We have been trying to figure how to write this blog about Angkor, but came to the conclusion that nothing we can say or show can possibly do it justice. So I will try my best to tell you about it without too many adjectives. One recommendation though: if ever you have the means to go, this is something that everyone should see at least once.
We arrived in Siem Reap, home of the famed Angkor National Park, on a Saturday, and then decided to take the Sunday "off" and stroll around the town and visit the local museum to get some background. Angkor is a vast complex of temples and palaces built by the once great Khmer kings between the 11th and 15th centuries. In total there are about 1000 of these structures throughout the ancient Empire (Cambodia, Laos and parts of Vietnam and Thailand), in various conditions from fully restored monuments to unidentifiable heaps of rubble. Around Siem Reap there are about 60. At the height of the empire in the 14th and 15th century, the urban metropolis with Angkor Wat (Wat is Khmer for temple) at its center was a whopping 1000 sq km (same size as Hong Kong!) with an estimated 1mil. population (at the same time, London had a population of about 100,000). We read as much as we could, but nothing can prepare you for the vast scale and sheer magnificence that is Angkor Wat.
We got up at 4:30 on the first day of our 3 day pass, and hopped on a tuc-tuc to catch the sunrise. Driving up to the complex on the tree lined road, the size of it is astounding: the temple is the largest religious monument in the world (the grounds within the surrounding wall is 9sqkm), the mote around it looks more like a lake than a safety barrier. After being dropped off, we walked across the 130m mote bridge, then through the main entrance that takes you into to the gardens approaching the temple.
Just as we passed through this first gate, the sun started throwing light from behind the 5 spires of Angkor - the silhouette was overwhelming. From the gate there is another 360m raised walkway until you reach the entrance to the temple. We sat next to one of the lakes in front of the temple and took photos of the sunrise for about 2 hours, just trying to take it all in. And that was still just the outside! Once inside, you start to realize the full scale of it. Every single column, every ceiling stone, every window and door frame has intricate patterns delicately carved out of sandstone - the detail is incredible.
We spent the rest of the morning there in stunned silence, snapping away with both cameras and the video recorder, trying to capture as much as we could. It is still being used as a Buddhist temple today, so the respectful silence contributed to greatness of it.
Bayon at Angkor Thom was, again, incredible. The temple was built by Jayavarman VII and the structure is famous for having around 200 massive stone faces on the towers that give you the impression of being watched from above when you walk around. They were reputedly carved to look like Jayavarman in the style of a Buddha statue. Joey has particular admiration for this king: on various columns it is written in Chinese what his goals were for his empire. The most impressive, is that he wanted to create a paradise on earth for his people. We thought that was a pretty noble ideal! He was a great philanthropist too, being accredited with among other things, 120 hospitals throughout the empire.
Ta Prohm is probably most famous for being the film-set of Tomb Raider. And I have to admit, I half expected someone to point me the way to the roller-coaster - it looks like some jungle theme park. The temple has not been restored, because it is literally being swallowed by the jungle. There are enormous wild fig trees that grow ON TOP of the buildings, the roots curling around the walls and through any openings like a boa-constrictor trying the squeeze the life out of it, and in the process it is slowly breaking the temple apart.
In total, we visited 9 of the biggest and most preserved temples and palaces over 3 days: Angkor Thom with Terrace of the Leper King & Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan, Banteay Srey and Prei Prasat. I could in detail explain every one of them, but in the end it will all be a combination of incredible, breathtaking, amazing etc and I promised to lay off the adjectives. When we are finally back home, we will have one of those terrible photo evenings, and then we will wax on and on about all of them! This of course is compulsory for all family members - the rest of you can let us know if you're interested!
I think what got us most of all is that this is proof of a highly advanced society, with superior craftsmanship and building techniques, with power and wealth. The Cambodian people today are struggling to come to terms with their recent horrific history, the country is poor, they have no real resources and they are not major players even in the South East Asian market. How did they fall so far?
The Khmer capitol of Angkor was sacked by the Thais in 1431 and all of these once great cities and temples abandoned and left to nature's whim. It was "rediscovered" in the 18th century by a French explorer who introduced it to the West. A lot of the meanings and uses of articles and engravings had to be interpreted with the help of Western archeologists because so much of the old culture had been lost.
After what we saw in Phnom Penh, the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge's genocide, and the breathtaking greatness of Angkor in Siem Reap, it almost seems that these were 2 completely different nations, like they couldn't be related to one another. This is the confusing contrast that is Cambodia, the truly sad enigma of a beautiful country. We will definitely come back here, there is still too much to understand. And my first impressions of the country were correct: this place had deeply touched me.