Grand Circuit, Angkor

Sunrise at Srah Srang

December 19, 2011

Photo set on Flickr

Sunrise at Srah Srang

A new morning. Another 4:30 start to the day. I have never get up in the wee hours on consecutive days just for sunrises. But since it gets really hot at noon even in December, it doesn’t hurt to get going early then head back to the hotel for a nap after lunch.

We left without Becky as she wasn’t feeling well. This morning’s drive was a little longer than yesterday’s but not nearly as many cars. Our destination Srah Srang is a royal bath and reservoir dug in the 10th century.

As we had experienced on the previous day, Angkor Wat is the preferred destination for sunrise viewing, leaving lesser sites like Srah Srang relatively free of tourists. With lots of space to roam along the shore, I set up my gear on the left side, a few hundred metres away from a Chinese tour group who curiously chose to shoot at a spot with a distracting tree in the foreground. The sun put on another splendid display; after seeing four sunrises/sunsets in a row this had become expected.

The emergence of sunlight couldn’t entirely sweep away our sleepiness. We swiftly got back to the car a little after 7, hoping the time we saved now could lead to an extended nap later in the day.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

The 20 minutes car car to Banteay Srei was a torture for our sleep deprived bodies; there was enough time to start nodding off but not enough to fall asleep. My mind somehow tricked my body into believing the temple was the best thing since slice bread and I raced off towards it.

Three attributes of Banteay Srei immediately stood out: 1) Most of the structures are built of red sandstone. 2) The carvings on the temples’ walls are the most elaborate at Angkor. 3) Its miniature scale.

The red sandstone, shined upon by the direct morning light, was especially eye-catching. Better still, we were prepared for the temple to be overrun by tourists, but only a few others were present. Yet the third point was a huge downer. I guess the disappointment comes from a failure to manage my expectation; I knew beforehand that Banteay Srei is built mostly of red sandstone and contains some of the best Angkorian carvings, but I didn’t expect to cover the complex in a mere twenty minutes. Actually, Banteay Srei’s size was not as much an issue as the fact that all of its temples were roped off and a visit was limited to looking at the carvings without being able to walk inside and around the temples to search for alternative angles to explore and take photos.

Banteay Srei is still very much worth the effort to get to, but due to my own personal preference I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Temple overdose was a given at this point. Ideally we would take in two or three temples each day, but obviously our tight schedule wouldn’t allow that. Perhaps cycling the Grand Circuit is a better idea – turning some of the less noteworthy sites like Neak Pean into necessary breaks instead of a bunch of unrelated stops. That said, whatever the means of transportation couldn’t diminish the appeal of our last stop on the Grand Circuit – Preah Khan.

With minimum expectation, my opinion changed for the better after we walked past the entrance gate and into the main temple complex. Like Ta Prohm, overgrowth vegetation and unrestored temples are abundant at Preah Khan, and its fine carvings are not far behind Banteay Srei’s. Preah Khan’s arrangement of a central Buddhist temple surrounded by a series of latterly built Hindu temples gives a good perspective of the differences of the styles and how the religions coexisted and clashed during the Khmer era.

For me, what’s most memorable about Preah Khan is something rather minor. There is a two-story building north of the Hall of Dancers at the east side of the complex; its round columns, while seemingly barely worth a mention, are the only example of such in this land of the Khmer. A little diversity goes a long way for memory retention.

Angkor Wat, Revisited

Sunset at Angkor Wat

An unappetizing lunch and a one hour nap later, our full team was back at Angkor Wat to finish off what we started yesterday. The complex takes up a space of 820,000 square metres, although our focus was concentrated on the central mountain temple.

We went beyond the pools this time and got inside the temple where an ascend on two flights of steep stairs after passing through a series of darkened corridors led us to the central temple’s apex. The reward was a fine view over the entire complex. Crowd was much smaller at the top and we found it to be a good place to take a rest. We lingered until twenty minutes to go before the temple area closed at 17:00 and moved on to the inner rectangular gallery area by the pool. As the rest of the crew attentively studied the gallery’s bas-relief decoration, I was distracted by the weakening amount of sunlight from the west. Figuring the light might cast a warm glow over the ruin, I left the group and set up my tripod in front of the larger pool.

The image in my head didn’t materialize – a stubborn piece of low hanging cloud blocked all the sunlight and cast its massive shadow over the central temple. Awful light or not, I was standing in front of Angkor Wat, only there was a disconnection between what I saw and what I was feeling inside. I felt quite hollow – my experience with this iconic structure involved not much more than crossing it off my “to visit” list in my mind. Whatever the reasons, and the few that jump out of my mind are its fame, size and popularity, Angkor Wat failed to conjure up much room for imagination. Everyone comes for the postcard shot and that’s what everyone end up getting.

My friends patiently waited for me; I was the last person still standing by the pool. All this time sticking around was not a lost cause – behind us the sky had cleared up and became a blend of royal blue and fiery orange-red. Didn’t really matter that the gopura (entrance building) wasn’t too interesting a foreground – we were grateful that the sun provided us with another dazzling ending to our day.

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