Notes: travel date, summer 2014
The ruined temples of the Khmer Empire are probably the most unique and most impressive human-made sites I have ever seen. I knew the temples would be big, beautiful, and full of interesting sculptures and carvings. I was not expecting to be quite so awed by their size, the details, or the overall atmosphere of the ruins.
We only had two full days in Siem Reap and most of it was spent exploring the temples of Angkor. Our short stay in Cambodia began pleasantly enough at the small but beautifully designed airport, where the immigration gates were housed in a lovely, traditional Cambodian building. A short taxi ride brought us to our hotel. We settled into the hotel and then spent the rest of the day exploring the main temple, Angkor Wat.
Before arriving, I did not understand the sheer size of the temples, nor was I aware of how many temples exist in the complex. The temple ruins are located just north of the city, in a place referred to generally as Angkor. It’s a short distance by taxi or tuk-tuk and only a bit longer by bicycle. However, given the extremely hot temperature, we traveled by car. After paying for admission tickets – a very official process that requires printing a photo a ID – we drove along the main road, following the moat to the steps of Angkor Wat. The moat itself was impressive. The water is very wide and perfectly straight on each shore. If not for the clean-cut edges, it would look like a large, natural river. The main entrance to the temple starts at the head of a sandstone causeway that stretches between two lakes, leading to the external wall of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat was built in the twelfth century by King Suryavarman II as his capital. It was originally a Hindu temple and is decorated with thousands of carvings of dancing figures, devatas. The design is meant to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu devas. The complex includes many separate buildings, all enclosed by the ancient stone wall more than two miles long. The small buildings once stood as scripture halls or small places of worship. The grounds between the buildings were covered in large, sweeping sections of a tall green grass, bleached brown in some places by the sun. The long walkway between the outer wall and the main temple building was like a desert and we took our time, strategically waiting for moments of clouds and shade to cross the open stretches.
We spent all day exploring Angkor Wat, which seemed like an endless maze of stone hallways, pyramids, pillars, and chambers. In contrast to the heat of the sun, the covered spaces inside felt like freezers, an extremely welcome feeling. I wandered a bit, climbing along the uneven stone paths to explore different corners of the temple structure. The main section features five tall, stone towers and an upper section accessible to tourists. Those who are properly dressed and covered may climb a dangerously steep staircase to the top. The towers were nothing like the Japanese or Chinese pagodas I’ve seen in my other travels. They were nothing like the pointed, Gothic steeples I gazed at in Europe. They did not resemble the curved turrets of the Caribbean. Angkor Wat and it’s architecture, it’s beauty, was completely new to me. And seeing something truly new for the first time is a magnificent feeling.
The buildings were built on large stone platforms, further elevating the sanctuaries within. Although many pillars were crumbling and the roof was missing in places and the stone stairs were uneven, every surface was covered in beautifully intricate carvings. These dancing apsaras and devatas were impossible to look away from and sometimes seemed to be looking right back at me. In addition to the the bass-relief carvings, equally intriguing statues were tucked into every corner of the temple or seated in ranks high above on the rooftops of the towers. The view from the central tower was perfect for putting the size of the temple into perspective. Looking out across the stone buildings and the fields of grass, into the thick jungle-like forest beyond made the temple seem even more mysterious. Despite the fallen stones and gaping holes in the structure, it was not hard to envision the glory of this forgotten kingdom.
After leaving Angkor Wat we were more-or-less pressed into eating dinner at a large tourist venue. The restaurant offered buffet food and a live traditional dance performance. The costumes were beautiful and colorful and the dancers performed well. However almost everyone in the large dining hall was a tourist and the overall atmosphere felt contrived. At the end of the show many people stormed the stage to take pictures with the dancers and there were more than a few uncomfortable poses and unnecessary touching from some of the male tourists. After the dance performance we visited a night market overflowing with handicraft goods, knock-off designer goods, and goods of questionable origin. Siem Reap was a lively city with a cool vibe, full of energy but not covered with stumbling drunks or manipulative salespeople.
The next day we headed back to the temples, stopping first at the gate Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is technically another city, north of Angkor Wat and the former home of King Jayavarman VII. At the gate, four giant heads rise above a narrow stone archway, staring out in all directions, silently discussing the visitors. The short road leading up to the gate was lined on each side with a row of devas and asuras, each holding an elongated naga, or snake. Many of the figurines are missing heads. Our taxi driver told us that parts of the statues were stolen in large numbers during the 1700s and sold to European collectors as treasures. It was sad to think there may still be some random mansion or chateau in western Europe decorated with stolen bits and pieces of a once grand temple.
The temples in Angkor Thom – and it’s jewel, Bayon – were just as amazing as the temples of Angkor Wat. Unlike Angkor Wat, The Bayon temple was originally a Buddhist temple and then converted to Hinduism by successive kings. Bayon seemed stuffed to breaking point with giant faces carved into the roofs of the stone towers. Walking among the decorated towers on the second floor was both eerie and indescribable. To think that all of the carving was done nearly one thousand years ago, in extreme heat, by mere stone tools is almost impossible. The skills and the time and the detail that went into these structures is immense.
After admiring at Bayon we spent a bit of time being lost, wandering among the ruins of other unidentified temples. It was actually difficult to orient ourselves and find the appropriate exit to meet our taxi driver. So much of the temple complex looks similar with forgotten foundations, piles of rubble, and creeping trees. We finally found the way out, just near the Terrace of Elephants. This large platform was once held up by a line of proud stone elephants, now mostly reduced to mismatched legs and trunks but still a remarkable site.
After lunch we set out to see Ta Prohm, a temple east of Angkor Thom. For centuries Ta Prohm remained mostly untouched since it’s initial abandonment in the 1600s. As a result, nature reclaimed the temple. It’s stone archways and small towers are draped in vines, tree roots, and other plant life. The temple is surrounded by trees, a slightly more shady location than its neighbors. Several trees have grown inside the temple walls, some even from within the ruins of its structures. The sunlight was playing tricks on the stone walls and the settling dust mixed with the greens of the trees created several beautiful photo opportunities. This temple felt different than the others, possibly because it was the most ruined although it seemed the most peaceful, perfectly content to slowly drip back into the earth. Part of the movie, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was filmed at Ta Prohm. It’s not hard to imagine the temple hiding subterranean secrets of ancient treasure.
Approaching from the front, it looks as though the temple has risen from the ground, pushing tree roots out of the way. Of course the reality is actually the opposite and several stone corridors have collapsed under the crushing weight of full grown trees. Restoration work has begun to maintain the temple at its current state. Sometimes this includes cutting down healthy trees that may fall over during a storm and damage the temple. The thought of felling trees to protect a fallen temple is an interesting juxtaposition.
We had a goal to see the sunset over Angkor Wat. Due to geography, this is actually difficult to accomplish. We had the taxi driver drop us off at the foot of Phnom Bakheng. A short hike up to the top of the hill and then a steep climb up the temple steps brought us to a beautiful a view – but not of Angkor Wat. The temple was nothing more than a tiny silhouette, far away in the sky. While the view was not spectacular it was still an interesting temple top to explore.
The sun is really at it’s best as it rises over Angkor Wat in the mornings. So, on our last day before our flight to Hanoi, we rolled out of bed into a tuk-tuk and found ourselves weaving between the hundreds of other tourists, waiting for the sun to burn through the sky behind the temple. It did not disappoint. While my camera isn’t the best, I was still able to capture a few good shots and enjoy the dancing hues of pinks and purple as dawn turned. After spending hours admiring the millions of carvings and staring in stunned silence as sunlight poured around the temple’s skyline, it is not difficult to understand why Angkor Wat is the national emblem of Cambodia.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat was a perfect way to end our trip. During our explorations we all noted how each temple seemed to be under restoration, funded in part by a random foreign country. Ta Prohm is protected by India’s archaeology society. Japan is leading Angkor Wat’s restorations and several other countries had plagues proclaiming their dedication to different sites. It was nice to see the international community taking part in the preservation of Angkor’s wonders.