official at bar.  Mr. Mony then took me back to the hotel where I tried not to gush about the experience because although Araceli didn't want to be consumed by insects I think that maybe she missed out just a little bit.

I'm beat, it's time for bed.  Tomorrow we return to Phnom Penh and then we go on to Kampot!

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
24mm, f2.8, 30 sec @ 3200 ISO

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