Angkor Wat. Long has it loomed in our imaginations and as our tuk tuk circled the entrance I whispered in Emma’s ear that I couldn’t really believe we were here. It was one of those moments where I become acutely aware of time. A place like this fires the imagination and motivates you to get out and see the world. It’s the sort of place that inspired us to stop work for 12 months and pack up our lives into a shipping container and a few backpacks. And there we were, looking at it. Briefly. So long in the imagination, how quickly the visit goes.
Many of you have probably been to Angkor yourselves or will have seen documentaries about it. So you don’t need me to tell you it is a wonder of the ancient world worthy of the title ‘wonder’. It is a monumentally large collection of stones; each, as far as we could tell, individually crafted to fit seamlessly next to the ones that surround it to produce a building that is hugely impressive.
I have come to think of Angkor Wat itself as a monument to the equally monumental insecurity complex of King Jayavarman VII. Jayavarman VII, you see, came to power by dubious means; murdering his uncle the rightful king to seize power at the tender age of 14.
Knocking off your uncle to become King however doesn’t tend to inspire others to keep following you for long and so the young Jayavarman needed a way sure up his reign. Of course the best way to do this is to have your minions build something so big and impressive that your god-like status becomes unquestionable. It worked and 800 years later here we are ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ along with a couple of thousand others as we crawl all over the legacy of Jayavarman VII’s ambition and insecurity.
When I feel insecure I mostly tell myself to ‘suck it up’ and get on with it or dump my worries on Emma who tells me ‘she’ll be right, we’ll work it out’. Maybe it’d be better if I built something. Well not me of course, but my minions. No, wait. I don’t have any minions. ‘Suck it up’ is better.
Where was I…
Oh yes, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’. Emma and I were ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’, along with our new friends Andrea and Peter from Canada. We really have met some wonderful people on this trip. Amy and Oliver along with Andrea and Peter’s kids Sydney and Tobin were melting and dare I say it, moaning. Not that I hold that against them. Siem Reap is really hot. It was 37 degrees as we explored today’s temple and this place may have fired mine and Emma’s imaginations, but that makes it our dream, not theirs.
We towed Amy and Oliver through the temples like they were our minions (maybe I do have some after all) doing our best to explain why it was all so great. Before we arrived we had all watched a few documentaries about Angkor and so I think they got it to a certain degree. Despite our best efforts however I suspect that from their perspective one stone pile soon began to look much like the next especially as they felt like they were slowly roasting in an oven on low heat.
On another family’s travel blog we recently read what one of their children reflected in his journal about his experience of Angkor Wat:
“Mom took us to see an impressive, large, ancient, temple ruin filled with exquisite stone carvings… and then, she took us to see five more.”.
That probably about sums it up for Amy and Oliver I think. The same family said if they made a movie of their visit it would be titled, ‘Angkor Wat and the search for shade’.
We caught our first glimpse of Angkor at around 11.00 am on the day after we arrived. Andrea and Peter had arranged a tuk tuk driver and we figured we would grab another and follow along. Of course arriving at this time is completely the wrong thing to do. According to the Siem Reap, Angkor Visitors Guide:
‘The visual impact of Angkor Wat, particularly on one’s first visit, is awesome. To maximize this effect you should make your first visit in optimal lighting conditions, after 2.00pm when the sun is on the face of the temple. Do not make your first visit to Angkor Wat in the morning when the backlighting obscures the view.’
Yep backlighting is a problem. It ruins the photo and photos after all are why we come – right?
If you were a visitor from outer space observing the scene you could reasonably discern that touring Angkor is not permissible unless accompanied by some form of photographic device. They’re everywhere; looped around wrists, hanging around necks, go-pro strapped to heads and phones strapped to selfie sticks.
If you can permit a small diversion from the story, back in Bangkok we were squeezed into a minibus like sardines on one occasion and couldn’t help but look over the shoulder of the lady in front of us as she reviewed the photos on her phone. She went through what surely must have been more than a hundred selfies in front of various attractions. There wasn’t one in which she did not feature.
It is astounding the extent to which Angkor and all the surrounding temples are photographed. Equally astounding can be the behavior of people in search of a photo. Just today, Amy and I were happily looking over a parapet at a fallen tower of Jayavarman, taking in the crumbled piles of moss covered stones within the still standing skeleton of a once huge temple when we were tapped on the shoulder and asked to step aside.
‘What for?’, I asked in a disgruntled tone of voice.
‘Photo’, the man replied gesturing towards his camera as the obvious reason why it was important that Amy and I instantly move out of the way to make room for his significant other to stand where we were. I confess to being annoyed, though Emma quickly counselled me not to let it ruin my day.
It was indicative of the extent to which cameras dominate so many peoples experience, including ours. I confess to being snap happy too, though I try as much as possible to point the camera at the scenery rather than myself or even Emma, Amy or Oliver. If touring ‘five more temples’ in the baking heat after the first ‘really cool’ one isn’t enough to try your patience, then being asked to smile or turn so you face the other way while someone else points a camera at you certainly will.
Nobody ends up happy. The photographer is frustrated by an un-cooperative subject while the subject is frustrated at being used as a prop to enhance the scene. It’s not really as bad as that may make it sound, it just plays out as an unspoken tension simmering below the surface of everything else that is going on as part of your visit right at that moment.
The problem with cameras is that after a while you start to look at everything for its photographic potential, or as illustrated above, just being rude because the photo is more important than being polite. A photographic mindset undoubtedly distracts you from being present, while you are present, in this place that you have wanted to see for so long.
At one point during our visit Amy made a comment to me, the exact wording of which I cannot remember, but to the effect of, ‘all you do is take photos’. It was said in the disgruntled voice of an 11-year-old who thought the first temple was ‘really cool’ but then had to look at five more and who would really rather have been in the pool back at the hotel because it was 35+ degrees.
Her comment made me question what impact my snap happy ways was having on our overall experience. Do I really want the lasting impression I leave from this trip to be ‘my dad was busy taking photos’? Would I be better off focusing my attention on our collective experience of the place and might this in fact have helped others to have enjoyed it more? I couldn’t help but wonder. After Amy’s comment I stowed the camera and started kidding around with Oliver, bouncing him on my back and pretending to be an elephant. This undoubtedly helped lift his experience for a while.
We like taking nice photos and we do use them to share on this blog. I know we have also looked back fondly at the photos from our previous travels from time to time, so they are not a wasted effort in that sense. Still there has to be a happy medium and Angkor Wat has made me think I need to reign it in at least a little bit – it’s not all about the photo and backlighting shouldn’t be allowed to diminish the experience.
So on our last day of visiting the temples I didn’t take a single shot, an over reaction for sure. We took a drive through the Cambodian country side to a temple called Beng Mealea. It’s about an hour and half away from the main complex of Angkor. Emma, admittedly, seized the chance to be photographer for the day, but in a more genteel and subtle way perhaps than I. It was here that Amy and I were interrupted from our non-photo minded observations by the photo hungry hordes.
I don’t know if the lack of photography had anything to do with it but this temple was probably everyone’s favourite. It was more wild than the others and there was more opportunity to scramble over rocks and climb vines, so that no doubt also played a part.
There is however nothing better than a pool and we did only visit Angkor every second day which ensured Amy and Oliver had plenty of time playing with their friends. In fact, thanks to Andrea and Peter, Emma and I actually got to spend 4 hours looking at Angkor on our own while Amy and Oliver played back at the hotel.
Amy and Sydney spent most of their time in the pool while Oliver and Tobin bonded over games on my phone. Not ideal perhaps but they were having so much fun. Unfortunately, the pool did nasty things to the girls hair. I’m pretty sure Cambodia does not apply Australian pool chemical standards and we were going through a bottle of conditioner a day for a while, trying to repair the damage.
At least we had a pool though. Chatting with our driver on the way to the Beng Mealea temple was something of an eye opener. Cambodia may once have been the centre of a vast and wealthy empire overseeing the better part of south east Asia, but that of course is not its lot today. Peiron (our driver) dropped us at the gate of our hotel after the day out and looked on almost wistfully as we disappeared to get into our swimmers. ‘Very hot’, he had earlier told us, ‘Cambodians no have pools’.
Siem Reap exists today to service fly in fly out tourists visiting Angkor. It and our hotel is a world apart from the real Cambodia we caught only a glimpse of through the window of our air-conditioned car. Alas we are out of time to see more. On the positive side we did enjoy the Phare Circus one evening. The circus is part of a social enterprise formed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. As the website says:
“… formed 20 years ago by 9 children and their art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. As survivors of the war, empowered by the creative self-expression learned through their art-making, the group wanted to share this gift of the arts with the underprivileged children of Battambang. They founded an art school and a public school quickly followed to offer free education. A music school and theatre school were next, and finally, the circus school. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the alternative schools.”
The Pol Pot – Khmer Rouge era and its horrors have not been a major feature of this visit for us. We got closest through the personal recollections of another wonderful driver (Mr Khorn) who told us something of his personal experiences as a young boy, including villagers being tricked out to welcome back the king only to be mown down by guns.
This evening we are off to Bangkok for a night before we leave SE Asia. Our minions have caught up on another dose of school work today and are now building a cubby house in the cupboard of our hotel room.
Enjoy the photos!