When we leave the hotel with our guide at 8 AM it is still relatively cool. By noon we will be sweating buckets… On our first day of hiking, we drive into the vast area of Angkor Wat. During the 12th century, this was the world’s largest religious area encompassing some 400 square KMs. There were many villages in the area and people would come to worship at the elaborate temples.
Many of the stone buildings have now collapsed and the jungle is winning the battle. Stone carvings surrender to tree roots, some trees towering a hundred meters on top of an old wall.
With the new technology of lidar (laser imaging radar) they are discovering many more old roads, walls and buildings hidden by jungle.
We entered the ancient capital area at the South Gate of Angkor Thom and hiked through beautiful shady forest on a pleasant sandy path. This major attraction may be inundated by tourists, but théy are not hiking! We walked around a tranquil lake and listened to birds. At one point we reached a busier gate where endless throngs of traffic arrived. Walking through the woods, we had no clue there were thousands of tourists nearby!
We walked through Bayon Temple and heard about the many stories depicted in the endless stone carvings around the temple walls. This is ancient storytelling at its best: facts and myths intertwine in stone, leaving a legacy of stories and morals about Hindu gods and Buddhist beliefs. Stories of battles won and battles lost, of a sea turning to milk, of snakes and gods.
We continued our walk on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the compound, for many kilometers until we arrived, via the Terrace of the Elephants, at Cambodia’s main attraction: Angkor Wat. It was constructed in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
This most important temple towers 65 meters from ground level. Since the temple represents heaven, no buildings in the vast area of Siem Reap are allowed to be taller – a wonderful way to keep high rises from taking over the landscape.
All Cambodian Buddhist hope to visit this temple at some point, much like Muslims trekking to Mecca. The temple itself is gigantic and you can easily spend an entire day walking around, climbing the towers and watching the sun rise or set on this national landmark. My favourite moment was seeing flame orange robes of monks, as they walked by, against the blackened stone of the ancient temple. Like in other Buddhist countries most people serve their country as a priest for some time in their lives. This can be for a few days, for a month or for several years. While serving, the community provides for the monks, bringing them food. Unlike other countries, like Burma, I haven’t seen any girl monks/nuns yet.