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!