I was hoping to be one of the first barang to visit the sacred third level of Angkor Wat in three years as I bounded up the steep, wheeze-inducing steps to the Bakan, as it’s called, on January 18.
The Bakan had been closed since 2007 for renovation by Khmer, German and Italian archaeological teams.
My hopes were dashed when the guard at the top informed me in broken English that 10,000 people had already visited in the three days it’d been open.
I wandered not-alone down the 60-metre-long, dark stone hallways, inside of which are four central courtyards that are great for taking photos of the ornate carvings of the five central towers.
Norwegian, French, American and eastern European tourists strolled along with me around the square perimeter of the Bakan, snapping photos of the views and towers, seemingly unaware of how lucky they were to be in the place where once only the king and high priests could set foot.
Trond Vegar Olsen, 27, of Norway had no idea that the third tier had been closed for three years. “It’s amazing though,” he said. “It’s quite enormous.”
Cambodians, who looked elated to be able to visit the most holy part of Angkor Wat, mixed equally with the many tourists. They made offerings at the Buddha image in the central sanctuary, their devotion contrasting with the gawking, talking tourists.
Not so charming were the Apsara guards who shadowed me everywhere I went, whispering into their walkie-talkies. If I stayed more than a few minutes at a viewpoint they’d shuffle me along, citing the 30-minute time limit for visitors.
But I suppose that comes with the territory when you’re touring a place that was once considered heaven on Earth by the Hindu Angkor civilisation and is still extremely sacred to Buddhist Khmers.
For all of Apsara’s blowing about needing to register, wear proper clothing and wait in line to go up to the Bakan, I waltzed up without a hitch.
The Bakan doesn’t have much in the way of magnificent bas-relief carvings like the lower level – the most impressive aspects are the views. They are truly extraordinary and should win over even the most jaded world traveller.
From the higher vantage point you can truly appreciate the symmetry and repetition of Khmer architecture and see how the different levels of concentric squares relate to each other in perfect proportion.
The trip down from the Bakan is the least enjoyable part and is downright hair-raising. The super-steep staircase just seems arduous going up, but going down it’s positively dangerous. Tripping forward would mean a fall of over 100 feet and possible death or dismemberment.
Perhaps Apsara can install belay lines and provide clips?