Khmer architecture is, in a word, epic!
This morning we drag ourselves out of bed at 5AM and race to Ta Prohm, passing up food stalls and another sunrise at Angkor Wat. Hoping to get there before the crowds, we pedal hard. By the time we arrive, we're glad we rushed; save for the people taking care of the grounds, we're the only ones here!
Wandering around the overgrown temple, I can almost hear foot-stomping and chanting and ancient rulers creating fabulous empires out of the jungle. Drums beating, and an army of monkeys' shrill cries of "ah ah ah eee eee eee!" Poisonous arrows and elephant warriors in the mist. My imagination has no basis in reality or history, but this is what comes to mind when I see things like this:
What must it have been like to stumble upon one of these massive temples at the height of its splendor, entrenched in a dense jungle almost a millennia ago? I cannot begin to imagine. Standing the test of time, after nine hundred years of decay, the structures are still awe-inspiring.
What makes them most exciting for me is the hold nature has over them. Trees left unchecked in the jungle have crushed the stone walls of Ta Prohm with their slow and relentless assault. The roots which are consuming the temple paradoxically provide structure for the very thing they are destroying.
We spend the entire early morning climbing around, exploring, with nary another soul in sight. It is so quiet and peaceful at this time of day, without crowds milling about, without signs telling us where to go. Just us interacting with ancient history. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, Tyler nimbly climbs up to get a photo some crazy temple tree roots…
…and then encourages me to climb up and join him. So, I do, feeling like Lara Croft as I scale walls and leap over stepping stones of ancient ruined temples. How cool is this!?
I'm taking pictures like crazy, while Tyler snap numerous shots in black-and-white with his Belfoca. We haven't actually developed a roll of the film from this camera, so we have no idea if anything is turning out. He takes notes for each exposure: shutter speed, apeture, distance from subject, etc, excited to see how they'll turn out when we get back home.
Yesterday, when we rolled up on our bikes to check out Ta Prohm for just a few minutes, we were greeted by a host of the usual fruit, bracelet, and trinket hawkers. One woman with a huge, beaming smile, introduced herself as Sun, and told us we should come to her shop for a delicious meal. We told her we weren't hungry, so she said "It's okay, maybe you come back later!"
Today, after a long morning of exploring, we emerge hungrily, just as busloads of tourists begin to arrive. Making our way past a sea of hawkers, we go directly to stall number seven to see Sun again. She remembers us, and is thrilled to offer us a table; we order iced coffees and fried noodles and garlicy chicken.
While she is busy preparing our food, her daughters come to chat and ply their trade: selling bracelets. The hawkers here are remarkably endearing. Normally, we ignore people who try to sell us stuff, but something in Cambodia has caused our attitudes to change remarkably.
Sellers from the smallest of children to the eldest adult seem to have a sense of pride and a goal they are working towards, like earning money to pay for English school. Though we know their spiels are all the same, they are genuinely friendly. Also, they are also so frigging kind and cute that to say no would be like slamming the door on a girl-scout and her cookies.
We cave several times today, first when bargaining with Sun's fiercely businesslike daughters who refuse to sell for less than they deem their products are worth. This only furthers reinforce our respect for them. It's a far cry from how we felt nearly a year ago when faced with adamant, relentless hawkers in Tunisia:
Hammamet turned out to be very touristy and rather underwhelming. The medina might have been interesting had it not been for the constant barrage of hawkers trying to guess our nationality and sell us some useless trinket. Actually, it is starting to seem like everyone here is trying to sell us something. Tara and I are both really tired of it; so much so that we've stopped being polite with our refusals. We've also vowed not to visit any more medinas.
We've seen other tourists get pretty bent out of shape about the barrage of salespeople, but to us, it seems endearing and tame. I wonder if we're better able to handle them now then we were then? Or maybe Cambodia really is that much different than Tunisia. In any case, we're falling hard for Cambodia. I am wildly impressed with this country. Everyone seems to be working their butts off to survive or better their country, and it seems to be working.
After spending time with Sun and her girls, thanking them for their good food and drink, we cycle off for a really quiet and sleepy day away from the big attractions.