Jordan and I had the real treat of leaving behind the dirt roads of rural Cambodia and going to Siem Reap, the town nearest the jungle and Angkor Wat.
Angkor is usually recognized in pictures, and definitely in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a half-forgotten jungle temple somewhere in exotic Asia. It’s not forgotten–it’s actually big business. But it is exotic and jungle-y, and we loved it.
After hemming and hawing over saving money vs. seeing more ruins, we decided to just go with the one-day ticket into Angkor Archeological Park (20 USD apiece) and forgo a guide. We certainly weren’t going to bike there and back, so we rented a tuktuk driver for the day. The best way to do the park is early: you miss most of the heat and some of the crowds. So our driver picked us up at 5 am to head to the park to buy tickets. Well, I say our driver picked us up. We had agreed with a driver from town to take us around for 17 USD (it was an extra 5 because it was so early in the morning), but when we met up he told us that he couldn’t take us, he was going with his wife and brother to Phnom Penh. So he found a friend of a friend to take us. We agreed readily enough and off we went.
At the entrance to the park we bought tickets (with our photos on them). From there we had to convince our very confused driver (who didn’t know English) that we didn’t want to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. That temple is the iconic figure of Angkor, and it is very popular to go see the sunrise, with hundreds of other people. With the help of another driver who knew more English, we finally got across what we wanted. Our driver was still very confused that the white tourists weren’t followed the normal path that all the other white tourists do.
So we ended up watching the sunrise at Srah Srang. We shared the view with about 20 other people, all very quiet, and it was much, much better than the elbows and feet of hundreds across the park at Angkor Wat.
Sunrise was at 6:31, and afterward we drove to another temple. Our driver got lost once or twice (I think we got the only driver in the city who didn’t know Angkor like the back of his hand) and eventually we passed through the south gates of Ankor Thom, on our way to parts of the old city.
Angkor was the capital of the great Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries, and its remains are considered some of the most beautiful and important Asian ruins today. THe Khmer Empire was, more or less, Cambodia. The people of Cambodia are still called Khmer (Kuh-my). The empire ruled most of Cambodia and pieces of modern-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and the founding date is usually recognized as 802 AD, when King Jayavarman II declared himself king. The area of Angkor, mostly farmland and woods near Tonle Sap lake, had settlements there for many many years, but the Empire era saw an explosion of culture, art, building, and now we had the roads and ruins to show for it. Wikipedia has a long article on the Khmer Empire if you wish to learn more.
Eventually they built Angkor Thom, the heart of the city of the Khmer, beginning in the 12th century. It was abandoned after the Ayutthaya Kingdom (in modern-day central Thailand) sacked the city. The city was never lost, even as it crumbled to ruins, though we are stilling learning about the people that used to live there.
One of the entrances to Angkor Thom, this is near the Terrace of the Elephants, an appendage of the royal palace. Here is an educated guess as to what the royal palace and connecting walls inside Angkor Thom could’ve looked like. We unfortunately weren’t able to spend much time here, but it larger than we had first thought it was. Much of the carvings here (and elsewhere) were of Hindu and Buddhist mythical heros, deities, and magical animals, especially naga. According to legend, the naga were mythical creatures banished from their own kingdom in the Pacific by invading forces, many eventually settling in India. A prince of the naga fell in love with an Indian woman. Their children were the Cambodian people, and the prince’s father, the king of the naga, drew water away from the land to create modern-day Cambodia.
(That’s not from Angkor, but from the royal palace in Phnom Penh. But the naga still look like that.)
From the edge of the royal palace we drove to Bayon, the state temple in the city. Bayon, as a part of the city, was also built in the late 12th century, and is famous now for its massive stone faces. By the time it was built, the Khmer were more Buddhist than Hindu, so the decorations and arrangement of the temple reflect the religion. Jayavarman VII was the king at this time, and he was known for being devoutly Buddhist and encouraging a campaign for greater buildings and growth in culture. The Golden Age of the empire was during his reign.
Throughout the archeological park are small temples and shrines to Buddha. Many of the ruins are still active shrine sites, which is why visitors are required to where modest clothing.
By this time it was around 8 am, and the day was growing warmer. We convinced our tuktuk driver to take us to Ta Prohm, a very popular sight due to its fame from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Our driver got a little lost taking us there. I’m not really sure how. But we got there finally, before most of the crowds.
Ta Prohm was a Buddhist monastery and university, built a couple of decades after Bayon. While other temples have been mostly restored, Ta Prohm has barely been touched (in comparison, at least). This is probably what made it my favorite temple–the trees and vines growing everywhere gave it a “lost” feel, and the winding pathways between fallen stones invited exploration and discovery. We slipped away from the main path through the ruins to wander through some of the half-lit corridors and skirt around stone piles near crumbled walls.
One of the two most famous spung trees in the ruins. We had to wait in line to get a good photo of the tree, but the line that early in the morning was only about three or four groups long–not bad at all. Jayavarman VII dedicated this monastery to his family, and many of the reliefs meant to personify wisdom and other virtues are probably likenesses of his family members.
Once we finished picking our way around tree roots and rock piles, we left the temple and got breakfast. At each major temple site are stands selling tourist trinkets and food. We got breakfast for around 8 USD (not that cheap, but pretty good for being in a tourist zone) and hopped back in the tuktuk. At Jordan’s insistence, we went to Banteay Kdei. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the gate look pretty amazing.
Banteay Kdei is Khmer for “citadel of chambers,” and was a Buddhist temple commissioned by Jayvaraman VII (they don’t call him the “Great Builder” for nothing!). Monks have lived in this temple, off and on, until the 1960s. Today it is in a state of disrepair, though some renovations may be made soon. This was Jordan’s favorite stop, because he loved walking through the intricate pathways and seeing the patterned reliefs in tight corners and narrow columns.
The figures in the walls are legendary heroes and soldiers, or they are the Apsara, asian nymphs or celestial maidens.
By the time we left Bantaey Kdei (around 10:45 am) it was hot. But it was also nearing lunchtime, which meant that the crowds at Angkor Wat should’ve thinned. So onward we went, eager to see the iconic image of the ancient city.
Claimed to be the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is huge. It was also built during the beginning of the golden age of the Khmer Empire (by Jayvaraman’s predecessor), originally as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. Even after the Khmer Empire fell, the temple wasn’t completely abandoned. Small groups of monks lived in the temple, keeping it up. The moat surrounding the wat also helped keep the jungle from taking over. It is not only the iconic image of the whole park, but also of Cambodia, and Khmer look upon this temple with great pride.
We ate lunch at a food stall in Angkor Wat, then decided that we were beat and needed a shower from the sweat and dust. There was still so much to see of the park–seeing everything in one day would be like trying to see all of Yosemite in one day–but we were exhausted and communicating with our driver was becoming more complicated and frustrating as the day went on. We had asked him to take us to his favorite temple, but instead he called a friend to translate, who tried to convince us to go to one of the farther-flung temples (Bantaey Srei) about 28 kilometers away–for another price. We weren’t willing to do that, so we called it a day and left the park, tired but happy we’d seen some of the most beautiful ruins in the world.