Angkor Wat and the Khmer Dancers

Apsara Dancer, Angkor Wat

After a quick shower at the hotel, we decided to check out the market down the street. Across the dusty dirt road and down about a block, we found the open air market. Dozens of merchant stalls sat under a large tent. The whole market was no bigger than a small city block. Fish mongers displayed their products in piles (not as if they had to, the smell was advertisement enough). We walked under the tent and into the maze of stalls. Many of the merchants rested in hammocks. One young merchant fell asleep on a glass cabinet full of watches. A woman sat at a cloth stand and rocked an infant in a hammock. Women sold miniature figures of the Bayon heads, wood carvings of the Angkor sites, paintings of Angkor Wat, charcoal rubbings of the bas reliefs. An elderly book seller stood in front of his collection: "Pol Pot: Brother Number One" "The Tragedy of Cambodian History," and other Khmer Rouge era studies.

We hurried back to the hotel and met Rang. Refueled and rested we went directly to Angkor Wat. Rang said we could meet him at 4:40PM, and we'd drive to Phnom Bakheng, a hill where we could watch the sun set. We waved good-bye to him and started down the stone bridge that spanned across the moat.

Angkor Wat is Cambodia's signature piece. Historians believe it was built during the reign of Suryavarman II (1112 - 1152 AD) to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to serve as a funerary temple for the king. The details are incredibly well preserved. The most significant features of the wat are oriented towards the west which is traditionally the direction of death. Like many temples in Angkor, the highest tower represents Mount Meru, the Hindu mystical center of the universe. The surrounding towers represent the lower mountains.

Angkor Wat

As we walked down the sandstone causeway and through the gate, the outline of Angkor Wat slowly revealed itself. Breathtaking, incredible, superb - all the superlatives apply - Angkor Wat is a monument to mankind. The complex is enormous. The moat is 190 meters wide; the outer wall is 1025 by 800 meters long. The 475 meter long avenue leading to the wat itself is lined with naga balustrades (statues of snakes). The avenue is cradled between two pools. Strewn with lily pads and pink flowers, the pools reflect the ruins. Jumping tadpoles and restless insects make the waters shimmer. I have seen places like this in storybooks - old fairy tale books that my grandmother would page through as I sat on her lap.

Bas relief detail, Angkor Wat
Inside the wat, we climbed up stone staircases and walked around the different levels. Buddhist nuns with shaved heads sat by statues. They asked us to donate money and to light incense. The levels are difficult to walk around because every few steps, you have to jump over a foot high, foot wide divider. We figured maybe the floor was designed like this to slow invading armies, but then again if invaders got that far it was probably too late. Who knows. Out the tall windows, we could see the endless landscape of trees and rice paddies. We got up to the second highest level and found a rather perilous-looking stairway up to the top of Angkor Wat. A rusty metal handrail ran up the narrow stone steps. I don't remember how many steps there were, but they were set at a step angle. I held onto the railing like a mountain climber grasping a rope and looked only at the few steps directly below me. It wasn't exhausting; it was just a little nerve wracking.

Finally we reached the pinnacle of Angkor Wat. We circled the level and looked out at the view, then we lit incense at the shrine of a reclining Buddha. On its way out the window, the smoke drifted past a saffron cloth twisted around a chunk of stone. Three children sat under the shade of the temple playing a game with marble sized stones. We rested for a while at the top, met other tourists from Washington, D.C. and Australia, then we went back down the way we came. From a few feet back, it looked as if the staircase dropped off like a cliff. In truth, going down was ten times easier than going up. A group of nuns were gathered at the base of the stairs like a sort of congratulatory committee.

Preparing for the dance
We walked down the various levels and towards the entrance of the wat. Just as we were leaving, we found a troop of traditional Khmer apsara dancers preparing for a show. The covered entrance was their dressing room. Teenage girls prepared their elaborate stupa-like headpieces and adjusted their golden sequined costumes. Younger girls put on lipstick and red rouge. One of the girls giggled as I took her picture. Boys smeared white paint on their faces and applied lip color. A dog wandered around sniffing at the costumes and makeup. Little children from all over the park gathered around the dancers. They rested their elbows on the ground and pressed their palms against their cheeks and watched the backstage frenzy. Young performers tried on their plaster masks, painted to look like the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his crew.

Apsara dancers perform the petal dance
(Hear the dance in RealAudio!)
For more scenes from the performance, visit The Children of Southeast Asia

Cambodian boy as
Hanuman, the Monkey God
Listen to his dance with RealAudio!
After about forty minutes of prepping, the young cast was ready to go, and Andy and I parked ourselves in front of the stage. The performance was for a group of French and German tourists and our "seats" were the stone steps directly in front of the dancers. Little kids leaned on the stone railings to watch. With Angkor Wat as the backdrop, the performance began. The band played xylophone-like bells, drums and other instruments that I'd never seen before. Women in stupa headpieces and sequined dresses came out first. The clicking of the cameras almost created a counter rhythm to the music. The young women gracefully reached out their arms and struck poses. The next number was the coconut dance. Young girls, dressed in red and white, tapped coconut shells on the stone stirring up a rolling rhythm. Then the boys came out, smiling and sneaking up behind them. They tapped coconuts with the girls and danced around in a circle. The last dance was performed by the youngest children. It was a scene from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The girls had red sequined mermaid-like fins attached to their backs, and the boys were dressed up like monkeys. The monkeys scratched and rolled in perfectly timed movements. The boy who played Hanuman, the white masked monkey god, was amazing. His movements were so controlled. He mastered the part.

The whole time we were a little worried because this unexpected event was making us very late for Rang. As soon as the performance ended, we hurried back across the field, over the causeway and down the steps to Rang. He didn't seem surprised that we were so late. We decided it was too late to climb up the hill to catch the sunset, so we headed back to the hotel. We ate fried rice at a local restaurant called the Singapore. Christmas lights were strung all over the outside of the restaurant... in the bushes, across the awning. Geckos scampered across the walls, Cambodian TV played in the hallway, and friendly locals drank and laughed at the next table.