Ben wasn't leaving anything to chance today. We were groggy but efficient this time at dragging ourselves out of bed at 4am, and I was soon awake with endorphins pumping, pedalling through Ben's slip-stream in the dark towards the Angkor temples again. As we neared Ta Prohm, the cool, moist air was quiet, apart from occasional Buddhist chants over loudspeakers. On arrival, it was just us and the jungle-clad temple, not surprising since it was ridiculously early. The ancient towers and crumbling corridors seemed particularly eerie without people around. In the darkness it really felt like I had stepped into something from an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie. Speaking of which, the strangling figs had grown a bit since they featured in that film.
With the sun up we spotted a bunch of tuk-tuk and moto drivers having breakfast. We'd had enough of hotel American breakfasts so we relished this chance to eat with the locals. Slurping over tasty bowls we were soon joined by a matriarchal woman with a hearty chuckle who tried to get her three year old granddaughter to say "bye bye!". Smiling, we attempted to correct her with "hello!", but the poor little girl got so confused she became shy and hid behind the table.
Fuelled by noodles and coffee, we were to tackle the Grand circuit today. We stopped by Pre Rup, a funerary mountain temple, noting the holes that remained from plaster coatings that had long since worn away, and admiring the detail of the lintel stucco work that had survived.
Riding through the eastern baray we passed many other bicycles, heavily laden with various goods such as coconuts, timber, baskets, and fruit. We bought a large bunch of bananas from one overloaded bicycle, with a strategy in mind. You see, everywhere we stopped, young children descended, clutching bunches of useless trinkets for sale. Boy were they persistent! It was close to a form of begging, they ran after us as we tried to move away, and they pulled the longest faces when declined. So instead of buying, we offered bananas. It worked well - with shy nods, the fruit was always accepted - until we ran out of course. At the end of the day, they were just children, and fun wasn't far from the agenda. We enjoyed playing naughts and crosses with one clever 7 year old who knew all the tricks; we raced our bicycles with a group who could barely reach the pedals but still managed to keep up while roaring with laughter; and we chatted about boys and school with a beautiful girl of 16. These were probably some of the most interactive kids that we had met so far.
After a late morning stop at Neak Poan and exploring the long halls of Preah Khan, we spent the heat of the day riding through the forested grounds of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the Khmer empire containing the royal residence built by Jayavarman VII, the most prolific builder of the Angkorian period. We rested in the shade among an assortment of stones that were once part of Baphuon, a pyramidal representation of Mt Meru. Last century, anastylosis methods of restoration had required taking apart the stones one by one, but this process was interrupted during the Cambodian Civil War. The subsequent Khmer Rouge regime then went and destroyed all the records, and so archaeologists have been left with the world's largest jigsaw puzzle, without a picture on the box.
Sunset at Bayon worked out well for photography. All four sides of each of the numerous towers on multiple levels were decorated with huge smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara that stare inwards at you and outwards to the surrounding countryside with that smug, slightly irksome, knowing look.
In the fading light, Ben happily snapped his own version of the front cover photo of our guidebook, noting that, in a similar way to the trees at Ta Prohm, some lichen had grown over the carvings since the original photo was taken. Even timeless stones succumb to the jungle eventually.