In 2011, I had the pleasure of visiting the Angkor temples in Cambodia, which is located in close proximity to Siem Reap city. An example of the closeness of the city to the temples is where the airport is neighbours to the temples and that there are plans to build a new airport a fair distance away, to prevent the ancient temples from degenerating due to modern life.
Siem reap is a lovely tranquil city and has a chilled out vibe to it. I won’t go into too much detail about the city proper (as that’s another story) but the Angkor temples are amazing enough to chat about.
For our stay in Siem reap we hired a driver named Vanny for 5 days, who was well recommended by other tourists on online forums. Having a driver is excellent as you get to go where you want to go and can change plans as the days go along.
In our case we decided to leap into the Angkor temple area and tackle the city the last few days or when we were “templed” out after each day. To access the Angkor temple areas, you need to buy a temple pass and these are purchased from the official ticketing offices which are at the entrance to the temple precinct. It’s like a visa where your photo is taken by a camera at the office and then transposed onto a paper document which states how many days visit you have paid for and other specifics like name and etc. It’s worth noting that this pass needs to be presented at the entrance of every temple location to allow entry – unfortunately drivers are not allowed free entry to the temples and if so, they will need to have a temple pass purchased. We were told that only official guides were allows free entry to the temples.
We started our first day exploring the temples of Bayon, known for its amazing Buddhist faces around and on the various temple structures. This is revealed after you enter the labyrinth of the temple complex and is an amazing sight. The faces are well known to tourists as they are often featured on tourist advertisements around the world (second to the Angkor Wat imagery). It’s extraordinary to think that these temples are still standing after being built in the late 12th century and having the luxury of being able to wander through these structures with little restriction. This can be a good and bad thing – as the encroachment of increased tourist visits can greatly increase the rate of deterioration of these majestic temples. There may be a point where the authorities will have to limit the amount of visits and areas of the temples, but for the meantime we can be thankful of the current situation.
Anyway, back to the majestic temples. We spent a fair 2 hours walking around Bayon and enjoying it’s many sights and the silentness of the surroundings. We then moved on to the majestic Angkor Wat. The main entrance is via the main stone bridge, as the entire complex is surrounded by a moat. Angkor Wat is like an onion with many different layers of architecture and structures that in total make the well known landmark. From the entrance, you encounter various terraces of temples which wrap around the main centralised Angkor Wat proper building. In all there are three layers which help fortify the entire complex – which would have been essential in ancient times to protect against invading forces. On the outside temple structures, there are amazing bas reliefs which depict the history of the ruling empire and also the events that would have occurred during that time. Also include the imagery which would have inspired them to create such lavish temples. It wasn’t even the main Angkor structure and my jaw pretty much hit the floor, at the scale and intricate work. We eavesdropped on an American tour group who had a hired local historian. They mentioned the symbolism of the Angkor wat bas reliefs and how they depict the churning of the sea which is a famous illustration in the Buddhist religion.
Breaking away from the informative session, we ventured on and on headed to the core of the Angkor wat complex, passing through a labyrinth of walkways, stairs and temple rooms. Finally arriving to the core of the Angkor Wat structure, there is the ability to climb up to the very top via (again) another set of beyond steep steps – we noticed some tourists making their way up and having to stop half way due to vertigo. This was my case, where one look down and you are immediately paralysed by the sense of impending doom. One deep breath and continuing on, the sheer scale the Angkor wat complex shows its self – so much so that you can’t actually see the walk way where the entrance to Angkor wat is accessible from. This made we realise how special and why this temple is revered so much – to the level that it features on the Cambodia flag. As far as the eye can see, the levels of the structure emerge from a bird’s eye like view (Complemented by the experience of having walked through these layers on the way to the very core). Gazing out for what seemed like an eternity, in awe of what my eyes witnessed, I made my way back down and then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the Angkor wat complex, not wanting to feel like I had missed any part of it and truly absorb what was on offer to be seen. It’s definitely not a place you would want to lose a friend or child in, due to its sheer scale and at times sections of the complex, being more secluded and away from the hordes of tourists. Visiting Angkor wat is awe inspiring and any tourist visiting there will attest to the feeling of not having enough time to truly take it all in. After wandering at my leisure around the complex, i took leave to my refuge in my hotel after a busy day walking around – my feet were killing me, which explains the proliferation of feet massage places near the Siem reap night market. All that in one day – not bad hey?
On another of the days in Siem reap, I ventured out to the outskirts of the Angkor temple region to Bantei Srei. It’s a fair distance outside of Siem reap proper, but is considered the best restored temple complex in the entire archaeological area – which is why tourists venture all the way to specifically see it. We left around 7am in the morning (due to the travel time to get there) and headed there direct, passing through the many rice paddies, small villages, cattle wandering the roads and the overall Cambodian countryside. The vista of the Cambodian countryside is very unique and picturesque, with local farmers toiling the rice fields – makes for amazing pictures. We arrived to Bantei srei and to my surprise the facilities at the entry look like they were built recently and are very modern. I was greeted with a modern designed timber walk way, with vendors selling goods in the covered courtyard area nearby. The same time I arrived, two tour buses with a heard of tourists arrived and were frolicking around the temple complex. The actual temples are breathtaking to say the least. The stone carvings on the temple facades are so intricate and it makes my mind wonder how this was achieved in times way before cutting and drilling tools were formed. That I guess is the wonder of human ability and maybe how we have it all too easy now in modern times. Excuse my generalisation of describing the temples, but after you witness many of them, it is hard to remember which one is which – unless there are striking features which are distinguishing.
After some time exploring Bantei Srei, we headed back towards Siem reap proper and stopped along the way to road side vendors, selling palm sugar sweets. My driver mentioned how they would climb the palm trees and collect the unique palm sugar pods and then extract the sweet liquid out and cook it over an open fire under it thickened up. Then they would shape it into bite size pieces and wrap it up with dried palm leaves – like a country style packaging – so ingenious. Whilst its not ideally the best food to eat (due to the high level of sugar content), the manner to which its created is admirable and to this day I have one of the packages full of the sweet pods as a reminder of this road side encounter.
Continuing on we then headed to the Cambodian landmine museum. Run by Aki Rai (I hope the spelling is correct – Awarded a CNN award for his work in clearing land mines around the Cambodian land) and a fellow former American soldier who have created a educational centre on the plight of the landmines on Cambodian society. There are stories of how cattle don’t return back to the farmer after a day grazing, as they would have stepped on landmines which ahs surfaced after heavy rains and had blown up. Not to mention many farmers who play a real life game of mine sweeper if they dare farm on land that has not officially been cleared. Its really an unfortunate case of being trying to make a decent living and getting blown up in the process. The museum shows the actual landmines, various weapons which have been found and also the history of how they came to Cambodia where by places by US forces to stop the Viet cong, to Cambodian forces fighting with the Khmer rouge in the 1970’s. This and the brutal genocide in the 1907’s, reflect the turbulent history which Cambodia has endured for quite a time and is why most of the population is below 30 years old.
The landmine museum acts a way of showing tourists the challenges of Cambodian life and why the weapons associated with war is always placing our world in a precarious situation. They also recreated a landmine field and showed how they mark out the locations of the landmines and then the manner of how they would detonate the landmines carefully.
After spending some time at this fascinating place, we headed through Siem reap proper to Ta Prohm, known for its giant trees which are engulfing the ancient temples. Upon arrival, your eyes immediately glance up to the sheer scale of the structures and how nature devours the man made stone creations. This is best known for featuring in the movie Tomb raider and showcasing the various Angkor temples. It’s not only one of the trees, but several trees and other vine like plants which are reclaiming the land. One even has to be propped up by metal poles; otherwise part of the temple structure would fall over with it. Its interesting to see how going into the future this temple structure can be preserved, in like a tug of war with nature – as if the trees which are degrading the temples are cut, then the uniqueness a and wonder of the temples is lost. That’s’ the inevitable trade off. Like the other temples, you are free to roam around (but in this case not all the areas due to safety issues). After spending the afternoon here, to cap off the day we travelled to Wat Bakheng, which is a temple complex located on the top of a large hill close by the major Angkor temples.
Arriving at 5pm we ventured up the large walk way to the summit area of the large hill to be greeted by official Angkor temple authority staff (known as Aspara) who act like bouncers controlling the numbers that are allowed at the top for safety reasons. Fortunately for us, we arrived before they closed off access due to capacity. To get to the very summit you have to climb up very steep steps (propping yourself up by the metal railing on the temple structure) – so steep that one wrong move and you can land backwards to your peril. This is on a semi hillside formation of carved stones which all together form the diorama of a reclining Buddha – close up you don’t realise but from afar it is quite spectacular. As you climb up towards the summit, the spectacular view of the Cambodian temple landscape develops into view. Sunset over the land is I have to say the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and sitting down with the other tourists enjoying the view is truly memorable At times the authority representatives roam around to make sure that tourists aren’t making them self comfortable, sitting on specific areas of the Angkor temple and if they are found to be doing so, get a stern telling off – which being the one witnessing can be amusing. The sunset over the land floats down bit by bit over the next minutes, as though night laps the horizon so effortlessly. After this spectacular sunset, coming down was interesting at best. With little lighting tourists come down some challenging walk ways and venture back through the paths, within the pitch black Cambodian forest area.
The following days were spent visiting the other various Angkor temples, smaller in scale, but nether-the-less equally as impressive. The unique ancient architecture of the Angkorean Empire is striking and congruent with the style of the temples around the temple area. Ranging from temples located in the middle of Cambodia swamp lands (only accessible by timber walk way across the water) to other temples located within dense Cambodian forest – needing sturdy feet to venture into them. Various other temples – one located in the middle of wetlands, one covered by grassy vegetation and another discreetly hidden within the Cambodia forest. The vast scale of the Angkor temple area is mind-blowing and to be able to experience it as a tourist is truly mesmerising.
It’s very difficult to summarise my experience of visiting the Angkor temples in one blog post and to truly encapsulate the experience of seeing it in person. I’m very thankful to my driver for showing me their lovely city and for the Cambodian people being so hospitable and generous. I highly recommend visiting Cambodia to get a real and authentic taste of Asia. I certainly plan to travel back to Siem reap very soon and once again have my breath taken by these majestic ancient structures.