As we climbed yet another set of wide, steeply planked steps, I was busy in thought of how many Sections and courtyards there were to get to the central temple. This must be the fourth gate and there still seemed a maze of masonry ahead. Fort knots eat your heart out.
By now the sun had fully risen, and the walls of the inner courtyard were bathed in a golden earthy glow. This was the Cambodia I had seen in photos. These gargantuan chunks of age blemished stone were highlighted into a warm furnace.
As we turned the corner a huge line of people came into view, our guide asked “would you all like to go up”?
“What do you mean”? I asked, puzzled, as I thought we were “up”. This was the courtyard to the inner temple. The tallest section... oh, wait. Not quite, I realised as I looked up.
“What, we can go up there”? I pointed to the people walking around between the columns higher up.
“Yes, you can climb up to here, and walk around the whole top. There are good views of all of Angkor from here”. There was mutual agreement from our group as we took our place in line for the next 15 minutes.
“Ok, I will wait here for you” said Borey, as he exited the line, and waited amongst the other guides all sitting on the ledge of the wall, waiting for their respective clients to enjoy their circumnavigations. I looked up at the steep steps, and didn’t think about looking down, not quite realising how difficult it would be to do that later on.
It was deceptively big once you were up there; the corridors straight ahead led out to small protruding windows with views down to the inner courtyard, and the mounting queue. On the other side you walk through the long gone doorways and out onto one of the four square bathing pools.
Long since dried up, people wandered down the steps for photos of the back bending spires or to sit elegantly, draping their flowing skirts and dresses over the edge while smiling at their camera man across the way. Oh so very instagrammable. Honestly, the amount of people I saw throughout the day who were dressed to impress for their photo shoot of the year nearly outnumbered the rest of us.
Angkor really does attract everyone, from all over the globe, of all fashion senses. There’s your average joe like me, dressed in linen and a baggy t-shirt. Pushing past me was a moving pink tracksuit, garbling away in Russian, with a full face of make up regardless of the imminent rising heat of the morning.
Then there were the select few Chinese who came prepared for pre dawn warmth, now regretting their big puffer jackets. Every 10 minutes or so I would pass by a tiny Asian girl in bright, billowing fabric, and compulsory wide brimmed hat, grasping at it with an innocent smile and a flick up of her foot. Oh so very instagrammable. Often with enviously gorgeous clothing.
But then, standing next to them, or shamelessly walking through the frame were the hardy, down to business travelers. You know the type, head to toe khaki, rucksack and hiking boots, looking more like they are here from the archeological department. Sometimes the good old fisherman’s hat to complete the look. Opposites were everywhere, people from all walks of life had come to witness this magical site.
Passing by the monk offering blessings in front of his shrine in the centre of all four baths, I turned to the West facing corridor, stopping at each window to marvel at the view below. Each level could be seen from here, right down to the entry gate and bridge beyond, fading into a horizon of trees. The sun was casting an amber glow across the landscape, illuminating the West Lake, warming the stone of the outer level spires and setting fire to the glowing trees. A gradient of browns and deep greens faded out for as far as the eye could see.
It was worth the climb jus to take a few moments to appreciate the city that spread out below me. But what a small section I could see. I stood for a few moments longer, letting my brain baffle at the sheer magnitude of how much more would’ve been here thousands of years ago. The jungle and open grass covers the once residential areas that would have carpeted the lawns.
Moving like clockwork with the rest of the people, I drew closer to the exit, and from a side profile, began to make the mental realisation of the terrifying decision I’d made 15 minutes ago to come up here. Holy mother of heights! Those steps looked a lot steeper up here than they did from the bottom. You really come to appreciate those flimsy looking metal poles that act as handrails when your brain and legs fail to work as a team to move you down.
About a quarter of the way down the age old “don’t look down” was failing me, paranoia and fear had set in and each step seemed to go on forever. By now I had put all of my fear into my legs as I grasped with both hands onto the railing, going down one step at a time. By half way my legs were shaking from the sheer exertion of concentrating on just getting down, my bum wasn’t far from touching the step above me I was sure that I was actually doing lunges.
People were passing me by, the lady holding the passes waited semi patiently for my lanyard as I neared the bottom, and my guide and group looked as if they were about to bring out the deckchairs and have brunch. Needless to say that I was the slowest person to actually get down. I smiled gingerly as we regrouped and Borey swiftly ushered us along, onto the next stop of our itinerary.
“Ok, we will make our way back to the van, so you can later go back to the hotel, have breakfast, and in a few hours we will come back for the sunset”.
In other words, we were not in keeping with time to see the Elephant Terrace, so the rest of Angkor West side would be quickly marvelled at before we return to the hotel for a break. I silently felt myself taking the blame for this, I’d already wandered off once to buy some artwork and broken the Guniess World Record for the longest climb down the steps. It was only 10 am, but apparently we were running late. And here was me, prepared and misinformed thinking we would be on site from literally dawn to dusk.
Making our way out of the inner courtyard I was met with my first set of steps. Oh, shit! I thought to myself. Of course, the amount of steps I’d taken already to reach this top level only meant I’d have to go down them again to get out. I really didn’t think this through did I.
Pointing to an unboarded set of steps Borey instructed us to follow. “Ok, we can go down those. Be careful everyone”.
Everyone limbered down until it got to my turn. I feigned all sign of muscle strain and side stepped my way down like a piece of jelly, refuting Borey’s hand to help. How could I possibly forget that the omnipotent thigh wobble would happen after climbing steep steps and not having warmed up first. It’s safe to say this day was my legs’ first real workout because I literally couldn’t walk properly for about two weeks after. I had put the dependence of my life into my thighs on those steps. At the time I had serious thoughts of scooting down on my bum, but the public shame put a stop to trying it out.
Heading along the wide pathway and back to the van, the jungle grew taller around us, framing a large doorway, signifying the exit. Immediately to my right, I slowed to a stop behind my group to gawp at the first glimpse of the ruined, jungle like temples I would be seeing later at Tah Prohm. This was the Gatehouse sitting in its decaying glory.
A Large tree grew from the foundations, sprouting like a fresh new seedling from the cracks in the stonework. The sun was emitting that beautiful glow upon the world, and as I turned to catch up with my group, I stopped almost as suddenly to lose them altogether.
Sometimes nature can be so beautiful it commands you to just stop. My feet were rooted as I slowly panned the scenery in front of me. A stunning view, the way the light coats a mountaintop, or the sight, smell and sound of a rainstorm is so powerful you want for nothing else but to pause, and just watch.
Beauty is all around us, in every moment. It’s not just in the images we see in those magazines, hoping we can experience it just like that if we visit, it is visible everywhere, every day. My group were on a mission to get to the car park, back to the van. I was the only one who had seen those moments where nature was showing herself. They walked on, and I silently had a tantrum inside, defiantly turning away from them to stay where I was, determined to enjoy my few moments looking out at the view.