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Saturday, April 02, 2011

In awe of ancient Angkor

By Julie Alcantara

                                        Entrance to Bayon Temple (photo by Jojie Alcantara)

Long before Angelina Jolie made Angkor Wat a thrilling destination to visit through her movie Tomb Raider, I was dreaming of seeing this mystical location in the dense jungle of Cambodia. How to get there didn’t occur to me.

As if teased by fate, early this year, my two buddies and I finally found ourselves packing for a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the ASEAN Tourism Forum. We figured that by leaving a day before the opening ceremony, we could travel back and forth in a day from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. You see, we figured a lot of things. We thought that Angkor Wat could be done in a day. And so we found out that Phnom Penh is six hours away from Siem Reap. So we planned an elaborate itinerary that meant long bus rides from border to border.

Here’s how we got to Angkor Wat: We boarded Cebu Pacific from Davao to Manila, then to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) so we could stay the night and experience Vietnam for a day. Luckily, Cebu Pacific gave us a connecting flight of Davao-Manila-Saigon with the convenience of unloading our baggage in Vietnam.

Making sure everything is well-documented, I packed two cameras, two lenses, my laptop and My Passport portable hard drive (Western Digital’s one terabyte capacity assures me of quick backup and safe transfers). I figured this thingy will cope with my trigger happy shooting for 24 hours daily, given that I suddenly decided to ambitiously embark on filming video as well (eagerly planning to launch a cinematographer’s career on YouTube).

From Vietnam, we bought bus tickets ($12 dollars) at Mekong Express office for a long 7-hour ride next day to Phnom Penh, the biggest and most progressive city in Cambodia. On board the air-conditioned bus with toilet and video, we realized how much they loved Angelina Jolie from a marathon of movies that included Tomb Raider, The Tourist, and Salt throughout the trip and back (with inserts of your Cambodian videoke MTVs).

In between border stopovers, bags in tow, we went through a line in the Vietnam immigration departure area. Mekong Express staff collected our passports and facilitated for us so we were lucky. Others in line must have waited eternally as they rode on cheaper buses. We just waited for our names to be called (which weren’t pronounced clearly) and off we went. After a few minutes, we went through the same process as we entered Cambodia (hauling luggage once more). Restaurant stopovers along the way were good and cheap, and so were snacks in the bus. This was the start of my craving for spicy frogs’ legs, but that’s another story.

In Phnom Penh, we again bought tickets at the Mekong Express for a 6-hour trip to Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Complex. Surprisingly, the once sleepy town is a beautiful and modern place to stay (think Raffles Hotel for the high end or choose Hotel dela Paix, a uniquely stunning boutique hotel, where we stayed). Around the province, temples are scattered from a few kilometers away (Angkor Wat, 7kms) to as far as 55kms away in the Kulen Mountain.

With only the whole afternoon to roam the famous ruins, we got ourselves ticket passes at $20 for a day ($40 for 3 days and $60 7 days) at the entrance office and hired a tuktuk ($12 for a day) whose driver patiently waited while we traversed the safe (cleared from mines) and touristy paths.

Angkor, the capital of Khmer empire from 9th to 13th century, once governed territories of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Khmers built hundreds of temples and Buddhist monasteries throughout Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. In 819 A.D. King Jayavarman II (802-850) made Siem Reap province an administrative center of Khmer empire when he moved his settlement there.

The kingdom began to crumble after frequent attacks and army invasions from all sides. From the early 15th century until late 19th century, the jungle swallowed the remnants that time forgot. Only the Buddhist monks stayed and slept there, making Angkor the largest religious building in South East Asia.

Although the ruins of Angkor have been documented as early as the 16th century, French naturalist Henri Mouhot’s discovery and travel accounts in the 19th century heightened the world’s interest of the hidden wonders, and prompting the French government to launch a restoration program. Archaeological research halted during the Khmer Rouge political upheaval (70s-90s). Despite signs of barbaric pillaging, broken statues and stolen artifacts, most of the ruins remained intact and have withstood the test of dangerous times. In the 90s, Angkor was opened to the world again, and restoration continues to this day.

The Angkor golden age is said to have lasted six hundred years, over several sovereignty and religions (from Hinduism to Buddhism), with hundreds of temples built, placing a few kings in history more prominently than others for the more ambitious structures, like vast waterworks and majestic shrines. Viewing this immense UNESCO World Heritage Site the first time defies description. It was shock and awe, transporting me back to a lost time when a seemingly advanced civilization once prospered in power. Nothing can prepare you for its magnificence.

With little time left before sundown, we were only able to visit three most popular temples. The wind was chilly as we passed through huge tree-lined roads in view of bikers and ancient sanctuaries peeping from forest hills. Everything was dreamy and surreal, setting you back in a time warp.

Ta Prohm was the site Tomb Raider was first filmed so you hear guides incorporating it in their tales proudly (”this is where Angelina Jolie ran across…”). Here giant silk cotton trees mysteriously wrapped their mammoth roots like claws onto temple structures, twisting and slithering like snakes engulfing their prey, making the scene an untouched wilderness of immense artistry. King Jayavarman VII was said to have built this elaborate shrine for his mother in the 12th century. Another popular must-see temple he has built is Bayon in Angkor Thom, an ancient city complex with five sophisticated entrance gates (gopuras), columns of demon and god statues all lined up, and intricate carvings monumental history. Bayon has an exceptional architecture of 214 smiling giant faces on the towers, said to be replicas of the King.

Angkor Wat (meaning “City Temple”), the famous temple complex and a magnificent showcase of Khmer architecture, was originally built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. As the country’s top tourist attraction, it has become a powerful pride and symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag. Its breathtaking, massive scale of advanced construction feature bas relief carvings of war and life, triumph and celebration, gods and beliefs, giving us glimpses to a rich empire that has left many visitors awestruck.

At sundown in Angkor Wat, we felt a newfound respect for mankind’s achievement. I highly recommend brushing up on history before your trip to prepare yourself for this people’s culture and identity. There is just no short cut to learning so many fascinating things. I bought a few books with colorful illustrations at $5 from young teens selling outside locations. I was hooked over Khmer history, its glory, downfall and mystery, of devatas and apsaras (dancing nymphs so prominently etched on walls), manmade reservoirs and moats that were built to protect them. If I go back again, I would want to stay longer and soak up in sunsets and sunrises at different vantage points, perhaps earlier than the growing throng of tourists who flock in thousands to spoil the serene view. I will most likely visit the least popular temples hidden in the jungle, despite warnings of mines.

Presently, the Apsara Authority which manages the complex, has announced that 1.15 million people visited Angkor Wat in early 2010, up by a 24 percent increase in tourist visits from the previous year. So if you want to explore the ancient architectural marvel, now is a good time before a million more people will think about it.

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Jojie Alcantara is a travel photographer and lifestyle columnist in Davao City, who explores off-the-beaten paths that she loves to share through her stories and images. Her articles and photography are featured in Mabuhay Magazine, and other publications. View them in
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