Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 3
Part 3 continues...
And return we did, in the denseness of darkness in the morning, and I mean early morning—5am! And that entailed being gently woken up by the Amansara staff at 4am for pastries and (strong) coffee, then sneaking away from the compound with our motorcade of US Army Jeeps, our platoon of minders looking measurably more conscious than we were.
And when I say darkness, that sort of density of darkness when you cannot see six inches in front of you; that eerie feeling of pitch blackness that envelopes all of your body and senses. Once your past the guard entrance, there is no artificial light whatsoever at the back entrance of Angkor Wat, actually there is no signage and no sign of anyone and its seems like our guides covert mission is going to plan.
Dismounting from our motorcade and continuing on foot with just our guide, we crept along a track for what seemed an eternity, the jungle trees extinguishing any sense of one's bearings. Eventually our night vision slowly allows us to make out the shadows of the outer compound walls of the temple and the very first hues of morning twilight provide a glimpse of the massive lotus flower shaped central tower silhouetted against the violet dawn sky.
As we get closer our field of vision takes in the two southern towers of this quincunx structure, the geometrically designed five towers that symbolize the five mountain peaks of Mount Meru, the home of the gods and cosmologically the centre of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
Climbing up several levels of steps we reached the outer gallery and what would appear to be the perfect vantage point and open to the outside of the temple, with a columned half-gallery behind us buttressing the inner gallery. Clambering upon one of the large stone lions guarding this entrance, in our prime position we watched Angkor Wat unveil itself from darkness with the sunrise bathing it in sepia colours, the temple seemingly coming alive as every shadow and texture reveals itself to this light of heaven—Hinduisms sacred twilight hour, neither day or night, Godhulivela— 'cow dust time'.
We sat silently absorbing this wondrous experience, somewhat speechless as here we were with the world's largest religious monument all to ourselves, in our cogitative silence contemplating the monumental measures undertaken by the 12th Century Khmer King Suryavarman II to build this state temple dedicated to Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavism and his ten avatars.
Our preternatural state of mind was suddenly broken by the deafening chorus of cicadas seemingly choreographed by the dawn, natures crepuscular bringing us back to earth. The shafts of light were now streaming through the inner walls of the outer gallery bringing to life one of the fascinating bas-reliefs depicting the procession of Suryavarman II and the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology.
We spent the early morning hours exploring Angkor Wat doing our level best to take in as much as we could within our limited time. If I could give one piece of advice for exploring Angkor Wat, it is imperative that you have a certified personal guide who has a good knowledge of Hinduism, as we did. Whilst there is no shortage of visual splendour that is easy to appreciate it is the extensive detail in the bas-reliefs friezes of the outer gallery, a series of large-scale scenes depicting episodes from the Hindu epics that are most impressive; to quote the well-respected British archaeologist, Charles Higham, "The greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving". As visually intriguing as these bas-reliefs are, they are infinitely more compelling if you have a guide that can translate and tell the fascinating myths, stories and incredible history.
I would also warn against climbing the steps that lead up to the central or corner towers and gopuras of the inner gallery. These very steep 'stairways' represent the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods and best left to Kings to scale, if you get my drift.
For modern-day Angkorian explorers and Sybarites such as us, retiring back to Amansara after each days expedition for a much needed shower and a little relaxation in the pool or luxuriating in ones suite is a most welcome sanctuary.
And with all our adventure seeking we were ravenous and looking forward to some gastronomic exploration in the Amansara dining room, which is itself a rather unique space, completely round and expansive with its 30 foot ceiling. Actually it was originally where King Sihanouk once enjoyed screening his collection of movies.
Taking in the modern and simple lines of the building you start to absorb the painstaking renovations, immaculately restored by Aman to its original look using photographs and local knowledge, one gets the sense the original design wanted to avoid any replication of ancient Angkorian architecture as it would be an insult to try, and the simplicity of Villa Princière makes you appreciate the intricacy and wonder you have just experience all the more.
It is indeed a very comfortable space and the informality of the service adds to ones feeling of ataraxia, as does the lack of pretence in the concise menu and wine list. Whilst good food, wine and hospitality at Aman resorts is paramount, foam and fuss is not and homogeneous with the philosophy of Aman's founder, Adrian Zecha, who believes that his guests have had their fair share of fine dining and the last thing they want on vacation is complicated, overworked food.
Having met Amansara Chef, Molly Rygg, at lunch on our first day, and having a lengthy discussion on her approach to the menu and our personal requirements, you appreciate the magnitude of her job and the creative challenge of her daily changing menu. Moreover, in the conversation one quickly senses her passion and obsession for food foraging and her bourgeoning attempts to establish their own vegetable and herb gardens and motivating local growers with a keen desire to implement locavore and farm-to-table aspects.
That said, the reality is a good deal of produce has to be brought in from outside of Cambodia to cater for the kaleidoscope of international palates, her job further complicated by the intricacies and eccentricities of the guests personal needs and desires. But Rygg seems to relish in all this and enjoys discussing it with you directly and articulates well, indeed it is refreshing to have such an engaging and lucid chef.
Looking after us was relatively easy as we were only dining one night at Amansara, but imagine how creative a nutritionist Rygg has to be with guests who stay for two or three weeks, sometimes longer and with many regular return guests coming from as far away as New York.
Missed Part 2 of Hedonistic with the Gods?
Check it out here: Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 2
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