Angkor Wat & Bayon: Re-Cycling Ancient History

If only such timelessness applied to emotions, which are as permanent or as fleeting, as certain or as unpredictable as the ever-changing luminescence of its owners. But that is what being human is – for nothing is permanent, except the present moment. And at that moment I was smiling and at peace.

The first time I cycled around Angkor was with my ex-husband some 14 years ago. We had already separated by then but decided to holiday as friends in an attempt to discover what could be salvaged from broken promises and harsh words. And to be totally honest, we had a fantastic time that week enjoying each other’s company with utmost love as if nothing had changed. It was a reflection of what at the core we were – firstly friends, then only lovers.  Though we ultimately parted, the vivid image, in mind’s eye of cycling side by side with him under a canopy of trees passing the South Gate of Angkor Thom towards Bayon temple losing our laughter to the wind, will always be treasured.

Dawn AW 1
View of Angkor Wat from the moat at dawn

And here I am 14 years later sitting down by the moat of the Angkor Wat watching the magical light show of sunrise – alone.

Well, I wasn’t alone alone, there were an extremely large number of tourists around me ooh-ing and aah-ing as the red sun slowly came up from behind the temple stupas. But I did not care, for the sky was iridescent and the temple view magnetic.

Sunrise AW 2
Reflections of Angkor Wat on the water at sunrise

I had arrived the afternoon before and taken possession of a battery-operated “green” electric bike I hired from the hotel for USD5 per day. I admit I am totally clueless when it comes to operating machines unless I have read the manual cover to cover about 10 times, but I had a great amount of confidence in myself and in the instructions given to me by the English-speaking hotel staff, or so I thought. I set off for Angkor Wat some 7km away, finding myself at times cycling smoothly and at times unexpectedly accelerating as I wound around the busy streets of Siem Reap.

The good thing about travelling alone is that there is no one to remind you about all the dumb things you did on your trip. As I pulled up to the Angkor Wat ticket centre, I found myself embarrassingly tumbling over and landing on my butt, the electric bike doing cart wheels a few metres away with a bunch of tuk-tuk drivers eyes wide and chuckling. I had jabbed at the accelerator instead of the brakes it seems. One tuk-tuk driver came to help, whilst another picked up my bicycle and parked it aside. Luckily for me no major disaster, the bicycle didn’t hit anyone and was not broken, although my pride was slightly dented. Okay so I was not off to a great start. But I had my week’s pass in my pocket, and hey these Cambodians are real nice, so that must be something to be thankful for.

The next morning, I struggled a little again with the electric bike, with one near-miss of the bike running away from me towards a pile of coconuts near the parking area. I made some short apologies for frightening the poor coconut seller, but no harm done.

South Gate 1
Crossing the South Gate causeway on the way towards Angkor Thom

After spending an hour climbing the ruins of Angkor Wat, I made my way round the moat towards Angkor Thom. I was excited to come face to face with the 800-year old Bayon again after all these years, but most of all I reflected on how much things had changed through this time.

Stopping by South Gate for a few minutes, I noticed that the some of the stone figures of the “guardian gods” had been restored in fresh grey clay, whilst others remain in ruin. Similar restorations were taking place at Angkor Wat, as probably was with many other temples around the park. I wheeled my bike across the causeway on foot admiring closely at the towers standing tall at South Gate and carved figures of god Indra protecting it, before setting off again.

Everything had been just as I remembered as I rode towards Bayon, minus laughter, plus Adele. I also got to Bayon much quicker I think, because before long I was staring down the stone faces of Bodhisattva (and that’s what I’d like to think they are although some have said that they are of King Jayavarman VII who built the temple). Of all the temples of Angkor, this is my favourite – and perhaps so due to its Buddhist influences in contrast to the much older Angkor Wat which is Hinduism-based. Bayon simply resonates with me.

Bayon 5
Gigantic smiling faces carved into Bayon’s 54 towers

I took my time here examining the bas-reliefs of scenes from Khmer battles on the lower levels making my way up to the upper levels to count the stone faces. The gigantic stone faces adorn all four directions of the towers of Bayon, and everywhere you turn they are ever present ever smiling at you. Subliminally they exude a mysterious serene feel-good energy that literally makes you smile as well.

Bayon 6
Priceless smile at Bayon

It was close to 11am by the time I left Bayon and I wanted to head back to the hotel in Siem Reap for a nap. In my haste, I must have pedaled too hard on the electric bike because the chain came off on my way to Victory Gate. Apparently you have to pedal very little, but that’s debatable from my limited experience! I managed to get the bike close to a drink stall, and tried to call the hotel for help. In the meantime, the local Cambodian lady who had been tending to her drink stall came over to examine the bike without my asking. Ordinarily one might have thought her a busybody, but her busybody-ness this time was indeed welcomed and valued. She rummaged a basket of things behind a tree and came back shortly with a screwdriver. Et voila, in 5 minutes she got the pedal chain back on and everything perfect again.

Victory Gate 1
Victory Gate at Angkor Thom

I bought a bottle of mineral water from the helpful lady for 2,000 riels or less than 50 cents, but with a USD5 note. I told her to keep the change, but she refused and insisted on a 2,000 riel note. It caught me by surprise as I had expected her to gladly pocket the change for I had read many stories of locals here out to make a quick buck from tourists. To cover my own shame of prejudging her, I handed the USD5 note instead to her little 5-year old playing close by, insisting it was for the child and quickly took off with the bike.

After arriving back at the hotel, I promptly traded in the electric bike for a regular pedal bike. When asked why by the hotel staff, I made the excuse that I just wanted to ride slowly over the next 3 days, covering my own inadequacies in manning a machine even if it was just a battery-operated one!

Suffice to say the next 3 days were of pure joy, as I pedaled past farms, barays and more temple ruins around the Big Circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park. Though I might be a tat slower, I  worried less about cycling, and spent more time looking. The temple mountains of Baphuon and East Mebon were memorable, whilst a visit to Preah Khan further afield tested my tired legs on the fourth day of cycling. With few cars on the small roads and mostly tuk-tuks carrying tourists from place to place, the roads of Angkor are easy to handle and you can hardly get lost with well-posted signs and a map. It is not difficult to cycle here solo and without a guide, so long as you keep to the main roads.

East Mebon 1
Tourists at East Mebon

The romantic that I was returned to Bayon for the second time that trip for no other good reason than to sit by the smiling faces to read a book.

Bayon 7

It came to me then how wonderful it is that what is physical may be saved, recovered, preserved and restored just as been done to this ancient holy city of Khmer over the last 12 centuries. Such extensive enduring structures have proven to survive vast amounts of time regardless of its experiences, yet still able to retain its grandeur and beauty without total degradation. And that in itself is precious.

If only such timelessness applied to emotions, which are as permanent or as fleeting, as certain or as unpredictable as the ever-changing luminescence of its owners. But that is what being human is – for nothing is permanent, except the present moment. And at that moment I was smiling and at peace.