“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
This is a sentiment especially appropriate to the trials and tribulations of a backpacker on a budget, and to narrow this microcosm a little more, to the exploration of the temples at Angkor.
Sure you can pay through the nose to be picked up thirty minutes before sunrise; a prepared breakfast waiting, your tickets handed to you at the entrance, ferried from ancient pillar to ancient post, taking photographs out the side of your moving tuk tuk, a regimented time schedule barked at you throughout the day, finally convoying back with the herds of other tour groups you have spent an entire day ‘exploring’ with. Sounds fun…right?
We opted for the Roosevelt way, the day before we found some information on prices and directions and what not in an old folder at travel place in Siem Reap, rented two bicycles for $3 and set our alarms for 4am. There is never a good time for adversity in a third world country, if there was, it wouldn’t be 4.30am. That’s when we arrived nearly 7km from our hostel at the Ticket Office, or as it’s now called ‘the old ticket office, stupid’, with just enough time to cycle the couple of miles back the way we came and get to Angkor in time for sunrise, this day could still be saved. But here comes the Spear of Destiny to our plans, as of three weeks ago the ticket price has increased, by almost 100%.
Against the wishes of the most Cambodians that make their living from tourism at the Khmer Empire, the government has grossly inflated entrance prices to the parks, a day ticket that was $20 now $37, two days from $40 to $62. With just enough money in our pockets for the $20 entrance fee and a little extra for food and water, our day was done. Returning to bed to fight again the next day.
We bought our tickets for the next day at 5pm the day before, allowing us to enter the complex that evening to catch sunrise at Pnomh Bakheng (the tomb raider temple), giving us a little taste of the chaos that is the Angkor complex. The sunset was pretty, trying to find some solace amongst the thousands of Chinese tourists that horrify this place, not so pretty.
So we arrived the next morning at 4.30 on our little rusty bicycles, the pedestrianisation of the complex allowing us to navigate footpaths on our bikes and keeping us away from the humdrum of tour groups heading for their car parks. Any backpacker that has trekked for five days to Machu Picchu will know how annoying it is once the trains start rolling into the sight, sunrise at Angkor is similar. We arrived early, already sweaty, hungry and tired, as we headed in the tours caught up; huddled en masse behind their flag bearing deity, with their creaseless slacks and freudian camera lenses they marched on the site, and on the spot by the pond that almost everyone heads for, pseudo-photographers one and all, we turned right where they went left. Now separated by the giant stone walkway we were almost alone for this magnificent sunrise over the worlds largest religious building.
Our next mission was to avoid the masses as much as possible, firstly exploring the intricacies of Angkor Wat before the clock struck 7am, our noses to the wall examining the sprawling bas-relief diaries carved into the myriad of stone. From there we found where we had left our bikes in the pitch black and headed on to Bayon, the most impressive of the temples in my opinion. The temple where you can get most ‘hands on’, climbing through the belly of stone and up to several different levels, the carvings here are sensational, almost two hundred giant faces towering out from its peaks, detailed bas reliefs depicting the mythology and history narrating the centuries that have passed here.
Approaching the middle of the day now, and with it the searing Cambodian heat, we cycled out for 40 minutes to the edge of jungle, passing monkeys and elephants by the side of the road, arriving at Ta Prohm. Trying in vain to block out the peak time tourists that perplexed here, we marvelled at the beauty of mother nature more than the hardships of Khmer builders, neglected for centuries after the fall of the Khmer Empire, Ta Prohm is now a testament to the power of mother nature, entropy and the arrow of time. Building work aside, this place feels ancient, giant silk cotton trees have suffocated the stone here, serpentine roots strangling the life out of complex walkways and devastated tombs. Nature always finds a way.
We ended our day of exploration at the seldom visited Royal Bathing Pond, a massive body of water viewed beautifully from the stone altar on its western shore. The perfect place to sit, away from the tourists, and reflect on a day amongst the triumphs of those long since dead.