Picture this: A full-moon midnight and warriors with torches running atop a high stone wall. Flaming arrows whizzing through the air, setting ablaze trees, huts, and unfortunate citizens.
Elephants trumpet wildly as they charge the wall. Crocodiles crunch bones in the waters of the wide moat. The relentless Siamese army with its archers on horseback and its wall-smashing elephants are attempting to breach the 3-kilometre-long south wall of Angkor Thom, citadel and heart of the vast Khmer Kingdom.
That was in the year 1431, some six centuries after the birth of the Khmer Kingdom and the planning of its fabulous architectural monuments by King Jayavarman VII.
Today, almost seven centuries later, Mr. Blue Hat (my friend Chris) and I will set out in our attempt to walk a trail atop that same wall…
For the previous five days, we’d been lodging at the laid-back Angkor Thom Hotel and venturing into different regions of the 240-plus acres of ruins around Angkor Wat. On the morning of our last day of exploring, Chris said over coffee and fried eggs, that it was only fitting that for our “sayonara visit” we walk the walls of the original!’
The wall was 12 kilometres long and we figured that it would take us three, maybe four hours max.
Right on cue, our moto-man driver, Sam, and his tuk-tuk carriage pulled up in front of the hotel patio. We exchanged greetings with Sam, then climbed aboard.
It’s about an hour’s ride from the Angkor Thom Hotel in town to the Angkor Thom ruins inside the forest.
Moto-man Sam safely manoeuvred us through the morning jam of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and cars, and past the huge colonial hotel and gardens of The Grand Hotel, the Raffles of Cambodia.
(Rooms here, where luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and F Scott Fitzgerald once stayed, go for $270 to $1000 per night. For the pure fun of it, the previous evening Mr. Blue Hat & I had put on socks and shoes, slacks, and shirts with collars, and pretended to be hotel guests!)
We rode in the open-sided brass cage elevator and, striking cool Gatsby-ian poses, had taken digital photos of ourselves lounging in the elegant and near-empty Elephant Bar downstairs. Imagine that, a pair of backpackers among the ivory tusks, mahogany furnishings and thick carpets of an elitist watering hole. Just goes to show what you can get away with in Asia with a large nose and a bit of verve!
Entering the grounds of Angkor Wat…
The main thoroughfare into the forests that enclose the vast ruins of Angkor Wat is a delight to travel, especially in an open-air carriage. It’s a smooth two-lane blacktop boulevard that heads straight as a compass arrow north, into and under an over-arching canopy of shade-giving limbs.
The trees on both sides are huge, ancient things—80 to 100-foot-tall sandalwoods, teak, flowering rosewood—and from them comes a serenade: a panoply of bird calls, monkey squalls, and the fricative mating songs of a thousand lovelorn cicada.
Ten minutes later we arrive at the security checkpoint. Since we had our $60 (UPDATE: now $72 USD) one-week passes in hand, Sam detoured past the official ticket purchase windows, through one of the vehicle entry lanes, and right past a pair of uniformed guards at the exit point.
Before long, the canopy of the forest opened, and ahead we could see the lake-sized moat that surrounds the wondrous ruins of Angkor Wat, by far the largest religious monument on the planet.
Sam didn’t even slow down. He just kept cruising at his steady 8 mph as we passed through the shady parking area next to the bamboo shopping mall on the outskirts of the temple ruins.
It was rather busy even at this early hour, with plenty of hawkers wanting to sell their postcards, books, T-shirts, paintings, textiles, carved elephants, and faux antiques. ‘Onward, Sam. Don’t slow down,’ said Mr Blue Hat, knowing that if we paused we would immediately be surrounded by the sales pitches of cute, and persistent kids.
We pulled to the side of the road by some souvenir shops and fruit stands just inside the gate, and Mr. Blue Hat explained our plan to Sam. He gave us a very puzzled look. Was he to wait here? For four hours? While we walked the whole distance of the wall, ON TOP of the wall?
He scratched his chin and smiled, reluctantly agreeing. Then, as Chris and I started climbing the back slope of the wall, he muttered something in Khmer to the tune of, ‘Goofball tourists. Who would want to hike 12 k along a stone wall where there’s nothing to see but trees, stones, and an old moat turned into fish ponds?’
Starting the Angkor Thom Wall Walk…
It’s true – the wall around the royal city of Angkor Thom cannot match the grandeur of China’s Great Wall, or the length of Hadrian’s Wall across the UK. But all were built to the same end: to keep barbarians out.
On this morning, as Sam had driven us through the arching South Gate of Angkor Thom, Mr Blue Hat and I were once again awestruck by its size and elaborate carvings.
The wall itself is imposing, built of blocks of black laterite the size of refrigerators. Thousands of them. Twenty to thirty feet high and half again as thick, the wall encompasses forest and farmland vast enough to support a population of 500,000 citizens plus an army of another 100,000. It’s an engineering marvel designed to protect an entire city and its outlying citizens who could seek safety within.
Back then, there was no way an army could gain entry at any of the gates or breach the mammoth wall. Yet on this day, seven centuries later, here we were, ambling along the trail atop that very wall.
We had arranged for Sam to meet us at this same gate at noon, figuring four hours would be enough time for us to make a complete circuit. Sam had been openly skeptical about our plan and the timing and darned if his skepticism didn’t turn out to be well-founded.
An Encounter Along the Trail…
We had been silently walking the leaf-strewn trail for a quarter of an hour, each of us aware of the drop-off on one side and the thick forest on the other, all vines and undergrowth, when suddenly, not far ahead, two figures approached us along the trail.
It was a pair of barefoot, very-long-haired lady hunter-gatherers, wearing robe-like garments. They carried machetes, had baskets slung from their shoulders, and were grinning the biggest grins at me and Chris.
As they came up to us, they opened their baskets to show us their collections of mushrooms, herbs, mosses, and a bird’s egg or two. It was a true time-travel moment, meeting these two ladies who lived here now, whose ancestors had lived here centuries earlier. They warmly accepted our presence in their world this blue-sky morning and, with a wave of their machetes, passed by and went on their way.
The Southeast Corner Sanctuary…
We hiked on, our minds doing a little reality-shuffle after running into the two ‘aboriginal’ ladies. It was perhaps 30 minutes later that we saw in the distance a fantastic Indiana Jones sight. It was a secluded remnant of the Khmer kingdom: the southeast corner sanctuary, a towering monument topped by four huge carvings, one for each point of the compass, each with the face of the god-king who had founded the kingdom.
When we got closer we could see at eye-level a bas-relief array of Apsara heavenly dancing maidens, some of whom had been hacked away, their sensuous images sacked by thieves. This huge structure rose almost as high as the over-hanging branches of the gigantic sandalwood trees that had grown to shade it. Surrounded by silence. So quiet the forest. This was what we had come for. This was the Past. Right now, right in front of us, in ornate, weathered black stone.
Being in that place felt magical to me—like being inside a time warp with this ancient temple emanating a powerful vibration. Chris and I sat for a while on a fallen fridge-sized stone, sipping from our water bottles and musing about history.
Yet, we couldn’t linger. By Mr. Blue Hat’s watch, it had taken us 52 minutes to get to this corner, meaning it was going to be a haul-buggy hike for us to complete our plan and meet up with Sam at our set time. We decided to pick up the pace. What we didn’t figure on was what we came upon next…
The Missing Trail…
‘Look at that,’ I said to Chris. ‘The whole wall is gone!’
Just in front of us, the trail fell away. The top-most boulders had tumbled down into the moat below, and the earth behind the wall had been eroded so badly that there was a gully some twenty feet across. It would take a Spidermanian effort for us to scale our way down, cross the wreckage, and try to climb the cliff of the far bank. For a moment I thought we might have to turn back…
‘I think there’s a trail over here that goes around it,’ said Mr Blue Hat, as he disappeared into the thick underbrush of the forest.
Remember what the Lonely Planet guidebook says about not straying from any marked trails?’
‘Yeah,’ Chris called back, ‘it says beware the path less traveled. Because Thailand may be the Land of Smiles, but Cambodia is the land of landmines.’
As it turned out, that detour path was pretty well-trodden and quite likely had been carved out by those two machete-packing local ladies. Within minutes we had emerged from the underbrush, were whisking the cobwebs from our faces, and were back on the wall and on our birdsong way. Hallelujah!
The Wild Wild East Gate…
Although Chris had dubbed me the ‘trip master’ for our excursion into Cambodia and around the ruins of Angkor Wat, in truth there was no detailed description of following the wall of Angkor Thom in any guidebook or on any Website I had checked. We were truly on our own out here. And that lent the experience an eerie euphoric feeling of being a pilgrim of Time, of being in a distant place where almost no person on earth could locate us (except maybe the machete ladies).
We were traversing a long stretch of open trail unprotected from the sun. The temp was in the 90s, and we were glad we’d brought along our plastic bottles of Angkor Springs water. But shelter from the sun was at hand. Up ahead the trail entered a long tunnel of shadiness, and at the far end of that canopy of trees we saw it: the East Gate.
When we got there, we discovered that the East Gate of the wall is a seldom-visited site. Not to say the impressive ruins are without their magic and majesty. Even though a blacktop road runs through the gate, hey, it’s remote. We quickly skidded down the backside of the arching stone structure of the gateway.
There were no entrepreneurial kids, no fruit vendors, no restrooms. After a photo-op and a sip of water, we crossed the road, scrambled up to the wall, and were immediately back on our trek. After all, Sam was waiting.
It was while shuffling along the next section of the wall that Sam’s skeptical reaction to our hiking plan began to hit home. Who the hell would want to sweat their way around the entire perimeter wall of Angkor Thom? Not even the guards of ancient days walked the whole wall. Mr. Blue Hat and I had spent a good two hours getting from the South Gate to the southeast sanctuary to the East Gate, and yet we were now only a quarter of the way around. And nearly out of water.
Then, through the trees ahead we saw another mammoth gate. And three people.
Almost there… The Victory Gate!
This was the second gate on the eastern side, the Royal Gate, where the road through leads directly to the heart of Angkor Thom, to the place where royalty had resided, honoured their ancestors, and held their ceremonies. Some guidebooks call it the Victory Gate – why, I cannot say. In any case, I was glad we had gotten there and bumped into these other wall-climbers.
The three of them, Gracie and Gary from Calgary and their Cambodian guide, Nat, had just clambered up the inside bank of the wall and were catching their breath. We exchanged cheerful greetings, and the wide-eyed Mr. Nat asked what we were doing and where we had come from. On hearing Chris’ explanation that we had hiked from the South Gate, he clapped his hands and said…
‘Do you know that when the PM of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has foreign diplomats visiting, he organizes a visit to this place. He brings them here in Benz limos to walk a portion of this wall and show off our history. You are doing the same thing. Very good!’
‘Well then,’ I asked him, ‘maybe you can tell us. We passed a place where the wall was destroyed. Did the Khmer army breach the wall there? Is that where their elephants broke through?’
‘Oh no, that was because of big rains; water broke down the wall. The way the Siamese got in was the same way as politics now: corruption.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Gary from Calgary. ‘An army of elephants couldn’t break through the wall, but a pay-off could?’
‘Yes, that is right. A pay-off,’ Nat answered. ‘Treasure can make things happen, can open doors.’
Thus, we finally learned the story of the battle between the Khmer Empire and the Kingdom of Siam and how a renegade military commander inside the wall secretly gave access to the East Gate in return for who knows how many ox-carts of booty and slaves, and how then the Siamese army quickly overran the surprised Khmer troops. No need for Trojan elephants. Bars of gold and silver and bolts of silk did the trick. Welcome to History 101, 1431 A.D.
The Finish Line…
As Gracie and Gary from Calgary and their guide left the wall, got into their RV, and drove off, Chris and I found ourselves totally alone again. We were at another distant, seldom-visited gate. It occurred to me, belatedly, that we should have hitched a ride with them. How were we supposed to be on time to meet Sam?
Chris removed his hat, wiped his brow and said, ‘All those in favour of saying we have done our wall-walking trip and can now head directly back to the South Gate, raise your hand.’ It was a unanimous vote that turned into a high-five.
We immediately descended from the wall and headed along the road that shot through the forest like an arrow into the centre of Angkor Thom.
Twenty-some minutes later we were back among the commerce of tourism—tour buses & vans, tuk-tuks, vendors, guides giving talks in a range of languages to groups of photo-snapping tourists. With a mix of relief and re-entry shock, we bought bottles of water and bags of pineapple wedges and made a swing south to hook up with Sam.
In a way, reentering the vast heart of Angkor Thom was like a farewell bonus. We got to revisit sites we’d previously taken in slowly and in detail, absorbing the vibe as we walked along. Keeping a steady pace, we breezed past The Terrace of the Leper King with its wonderful maze of carved passageways and continued along the extensive foundation wall of The Elephant Terrace with its scores of life-size sandstone elephants bursting forth one after the other, no two the same.
We hoofed it past the fabulous temple complex called the Bayon, its massive towers carved with the face of the god-king Jayavarman VII (known to Chris & me as JV-7 after reading so many references to him in the Lonely Planet guide). Then we started hot-footing it down the long, forest-shrouded straightaway to the South Gate, which we could see in the distance.
Chris checked his watch. It was 12:40, we were late, and we were tired. Not two minutes later we were happily surprised to see a guy come chugging up in a tuk-tuk, grinning and waving at us. It was Sam! He’d seen Mr. Blue Hat’s blue hat and come to meet us. With many ‘thank yous’ we climbed in, Sam did a U-turn, and we departed Angkor Thom for the hot showers and cold beers awaiting us at the Angkor Thom Hotel. What a day!
Footnote: How Mr Blue Hat got his name
Mr Blue Hat got his nickname for a good reason. Anytime we arrived in the parking area of some set of ruins, even before we could leave our ‘tuk-tuk’ buggy seats, we would be earnestly welcomed by a small crowd of kids and grannies carrying scarves, sarongs, cotton fisherman’s pants, Angkor Beer T-shirts, and, believe it or not, pirated copies of books about Cambodia. For Chris, smiling his sly smile, this meant ‘Hey, it’s show-time.’
Always ready to joke and haggle, he would beguile the vendors with his comically low bids…
‘You say you give me three for the price of two, good, but how about four for the price of one?’ The vendor kids would hang in there, saying ‘Okay, you buy one, then I sell you four more,’ and on and on.
With all this mock bargaining they no doubt figured, hey, this guy with the blue LA Dodgers cap, he will eventually buy something. As we walked out of the parking area and entered the ruins, kids’ voices would call out: ‘Mr. Blue Hat, you come back, you buy from me, okay?’ ‘Mr. Blue Hat, I wait you, can discount big!’ ‘Remember me, Mr. Blue Hat, three for two!’
All I can say is that when it came time to check out of our hotel, Mr. Blue Hat’s two bags were noticeably more expanded than when we had checked in.