Temples of Angkor
You've probably seen photos of the world famous Angkor Wat and have some idea of what it looks like. If you haven't, do yourself a favour and either look at our photo albums or do an internet search on the temples of Angkor. What many people don't know is that Angkor Wat is only one of hundreds of spectacular temples that are spread throughout 77 square miles of Cambodian jungle. That said, Angkor Wat is worthy of all its hype as the most impressive temple in Cambodia… there's a reason why it's on Cambodia's national flag!
Angkor was the capital of Cambodia's ancient Khmer empire and is the heart and soul of the Kingdom. The temples are estimated to have been built between the 9th and 13th centuries, making it older than the Incan lost city of Machu Picchu. Interesting fact - at its peak, the city of Angkor is said to have been the largest in the world with a population of over a million, this at a time when London England would have only had roughly 50,000 in population.
We hired a tuk tuk driver (whose name we have unfortunately forgotten) to take us from Siem Reap to the many temples. Our goal was to explore as many archeological sites as possible, so we purchased a three day pass and planned to have a 'day off' in between so that we didn't get temple burn out. Our first day was only a half day because we wanted to visit the temples furthest away, the Roluos Group. The Roluos Group of temples is some of the earliest structures and visiting them marked a great start to our Angkor adventure.
The second day was the big day. We started our circuit with the magnificent and grand Angkor Wat. Rather than give a history lesson on the world's largest religious building, we'll let the photo albums do the talking (Temples of Angkor - vol 1 should have pics of Angkor Wat in it). To say that it was one of the most impressive ancient spiritual structures in the world would be an understatement. The sheer size and scale of the temple is enough to make ones head spin, let alone the intricate stone carvings along the surrounding walls (called the bas-reliefs). The extraordinary architecture was well before its time and is an amazing testament to the Khmer empire of the Angkorian era.
We spend the majority of the morning exploring the immense structure before moving on to the second most impressive temple in Angkor - Bayen (that's our opinion anyways!). Bayen is the most notable temple within Angkor Thom, a fortified city with walls that stretch an astounding 12km and are 6 meters high and an staggering 8 meters thick. Bayen is best known for its hundreds of enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara that seem to be watching you wherever you go. The large statues have four faces that point in each direction, an incredible structure that leaves you speechless. After a few more temples, notably the Terrace of Elephants, we called it a day and planned to take the following day off so that we didn't overload ourselves with temple exhaustion.
The final day we visited the popular temples of Ta Prohm and Ta Keo. Ta Prohm's claim to fame is that it was the temple used in Angelina Jolie's blockbuster film 'Tomb Raider'. It is the well known temple that has massive trees and vegetation growing through it, much of it left alone since its discovery by French explorers over a hundred years ago. It definitely competes with Angkor Wat and Bayen as the top three must see temples in Angkor.
Ta Keo was another pyramid temple that had us sweating in the blistering sun while trying to scale its 50 meters. The steep stairs shot straight up on an angle that made you feel like you were crawling up it on all fours (a little sketchy on the way down!). It was here that Andrew came to within a foot of a large green snake. We were told by our driver that they are not poisonous creatures, but kept a good distance nevertheless… we were still in Cambodia!
Although visiting the temples of Angkor was/is a once in a lifetime experience, it was still somewhat disappointing to see that many of the temples were in the process of rebuilding and refurbishing. I understand that it is a necessary action to preserve the archeological sites for future generations, but it is still a little disappointing to know that many sections are only a few years old. I guess that's what needs to be done in order to accommodate and excite the tsunami of tourists that flow into Cambodia for a glimpse of historical architectural supremacy.
Interesting story - Baphuon, a huge pyramid shaped temples within Angkor Thom, was actually taken apart by archeologists with hundreds of the oversized boulders stacked and scattered around the temple grounds. The stones were carved and shaped in a certain way to form a gigantic reclining Buddha, so the exact placement of these stones was meticulously well documented. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge many of the documents were destroyed or lost, making it a very confusing jigsaw puzzle. We were unable to enter this remarkable pyramid because thirty years later they're still trying to piece it together!
Our time in Siem Reap and exploring the temples of Angkor was sensational, and we were thrilled to have shared it with our closest friends. But, like every new place we visit, our time had run out and it was time to keep the journey moving forward.
Next stop… the remote Cambodian city of Battambang.