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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Temple-hopping around Angkor Wat

CAMBODIA | Sunday, 5 August 2012 | Views [1069]

Since we are way behind on this journal (sorry everyone, it's been a crazy trip and when choosing between going out and experiencing the places we are as opposed to staying in on a computer... well the former pretty much wins every time!) We have decided to just resort to posting more of our pictures and summaries in the captions instead of actual long written posts. However, it breaks Sarah's heart to NOT talk about the biggest highlight of our trip so far-- Angkor Wat-- so check out all the pictures and here's a rundown of what we saw!

We didn't realize until we got to Siem Reap, but "Angkor Wat" as we've always known and called this tourist site is not just Angkor Wat. Yes, it is the biggest religious complex in the world (when you count it's huge surrounding moat/wall area), and yes, it's one of the, if not THE, oldest religious building that has been in continuous use since its construction. However there is WAY more to Angkor than Angkor Wat itself. That is just one temple on one site of DOZENS of temples and sites outside of Siem Reap. And this ancient city of ruins outside of Siem Reap is actually just one of hundreds of ancient Khmer sites that are found all over Cambodia and into Thailand, Vietnam and Laos as well! So this was, at one time, the capital of a huge and very powerful kingdom that would have made the contemporary cities and kingdoms of Europe look pretty pathetic.

Since we weren't doing any of this on an organized tour or anything, we just walked out into the street and flagged down a tuk-tuk driver, showed him on a map which temples we wanted to visit and in which order that day, bargained with him over the price he'd charge us for the day,... and off we went! (The standard price here was $15 for the ENTIRE DAY of him driving us from temple to temple and waiting for us at each one... Incredible). When there were so many to choose from, how did we decide which temples to visit and in which order? Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook! For anyone thinking of visiting Angkor, they provide excellent itinerary options, based on how many days you're spending there. It worked out perfectly for us.

Day 1- We started out with the oldest, smaller temples called the Roluos Group that made up the first capital of this Khmer kingdom under the leader Indravarman I (r. 877-89 AD). These are located about 13km East of Siem Reap and are among the first large stone temples built by the Khmers. According to the trusty guidebook, they mark the dawn of the country's classical art. The temples we saw here included Lo Lei, Preah Ko, and a large sandstone pyramid temple with towers called Bakong. After those we drove back to the main Angkor area, north of Siem Reap, to see one of the best temples of the whole place: Ta Prohm. It's also called the "Tomb Raider" temple because scenes from the movie were filmed there. It definitely lives up to it's reputation of being a place Indiana Jones would hang out. Archaeologists left most of Ta Prohm the way they found it, completely engulfed by jungle, which has made it very popular today (and the pictures will show you why!) We spent several hours climbing over every inch of this place. After that we had just enough time to see another huge temple- Banteay Kdei. This one was deserted- we were the only ones there besides some friendly monks who asked to take pictures with us (go figure). We were able to go wherever we pleased, climb whatever we wanted... it's a conservation nightmare, but extremely awesome from a tourist perspective. Sarah predicts (and hopes) that in the future access to these temples will be restricted with set walking paths and such to minimize the damage (they've done this some at Ta Prohm since it's so popular). But for now it seems that the attitude is 'Hey, they've lasted this long and they are making Cambodia some much-needed money'. Deservedly so, because they are amazing. After Banteay Kdei we had just enough time to go across the street to a ruined temple platform overlooking an old reservoir- Sra Srang. Then it was back to town for dinner and much-needed rest.

Day 2- Today we had our driver take us about 1 hour outside of town, past beautiful Cambodian countryside and small roadside villages made up of their signature stilted houses, in order to get to "the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art"- Banteay Srei. It's a Hindu temple built by a Brahmin instead of a king and is made out of beautiful pink sandstone. It was begun in 967 AD and "includes some of the finest stone carving anywhere on earth." In fact, "Banteay Srei" means "Citadel of the Women" and was supposedly named such because people believed that it had to have been built by women, since the elaborate carvings are too fine to have been made by the hand of a man. See the pictures-- they were certainly impressive. Then we drove back to the "Grand Circuit" to see the temples Ta Som, Preah Neak Pean, and Preah Khan. The last was the most impressive- a huge temple that the most powerful Khmer king, Jayavarman VII, built in honor of his father. This is one of the largest temples in Angkor and may have once served as a Buddhist university, home to more than 1,000 monks. After these, we finished at another pyramid/tower temple called Pre Rup, the view from which was amazing and a perfect place to watch the sunset.

Day 3- Today was the day! Everyone told us, "You HAVE to go see Angkor Wat at sunrise." So we listened. We woke up at 4am, met our awesomely accomodating driver at 4:30am, and he got us to the entrance gate of Angkor Wat by 5. It was still dark when we walked through the gate and onto the massive stone gangway that leads up to the main entrance of the temple. As we got up to the reflecting pools that are in every iconic image of Angkor Wat (and were sadly low due to lack of rain), the light was just starting to peak over palm trees and jungle off to the Eastern side of the temple. Crowds of tourists were there to watch, even this early! While it may not have been the most spectacular sunset we've ever seen, it was definitely the most memorable, and the setting- unbeatable. Angkor Wat was huge and beautiful and awe-inspiring and all of the things one would imagine. There were way more tourists there (understandably) but the place is so massive it was still easy to get away and feel like you were the only one there. Well, maybe not the only one, but at least it wasn't shoulder-to-shoulder the way we imagine it must be during the busy season. It was also incredibly hot, so maybe busy season isn't so bad after all? We spent about four hours there in total, but could have easily spent days. Then it was off to Angkor Thom- the former royal city and palace complex built by the most powerful king, Jayavarman VII, during his reign (1181-1219 AD). For reference, you could fit about FOUR Angkor Wats into Angkor Thom (again, Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world when you count the area encompassed by the surrounding walls/moats). So we had a lot of ground to cover. We saw one of the other most famous temples- Bayon. It has 54 "gothic" towers decorated with 216 enormous faces resembling the king's looking out from every angle. A little vain maybe? Or just sending a strong political message? This temple was probably our favorite overall... though that's a really tough call! 

From Bayon we moved on to the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, a hike through the ruined jungle area that was once the royal palace, and finished with Baphuon temple, "the world's largest jigsaw puzzle". It is called such because 20th century archaeologists took the entire thing apart, stone by stone (as they did with all of the temples they restored- standard practice). They kept meticuluous records and labelled each stone, so that they could then reinforce and rebuild the temple, restoring it to its original glory. However, this all crashed and burned when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. While they did not destroy the temples of Angkor (thank goodness), they did destroy these archaeologists' records, completely ruining any chance of ever rebuilding this temple accurately, or even at all. This was a huge blow, but the ever-resilient Cambodian people are not giving up and after years of research and a lot of international cooperation, Baphuon is being restored once more. There is still a long way to go (see the pictures of stone after stone just laying on the ground for as far as you can see), and work only just started in 2008. However, as you can see from our pictures, they have already come a LONG way and accurate or not, the parts of the temple that have been rebuilt so far are amazing. Out of all the amazing temples we visited during our time here, Baphuon probably touched us the most.

So that's it! That's our Angkor experience. If you've read this far, well done and THANK YOU. We appreciate you following us! We apologize again for not being better about keeping up with posts. Suffice it to say, if any of you are considering visiting Southeast Asia then there is no excuse to not spending at least 1 week at Siem Reap and at least 3-4 days at Angkor. It is a wonder of the world for a reason and we consider ourselves lucky for getting the opportunity to be here and see such an incredible place.

Tags: angkor thom, angkor wat, archaeology, cambodia, khmer, siem reap, temples

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