Severe stone faces line ancient pathways leading across wide moats and up to the largest temple I’ve ever seen. The jungle encroaches on tall, grey pyramids, trees sending roots down and through roofs and walls and into the earth beneath, becoming one with the stonework. Hidden paths in the jungle threaten to swallow the unwary, but lead the adventurous few who dare to traverse them through mighty archways and into hidden, secret rooms, not known to the throngs of tourists a few hundred meters away. This is Angkor Thom, the ancient city of the Khmer, home to the grand temple Angkor Wat, and it is one of the greatest wonders of the world.
Angkor Wat is extremely well known, and filled with throngs of backpackers, Japanese tour groups, and the outskirts of it are lined with hawkers. Now, don’t get me wrong, Angkor Wat is well deserving of its reputation, but if like me you prefer silence and solitude when delving into ancient ruins, you need to leave the well worn path and go to the surrounding grounds: Angkor Thom.
We’ve been here a few days now. Pedalling rented bicycles over in the morning, bag lunches in the basket, happy shakes in our stomach, and pedalling back in the evening. I’ve never seen a more beautiful place. We spent a few hours meditating under what looks to me like a Bodhi tree, and climbed through and up on what is literally the set of one of the scenes in the Tomb Raider movie.
The thing that most surprises me about this place is the colors. The green of the jungle is deeper and richer than any I’ve seen before. The grey stone of the buildings stands out like a bleached white skeleton, and the brown dirt looks like paint. I expected to be overwhelmed by the scale and the sense of ancient hands carving stone figures to reach out through unfathomable eons to touch me in the present, and I am, but I didn’t expect to be so floored by the colors.
It’s the wet season, and while we’ve had a dry morning playtesting a card game on the steps of the first pyramid I’ve been able to climb (they’re rather strict about that in Egypt) we can tell it’s going to get wetter soon. We climb down and get on our bikes. We’ve barely made it a few score meters before the sky cracks open and lets loose the full force of the Cambodian monsoon. The dirt turns instantly to mud, and our bikes slide to a halt. We pull them off the side of the road and ditch them, heading towards the shelter ahead on foot.
By the time we reach the crumbling remains of the building we had hoped to take shelter in, the question of if we can remain dry has been answered: not a chance. We’re already as wet as if we’d swum there. So we embrace it: the rain is warm, the environment magical; if we can have fun getting wet while SCUBA diving, we can have fun while getting wet here.
We make a game of it, hopping from rock to rock, trying to stay only on surfaces placed there by ancient people, not touching the ground, the most exotic game of “the floor is lava” either of us has ever played. We lose track of time, swimming through the air, laughing and dancing in the rain, balancing on stones, when we see the first other person that we’ve seen in what feels like an eternity, but has really only been a few hours. It’s a small boy, tending a large cow, both watching us mutely. We wave, and then Allison makes one last leap onto a smooth, round grey stone. It gives way beneath her: not a stone after all, but a cow patty!
We both collapse on the ground laughing. The rain washes us clean and then clears up, and we return to our bicycles and continue exploring.
Photos are by me and Allison. Angkor Wat is on the southernmost side of Angkor Thom, which is just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.