After the week I’d just spent being practically confined to my room while recovering from my stomach woes, to say I was itching to get out and finally explore was an understatement – but despite my excitement, it turns out I didn’t even come close to anticipating the the sheer size and beauty of the Angkor temple complex. Every step I took for two full days consistently blew me away, and frolicking through ancient ruins deep in a jungle is not an experience I’ll soon forget.
I peered out of ancient windows, stood at the top of ancient staircases high in the sky, and drank in the lush, vibrant greenery overtaking and peeking out from every single crumbling corner. To see a place so frozen in time and yet so reclaimed by nature was awe-inspiring, and I could only wonder how grand and marvelous it must have looked in its prime during its 9-15th century glory days.
Since I had no idea how to go about getting from the town to the temple complex, I consulted my guesthouse owner, who promptly whipped out some maps and gave me the rundown: I could rent a bike and bike around the complex, take a tuk-tuk, or take a minivan that included a guided tour. I had just finished eating breakfast with a girl who did a bike tour at sunrise and thought that sounded incredible, but all I can say is thank god I had Mr. Sokley to be the voice of reason and practically force me to take the minivan. It doesn’t seem like much on a map, but Angkor is absolutely massive (like, 400 square miles massive). It was a 25-minute drive to even get to the outskirts on an extremely bumpy dirt road with cars and tuk-tuks just barely careening past each other, and about an hour into the trip I couldn’t believe I’d even considered anything other than an air-conditioned vehicle to haul my sweaty, exhausted butt from place to place.
The other added benefit was getting to meet other travelers sharing the minivan. My first day I met two girls from the UK who were in the middle of a similar SE Asia trek, and a dude from Scotland who had been living in Asia for a few years and was about to return home. They were all awesome people and it was fun spending the day with them as we waded through the throngs of tourists swarming in every conceivable direction. The temples might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but they definitely took “tourist attraction” to a whole new level. I visited in the low season, so all I can say is godspeed if you intend to venture here during the peak months. Take a lot of sunscreen, water, and get ready to shove, shove, shove.
Day one was spent visiting the smaller and more outlying temples first. It was a great little precursor to the more grand structures the following day, and having a guide to explain the history turned out to be a really invaluable experience. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th-15th centuries and was considered one of the most grand cities in all of Asia, until various political and religious uprisings, causing thousands upon thousands of residents to completely abandon it. Aside from housing over 1000 temples featuring mind-boggling architecture and intricate carvings, the city also boasted a highly advanced water management system that systematically distributed water throughout the complex. Most of the architecture is dedicated to Hindu and Buddhist deities and serve as funeral grounds for a great many kings of the empire (the thought was that these structures would please the gods, who would in turn grant the kings immortality).
Neak Pean (“The Entwined Serpents”)
Neak Pean is one central, manmade lake surrounded by four smaller ponds representing the cardinal directions. Each is guarded by four respective animals: an elephant, bull, horse, and lion. It is thought that this lake was modeled after Lake Anavatapta in the Himalayas, which was said to contain holy water that cured any illness. Residents of the city came here to make offerings and pray for the sick and invalid.
Preah Khan (“Royal Sword”)
A large monastery and education complex, Preah Khan was built in the 12th century and could best be described as a “city within the city.” In addition to 15,000 monks, the city also housed two libraries, 100,000 farmers and contained a considerable amount of shrines. The gate at the entrance is lined by 72 garudas (humanoid birds) holding nagas (snakes). The garudas, save maybe two or three, were all missing their heads – I asked the guide about this thinking that they were just lost to time, and was told that they were actually cut off and stolen (along with many other ancient relics from the Angkor complex) during the Pol Pot regime. This was because Pol Pot wanted to abolish religion and start civilazation anew, but it also served the dual purpose of providing stone that would later be recycled into busts of the deranged leader himself.
Banteay Srei (“Citadel of Women”)
Dedicated to Shiva, this temple was built in the 10th century for one of King Rajendravarman’s counsellors (making it the only main temple in Angkor not built for a king). The modern name is inspired from the incredibly delicate and intricate bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology – so tiny and detailed it was said they could only have been made by the hands of a woman. It is made primarily of sandstone, giving everything a dusty red hue.
Banteay Samre (“Citadel of the Samre”)
For the life of me I could not recall the name of this temple. I remembered it took us forever to get to in the van, and after 45 minutes of Googling I finally figured out the reason I couldn’t find it is because it’s hardly on any temple lists. Banteay Samre is pretty far off the beaten path, but the upside was that there were virtually no tourists. It was the quietest temple I visited and perhaps that made it feel more grand, but something about the atmosphere was decidedly more regal and mysterious. It was surrounded by a moat (now dry) which must have been pretty spectacular, and featured a red sandstone gate surrounding the inner sanctuary. It was also chock full of naga railings and intricate bas-relief carvings.
For day 2, I opted to take a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat at sunrise. Because the logistics behind this were all screwy, I wound up having to go back to the guesthouse to grab another minivan to take me back to Angkor Wat and the other main temples later in the day. I was unsure if I wanted to even bother with the sunrise since it meant a 4am wakeup call, but I’m so unbelievably glad I did. Riding on the dark, empty Cambodian roads with a chilly breeze at my back was an experience in itself, and by the time I arrived there was just enough sunlight to turn off my flashlight and follow the steady stream of people inside. I staked out a photo spot across the lake and waited, politely declining the various peddlers selling books, art and even food. The sunrise itself wasn’t one to write home about since it was a cloudy and wet morning, but watching Angkor Wat slowly light up and come alive was a memory I will never forget.
And to make the morning even more worthwhile, after wandering around for a bit I found myself standing next to Robbie, my Scottish friend from the day before. He and the two girls from the UK, Louisa and Holly, had opted for a tour that included the sunrise – I couldn’t believe my luck in finding them again! We hung out for a bit and snapped some Angkor selfies before parting ways. Such great people and it was awesome to follow the rest of their amazing travel adventures via social media.
After taking the tuk-tuk back to my guesthouse and grabbing breakfast, I hopped into another minivan with the same guide I had the day before. We went and picked up the rest of the tour group, which included a sweet couple from Guam and three older Indian men who were an absolute riot. Their photo game was on another level and most of the time we were left in hysterics from the crazy poses they came up with at each location (the best one involved two of them straddling a tree). At one point they decided to switch shoes with each other, which resulted in each of them wearing mismatched footwear for an entire temple.
But that constant entertainment aside, getting to see Angkor Wat in the daytime was an entirely different experience. It’s even more overwhelming than I ever could have anticipated; the sheer scale of the architecture and the detail within is just unreal. It really does need to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Honoring the god Vishnu, this temple was built during the 12th century as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II and sits on a rectangular area of 500-acres. Spanning the long corridors on the first level was an enormous gallery of bas-relief artwork carved from sandstone, depicting the many epic battles of Hindu mythology. As we wandered through with our mouths agape, our guide mentioned that the temples around the complex were designed in alignment with the stars to allow the subjects of the kingdom to feel closer to the gods as they worshipped. When the temples were abandoned and lost for a few centuries, Buddhist monks were the next to stumble across them in the jungle. They wove their own legends, claiming that the temples had been constructed by the gods, and in 1860 the French gained win7d of these tales and ventured to Cambodia to see for themselves. They have funded the restoration, excavation and conservation of the “lost city” ever since.
Our guide also told us that there was a theme of the number 108, which is a sacred number in both Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies. I researched this further and found an extremely intriguing bit of information:
“At the temple of Phnom Bakheng there are 108 surrounding towers. The number 108, considered sacred in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies, is the sum of 72 plus 36 (36 being ½ of 72). The number 72 is a primary number in the sequence of numbers linked to the earth’s axial precession, which causes the apparent alteration in the position of the constellations over the period of 25,920 years, or one degree every 72 years. Another mysterious fact about the Angkor complex is its location 72 degrees of longitude east of the Pyramids of Giza. The temples of Bakong, Prah Ko and Prei Monli at Roluos, south of the main Angkor complex, are situated in relation to each other in such a way that they mirror the three stars in the Corona Borealis as they appeared at dawn on the spring equinox in 10,500 BC. It is interesting to note that the Corona Borealis would not have been visible from these temples during the 10th and 11th centuries when they were constructed.”
Just a little strange….right?
Ta Prohm (“Monastery of the King”)
This was hands-down my favorite temple in the entirety of Angkor, and it seemed most other people felt the same since it was absolutely swarming with selfie sticks and tripods. Built in the 11th century to honor the family of King Jayavarman VII, this temple is said to have employed nearly 80,000 workers. Multiple movies have been filmed here including Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. The entire area has been completely reclaimed by nature; century-old trees sit atop crumbling ancient structures, their massive roots winding down and clutching at the stone beneath them. Moss sprouts from within every crevasse and the cracked sculptures house tiny flowers and insects. Absolutely otherworldly. Even now I still try to imagine what it would be like to walk the grounds completely alone, surrounded only by the sounds of the jungle. A girl can dream, right?
This temple looked completely unassuming when we drove up to it, until our guide asked if any of us had a problem with heights. He told us that we were welcome to climb to the top and I figured that meant hiking up the modern wooden slats that served as stairs in the other temples, but noooooope. At this temple we had to climb “stairs,” which I say lightly because really they really weren’t more than divots a couple of inches wide carved into the sandstone. I had to contend with my brain screaming “UNSAFE! UNSAFE!” during the entire climb, but I got to live out my inner treasure-hunting Uncharted fantasies, so you know….totally worth it. My relief at not being dead once I reached the top was short-lived once I realized I would eventually have to get back down. That descent was decidedly more unpleasant. “Do not slip and hurt yourself and have to be flown to a hospital in Bangkok” was my mantra, and thankfully it got me down in one piece.
Dedicated to Shiva, Ta Keo was left unfinished when the ruling king at the time passed away. Five prasats sat at the very top, and there was ample room for moving about and plenty of scenic views to take in above the treeline. I actually climbed up one of the prasats (because at that point I figured I might as well go all the way), and there was a small shrine with candles and a little old lady praying inside when I got up there. Either I’m a wimp or that lady is really hardcore.
Probably the former.
My final temple stop couldn’t have been a more grand finale. Prasat Bayon is a Buddhist temple, I believe the only one dedicated solely to Buddha in the complex. It was built 100 years after Angkor Wat, and features over 200 smiling faces carved into the walls and towers. It is generally thought that they represent Avalokitesvara (ones who have attained enlightenment, or Buddhahood), though that is still highly contested and disputed among historians. Bayon is surrounded by a lake and the sight of hundreds of giant stone faces staring at you from across the water is pretty magnificent…and slightly unsettling?
As far as epic grandeur I’m pretty sure this temple can’t be beat. You can see the towering stone faces no matter which way you turn, and the accompanying bas-relief carvings and other carved details give the entire area an air of magnificence. My guide told me that at once point the faces were all painted and likely accented with gold. Crazy.
There. It’s done now. We’re at the end of this outrageously long picture-vomit post. If you enjoyed it, then I’m glad! And if not, then go to Angkor and see it for yourself, because you definitely should and my pictures don’t do it justice anyway.
Peace out until next time! xx
Siem Reap: 8.27 – 9.10, 2016