Cold air beats against our faces as we fly down the street in our tuk tuk. Once again we are up before sunrise. This time our early rise is intended so we meet the sun not dolphins on the sea. We didn’t realize how cold it can be in Siem Reap this early in the morning. We huddle into each other until we reach the fabled Angkor Wat.
Everyone walks towards the temple, bundled up and prepared with flashlights. We are not so prepared. The silhouette of the temple is painted across a soft pink and dark blue background. Most people gather behind the fish pond to snap pictures. We choose a less crowded place upon the stone steps of the crumbling library. Unlike a sunset, quick to bed, the sunrise takes it’s time to rise, probably not a morning person like ourselves. I don’t blame it but I’m a bit impatient to get out of the cold.
We sit for twenty minutes watching the subtlest changes in colors from pastel pink and dark blue to golden peach and light blue. A bunch of people, including ourselves, start to leave, thinking the sun has risen very unceremoniously. We want our money back! That was a huge disappointment, sun! We know you can do better than that!
Then a young lady squeals from behind us and we turn around from our angry departure to see the sun glistening through the trees. “Oh so you’ve finally decided to make an appearance!?” I glare right back at the sun. Despite it’s lack of a grand entrance, we hurry back to stand by the pond and see what it has to show for itself. At this point, it’s still hidden behind the temple creating a halo over its towers. Then as it slowly creeps up the sky, it casts magnificent mirror images of the temple across the water. Though it’s no sunset it’s affect on the pond makes for amazing pictures.
We leave more satisfied than before, happy to have run back for the encore. Back in the tuk tuk, we ride into Angkor Tom, again. This time we briefly scan over Bayon and head to the Tom’s lesser known temples. At the long stone bridge of the old state temple, Baphuon, we find a young Cambodian boy continually casting his line into the pond. Inside we must climb the dreaded steep staircases to enter the main temple.
Signs hang on the walls explaining how the temple has crumbled multiple times and been reconstructed. It was even hit by a bomb during the Vietnam war. We walk through it’s narrow hallways lined with wide square windows. An Asian family takes their time posing within one of the narrow doorways. You must duck your head when passing through the doorways, so you don’t smack your head like Mandie.
Each level sits atop the one below like a layered wedding cake. Unfortunately no bride and groom could stand at the highest tier, because it is blocked off for maintenance. After climbing as many steep stairs as we can and capturing the view below, we are forced to slowly descend the same dangerous stairs to the bottom.
Down the road we find ten individual towers with single room temples lining the opposite road. Tuk tuk drivers sleep in hammocks hung across their tuk tuk. We walk along the Elephant Terrace that lines the right side of the Royal Palace. Across the stone wall, elephants are chiseled in line formation. At each staircase the elephants stick out their long trunks as handrails. We climb the elephant adorned steps to enter the palace.
Through the gateway of Buddha’s face, we find a dirt path to the palace. It’s size doesn’t impress us after the sites of Bayon and Angkor Wat. We skip it and wander off to the right. We find an old Hindu shrine overtaken by trees that strangle it with their medusa-like roots.
“Hey, let me show you the elephant head,” boasts our new unwanted guide. The teenage boy encourages us to scale the disintegrating stone steps. At the top we find only a heap of rocks and a lonesome gold leaf flag. Our guide excitedly points to the outside wall! “Do you see it? Do you see the elephant head?” Just above our heads we see the faint relief of Ganesha, the Hindu God, who is depicted as an elephant. Our guide explains that the remains of a Buddha statue inside, lost it’s head during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, who banned religion, killed Buddhists and Hindus, and in this case chopped the figures’ head off. The shrine was also bombed during the Vietnam war. Interesting history for such a little shrine now being reclaimed by nature.
Our unwelcomed guide, although informative, insists on a donation to fund his schooling. We give him what we can afford and he gets angry and asks for more but we say sorry we are not rich and walk away. It’s not that we don’t want to help every poor child go to school but we are living so tightly on this trip that even a dollar is a lot of money.
Our tuk tuk driver finds us by the Terrace of the Leprace King and tries convincing us to only do one more temple. We finally concede. The last temple of the day is Ta Prohm. This temple is unique, because of the way nature has taken over its stones. As you wander through the labyrinth of open air rooms, you discover this fantasy world of enormous trees springing forth from the stone bricks. Mandie and I separate at first to see different areas and then never find each other again until the last part of the temple.
I’m drawn into each crevice and room like a kid exploring a corn maze. I hit many dead ends. It seems every time I turn around to go back in the direction I came, I find myself in a completely different area. I should have left a trail of breadcrumbs, because finding Mandie is impossible. Instead of freaking out, I give in to the adventure and explore like Indiana Jones.
Trees grab on to the walls, wrapping their great roots around the stone like anacondas suffocating their prey. Groups of tourists clog the space to take pictures in front of these invasive vines. I slip into an empty area, where I must balance across wobbly rubble. I feel as if I’ve just rolled the jungle square in the game Jumanji and the Amazon is taking over my house. I hope I can win the game and get out safely!
I wonder what the temple looked like before the jungle consumed it. Did it have a roof? Now it’s just a forest with walls. One wall wears long dreadlock vines that cascade down its face. I find out later this wall is used in a scene from Tomb Raider, which I’ve never seen. That’s why I’m left waiting 20 minutes to take a picture of it without a face of a smiling Asian in the picture. I move on quickly.
This adventure is so exhilarating but I wonder where Mandie could be. I stop in a quiet space to listen to the birds chirping and cover my mouth from the clouds of dust. How peaceful! I love the idea that nature has the final say in this story.
I find an area overly populated by tourists, hoping Mandie will have to pass through here, and sit on a rock. I watch as people test their echoes in a tall tower. I listen to some Chinese children sing songs and bug their parents. I continually scan the crowd for Mandie’s red backpack. I’m pleased with the powerful trees crushing the stone with their thick roots.
Finally Mandie appears out of a room and we reunite. We each share different stories about our journey through the labyrinth. She explains how another unwelcomed guide followed her through the entire temple. I’m happy I was alone. We leave for home on the tuk tuk, exhausted from such an early and long day.