Temples and Trials

It’s 3:55am when the alarm goes off. I was in a deep sleep, dreaming about…. I don’t know what. All I know is that I’m unhappy about being woken so abruptly and at such an unreasonable time.

When Dean and I first discussed our itinerary for this trip, we each picked three “bucket list” items that we each wanted to see. Mine are Angkor Wat, scuba diving the antiquities in Greece, and Machu Picchu. We had arrived in Siem Reap the evening prior and wanting to capitalize on one of my bucket list items, hired a tuktuk driver to pick us up at 4:30am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

It was now 4:15am and as expected, Mr. Pan, our tuktuk driver was outside waiting. We finished a quick breakfast of yogurt, sugary mueseli, and Nescafé, and hopped in the tuktuk for a surprisingly chilly commute through the jungle. The tuktuks in Cambodia are unlike the tricycle carts in India and Thailand. Instead, Mr. Pan drives a motorcycle, towing a metal trailer with a bench seat facing forward and a fold down seat facing backwards, reminiscent of a traditional horse and buggy.

We rode through the pre-dawn darkness to a check point where the Apsara Authority (the organization that governs the entrance to the park), punched our three day temple ticket and waved us onward. Another 10 minutes further into the jungle we arrived at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Any directions were unneeded as we followed the bobbing flashlights of likeminded tourists, headed toward the entrance point at the beginning of the causeway. If it had been light out, we would have seen that we were on the edge of a temporary, floating bridge, spanning the huge moat leading to the West gate of the largest singular temple in the area. Crossing the spongy walkway it was still almost an hour from sunrise, and even with the glowing half moon we could only see about five feet in front of us.

We followed the main entrance walkway of large uneven stones and tried to keep our footing. We noticed several of the flashlights grouping at the edge of the two reflecting pools at the front of the temple and decided to skirt to the mob’s right hoping to avoid the throngs that promised to continue arriving. Sure enough, there was only one other couple, setting up their camera nearby.

Prior to leaving, I thought Dean was crazy when he packed two large bags of camera equipment. However that morning, I learned that he hadn’t packed his 7lb tripod and therefore the iconic reflection shot of Angkor Wat with the sun rising behind the three towers was not possible. I told Dean that if I wanted a copy of that iconic shot, I could easily download it off the internet. A blessing in disguise as this meant that we could abandoned the busy reflection pools and walk closer to the temple, setting up the small tripod on a stone balistrade.

We could barely see the three front towers of the temple through the darkness and as the sky lightened to gray, a group of three Cambodians came over and sat under the balistrade, 3 feet away from us. They were each looking at Facebook on their phones, talking loudly, with a walkie-talkie blaring, echoing the voice of an authoritative gentlemen and shattering the prestine quiet of the early morning. After a few minutes, Dean packed up his camera and we decided to find another location from which to witness the sunrise, but were quickly told that the remainder of the temple wasn’t open and this is as far as we could go until after sunrise. We requested that they turn down the radio, but I don’t think they understood our English, so Dean motioned to the blaring radio and eventually, they turned down the volume.

For the next 30 minutes, we watched the sky slowly lighten and the temple emerge from the gloom, highlighted by the pinks and oranges of sunrise. The majesty of the moment interrupted by several more groups of tourists being told that they couldn’t proceed any further. But the beauty of the scene unfolding in front of us couldn’t be ruined. It was breathtaking.


Angkor Wat Coming into Focus

When I chanced to look back to the reflecting pools behind us, a crowd of several hundred people were arrayed on the shores, several hundred more corralled on the temple walk. That’s one thing that we’re learning – we’re not the only people who want to see these beautiful, iconic sites around the world. And even attending during early, late, or off times, means that you’re still sharing with throngs of other tourists.

We were some of the first people to enter the temple and proceeded through the main gallery, past the restored libraries, to the back of the complex. Upon reaching the Northeast corner, I joined a line for the Bakan, the elevated inner gallery, which would allow us to be two of the first 100 tourists to take the steep stairs to the top level, providing 360 views of the Angkor city and the main shrine. The Bakan doesn’t open until 6:40am, which was in 30 minutes. I told Dean that I was happy to wait in line if he wanted to walk around some more and capitalize on the morning light. I spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the people watching, but started to panic when the line began to move at 6:30am, a full 10 minutes before posted. Dean hadn’t returned and I was extremely annoyed that 1) I might have to go up without him or 2) lose my place in line. With two minutes to spare, Dean appeared around the corner and joined me in the line. In true Krista fashion, I snapped at him. Making some comment about how I was worried that he wasn’t going to return in time and how I didn’t think he appreciated my sacrifice.

Here’s the thing about me – my anger burns hot and fast. I build up tension, make a barbed comment and once released, it’s done. I’ve moved on. Dean on the other hand, is a slow simmer. It takes a lot to anger him but often, my snarky comments light the flame, adding to the heat until he reaches a boiling point.

I lit the flame early that morning, causing there to be tension throughout the day as we fell into our patterns – me making comments and Dean fuming. Finally that evening, it came to a head.

We had returned to the hotel around 1:30pm, hot and exhausted after a day of doing “the small loop,” a tour of 5 different temples, closely located. At the fourth, Ta Prohm Temple, we had a miscommunication with Mr. Pan, which left us looking for him for over 40 minutes in the blazing heat. We decided to skip the fifth temple and head straight back to the hotel. We grabbed lunch at a highly rated Italian restaurant called Momma Shop. The lunch was delicious and we returned to the hotel with a full pizza as leftovers. After a quick trip to the corner grocery store to stock up on snacks for the next day’s trip, I joined Dean in the pool. With the help of the cold pool, a fantastic lunch, and several minibar beers, the tension had eased and we talked about our amazing day.


Jungle Overtaking Ta Prohm Temple

I knew Dean was especially tired when he suggested a late afternoon nap. I nap every chance I get, however Dean rarely partakes, instead using the quiet time to read or relax. We both quickly fell asleep but I woke up after an hour and not being able to fall back asleep, decided to do some research for our next leg of the trip to Vietnam and Laos.

When Dean finally woke up several hours later, I was in the midst of booking tickets to Laos and back to Bangkok for Christmas. Throughout our travel planning, Dean typically has taken the lead on booking transportation (flights, trains, buses, etc) and I have booked accomodations (hotels, AirBnBs, etc). I was annoyed that I had to do the research and booking for what I perceive as “his responsibility.”

Having finally booked the tickets after several frustrating attempts on Air Asia’s website, I looked over at Dean, who was playing a mindless video game on his phone. I snapped and immediately made a snarky comment, asking how his “research” was going. I know it wasn’t rational. But in that moment, all of the tension from the day culminated in my statement and Dean, having finally reached the boiling point, angerly asked what was my problem. I immediately regretted my statement and apologized but the damage had been done and Dean needed some time to cool off.

We spent the next several hours, purposefully not talking to each other. Instead, I ate a dinner of leftover pizza, banana chips and Ritz crackers while Dean said he wasn’t hungry.

While brushing our teeth, I decided to bring up the subject as I desperately didn’t want to go to bed still angry. Considering that emotions were high, we had a civil conversation where we talked about our frustrations throughout the day. I was angry that Dean didn’t appear to appreciate me, and therefore I made snarky comments, pushing him further away. He talked about how my comments made it so that he didn’t particularly want to be around me. And when he stated as much, it made me want to push him away even harder.

You see, we’ve never really had to work at our relationship. We’ve always had a very easy way with each other, often talking through feelings and big decisions. So on the rare occasions that we do fight, neither of us really knows what to do. But we promised that we would work on our communication and tomorrow, we would have a “do over.”

We went to bed early and when we awoke at 3:55am the next morning, the power was out but our attitudes were a little better. As we got ready in the light of our phone flashlights, I could already tell that we were both trying.

This time, we decided to skip the crowded throngs at Angkor Wat, and instead go to Phnom Bakheng, the previous capital of the Khmer empire located on the only hill for miles. As we climbed the groomed path at 5:10am, we needed our headlamps to navigate the uphill, jungle trail. After some stumbling in the dark, we finally found the entrance, and climbed the steep stairs leading to the main level of the temple. Upon reaching the top, we realized that we were the only people there. We sat on the East facing stairs and were slowly joined by several more groups as the sun started to color the sky. No throngs of tourists crowding together for the perfect shot, no Facebook, no walkie-talkies. Just silence and a shared appreciation amongst strangers for the beauty of the scene before us.


Angkor Wat in the Morning Mist


After the sun had fully risen, we decided to hike back down to Mr. Pan and our tuktuk, admiring the beauty of the jungle path and the western views that had previously been hidden by the night. Also waiting for us in the tuktuk was our leftover pizza which we promptly ate for breakfast, fist-bumping to celebrate our genius.

Our next temple, Bantey Shrey, was 35 kilometers away, and we were rewarded with a 40 minute drive through the countryside bathed in the early morning light. The main industry in Cambodia is farming; rice being the major crop produced in this swampy area. The fields were yellowish green and flat, providing a view of the large hill in the distance where the Khmer quarried both the lava and sandstone that was used in the 100+ temples in the region.

We fist-bumped again as we ordered two americanos from the snack bar outside of the temple, as we weren’t able to make Nescafé in our room due to the power outage. Remember, today was our “do over,” and after two early mornings, we desperately needed some caffeine to keep our energy up and attitudes in check.

We then proceeded to do “the big loop,” with the temples spaced further apart and on the outskirts of the large complex. Similar to the previous day, we were hot and exhausted by noon, but powered through, finishing by 1:30pm.


Mr. Pan Leading Us Through the Jungle

A lunch of local fare and Singha beers prepared us for a dip in the pool. After a nap, I spent some time on TripAdvisor, searching for the perfect dinner and surprised Dean by choosing the Siem Reap Brewery. Over a beer sampler and a superb dinner, we talked about the improvement in the day and how each of us is going to have to continue to work to better communication. We went to bed early and while we didn’t have a 4:00am wake up call for sunrise, we did need to be at the Grasshopper Adventure office at 7:30am for our full day, mountain biking temple tour.

Neither Dean or I are big “tour” people. In fact, we’d spent the last two days dodging massive groups of tourists blocking doorways and posing endlessly for the same pictures. But bike riding through the jungle on the secluded trails linking the temples was definitely something that I wanted to experience.

We spent an extremely enjoyable day, riding through the massive Angkor complex and revisiting several of our favorite temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. Our guide, Sambo, was very knowledgeable and told great stories about the history of the temples and the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. He pointed out countless interesting carvings and answered a number of questions that we had while touring the previous two days without a guide. Having been born just outside of Siem Reap, he had a very great sense of pride in the lasting monuments of his Khmer ancestors. As we rode back to town, we passed the outside of Angkor Wat and the iconic West facade. We paused for a picture in the late afternoon sun and it was a perfect moment to say good-bye to this magical place.


South Gate of Angkor Thom

Heading to dinner that night, we were saddle-sore and famished, but extremely pleased with the experience. It was definitely one of my trip highlights and something that I’ll never forget. Not just due to the mystery and beauty of a place that I’ve dreamed of seeing but also because this is where Dean and I made some real strides in improving our communication.

And while I know it’s going to be difficult for me to tone down the snark, I am more aware of how it impacts Dean. And doing the work to improve our relationship will ensure we build something beautiful that will last a lifetime. Rather like those temples.


Faces of Bayon Temple

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