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Fri 15 - Mon 18 Dec. Angkor, Cambodia.
Six dollars hires you the exclusive service of a moto (motorbike) and driver for a day, to whizz around the vast Angkor plain: the overlaid remains of a sucession of ancient cities spread forty-odd significant monuments over more than two hundred square kilometres of jungle. I think it is my drivers first time, bless him, he doesn't speak much English, we get lost a couple of times and I have to point him in the right direction.
Every morning, driving up the long avenue of trees towards Angkor was electric with anticipation, every evening it was a struggle to leave. Every night, watching Geckos hunt insects across the dining room ceiling, the day would seem unreal, like science fiction, separate from the mundane real world of vegetable fried noodles and beer. Every return to a site was better than the time before - the distinct personalities of each site came through more clearly.
Of them all, the biggest, the best preserved, the most written about, painted and photographed. The largest religious monument ever constructed by man, containing as much stone as the great pyramid, as tall as Notre Dame in Paris. Every time you pass its unmistakeable skyline on the way to another site, you have to swallow the temptation to say "Wherever it was I said I wanted to go - forget it. Just let me out here again".
Before dawn, walking down the causeway over the moat, the towers of the Wat dead ahead. A burly of people jostle for position to take the same photos of the sun rising behind the towers, but as soon as it has popped into view the crowd leave en masse, and incredibly, for several hours, Angkor Wat - a wonder of the world - is almost completely deserted.
A short flight of steep rounded steps leads from large gardens inside the moat and outer wall, to the outer gallery, containing the worlds longest bas-relief, and through to the outer courtyard. A longer flight of very steep steps rises from there to the inner courtyard, almost filled by the mountain of stone at the heart of the temple, a cliff of stone up which very long flights of ridiculously steep, chipped steps ascend to the uppermost sanctuary.
The monumental size, the clarity and symmetry of the structure could be forbiddingly superhuman if it wasn't for the warmth of the sandstone and the endless detail: Apsaras (celestial maidens) dance across every surface, bats squeak, chitter and emit musty odours in the dark spaces under each tower, an old man sharpens a sickle in rainwater on a stone pavement. A few children wander about singing in the courtyards, a soft tinkling of prayer bells rises from the monastry in the grounds.
Angkor wrote the book on tree roots gripping ancient temples, and Ta Prohm was chief consultant. Deliberately not cleared and restored to the same degree as other temples, the huge sprawling site still seems to be engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the jungle. Silk-Cotton Trees and Strangler Figs send bunched and muscular roots cascading over the stonework, green moss carpets every surface. Musty galleries are full of spiderswebs and tumbled stone. After three hours of wandering around, I confidently set off for the exit and get instantly lost.
At sunset, Phnom Bakheng, a small ziggurat temple on the top of the only hill in Angkor is covered by telephoto tourists snapping the fading light, yet in the heat of midday even the crowds of souvenir and elephant-ride hawkers stay away. Beneath the hill, the plain is full of ancient stone, but the jungle hides everything apart from the towers of Angkor Wat itself, a mile away.
The Bayon is a darker and more twisted beast: lacking the arresting skyline of Angkor Wat, from outside it looks craggy and inhospitable. 54 towers crowd in on each other, steep flights of stairs rise directly from dark doorways - it would be overwhelmingly claustrophobic if it wasn't for the giant smiling face gazing out from the four sides of each tower. The guidebooks tell you to view the Bayon under morning light, hence settling down for sunset it is almost completely deserted. A couple of monks stroll past, sharing a joint with a couple of policemen.
After darkness falls I'm the last person there, and being alone surrounded by gothic excess, windows and doorways black holes in dark stonework pressing in from every side, the growing noise of countless bats, becomes deliciously terrifying. My driver is waiting outside - he hadn't the nerve to come in to find me.
Entering the gatehouse, a large bat lunges out of the darkness and smacks into my shoulder. So much for sonar! Inside, narrow corridors form a grid of alternating light and shade, made into a labyrinth by collapsed chambers and doorways blocked by tumbled stone. Feel like a mouse in a laboratory maze - find the button, win the cheese.
Following a faint path where the dark stain of age has been scratched by passing feet from tumbled stones, under precarious lintels, round dark corners and tight galleries to a candlelit chamber, where an ancient, shrivelled nun lights some incense sticks for me and says a prayer for my good luck.
Emerging blinking back into the light, a fork of the path leads up a pile of rubble on to a wall, from there on to a roof, and onto the stump of a ruined tower. Treading very carefully - thinking of the walls underneath, and the 'danger unsafe' signs (I don't think my concience could stand the destruction of a wonder of the world) - for a view across domino'ed columns.
Lie down on a warm step at the top of the ziggurat to watch the sun set over paddy fields dotted with Cambodians bringing in the rice harvest, buffalo wallowing. A couple of adorable little urchins make a cursory attempt to sell me postcards, but quickly bore of that and steal my oversized sandals instead, slapping about and giggling wildly. They are so enchanting I almost miss the sun go down. Yes, of course I buy some postcards.
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Not so long ago I was feeling - literally - world weary, as though I'd been on the road too long and there was nothing left that could impress me. A couple of short weeks later, these four days in Angkor have been possibly the absolute highlight of the entire trip. I'm not even close to being ready to leave, but might never be ready.
On to Travel Tales - Phnom Penh.
All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter.