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Temples of Angkor (8th Wonder of the World)

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 12 June 2008 | Views [4172]

Background to the Angkor Temples

Angkor is the ancient capital of the powerful Khmer Empire, which at its height of influence spanned half of Southeast Asia. Many of the 30 or so temples/ruins, which date as far back as 802AD, are set within a 25km radius just north of the nearest town, Siem Reap. Each Angkor god-king that came to power sought to exhibit the strength and power of the Khmer  Empire by constructing temples and shrines dedicated to the gods and/or ancestors. And each Angkor god-king seems to have felt compelled to surpass the feats of his ancestors by building more elaborate and grandiose temples.

The temples of Angkor are regarded as one of the archaeological treasures of Asia and the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia. One temple in particular, called Angkor Wat, is labelled as the 8th Wonder of the World.

8th June 2008

On the first day, Stephen and I travelled from our guesthouse in the nearby town of Siem Reap in a tuk-tuk to visit the Rolous group of temples, which are amongst the first temples to have been built (9th century). My visit to the museum the day before, as well as some pre-reading, certainly helped to decipher some of the carvings.

Before the end of the day we jumped ahead in time and went to visit a few temples outside of Angkor Thom, which was the royal city established at the end of the 12th Century. We finished the day at the top of Pre Rup, which is supposed to be a nice spot for a sunset. Unfortunately cloud coverage was so high that we could not even tell when the sun had set.

9th June 2008

I decided that I wanted to go it alone today....by bicycle (not generally recommended because of the distances and the heat). I started off at Bayon Temple, which is in the walls of the royal city of Angkor Thom. Just approaching Angkor Thom one is struck by stone soldiers (possibly of Chinese influence in design?) lining each side of the road that leads in to a large gate within the walls of Angkor Thom. On the wall directly above the gate is a pyramid tower with gigantic heads carved identically on each of the 4 sides of the tower, looking in all directions.

After taking the opportunity to take a few photos, I cycled through the gate and down a path lying in a wooded area. Sitting on the sides of the path are monkey nibbling on nuts and other foods which they have foraged.

At the end of the path, right in the middle of Angkor Thom, I find Bayon Temple. Bayon is a three-tiered, pyramid temple with a 45m-high tower, topped by four huge carved heads. Wherever I look, I find large faces staring down on me. Over 2000 large faces are carved throughout the structure.

I start exploring the temple complex with the outermost buildings, which may have been libraries or shrines. The steps are narrow and steep, so I climb up slowly using my hands to pull myself up. Taking the same route back down, I was in a precarious position when a girl ("EW") accidentally stepped on the hand with which I was holding my weight. Needless to say, I made my irritation clear to her because I could easily have fallen back from that height and sustained nasty injuries. But, in the usual habits of the solo-traveller, we started talking as we explored the rest of the temple.

We ended up spending the rest of the afternoon exploring 8 temples in the area. Had I known that I was going to be travelling with someone else, I probably would not have opted to cycle on this day. But I had, so there was no choice but to play catch-up with EW and her crazy tuk-tuk driver. It was an afternoon spent cycling at break-neck speeds between temples, with me overtaking the tuk-tuk and the tuk-tuk overtaking me. I think I must have cycled some 50km this day, mostly at top speeds. And then there was the (more) sweat-inducing temple climbing. (Astonishingly, my body was not aching at all the following day.)

At the end of the afternoon, our plan was to go back to our guesthouses in town buy some wine and food and then return for sunset at one of the temples. Unfortunately, EW took too long getting ready and the sunset was missed. Instead Stephen, EW and I went out locally for dinner.

Also, completely coincidentally, I bumped into Jesse (one of the girls Stephen and I travelled with in Kampot, southern Cambodia, a week previously) at Ta Prohm Temple and yet again later because she was staying in the same guesthouse as us. Small world!

10th June 2008

Today was the day for the big one...Angkor Wat, the 8th Wonder of the World. Stephen and I woke up bright and early (about 4am) to try to catch sunrise over the temple. Unfortunately, yet again, it was not to be. The cloud coverage in this season is generally just too high for any good sunrises/sunsets. I, surprisingly, was not overwhelmed by Angkor Wat. To be honest, I think it is overhyped. It is certainly big, and the bas-reliefs across each of the walls were impressive (if repetitive), but surely there must be more to a "Wonder of the World" than just size?  The fact that Stephen and I managed to get around the whole temple in less than 2 hours (and that was taking our time) says it all. The vista was also spoiled by scaffolding around the central tower, which was also closed off to tourists for some reason.

We headed back to town for some breakfast, and then met up with EW before going to Banteay Srei (the farthest of the temples). This was, by a long way, my favourite temple. It is not big, but the extent to which the intricate carvings have remained intact (despite being exposed to the elements) was, in my view, astonishing. The temples is considered by many historians to be the highest achievement of art from the Angkor period. It was even more unique because of the rare pink sandstone which was used, rather than the usual plaster-coated carved-brick decoration. All I can say is that the ornamentation was exceptional - its roofs, pediments and lintels were magnificently carved with tongues of flame, serpents' tails, gods, demons and floral garlands.

We then headed back to the main temple complex area to see some remaining temples. At the end of the afternoon, we headed back into town so that we could clean ourselves up. The plan was for us all to go back for sunset at Phnom Pakheng, a temple at the top of a hill which overlooks Angkor Wat, with a bottle of wine. Stephen bailed out on the idea en-route, which left only EW and myself. The sunset was okay...almost perfect but for a small cloud which was in precisely the wrong place and blocked out the sun.

If I remember correctly (the problem with writing these journal entries so long after the event), EW and I went to a few art galleries as we headed back to the guesthouse to meet Stephen for dinner. But Stephen was not in the room, and after waiting 20 minutes to see if he showed up, we decided to head off for a bite to eat on "Pub Street".

I had initially planned to set off to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, the next day. But, after much deliberation, I decided to stay in Siem Reap for an extra day. I was absolutely exhausted. The fast-paced travelling had caught up with me - I had done something every day for a few weeks and I just needed a day where I did nothing.

11th June 2008

Stephen headed off to Phnom Penh in the early morning. I joined him for breakfast before he left, and then went back to bed (feeling slightly ill). But I felt better after a while - I put it down to my malaria pills which can sometimes cause stomach aches or ulceration of the oesophagus.

When I got out of bed, I spent most of the day just reading my book in a park at the centre of town. Later on in the day I went around some of the markets with EW, wandered around town a bit, and popped into FCC (a well-known bar/restaurant with an excellent happy hour) for a drink and to read our respective books.

Review of temples

My favourite temples, in order of preference, were:
1) Banteay Srei - Built in 967AD with explicit preservation of the carvings, which are so intricate that it is commonly said that they could only have been done by female hands.
2) Bayon - Built between the late 12th century and early 13th century, it is the temple with more than 2000 carved faces glaring down upon you. Atmospheric in the morning, with the sunlight from the East.
3) Ta Prohm - Built in 1186, it is slowly being devoured by the surrounding forest, which creates quite an atmosphere. It was also the stage for some of the scenes from 'Tomb Raider'.
4) Angkor Wat - Built in the late 11th century over a 30-year period, it is the 8th wonder of the world and has well-preserved bas-reliefs that tell tales of important Hindu epics.

Tags: angkor, temples


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