Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Angkor Wat, The Biggest And The Best

Before we left we were asked which one of the places to see are we most excited about. Both of us answered without hesitation: Angkor Wat! The combination of excitement from leaving the cold of China and the anticipation of what we were about to see raised our expectations even more and that is never good.

We started by visiting the Angkor National Museum. I planned a couple of hours then we would have gone, for free, to have the first contact and maybe catch the sunset. Wrong plan. The museum closed on us, I couldn't get my family out of there. It is that good.
Next day we started the exploration of the temples. As my guidebook says "it is a unique repository of incredible craftsmanship on a staggering scale." There are hundreds of temples, between 15 and 25 are major touristic attractions. The local brochure lists them with 1 to 3 stars, from interesting to "must see"; two of them have four stars on that three-star scale. If you know anything about this place, then it makes sense.

There are countless ways to approach the whole complex.  We decided to use the most common approach, the small circuit on day one and the grand circuit on day two. Day three was left to be decided, probably with return visits to the main attractions.

I will not get into too many details. I'll list the places that we visited for reference. If someone is interested in the specifics of any given construction, there are many available resources. Suffice to say that they are all quite different and they are all marvelous. They were built over a period of at least four hundred years encompassing the major shift from Hinduism to Buddhism and changes in the techniques, materials and taste that would be expected in such a long time.

We started with Anghor Thom, "the Great City". It had a million people in 1200. There were houses and hospitals and palaces and temples. Of course the wooden structures are long gone, but the important ones, built in stone and brick are still there, some undergoing major renovation. We battled the crowds in Bayon temple and then visited Baphuon palace, the royal palace Phimeanakas, the terrace of Elephants and the terrace of the Lepper King; it was lunch time when we were done. There are many restaurants set up for tourists at certain spots and we followed the recommendation of our tuk-tuk driver for lunch.
Then we continued the whole afternoon with one temple after another. Tommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Ta Keo, Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan. Preparing for the trip we saw the movie "Tomb Raider." Well, I am sure that the whole of Cambodia saw that movie, everybody knows it. It was shot at Ta Phrom, this is a stunning temple, they are restoring some parts but they left the jungle as it took over the buildings over the centuries.

The next day on the Grand Circuit we visited Preah Khan, Peah Neak Pean, Ta Som, Eastern Mebon and Pre Rup, before stopping for lunch in front of the Angkor Wat. We were already tired, but decided to see Phnom Bakheng first, before the grand finale. It was on a hill, we walked all the way up and then climbed a hundred stairs more. By the time we arrived at Angkor Wat we were a bit "templed out"; we saw so many amazing things that little could have impressed us. I don't know what if anything would have phased the children anymore, maybe if one of the temples from a Miyazaki movie would have come to life.
The Angkor Wat is the biggest temple in the world, but besides that it is also the most beautiful. The complex covers 210 hectares (500 acres) and is surrounded by a 200 meters (650 feet) wide moat. There is a long walk across the moat, past the outside wall and then to the main temple. At this time the main entrance is closed for renovation, we took the right side and had the first contact with the lower level bas reliefs, a 800 meters (2500 feet) long rectangular corridor that is sculpted all the way in minute, wonderful detail.
We only went for part of it and then entered the inner court, surrounding the central sanctuary. The stairs for the upper level were "closed one day for cleaning." By this time, Maria found a place to sit and decided that she doesn't want to keep going. Ileana took a quick tour and declared herself satisfied with what she saw so far. The rest of us continued diligently to explore every nook and cranny and look at the hundreds and hundreds of carvings. They are awesome, but at that point in our day, we already had too much and I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed. It didn't help that we couldn't see the upper level, the sanctuary where in the past only the king and the higher priests had access.
After a while, Maria rejoined us and we finished the visit with the rest of the bas reliefs, came back in front of the temple and saw the beginning of the sunset. There are two little lakes and seeing the reflection of the temple in the sunset attracts a lot of photographers. We took our family picture and left on the side exploring more of the outside walls.

While Angkor Wat should not be the first thing to see when somebody comes here, it also shouldn't be left for last. The anticipation was raised so much that nothing would have satisfied it. Instead of being blown away, it was a slowly growing admiration for every thing that I was seeing. And that is OK in the end.

We all liked the Bayon temple most and the third day started with another visit there. We arrived earlier and had large parts of the temple to ourselves. Each one of us was free to roam as wanted. It was great!
Then we took an hour ride to the spectacular Banteay Srei temple. Built earlier than the others, it had an interesting comparison of the development of the temples here and other constructions around the world, confirming once again the amazing accomplishments of the Khmer civilization. Banteay Srei means the "Citadel of women", it is said that it must have been built by women, the carvings are too delicate for the hand of a man. We could not really get close to them, but it was a beautiful, little temple, different than all the others, and well worth the trouble of reaching it.
On our return we stopped at the land-mine museum and another dramatically beautiful temple, Banteay Samre. Not many tourists come here and we could explore in peace, being impressed again by how different it is from everything else.

We had “lunch” on some plastic chairs sharing four coconuts and we went back to the Angkor Wat. We went straight to the stairs to the upper level. A long line confirmed our hopes, the cleaning was over. Maria had a sleeveless shirt. They didn't let her climb. Ileana went through fast and then changed shirts with Maria. We enjoyed the delicate apsara bas reliefs and the stunning views all over the temple and the fields. The height of the upper structure is 65 meters (200 feet) above ground level, same as the Cathedral of Notre Dame (built a little later). It is amazing. We enjoyed every moment of our second visit. And without doubt it is one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of humanity and one of the most beautiful things we've ever seen.
And last but not least, Miss Universe 1212!

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