As I left Thailand, I prepared myself to be a unnerved by Cambodia. I shouldn't have gone through the effort, though, because Cambodia calmed me from the start. First, it was the friendly people. We flew into a rinky-dink airport and were greeted by a man with a smile and a tuk tuk. The hotel had sent him. He loaded our bags into his tuk tuk (a motorbike with a passenger cart hitched to it), smiled at us some more, and then motored down the road to our hotel. Once there, we were greeted by the staff pictured below. Someone carried our bags up to our room while another served us a traditional Khmer welcome drink and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Still another kept us company while we ate and he described all of the hotel services that would be available to us free of charge. I think I'm going to like it here.
The people of Cambodia charmed us with their genuine hospitality and warmth; wandering through Angkor had us enchanted. The next day, we hired a guide (through the tour company, Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us through Angkor, the UNESCO World Heritage site that houses remains from the Khmer empire and includes temples such as Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon Temple.
Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat was our first stop and as the light crept over the temple, we sat on the edge of the moat, munching on croissants. Once the sky had lit up enough, we wandered into the temple and our guide explained the symbolic significance of the various architectural features. The precision in the design, the symbolism throughout, and the sheer enormity of these temples bears witness to a remarkable civilization. I am most impressed at the applications of astronomy in the architecture. The temple was built with such exactitude that the sun will crown the highest pinnacle of Angkor Wat during an equinox.
Our first day in Cambodia also marked the first day with Chris and Ryan, who had flown across the pond the night prior. As you can see, we were super stoked to finally be here! As our guide explained that Angkor Wat was modeled after the mythological Mount Meru (home of the gods in Hindu mythology and center of the universe), we wondered aloud about what daily life would have been like in a place inspired by the divine.
After Angkor Wat, our guide led us to an area where we had a more substantial breakfast. Over the meal, we chatted with the two people in our tour group that we didn't know--a girl from Australia and a guy from Sweden that were currently working in Phnom Penh . They were so friendly and gave us many suggestions of fun things to do in Phnom Penh (our next stop after Siem Reap). After breakfast, our guide led us to a row of mountain bikes, our means of transport for the rest of the day. The mountain bikes were, in my opinion, the best way to go. We rode through the jungle from temple to temple, bypassing the tuk tuks traffic throughout Angkor.
We rode through the jungle to our next stop, Bayon Temple. Bayon was more intricately carved and decorated than Angkor Wat, but it was in much worse shape. Time had not been kind to Bayon, and it just looked tired. What I found interesting about Bayon is that it felt like I was weaving through a labyrinth, the confused layout a souvenir of remodeling done in the years after the commissioning king died. More distinguishing features include the faces carved on the pinnacles and the enormous bas reliefs, with carvings depicting every day life.
Our final stop in the mountain bike/temple excursion was Ta Prohm. Most tourists come out here to feel like "Tomb Raider", as portions of that movie were filmed here. As you can see from the pictures below, this temple is known for the trees that have claimed it. The kapok trees both support and destroy the temple, which I found fascinating. The roots wedge themselves in between the stones, tearing them apart and making the integrity of the structure dependent on the tree staying alive. The temple itself is in ruins, and if the kapok trees die, the temple might collapse, allowing the jungle to swallow it up.