21 July 2008
According to Lonely Planet, one should allow five to seven days to see all of Angkor, Cambodia's ancient capitol that at one time was home to more than one million people (when London was just a sleepy town of 50,000). Also according to Lonely Planet, it is seemingly the greatest place on earth. As you might expect, my expectations were high.
We decided to let Stacey join us on this part of the trek (though she would probably say - wrongfully so - that she let us tag along). Fortunately, our early-departure four-hour bus ride only took seven hours and made just one stop, which meant we arrived at a super convenient 3pm! We were met at the bus station by Mr. Sow, who was our Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk driver's good friend. He was holding a giant sign with my name typed on it. Mind you, I can't even find computers, much less a laser jet printer, and this guy has managed to construct a big sign to flag us down. We laid low for the afternoon, just eating, shopping and planning our trip to Angkor. It was decided that we'd head out at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, a "life-changing" experience, said the book.
True to form, the whole "early to bed" plan went awry. First we were waxing Kyle's eyebrows, then we got to talking about changing the world (as Melissa Richer at Ashoka once said, "I feel like a one trick pony. Like all I can talk about anymore is social entrepreneurship and changing the world." I feel the EXACT SAME WAY) and our early night ended up meaning going to bed at 1am.
Still, we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4 (employing a strict "no talking" rule until we arrived). Fortunately, we were just ahead of the crowds the entire day, which meant a fairly peaceful sunrise that was - quite honestly - truly spectacular. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure on earth. It's bigger than St. Paul's Cathedral in Vatican City, bigger than the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and bigger than any Buddha on the planet. Just the moat is a massive eighth of a mile wide!
From Angkor Wat it was on to Angkor Thom, the sort-of down town of the entire place. At the center of Angkor Thom was Bayon, which consists of 200 identical faces in the image of the late and great King, all looking over the city with a creepily watchful eye. Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and a number of other lesser known Wats, palaces and sites filled out the rest of our Angkor tour and by 1pm we were ready to head out. Still, a tinge of guilt was looming over us. Lonely Planet said 5-7 days. Other friends said at least 3. Here we were, 9 hours later and heading home. We were just that uncultured? Unrefined? Lame?
It's not that the sites weren't amazing or awe-inspiring or monumental in any way, it is just that - after several hours and literally hundreds of temples, pagodas, churches and wats later, they all start to resemble one another. Ok, let the hate mail pour in now. Still, at least for Kyle and I, we knew what to expect - the largest collection of historic ruins on earth. As Stacey said it best, "it was way worse for me. We go here when it was dark and the sunrise was so gorgeous then it was light and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, it's all ruins. Where is the gold?'" It turns out the Thais stole the gold - all of it - when they plundered the Cambodian Empire in the 15th Century. Then 500 years later they gave Pol Pot asylum. Huh?