At its peak (around 900 years ago), the royal Khmer capital of Angkor was as big as Manhattan and home to as many as one million citizens. Its sophistication, technology, and art far surpassed anything in the Western world at the time. After falling to invading armies however, the city was moved east to Phnom Penh, and Angkor was consumed by the jungle –â€œlost,â€ though parts were maintained by Buddhist monks until French explorers â€œrediscoveredâ€ it in the 19th century.
Today, many of the structures have been meticulously restored and others simply cleared and preserved in their crumbling but still glorious states. To visit all of Angkor is no simple endeavor. Indeed knowing this enormous place, where even one of its scores of sites completely changes character with each subtle shift of sunlight and clouds, is impossible with our measly seven-day park pass. But we do our best.
Our days go something like this: Wake in the dark and make our way outside where Mr. Maromâ€™s broad smile greets us with the morning air. Climb into his motorcycle-pulled tuk-tuk and ride 20 minutes through the humid chill as the sky begins to change from black to blue. Show our passes at the park entrance, then continue through the increasingly familiar landscape of forest roads, rice paddies, and ruins.
Mr. Marom chooses our sites for us; he is very conscious of the lighting since he has carried many a foreign photographer. One morning, the rays of the sun are slanting through the rising dew, creating stunning shafts of light between the trees, so he takes us to the fantastical Ta Prohm, where the forest is interwoven with the walls and columns. Another day, the light is crisp and warm, perfect for viewing the pink and orange sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei, the â€œcitadel of women.â€ One cloudy day, Mr. Marom guesses correctly that the moat surrounding the Bayon will be a glass mirror perfectly reflecting this inner templeâ€™s 200 stone faces carved into 54 towers. And so on. (For a map of these places, click here.)
Mr. Marom sleeps in the back of the tuk-tuk while we are gone, wandering the ruins with glazed and amazed eyes. Around 10 or 11 a.m., we head back to the comfort of our room in the Two Dragons Guesthouse, escaping the heat, eating a Cambodian lunch or noodles and soup, maybe taking a nap or a stroll around Siem Reapâ€™s old market. We meet Mr. Marom three or four hours later for another trip into the archeological, where the afternoon light presents an entirely new set of choices, culminating in: From where should we watch the sun set?