Siem Reap is the name of the large modern town that sits next to the ancient ruins known as Angkor. Angkor Wat is just one of the many hundreds of temple complexes, schools, royal homes and administrative buildings that formed the capital of the (900-1400 AD) fairly violent Khmer empire. The ancient city (the definition of “Angkor” is “city”) was three times larger than any other city in the world during its occupation and supported over one million people to supply the “God King” with his power.
Originally Hindu in origin, most structures were converted or built with Buddhist art, style and design. Some of the temples have been in continuous use for 1000 years by monks in search of the mysteries of the external space via the internal space. Because some of the buildings have been used/maintained for so long, it is not accurate to call all of them ruins, many are just massive stone buildings….that happen to be 900+ years old.
Unlike Inca stone structures, Khmer building has a focus on relief work depicting wars, conquests, religious and military events. The most elaborate carvings, some stretching thousands of feet, show the adventures of Hindu gods. If you have read/seen much of Hindu gods….they are less gods than super heroes/villains from a very old comic book. Vishnu (the blue guy) is shown on an adventure with his friend that soon betrays him then they rejoin forces to fight this or that guy. Ganesh (the elephant guy) and Hanuman (the monkey guy) head out on a journey to do this or that using the super powers that each seem to have. The art is amazing and the amount of work staggers the mind.
The area that the “ruins” occupy is tens of miles square and would be imposible to navigate between highlights by foot. The solution is to hire a tuk-tuk (small three seat, three wheeled motocycle cart thing) to take us around to the different areas for the three days. Having such mobility, we often found ourselves at the lesser known smaller ruins, wandering around, scrambling up steps (so steep that they required you to crawl up), ducking into bat filled tunnels and walking past monstrous trees that seemed to be intent on consuming buildings.
At the main larger structures, tourists of every nationality (although mostly Asian) stumbled like drunks as they gawked and snapped photos of any one of a million amazing vistas. We tried to get to the popular places (Angkor Wat being one of them) very early (7AM) and would find them mostly empty or with a few chanting monks or drugged out tie-dye wearing hippies sitting crossed legged and looking intently for something behind their eyelids….new iphone sitting next to them of course.
The structures themselves are usually made from massive stones, polished and fitted together similar to Inca or Egyptian stone fitting. Large moats surround most of the larger structures with some moats miles long and 400 feet wide.
As the morning evaporated the heat and humidity would eventually chase us back to the pool at our villa hotel. The budget of our rooming seems to have increased as we have moved further away from civilization. After a nap, we would go back and explore some more and avoid the creepy looking monkeys that watched for anyone foolish enough to feed them. As we were leaving one afternoon, I overheard a tour group of older British women dogmatically discuss how the aliens must have helped built the temple in question. It interests me that those with the least education on a subject seem to have the strongest opinions.
One of our last mornings we got up very early and took a hot air balloon over a few villages and one of the ruins. A car dropped us in a field that was filled with 30-40 locals chewing on their morning fruits, staring wide eyed at the slowly inflating yellow balloon. The dark aviator glasses identified our extremely confident Chinese pilot and he motioned us to get in the basket. A timid Japanese couple joined the basket and soon we lifted off to the cheers of the now 40+ children jumping up and down below us. Staying close to the ground we surfed over/around palm trees, passing small homes, modern temples and mothers bathing children or washing clothes.
With a blast of the fire blower (?), we made our presence known to the small village below and out exploded dozens of children from their homes. Some struggling to put on shirts, some pants and one naked little boy fought off his mother valantly escaping to join the mob….she yelled something at him and he seemed to yell back “no time for clothes mom…..NO TIME!”, all the while his leg pumping to catch up.
The pilot explained that he needed to go south a bit and so moved us up 250 meters to catch a cross wind that moved us over one of the smaller ancient ruins. The sounds of the morning melted into nothingness as we watched the sun start to warm the air around us…causing the balloon to struggle to find lift. (likely not the best time to mention the serious crash this balloon had last year)
Eventually, we found ourselves passing through backyards and over small homes, not more than 50 feet high. Our pilot would pick mangos and attempted to get a coconut from the trees we would pass through as a growing crowd of children followed us waiting for something. It was when the pilot pulled out a bag of candy did the fun really start. We tossed handfuls of candy down to the kids causing them to follow the balloon through fields, farms, homes and even a temple filled with orange wrapped monks. The balloon was so quiet that the first indication that the monks knew something was happening was when 50 half clothed kids swarmed the temple, causing some of the monks to freeze in place at the possible nightmare that charged them. It was only when the pilot used the burner that the monks noticed us, relaxed and waved at the strange celebrities in the sky.
I noticed that the pilot was getting quiet and he mentioned something in some language to us that no one understood. It turns out he was aiming for the top of a large palm tree to get rid of the 5-7 MPH velocity the balloon had. I told Tamara to get down and hold on while I dropped to the bottom of the basket in a mentally well rehearsed crash position. Tamara, thinking the crash would be a great thing to get on film, neglected to brace and landed on me when we hit the palm tree. The tree seemed to struggle with the basket for 5-6 seconds, shaking us back and forth like a damp salt shaker, before releasing us with a sudden nothingness. Pulling ourselves up we notice that somehow we now have no lateral velocity. With a tug, our very proud pilot pulls a rope and we dropped into a field with a mob of blood thirsty children cresting the distant irrigation canal.
Soon our balloon is surrounded by an entire village and a van pulls up with jump suited balloon tenders to pack up the balloon. We passengers are bundled into the van and we try to come to terms with the amazing experience we just had. I wish we could do it again even though it did cost ($125 each).
While Cambodia was an amazing place, we were happy to leave it behind and end our 1600 mile land journey (Hanoi to Angkor Wat). From this point on, we will fly. It would have been fun to take the 26 hour bus to Laos but I am not sure we would survive it.