Everyone seems to know about Angkor, that archaeological wonder in the jungles of Cambodia where so many temples have been restored. The most famous are probably the Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. About two million people come every year to see them along with several others. A favourite of mine is Ta Prohm because it’s the least restored and when you’re there you can just imagine how awed the first Westerners must have been when they came upon them.
Angkor was built during the Khmer Kingdom from the 9th to 15th century. Its scale is monumental and that often surprises visitors when they arrive. Even so, it doesn’t tell the whole story of that period because many of the structures didn’t last. Those that survived are religious monuments, constructed for the gods, built of durable materials and surrounded by enclosures to keep out the evil powers. Most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva, a god introduced to them from India and considered by the kings as supreme protector of their empire.
The Temple of Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument and a miniature Hindu universe. It is considered an architectural masterpiece, rich in detail with its 600m of narrative bas-relief (where the stone sculptures seem raised above the background that has been chiselled away). It’s the largest temple at Angkor measuring 1.5 km by 1.3 km. The outer limits are set by a wide moat. You enter from the west on a 350m causeway that goes over the moat. Visitors go at sunrise and sunset to get photos of the towers from the causeway. You want to take your time when you view the bas-reliefs, particularly the one called Heavens and Hells where souls are judged; those going to hell are pulled along like cattle, attacked by wild beasts, thrown into hell through a trapdoor, and then slowly cooked or cut in two or worse.
Prambanan Temple, a huge Hindu complex in Java
Borobudur Temple, Java, one of the world’s great Buddhist monuments
Angkor Thom was one of the largest Khmer cities ever constructed and the last temple built at Angkor. Temple Bayon is in the middle and is a shrine dedicated to Buddha and not to Shiva, which was quite a diversion. There are five gates and the S gate that has been most extensively restored is frequently photographed as is the Elephant Terrace and the bas-relief of hunting scenes.
Ta Prohm was the one temple left in its ‘natural state’. It’s the sort of place that stirs your imagination with strangler fig and silk-cotton trees growing among the ruins in almost eerie shapes. Space is much more contained here, which makes the experience more mysterious for you never know what will be around the next corner or if a snake will cross your path. Incense burns on a couple of shrines and a handful of children are around, ready to dance and sing for some change. The trees provide the atmosphere but they are agents of destruction for they support the structure until they die or are blown over in a storm. There’s a rumor that the trees could be cleared and the site restored, which would be a shame.
There are many reasons to visit Banteay Srei, one being that it is 20km from Angkor and a ride there by tuk-tuk is a lovely way to see the countryside. It was called the Citadel of the Women and is known for its miniature scale and the near total decoration of its pink sandstone surfaces. Unlike the major sites at Angkor, it was not a royal temple.
For the people living in the area, Angkor has always been a place of worship. Western interest didn’t start until 1863 when notes by a French naturalist who had seen it were published. Raising money for restoration was long a challenge until finally in 1992 it became a World Heritage Site. Since then a significant concern has been theft as the value of the monuments became known.
Visiting Angkor is not like going to a museum. It’s massive but you’ll still find yourself competing for space with the tour bus crowd. I suspect most independent visitors try to organize their itinerary to avoid the crowds more than any other reason. The mid-day sun can melt you so that needs to be taken into account.
An important decision is whether or not to hire a guide; if you do, discuss approach and pace before starting out. I skipped the guide, bought a guidebook and listened to great music on my ipod as I walked along. I did hire the same tuk-tuk driver for the three days and he dropped me off at the various entrances and was waiting when I was ready to move on.
Siem Reap is where you stay. It’s a bit of a surprise when you drive in from the airport and pass one enormous hotel complex after another. There are smaller properties too and the one I chose was a simple B&B down by the river that runs through the town. The downtown itself is a pleasant spot to have a drink or meal while reflecting on a day in Southeast Asia visiting one of the world’s great wonders.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012