For our third and last full day in Siem Reap, we intend to see the triumvirate of heavyweight temples that make this area famous throughout whe world.
Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Wat between them are the focus of most itineraries if visiting either the immediate area or wider Cambodia.
The great city of Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer empire. Covering an area of 9 square kilometres, it is accessed via a gate in the outer whole whose 23m high towers are topped with huge stone faces whose eyes peer down on you as if to judge your worthiness to enter.
These stone faces are also the centrepiece of the most impressive structure of the numerous remains within the city, that of The Bayon.
A compact yet intensely decorated temple, The Bayon consists of many stone towers that jut upwards from a raised terrace, encircling the central temple peak.
Numerous bas-reliefs depicting Angkorian life decorate the lower courtyard and its walls, where “The Boy” takes a liking to climbing its sizeable stone steps before exhausting himself and demanding a well-earned milk time-out.
Yet more decorative stonework covers the inner gallery, but upon climbing to the upper terrace one quite literally comes face to face with some of the most impressive architecture you could ever wish to see.
Dispersed around the gallery there are to be found 37 stone towers of various dimensions. Adorning each of these formations are colossal, carved faces whose giant smiles appear to beam down broadly upon insignificant human visitors.
These assembled humans, us included, can do nothing but stare back in awe and wonder.
The early morning sun casts fascinating shadows across the faces, hardening and softening profiles in a way that gives validity to the description of what we are looking at as being “The Mona Lisa of South-East Asia.
Nobody knows why they smile, they just do.
In one area of the terrace, people from many nations (especially Korea and Japan) gather to both observe and be photographed with a small cast of Ramayana clad actors in exchange for a dollar.
The orientals can’t resist a photo opportunity, and more specifically a photo with them posing a “V for victory” with their hand, which to me just serves to utterly ruin the image.
Once you begin noticing this ubiquitous trait it begins to grate like an annoying itch. Then, when upon noticing you with a camera, local street kids and vendors start pulling the pose when you were all set for a nice candid snap, it becomes rather frustrating.
Though today is by far the quietest day of the visit so far, I still can’t help but feel I’ve been transported to some ancient corner of Seoul.
Every few minutes during the mornings visit to The Bayon, and now again at Ta Phrom, a guided group of chattering Koreans will stop immediately in front of me and ruin my view.
Nothing against Koreans per se, but I want to feast my gaze upon the cult ruins of Ta Phrom not a short bloke with so much camera gear he likely has a team of Nepalese Sherpas on call to help him get his mass of electronics from golf-buggy to 5* hotel lobby.
Made famous by the Angelina Jolie film “Tomb Raider”, Ta Prohm is regarded as being the most intriguing and atmospheric of Angkor’s ruins, what with it’s forest surroundings almost claiming the stones back as part of the Cambodian jungle.
Parrots squawk in the foliage of the spung and silk cotton trees that grow out of the partially collapsed ruins, creating an other-worldly, eerie landscape and casting a dank, green hue across the site.
The ruin has numerous dark recesses and crumbling galleries inside which masses of carved blocks sit and hinder my passage.
Nonetheless, “The Boy” enjoys exploring Ta Phrom’s nooks and crannies whilst also taking a particular interest in climbing through the root system of one of the invading arboreal hordes.
For most people, Angkor Thom is an overgrown architectural anomaly. For “The Boy” it is a natural playground.
Finally, after sating both our intrigue for the tree-temple and our desire for lunch, we head to Angkor Wat itself.
Angkor Wat is a 12th century state temple and one time capital city. Though vast in scale, it is arguably the best-preserved temple of the entire archeological site.
A symbol of Cambodian national pride, it’s iconic towers feature on the national flag, on the notes of currency, and on just about every piece of tourist tack that Siem Reap can offer its dollar-rich patrons.
Angkor is a pretty awesome structure to behold, but though much more grand in scale, in my humble opinion it lacks the spark of magic that the Taj Mahal possesses.
The central structure of Angkor is accessed via a series of raised causeways that firstly cross a 190m wide moat and then an even longer outer courtyard.
Beyond the causeway, the internal walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as other such cultural nonsense that the hardened traveller has little time for.
“Seen one bas-relief, seen them all” as the 0.5 quite probably muttered to me within 20 seconds of our arrival.
The central structure at Angkor rises above the surrounding city ruins offering views in all directions that my fellow oriental visitors seem obliged to shoot.
They point and shoot not just by cardinal point it seems, but with a “click” for each of the 360 degrees of the compass.
How the hell did they manage in the days of film cameras?
These guys will truly snap anything and everything.
Exhibit A: The point and zoom of a massive lens on a characterless, flat wall. “Click”.
Exhibit B: A featureless, poorly lit floor “Click”.
Exhibit C: A patch of half-dead, trampled grass parched by the lack of recent rains “Click”.
Guilty on all accounts.
Who teaches these people? Do they not stop to think?
My £500 D-SLR, though a capable beast in most scenarios, is nothing compared to these alpha male camera specimens that surround it.
As I walk the upper gallery, several grands worth of bulbous Canon EF lens is pointed at…. Well, at what exactly?
Fully elongated tripods with some seriously large bits of kit screwed onto them are set up by Koreans. Squat Japanese men swing huge telephoto lenses that take up half the width of a gallery.
Every far eastern man appears to brandish one of these monster lenses as a bare minimum requirement.
I deduce that it can only mean one thing.
These guys from the far east are doing little more than outwardly boasting the prosthetic dongs of the camera world.
No technique required, for them it’s all about the size.
Moving to the lower terrace where a serious case of “Alforama” has broken out, I take some shots from strange angles and get chatting to an American who has been observing me.
The gentleman proceeds to tell me he is interested in upgrading his camera and would like some advice.
Excusing my lack of genuine expertise, I then talk in layman’s terms, finding his needs and dispelling the myth that the megapixel is all-powerful before recommending him (as I do everyone else) that far better than to spend £1,500 on camera kit is to spend £15 on a good “How to” photography book.
He then politely asks me to take a picture of him with his partner.
Reaching into his rucksack, he offers me a small, silver point and shoot camera with minimal functionality and a pathetic zoom capacity.
I inspect the equipment and then, like a tonne of deadweight, the penny drops.
The guy now posing before me is a black American.
I look through the viewfinder up towards where he is standing and obligingly click a few shots.
As I do so, I’m sure he casts me a knowing wink before taking back his camera, thanking me solemnly, and walking away with a swagger.
I bet he did the same thing to some other white bloke at The Bayon earlier that morning.
It all makes sense now, no wonder those stone faces seemed to be grinning.