March 14, 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia
And now, a test: Wat has its image reproduced in Cambodia on everything from beer to banknotes? Wat a hint? It’s the thing wat’s on the flag of the country, too.
Alright, let me try it this way: In Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, wat do you call a Buddhist monastery or temple?
Wat’s that you say? You’re getting Angkor-y with me? You wat me to stop that? Good luck!
------ There, I got that out of my system. I’ve been waiting almost a month and a half to do that. But I’ve been waiting a whole lifetime to see wat I saw this morning (yup – still had 1 left in me).
Angkor Wat covers over 400 acres and is the largest religious site ever built. The fact that it is still standing and has been in pretty much continuous use since it was built makes it that much more amazing.
‘Angkor’ means ‘Capital City’. There are stats, and there are facts.
Here is a stat: The area of Angkor, the Capital City, covers over 1,000 sq. km. That includes the incredible temple and surrounding buildings, galleries, libraries, defensive walls, and massive moat that make up Angkor Wat itself. But Angkor Wat – with its moat of more than 1 km. in length and almost 1 km. in width surrounding its outer walls on all sides is a mere ‘dot’ in the overall group of almost uncountable temples, etc. which were built by prior and successive Khmer empire kings and which collectively make up Angkor, the Capital City.
Here is a fact: I have NEVER, EVER climbed a set of stairs as steep as the ones I climbed today.
Here is another fact: I am typing this on my iPhone at the top of Angkor Wat because I will end up just living here for the rest of my life because there is NO WAY I am ever going to get down from here.
Mind you, the view is nice. And I certainly won’t be alone. I’ve met at least 20 or so people up here so far that have been up here for anywhere from 3 months to 15 years. Funny, but most of them are Spanish speaking (can’t tell yet if they are from Spain or Mexico but they keep looking over the parapet every so often and yelling out “Ay Caramba!!” so maybe it’s Mexico?).
The cellular service up here is pretty good so as long as you get the guards to charge your phone for you every once in a while, you can order pizza to be delivered and, of course, Mrs. Anh is always nearby to do your laundry. She’ll pick up and deliver.
I’m a bit sorry that Debbie didn’t climb up here, too. She is zonked from the heat and just waved me goodbye when I said I was going to climb up even further to get to the very top of Angkor Wat.
I guess she’ll start to miss me by, say, Pesach? We have a guide (Daran) who is down there with her and it’s also possible that he’ll send up some Swiss Army St. Bernard rescue dogs at some point but unless they’ve got really good chocolate with them there is NO FREAKING WAY I’m going down those stairs.
Since I have nothing but time, let me tell you a little about how you get to Angkor Wat:
Step 1: Arrange for a tuk tuk driver.
You need to arrange for a tuk tuk driver to pick you up at your hotel in Siem Reap. The entrance to the Angkor National Park is about 5 km. north of Siem Reap . There are about 8 tuk tuk drivers outside your hotel at all times. Each of them looks to you hopefully as you get about 15 feet from the threshold of your hotel. You haven’t crossed it yet, mind you, but they know you are coming and start their normal inquiry: “Sir, you need a tuk tuk?”.
They have their own queuing system. They know who gets the next customer. You’ll never know but if you say, “Yes”, you can be assured that all 8 of them will helpfully guide you to whoever it is that’s next in the que.
For something specialized, however, like spending a day driving you around the temples of Ankgor, you want someone who speaks your language at least at a basic level for communication that doesn’t involve too much sign language. For that, you simply ask at the front desk of your hotel and they’ll arrange for the driver.
Ha, ha on you: Everyone here speaks at least a basic level of your language so it will always be one of the 8 tuk tuk drivers outside that your hotel arranges to take you around Angkor. As soon as you figure that out, you then save the $2 kickback the tuk tuk driver has to pay to the hotel clerk that ‘arranged’ for him to be your driver. You can use the kickback money to tip your driver later.
You can get picked up at 5:00am to be in place to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat at around 5:45am. Or, like us, you can get picked up at 8:00am and have a shower and some breakfast first and arrive just as all the people who came at 5:00am are exhausted and leaving, making it a little less crowded for your visit. You want to see Angkor Wat at sunrise? By a postcard. It’s lovely.
Savath is our tuk tuk driver. Like everyone else we’ve met in Cambodia, he couldn’t be nicer or happier to help out. He is ours for the entire day. He costs $18. He brings a cooler filled with iced bottled water just for cooling us off after each temple visit and, after dropping us off at the entrance to each temple, he just strings up the hammock inside his tuk tuk, falls asleep in a shady spot, and just waits until we come back…. Whenever… at which point he takes us to the next place. All day long. $18. If I ever get down from here, he’ll get paid.
Step 2: Arrange for a guide
It is simply foolish to come halfway around the world to see one of the incredible wonders of the ancient world and then rely on Wikipedia or your Lonely Planet e-book to guide you around Angkor Wat. What idiot would do that?
I was fully prepared to be that idiot, believe me, when Daran walked up to us just a moment after Savath dropped us off, with our jaws hanging open, as we got our first glimpse of the 5 iconic towers of Angkor Wat peeking at us from about 2 miles away across the moat.
The enormity of the site became pretty evident in about 3 seconds flat and after cross-examining Daran for at least 15 seconds to satisfy myself as to his competency in English and familiarity with the site, well, there goes another $10 just flying out the window as Daran agreed to guide us around for the next 3 hours or so. I guess I must just look like I’m swimming in it or something as these guys just automatically find me.
Step 3: Listen to your guide
This is something that my wife does very, very well. She should get an A+ and a Gold Star on her forehead for how much she listened and learned during our tour of Angkor Wat with Daran. There was so much really useful and interesting information that he imparted.
If you want to know any of it, please ask her because, as usual, I was about 30 paces (or more) behind them fiddling with my camera and waiting for another person of (Japanese, Russian, Korean – take your pick) descent to finish taking 5 selfies of themselves appearing to pinch one of the Towers of Angkor like it was just an inch high. I needed to wait for them to do that and then get the heck out of the way so I could take, oh, I don’t know, about 45 photos of EXACTLY the same thing.
Daran he saw instantly that I was gonna be that way. Every few minutes he pointed to a spot and said to me, “Walk over there, look [up, left, right, down] and take a picture. Take just one and move on. If you insist on taking all 45 that’s fine but me and your wife will be a ¼ mile away by then”.
At some points, he just yanked the camera out of my hands, walked over and took the photo for me himself and then returned it. He didn’t want to be there all day and he could see that was a distinct possibility.
Step 4: Listen to your wife
Okay, this might only be me, but am I the only one she ever gets ‘hangry’ with? Do any of you see any problem with tromping around in 36C heat and 120% humidity for about 9 hours to climb up and down the steep stairs of ancient temples?
After ancient wonder of the world temple No. 3 she had this “seen one, seen ‘em all” kind of look on her face. By lunch, it was pretty clear that only one of us was going to be climbing any more temples today.
And after it turned out that my promise of ‘just one more’ temple after lunch somehow mysteriously morphed into ‘just two more’ temples well, let’s just say that the reason I’m up here at the top of Angkor Wat is ‘cause she won’t let me come down, even if I want to. I think she’s planning on running away with Daran & Savath. But, again, I have a pretty good view from up here so at least I’ll be able to watch them tuk tuk away for miles before they are out of sight.
Turns out that in one of my more brilliant moments I had both of our $72 USD one month all access to Angkor Park passes in my pocket and so she needed to let me descend so she could get her pass back from me in case one of the Tourist Police asked to see hers. They take your photo when you buy the pass and they ask you to show it at various points and there is a big fine if you don’t have a valid one with you.
I grabbed the hand of an 84 yr. old Cambodian lady and she guided me down the stairs and then said to me, “Stop crying, you big baby, we’re back on the ground again”. Or something like that, my Khmer continues to improve but I’m still not totally fluent.
I would like to tell you about the incredible other temples that we climbed today once I got down from the top of Angkor Wat. The area covered by Angkor Thom, for example, is, like, about 10 times the size of Angkor Wat. It’s got a whole swack of incredible temples inside it’s precincts, including the Bayon (with its many-sided faces) and the Baphuon. We went to climb Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm, which is a temple that the jungle has partially reclaimed and which was a backdrop to some stunning footage in the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”.
We saw monkey and elephants and… I could just go on!
Yes, I would like to tell you about all of them but I’d rather you look at the photos and then come here yourself to see them.
At some point I’m sure I won’t be able to resist telling you the story about King Jayavarman VII and the big battle of boats on Tonle Sap that ended up with the construction of Angkor Thom. I promise you’ll like it. But that’s later. For now, look at the photos.
Ay Carumba, wat a place!