Ruins at Dawn

Underslept and Overfed

After languishing in a semi-lucid state for a day, I felt a bit better. The antibiotics I'd pilfered from my sister had started to live up to their promise of annihilating all enmies foreign and domestic, and I set out for our second day at Angkor with a renewed confidence in my continence.

We woke up very early, and peddled through the deserted streets to the gates of the park. In our efforts to beat the crowd we were actually a little too early, and had to wait for the first staff to show up, close to 5:00 am, to punch our passes. The ride through the park was an adventure; my bike being the only one with a functioning dynamo, I led the way through the infinite darkness. The sky was overcast and the moon had set. The only sound was the squeaking of our crankshafts, the hum of tires on rough asphalt, and the occasional hopeful serenades of crickets in the bush.

We arrived at the entrance to Angkor Wat itself, and parked our bikes in the pool of neon light from a coffee stall readying for business. The guards inspected our passes, congratulated us on being the first visitors to show up, and explained to us how to find the best spot to watch the sunrise. We picked are way across the bridge to the entrance of the temple compound, mindful of the uneven bricks and the absence of a guardrail. I had seen some children swimming in the small lake the day before, but I had no interest in a morning dip.

As we passed through the gatehouse, a man beckoned us to an alcove. Here was what I had come to refer to as a "buddha-trap." Someone pulls you aside, puts a few sticks of incense in your hands, guides you to a robed statue (sometimes just a fragment of stone), bids you place palms together and lower them three times, then uncovers the tray where you are expected to fork out a few dollars. Sometimes they tie a piece of yarn on your wrist and mutter a blessing. The first time it is endearing, fulfilling, it makes you feel like you have somehow connected with this place that has nothing to do with you. After four or five such experiences, your wallet significantly lighter, you begin to avoid them, begin to question the legitimacy of some of the operaters who seem to restrict themselves to out of the way corners of less popular temples. When one woman insisted on a minimum offering of five dollars, I began to wonder if these peddlars were really any different than the guys selling authentic Cambodian instruments made in China. The product they sell is authenticity, which the tourist values as much as clean drinking water.

It was too late to avoid this man at the gatehouse, the passage was too narrow for all of us to evade him, so followed him to his shrine while the others went ahead. Sometimes you have to take one for the team. I caught up with them in the middle of the grounds, the temple of Angkor Wat Stood before us down the walkway. We turned to the left, as we had been advised, and found the edge of the pond that promised the best sunrise vantage.

We may have been the first visitors to arrive, but there were plenty of people there. The operators of little restaurants inside the temple enclosure had laid out a blanket of mats all around the shallow bank of the pond, thus staking claim to the prime real estate. For the price of a few coffees we got the best seats and settled in to wait for dawn.

The coffee was swill, and the sunrise unexceptional on this grey muggy morning. I find a particular pleasure in waking up far earlier than I should and was quite unphased this. We headed into the temple as a light rain began to fall. The morning light made for excellent photography, as the sun dipped in and out of the clouds. The rain brought the details of the stonework to life and I spent a lot of time marvelling at this massive and intricate structure that was built with sandstone blocks and unknown mortar on a heap of sand.

After having our fill of the temple, we ate breakfast at one of the countless little restaurants that are scattered around the park. Stray animals roamed between our legs as we shoveled down fried rice with thick iced coffee. They next stall over was filled with locals, transfixed by a blaring television set. Our own conversation competed with the sounds of a motorcycle chase and the occasional explosion. Action movies sound the same in every language.

We rode down the road a ways to the hill temple of Phnom Bakheng and walked up the elephant trail to the top. This is normally a place that draws an unbearable crowd at sunset, but in the late morning it was quite deserted. It was refreshing to have a vantage point over the countryside that until now we had only seen from the ground. The stillness of the hilltop was disrupted by the moans of a crane and the pattering of hammers on stone. The temple was undergoing restoration, and a few dozen workers moved about the site between carefully laid out rows of sandstone blocks on the ground. I was reminded of my brief stint working with the stone masons, of the slabs of limestone scattered at the base of a wall coming into being.

As we walked down the elephant trail, a group of children raced past us, cutting through paths in the bush resembling game trails. Their prey was a man walking ahead of us. He was French, I think, possibly Scandinavian, in his mid-thirties, with that bearing and dress of an unashamed tourist. I would wager he was wearing one of those wallets one tucks into the underwear. The leader of the children launched into the script that we had heard many times before: "Hi, How are you? Where are you from? X country is very nice..." He handed him the crumpled print out that they all carry, "Save our association," a brief letter soliciting support for an unnamed school for orphans, or the disabled, or victims of the war, or all of these things depending on the version in hand. I watched him read it as he walked. Then he handed it back to the boy and began to dance the awkward waltz of white guilt, wracked by that intense discomfort of wanting to be left alone whilst seeing oneself as utterly wretched, as the sole author of all that is wicked in the world. The boy, a veteran of this game, followed with an expression of earnest confusion, all soft eyes and expectation. The man muttered apologies and excuses to nobody in particular and hurried his step, his eyes fixed on something distant, as if he had suddenly recalled that there was somewhere he urgently needed to be. The children followed a little further then called to some of their comrades and charged off back up the hill. A couple, wearing matching hiking boots, had just begun the descent, and the woman had the look of someone who has trouble saying no to children.

The afternoon was underway, but as we'd already been up for nearly twelve hours, I was more than happy to call it a day and go put some time into trying to eat more. As we rode back to town, I saw that the flags were still flying from the pomp of two days before. Our initial visit to Angkor had coincided with that of His Excellency Hu Jintao. All of the roads throughout the complex had been lined with police of varying levels, standing at twenty-five metre intervals looking bored out of their minds. In the late afternoon we had the luck of seeing the motorcade zoom past as the President was given a whirlwind tour of the entire complex accompanied by the Cambodian Royals. The banners stretched across the two lane road, suspended from the towering trees, and extolled the eternal friendship between China and Cambodia. On our first day we had had to pull over and wait with a group of locals on our way home as the police cleared the road for the V.I.P's, but today there were no uniforms in sight and we made it back to town in no time at all.