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Anchor What?

Janelle In Preah Khan, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Some things live up to the hype. Angkor is one of those things. It’s hard to say this without sounding geeky (impossible, in fact) so here it goes: Angkor is like all my childhood Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings-inspired flights of imagination come to life.

I knew almost nothing about Angkor going in (and only slightly more now), so everything was mysterious and exotic. The massive Angkor Wat temple is the best known, but the ancient monuments of Angkor are actually spread out over a large region. A lot of people explore Angkor via guided bus tour, but for independent-minded folks like us, the most popular way to do it is to buy your pass and then hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day to take you around. There are a couple of common circuits that hit the main monuments, or you can just tell your driver to take you places in whatever order you want. Our guy also had some tips about the best times to go to particular places to avoid the crowds. Your driver drops you off in the parking lot and chills out while you go look around, then takes you to your next destination. A pretty easy way to get around, and the area between the monuments is largely undeveloped, so you’re always taking little trips though forests and rice paddies, which is pleasant.

Angkor Wat is the largest, most famous and best-preserved. It’s a huge fortress-like structure of passageways, towers and courtyards, with moats and causeways and gigantic bas relief scenes of battles, mythical happenings and the underworld. It gets the most visitors, but the high season has wound down, and just by turning down hallways the tour groups don’t use we repeatedly found ourselves alone in stone courtyards and winding temple corridors.

Even more gobsmacking is Ta Prohm, a temple complex that was abandoned to the jungle for centuries. Parts of it have collapsed, and massive white silk cotton and strangler fig trees have been left standing, their trunks and roots winding through the crumbling mossy walls. All around are piles of rubble with bits of bas-relief visible through the moss and lichen. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the jungle and partial ruins make it much more mazelike and eerie than Angkor Wat. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

And best of all? Almost none of Angkor is off-limits. Unlike, say, the catacombs of Paris, you can wander and explore almost anywhere. We would duck down rarely-used hallways, climb up back stairways and over centuries-old piles of rubble. It may be a little selfish to rejoice at this, and I suspect it’ll piss off the archeological establishment, but after a lifetime of going to old buildings and being told DO NOT TOUCH, DO NOT CLIMB, CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC—that I have to stick to a single corridor with all the cool-looking bits roped or gated off—God, it’s refreshing to be able to just explore shit and get lost. I loved it. I felt more connected to the ruins of Angkor than any other historical site I’ve ever been to, just because (a) well, it’s incredibly awesome; but also (b) because I could touch the ancient carvings and sit on the same bench some 12th-century monk sat on.

As great as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (and Angkor Thom) are, temple fatigue does still set in. We were in no rush, so we alternated temple days with “hanging out drinking coffee and beer back in town” days, but even so, by day three we found ourselves half-heartedly walking a bunch of samey-feeling temples. But that said, I’m incredibly glad we came to Siem Reap and saw Angkor. (And it doesn’t hurt that Siem Reap is exactly what you want to find in a traveller town: cheap, friendly, lively and unpretentious.) I’m actually also glad we came without really knowing much about Angkor. The scale was far beyond anything we had imagined, and not knowing the history while we exploring made everything all the more mysterious and romantic.

Tomorrow we head to Phnom Penh for, I think, a very different Cambodian experience.

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