Back again like moths to a flame; we were whisked away yesterday by the imaginings of a vivid and lively Angkor Wat from times gone by on the whispers of thousands of ghosts that used to call this place their home. This morning there are no whispers, no crazy declarations from King Jayavarman about being the king of the world; what we can hear though is the din of a market world stirring with the first glowing halo to pick out the domes of Angkor Wat, just a silhouette for now. How easily the imagined world of the 12th century collides with the present, at five am the beaming face of a young boy is offering me delights from his market stall, number four, just near the reflection pools in the immense grounds of Angkor Wat. I know what year it is but for a little longer I’ll indulge myself in time travel, we could be 900 years ago.Sitting at the edge of the famous pools we’re awaiting a sunrise that has repeated this scene over these iconic towers possibly 350,000 times. Will sunrise 350,001 be a special one? Like the billions of visitors and residents before now we stare on as the dance plays out once more, this time it is special, it is unique and it’s just for us. Angkor Wat slowly moves forward from the shadows of an outline to take shape in the celestial spotlight that shines once again, a mirage of the 12th century no longer. From the centre of the greatest empire on earth at a time to adorning the national flag, the spires of Angkor Wat have long existed in the realms of mythical adoration; they still do.
Originally built as a Hindu temple the years have introduced Buddhism as Angkor Wat moves with the times while the slow centuries roll by. With the sun blazing the sky in full flight we scurry off to see the temple, heading for the often glimpsed but seldom visited eastern gate. Temples of this era always face east but in an odd quirk Angkor Wat faces west which leaves the often famed eastern gate bathed in the first rays of morning light and all alone. Indeed we are alone and that familiar Angkor feeling comes rushing back, such a powerful feature of this place is how it drags your imagination to the time when it was at its height refusing to stand still as just another jumble of pretty stones. In a way Angkor doesn’t come forward in time to you, it drags you back to it.As much as Angkor Wat has occupied a day and a half it remains just the centrepiece of this city, a city in itself but a centrepiece none the less, we’re off to have a walk around the greater city of Angkor; Angkor Thom. Where Angkor Wat stands on a semi-island of its own Angkor Thom feels more like a continent, the distinction between a moat and ocean is a blurry one here, the mind boggles at the labour required to carve out this approximately 9km river nearly 100m across. But carve they did and the greatest urban centre to grace our planet before the industrial era comes into view as our tuk-tuk scoots under the tight entrance of the southern gate.
The centrepiece of the main city is the Bayon temple, strictly a buddhist temple its 52 clustered spires rear up like a game of building blocks with not enough lounge-room floor to space them out. Clustered tightly together this complex weave gives a hint to the vastness of the Khmer empire, once 52 provinces, now just 24. Where once the great empire swallowed up much of what we now call Thailand, Laos and Vietnam the modern nation of Cambodia is shrunken and withdrawn on first impressions but not at all without notable spark and charisma. Siem Reap is the epitome of a blossoming new city and sitting so snugly beside the pinnacle of the empire it once was it’s hard to avoid the feeling that after recent turmoil Cambodia is no longer content to shrink in on itself. Time will tell as it always has, the slow centuries continue to turn.Through the elephant temple and the temple of the leper king we gather together a sense of the grandeur of this city; minor temples are enormous. In this temple-o-rama that is the greater city of Angkor there is one place among the many temples that must be seen, Ta Prohm. Often called the tomb raider temple on account of the Hollywood film of that name being set here, Ta Prohm lies in a state of semi-surrender to the rambling jungle; here in lies the appeal. Spung trees are a strange plant, they send down tendril roots to search for soil in which to bed, from as far up as the seed happens to germinate. In Ta Prohm the ages of Angkor are all on display; centuries of grandeur, centuries of slow decline, centuries for seedlings to sprout on top of walls and roofs alike to begin their search earthward for nourishment.
It’s hard to tell if Ta Prohm is holding up the trees or if the trees are holding up Ta Prohm. It’s so easy to see why it was chosen as a Hollywood set, no amount of artistry could create the eerily enchanting atmosphere that seeps from every crack in this place in the moments before a tree root can grow into it. Dappled shade replaces the harsh Cambodian sun as the scales balance delicately between human architectural grandeur and natural conquest; it feels so apt that no one side is quite winning out here.We’ve been driving for hours, indeed we’ve been sweating like racehorses for hours, and we’re still on this man made island home, the immensity is staggering. As with Ayuthaya in Thailand it baffles me that we know so much about great civilisations of the rest of the world yet have little appreciation for those in Asia who have strong claims for being some of the greatest. This part of the world is typified by countries like Cambodia in some ways, greatness of past conquest cowed to a factory to produce cheap clothing and make iPhones for the rest of us at prices we’d prefer to pay. So sobering it is to think that centuries ago The Khmer were our wealthier equivalent and given easier transport we’d be making their version of iPhones for prices they’d prefer to pay. In a few centuries time, I wonder who’s making the iPhones?