Ancient Angkor – Our Trip Highlight!
After a cross-border flight from Vientiane, Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia, we spent three days exploring the Temples of Angkor a few miles north of the town of Siem Reap. We think it is safe to say that this experience will be the highlight of our six months in Southeast Asia!
The history of the Khmer people in the region of Angkor is fascinating, however, unless you are an archeologist with particular interest in this era, the facts are too numerous and too complicated to try to explain here. Suffice it to say that the Khmer ruled from the 10th Century to the middle of the 15th century and, at its peak during the 11th and 12th centuries, Angkor was probably the largest city in the world with around 700,000 to one million inhabitants!
Trade with India introduced the Khmers to Hinduism and Buddhism which can be seen in the architecture and decoration of the temples of Angkor. Some of the temples were built as Hindu temples, only to be defaced and changed to Buddhist temples by subsequent rulers. Invasions by the Chams and Siamese, among others, also resulted in plundering and destruction of the temples. It is quite remarkable that so much of this ancient kingdom remains for us to enjoy today.
Frankly, pictures do more justice than words, to the temples of Angkor, the largest religious and architectural site in the world, covering an area of approximately 400 acres. We visited seven of the temples, all of them spectacular in their own right, and all of them different.
Nothing prepares you for your first sight of the centerpiece of the complex – the majestic Angkor Wat! Whether you see the temple emerge from the dark of night at sunrise – or later in the day – you are filled with a sense of awe at this superb religious monument, the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Angkor. Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is not only a pagoda (temple) but a city in its own right.
We bought a 3 day pass for $40 each, which allowed us to visit any of the temples for three days. (A few days after our visit the prices were increased to $37 for a one day visit and $62 for three days!) We decided to spend the first day with a driver and guide. The guide was very good, explaining the main points we needed to know, getting us to the right place at the right time and showing us the best places for photos. Instead of doing the advertised “short” or “long” tours which most people follow, we planned our own itinerary so that we could – hopefully – avoid the worst of the crowds.
We started at Angkor Wat, the best preserved and most famous temple, at around 8:00am, entering through the East Gate while most people entered the West Gate after seeing the sunrise. This helped us avoid the biggest crowds although we had to queue for about 20 minutes to reach the top level, where only 100 people are permitted at one time.
After some gentle persuasion, on the third day Bill agreed to get up at 4:30am to see the sun rise at Angkor Wat! Despite the crowds, it is something not to be missed.
Exiting through the west gate we took time to enjoy the reflection of the temple in the lake before continuing on to The Bayon, known for its numerous towers decorated with Buddha faces. Built a little later than Angkor as a Buddhist temple it is a complete contrast to Angkor Wat. A few decades after it was built, the new king reverted to Hinduism and many of the Buddhist faces were destroyed or turned into Hindu images.
It was interesting to study the well-preserved intricate bas reliefs depicting scenes from battles, historical events and life in Angkor as well as the dancing “Apsaras” on the gallery pillars. According to New World Encyclopedia, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, “Apsaras are supernatural beings who appear as young women of great beauty and elegance that are proficient in the art of dancing. English translations of the word are “nymph,” “celestial nymph,” and “celestial maiden.”
Some 18 miles (30km) from Angkor Wat is the beautiful small Hindu style temple of Banteay Srei, also known as “Citadel of Women”. Built primarily with red sandstone, the walls and lintels are exquisitely decorated, depicting mythological stories and events.
After a break for lunch, we arrived at our last temple for the day – Ta Prohm. This is one of the three most famous temples due, in part, to the huge Strangler Fig and Silk cotton trees that have grown in and above the ruins. Priscilla remembers this temple overgrown with more vegetation when she visited years ago, however much of this has been removed to prevent further destruction of the temple. Nevertheless, the large trees and their enormous roots remain, creating the perfect photo opportunity.
Ta Prohm was featured in Angelina Jolie’s movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” which attracts even more crowds so it is best to visit this temple around 7:30am!
Make no mistake, exploring the temples is hard work, even though we were driven to each one! There is lots of walking, steps to climb (some of them very steep), slabs of stone to clamber over and few places to stop, sit and ponder what has to be one of the greatest wonders of the world. Anyone who plans to “do” the Angkor temples in one day is completely missing the magic of the site.
And so we headed back to our hotel, the Golden Mango, a little oasis just a $3 Tuk Tuk ride out of the town of Siem Reap. A swim to cool down followed by an ice cold Angkor beer relaxing poolside gave us enough energy to enjoy dinner at the open air dining room before a well-deserved night’s rest. Tomorrow we relax, perhaps go downtown and prepare for our next day of temple excavating!
Karst Mountains of Vang Vieng
After ten days in Luang Prabang we boarded a VIP bus for a 6 hour drive south to a town called Vang Vieng where we planned to spend a few days before continuing on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, known as the City of Sandalwood. This was our first bus experience and we found it to be reasonably comfortable except that Bill got dripped on occasionally from the roof hatch!
The scenery would have been spectacular had we been able to see it through the rain and mist. For most of the journey we traveled up and down mountains, with a couple of ‘comfort’ stops at remote villages. Priscilla made sure not to drink too much water to avoid having to use an Eastern style squat toilet!
This is the main road running north/south in Laos and we encountered quite a lot of traffic – large trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes. The driver was good and drove slowly, navigating the potholes and mud that appeared on a regular basis. At some points the road was being slowly washed away and, of course, there are no guardrails.
After stopping for a Lao lunch of soup and rice we arrived in Vang Vieng (in the rain!) around 4:15pm. A short Tuk Tuk ride to our Guesthouse took us across what was once an airport runway and now just an empty space of broken up asphalt. We were curious so checked it out. Here’s what we found on TravelFish …
“from the 1950s to 1970s Vang Vieng was used as a base and airfield for Air America, a cargo and passenger airline secretly owned and operated by the CIA. The airstrip, known as Lima Site 6, was used to support covert paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia. In spite of an international agreement at the Geneva Conference that Laos would remain neutral, 1965 marked the start of the CIA directed Secret War in Laos that amassed a death toll upwards of 50,000 people and ended when the Americans beat a hasty retreat after Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975.”
Interesting the things one learns when traveling!
Again, rain curtailed our activities here in Vang Vieng but we walked around town and soon saw that we would not be going hungry here! Every second place seemed to be a café, bar or restaurant featuring western as well as Lao food.
Loud music continued well into the midnight hours but things have definitely calmed down since 2012 when the Government intervened in the partying and drug scene that had resulted in 22 deaths in 2011. Along the Nam Song River travelers would party at make-shift bars then participate in wild water antics and tubing – a recipe for disaster.
The main features of this area are the Nam Song River, the beautiful karst mountains that surround the town and several caves within easy distance. We managed to enjoy a walk along the river one afternoon when the sun finally emerged from the clouds but overall our three night stop here was for R&R.
Vientiane, City of Sandalwood
We decided to try a Minibus for our 4 hour drive to Vientiane, the Laos capital, and were picked up promptly at 9am. Our two bags were hoisted up on the roof (covered with a tarp!) and, being the first stop, we had our choice of seats. After stopping at several more guesthouses the minibus was ready to set off for Vientiane with 12 passengers. With the mountainous terrain behind us, our drive was more enjoyable although the driver lost no opportunities to pass other vehicles when he thought he had sufficient time and space!
We knew we were nearing Vientiane when traffic became congested and we saw our first traffic light! Originally known as “Wiang Jan” meaning “City of Sandalwood”, the French translated it to “Vientiane” and so it is known today.
We opted for accommodation out of the city center on the Mekong River and found an Airbnb that seemed to suit us. We booked two nights, figuring we could always find another place if necessary and once we were settled in, we decided to stay.
The owners are French Cambodians who returned to Vientiane after 35 years in France. They are both talented musicians and most evenings we enjoyed listening to the two of them – and guests – playing the electric piano and singing Lao and popular western songs! We just felt like family!
Across the street – and right on the banks of the Mekong – was their open air restaurant and we had several dinners there. Our host brews very good craft beers and has a collection of 1000 bottles of French wine! He suggested dishes for us to eat and they were superb! Eating outside under the stars and watching the moon reflected in the water adds a very romantic touch to a dinner!
We were not too far from the Night Market and walked through it one night but, to be honest, Night Markets are pretty much all the same and unless you are looking for something in particular, we feel we’ve done enough of them!
Keeping in mind that we are not on a “Sightseeing” tour but actually living in Southeast Asia for six months, we are pretty selective as to how we spend our time. The first thing we do is check Blogs and TripAdvisors online for the “Best Things To Do” wherever we go. Here’s what we chose:
COPE Visitors Center
COPE Visitors Center is a small museum dedicated to educating the public about the effects of cluster bombs dropped on Laos by the US during the “Secret War”. Many of the bombs did not explode and are causing death and injuries to people even today. The museum raises funds to finish the work of removing remaining UXO’s and help the injured. The exhibit is well laid out and we took our time to learn the history as well as the individual stories from those whose lives were affected. The videos leave a lasting impression of the dreadful consequences of war on the people of Laos. There is an opportunity for visitors to contribute to this important work either by buying something in the Gift Shop or leaving a donation
Lao National History Museum
The Lao National History Museum is housed in an old colonial building that used to be the French Governor’s Mansion, built in 1925. Although it has a run-down appearance and needs major renovations and updating, there are several interesting historical exhibits including the Lao ancient Kingdoms, the various foreign invasions and Lao ethnic people and culture. The display featuring the Plain of Jars was very interesting. Researchers are still trying to discover the purpose of the jars. One theory is that they might have been used by Bronze age people as burial urns, another for brewing alcohol.
As we expected, there was a lot of propaganda about the Imperialist Americans and the glory of the Communist Party which rules to this day.
Before leaving Vientiane we climbed to the top of this Arc de Triomph “look-alike”. The views show the contrast between beautiful buildings (probably Government departments), Wats and Monasteries and the older, crumbling, Colonial style buildings as well as the small Lao style houses and stores.
Set in beautiful gardens, the monument is dedicated to those who fought for Independence against France. Apparently, the United States provided funds and cement to construct an airport, however, the monument was built instead! The Laotian design sets it apart from the Paris monument.
And so our week in Vientiane, Laos, came to an end and we boarded our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor.
Ling to Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/omdXefDmHX1aJJSi8