We woke up at 5am to watch the sunrise @ Angkor Wat. Arguably, one of the most amazing archaeological sites I have ever had the privilege of visiting!
Our guide, Bunleat, came to pick us up at 5:30. Throughout the day, he kept us refreshed with a neverending, but much needed, supply of cold water and entertained us with many interesting stories about the various kings and their myths and legends.
Angkor Wat's popularity is well- deserved and we were surrounded by hundreds of people this morning - all vying to get that magical shot of the sun's first rays lighting up the temple. We were not disappointed - it is beautiful and worth waking up early for.
After walking around the temple and looking at the pictoral depictions of war and conquest (commissioned by the King to commemorate the spoils of battle), we proceeded to the smaller and lesser known Bantey Samrei. Bunleat told us an interesting story about the "Cucumber King" and how he came to power. Although, not as large, or monumental or iconic as the other temples in the area, Bantey Samrei is quite peaceful and has been beautifully restored. The colours of the stones are amazing - earthy ochre walls contrast spectacularly with the cool grey-green columns.
We left Bantey Samrei for the more popular Banteay Srei - about 30 kms away. The countryside was beautiful - full of houses on stilts, cows with bells, huge cauldrons of palm sugar boiling and every village we past had a wedding! Banteay Srei has beautiful, intricate carvings like embroidery on stone. So beautiful and small that legend has it that these carvings could only have been made by women! The level of detail sets this Wat apart from others in the area and it was well worth the detour - especially as Bunleat had kindly provided us with umbrellas to ward off the midday sun!
On our return to Angor Wat, we stopped at the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre and chased some colourful butterflies around the flower-filled garden. It was a welcome respite from all the temple-hopping.
Although I have not seen the Lara Croft film Tombraider, Ta Prohm has become very popular with tourists because this is where a large part of the film was based. Many huge trees have grown in, through, around and on top of the archaeological buildings. Ta Prohm was the school for the Apsaras (royal dancers). When the buildings fell into disrepair, trees started growing through them and it is quite surreal and beautiful to see how nature has taken over the temples that were once part of a thriving metropolis.
The last area we visited was the Bayon Temple. For me, this was the most amazing part of trip: over 120 giant faces carved out of rock looking out into the jungle canopy. This was one of the few Buddhist temples in the complex and full of narrow passages and small areas for worship. Bunleat told us that many of the Buddhist statues and sculptures were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Many of the places are undergoing extensive renovation funded by various countries like India and Japan.
We were supposed to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat, but we were so tired by 4:30, that we decided it best to go back to the guesthouse. Just as well as some massive tropical storm clouds rolled over and hid the sunset anyway.