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The Wonder of Angkor Wat


Angkor disappeared into the jungle, only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later

By Ken Donohue

I was told a must-see when in Siem Rea, once the ancient capital of Cambodia, is watching the sun rise over the Angkor Wat temple.

So, at 4:30 am, I was bouncing along a darkened road in a tuk tuk, a covered wagon of sorts with seating for four attached to a motorcycle. The sky was ink black and speckled with a million stars. Near the temple, my driver pulled into a dirt lot, and stopped at a large tree.

“I will wait here for you,” he said, assuredly.

I trailed after some people ahead of me who had a flashlight and waited at the temple entrance with a dozen or so others until it opened at 5 o’clock. Excitement began to build as more people arrived. It was as if we had floor tickets for a concert. When the gates opened, everyone walked hurriedly across a floating bridge. I was lucky and scored front-row, at the edge of a large pond, which even in the dawn reflected the silhouette of the temple.

The crowd was now several rows deep.

The sun woke slowly from its night-time slumber and the stars in the morning sky were erased one by one. Then, in a flicker of time, the star of the show arrived on stage. The sun first peaked out from behind one of the temple’s five towers, the tallest measuring more than 200 feet high. The experience was everything I imagined. Could the builders of Angkor Wat have known that 800 years on people would gather in the dark to delight in the magnificence of a sunrise over this most revered building?

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, and was once one of the world’s largest cities, flourishing between the 9 th and 15 th centuries. The expanse of more than 1,000 temples spread across 400 square kilometres is impressively hard to imagine. But like other ancient cities, neglect and nature took hold and Angkor disappeared into the jungle, only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later.

Angkor Wat is the best-preserved temple in the area, and the only one that has remained a centre of religious significance since it was constructed in the early 12 th Century. It holds such significance that an image of it is on the Cambodian flag.

My guide first took me to the Ta Phrom temple, made famous by Laura Croft in the Tomb Raider movie. I channelled my inner child and bounded up and over large stone steps, exploring the different rooms in the temple. Ta Phrom is popular with visitors, because throughout the complex large silk-cotton trees and strangler figs, with tentacle-like roots have many of the buildings in their tight grip.

I’ve seen the pictures, but it’s even more impressive in person. Fascinating to witness the struggle between nature and these structures built centuries ago.

We visited several temples on our first day, each had their own style and feel. My favourite was the Bayon temple, which had me feeling as if I was being watched. The upper terrace is home to more than two hundred faces, intricately carved of stone. With every turn, these eyes of stone seem to follow. It’s like ancient security cameras.

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I was sitting on the edge of the private pool at my hotel in Siem Reap, legs dangling in the refreshing water. The hotel’s name is curiously called Templation. It’s a one-of-a kind hotel inspired by the architectural masterpiece of nearby Angkor Wat.

Just minutes away from Angkor Wat, it is one of the closest hotels to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like many of the Angkor temples, which remained hidden beneath the jungle vegetation for centuries, the individual suites at Templation are purposefully hidden amongst the trees and walls covered with trailing vines. And the hotel’s main pool is lake-like, a reflection of the massive barrays, or reservoirs that were constructed in the area almost a thousand years ago.

I searched for the meaning of Templation, and all I could come up with was contemplation. I contemplated whether to linger longer in the comfort of my suite or go out and explore the temples of Angkor. A longer dip in the pool could wait, I decided.

I rented a bicycle from my hotel and went for one last spin through some of my favourite temples. After marveling at the stone faces and threading my way through the crowds at the Bayon temple, I climbed back on my bike and let the spirit of wanderlust guide me. I spied a long trail that was bounded by a jungle of forest. I turned down the path and found myself away from the crowds. Not even the thick, humid air could slow me.

I soon came upon one of Angkor Thom’s ancient stone gates. It’s one that few visitors would ever see, because it straddles a trail that only bicycles or motorcycles could navigate. I paused for a moment, reflecting that 1,000 years ago the very place I was standing would have been the entrance to one of the world’s great cities.

Circling back to my hotel, I stopped to admire the view, as the late afternoon sun created silhouetted reflections in the impressively large moat, a kilometre-long on each side, surrounding the Angkor Wat temple.

Children passed me riding on the backs of scooters and yelling, “Hello. Hello.”

It was a fitting end to my visit to Siem Reap.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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