That feeling has long passed, to be replaced by something more unpleasant. I have this trembling certainty that I’m going to tumble, unceremoniously and fatally, off the pinnacle of Angkor Wat.
Bangkok’s Wat Arun had the same narrow, near-vertical steps, but I’d thought it was an exception. Now, I’m going “Why on earth did they make the stairs to all their temples so small and steep?”
That’s the first lesson Angkor taught me – never, ever, turn your back on God.
Apparently, the steeply-pitched stairs serve two purposes. First, you have to struggle to climb them, because one has to attain the Almighty’s presence, not just stroll in on Him. Then, there’s no way you can descend like you would on a normal staircase. You have to edge crab-like downwards, clinging to the railing for dear life. So, you can never commit the blasphemy of turning your back to the sanctum sanctorum.
Clambering down, I totter shakily to the tuk-tuk for the ride to Angkor Thom – the city of Angkor (Angkor Wat, which is a temple, is a kilometer away). When I get there, something else strikes me.
If it’s a city, where are the houses?
There’s Bayon, with its giant, four-faced Buddhas. There’s the video-game bizarreness of Ta Prohm, the Aztec-like pyramid of Baphuon, the taxi-stand-gone-mad Elephant Pavilion. There are arches, spires and lines of asuras and devas using a serpent to churn nectar from the ocean. But, they’re all temples and statues. There’s not a dwelling – not even a palace – in sight.
That’s the second lesson Angkor taught me – unless you were a God, you could never, ever, live in a stone house. Everyone lived in wooden houses – even the King’s palace was wooden. And these, over the years, have rotted away, leaving not a trace. The stone temples live on, despite the best efforts of the jungle, time and the Khmer Rouge.
Lessons learned, I’m more than ready for a cold Angkor beer and a hearty lunch of amok – Cambodia’s national fish curry – and rice. Exploring Angkor, and climbing those damn steps, may be an experience of a lifetime. But, believe me, it’s a hot, tiring business.