Temples ‘a Plenty
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
3 May 2009
Dawn, as it turns out, is hideously early, so the thought of getting to a temple by sunrise is quickly put to one side. Far better to take things a little more leisurely and tackle the sights after a morning dip, a hearty breakfast and more than a couple of cups of coffee.
According to my trusty guidebook, the best way to get around is to hire a Tuk-tuk for the day. These are nothing like their Thai namesakes and consist of a motorbike pulling a two wheeled surrey that can comfortably seat four. The alternatives are far less appealing (car and driver – too aloof; motorcycle taxi – too scary; bicycle – too strenuous) and anyway, this way you have an informal guide when you need one, but the freedom to go at your own pace.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to the temples of Angkor you’ve come to the wrong place. I only scratched the surface of what’s on offer and my comments are, as always, biased, sarcastic, incomplete and almost wholly lacking facts. As Frommer’s states, Angkor is the “Disneyland of Buddhist temples” and just like Disneyland (but even more so), it goes on and on. The temple complex covers 60 square miles and there are 20 odd structures scattered within this space. There are even temples within the temples – the outer walls of Angkor Thom enclose 1 square mile and within it’s boundaries there are four major structures that will keep you occupied for many a hot, sweaty hour. Bottom line – it’s big, there’s lot of it, and there’s lashings of history behind it. So, if you want the full picture, get a guide book!
The hotel concierge directs me to a rank of patiently waiting tuk-tuk drivers and their chariots just in front of the hotel, and I select one more or less at random (i.e. the first guy that wasn’t asleep). My driver for the day is Mr Seuen, and he’s clearly done this before. We huddle over my maps and weigh up the options and routes. He suggests a few itineraries, including the ‘regular tour’ and the ‘grand tour’. The latter sounds a little too much like a temple cramming exercise, so we settle for the regular tour with a couple of optional extras bolted on for fun.
After stopping at the entrance complex to pickup my pass (a very efficient and officious process – you emerge with very natty photo-ID pass and US$20 the lighter), we head for Angkor Wat, superstar of the Angkor temples and the one you’ve most likely seen on the posters and postcards. Angkor Wat is massive, surrounded by 1 ¾ miles of moat, with central spires almost 700 feet tall. You enter via a 300’ long stone causeway across the moat (reconstructed by the French in the 60’s, a good thing because I didn’t fancy the swim), through the outer walls and into the main temple courtyard. Here you pause to gawp at the view across the inner courtyard. This includes a couple of lakes that offer the perfect setup for the sunrise shot of the main towers reflected off the water. My midmorning snaps are mediocre in comparison, but on the upside I’m probably far more rested and alert than the poor schleps that came out to take those pics.
Angkor Wat also offers my first encounter with the Cambodian hawkers. Much of what you read about this place makes them sounds relentless and draining, but in reality they’re pretty mellow and certainly no worse that what was laid on for us in Hanoi and Hoi An. Where Vietnam tends to favour the wizened old lady to separate you from a few of your hard earned dollars, here in Siem Reap they prefer to use young and endearing kids. These little waifs have an amazingly good English vocabulary and throw out some great one-liners that will make you smile and fork over the hard currency. By the end of my stay here I found myself the owner of more than a few unneeded sets of postcards that I was implored to buy.
Anyway, back to the temple. In summary, it’s stunning. The detail of the stone carving is astounding and it goes on almost without end. The temple is riddled with passageways, courtyards and statues and every surface has been carved with bas reliefs. The temple was built by Suryavarman II in the 12th Century (with quite a lot of help I would imagine). By this point in history the Khmer had been in the temple construction business for quite some time and they clearly had got the hang of things by the got around to this place.
Right in the middle is the inner sanctum, which rises up through three levels to peak at 669 feet above ground. Unfortunately, the stairs to the top are closed off for repairs, but in hindsight it was probably a good thing – they’re are almost vertical and it’s a very long way up. One loose shoelace on the way down could ruin one’s whole day.
After a highly enjoyable couple of hours pottering around, occasionally eavesdropping on tour guide’s patter, taking copious pics and generally have a fun, if hot and sweaty time of it, I make my way back to my waiting tuk-tuk. Mr Seuen has a stash of water bottles sitting on ice, and he hands me a cold one as I flop out the back seat (bless him).
Recharged, we head north to Angkor Thom. For those of you with a short attention spans, this is the really big guy with the outer walls one mile on a side. We pass through the “South Gate” (cunningly named after its location on the south side of the temple) and head on in towards the buildings within.
Angkor Thom is really a city, and the walls used to apparently enclose some 80 to 150 thousand inhabitants. Today, most of the grounds are now tropical forest and the only locals are marauding packs of monkeys that are only too eager of relieve the tourists of their edible goods.
Amazingly, the entire 60 sq mile Angkor complex was ‘lost’ for hundreds of years and its existence and location took on mythical proportions along the lines of Atlantis. A Frenchman by the name of Henri Mouhot literally tripped over it in 1861, and at that point most of the temples has been almost wholly overrun by jungle. The years that followed were less than ideal for the creep hacking archaeologists, what with repeated tangles with the Khmer Rouge, rampant pillaging of the artefacts and very persistent monkeys. Still, what’s left for us today is still awe inspiring and one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed.
First stop is Bayon, smack in the centre of Angkor Thom and the centrepiece in presentation also. This one was constructed by Jayavarman VII around 1190. Jayavarman was pretty prolific when it came to temples, and when it came round to this one, his direction to the architect was clearly ‘lots of fiddly bits please.’ The place is wonderfully elaborate and intricate, and the frescos are a real hit, depicting all manner of events horrific and mundane. Throughout the place are scattered huge prang or towers, with a face on each of the four sides. Apparently the faces depict Jayavarman himself, although how anyone can be sure after all this time I’m not sure. After weaving my way through the temple, the indomitable Mr Seuen picks me up at the north side and from there it’s a quick run to the next stop – Baphuon.
There is where the French got a little carried away with themselves and their archaeological endeavours. Finding the place crumbling and overrun by forest, they decided to dismantle the place block by block, lay all the stones out in the grounds, and then reassemble the whole lot after a good bit of spit and polish. Unfortunately, their good efforts were interrupted by a war, and by the time that anyone got back to the place, the plans were long gone. What’s left is God’s own jigsaw puzzle. Multiple countries are now contributing funding to the reconstruction, but when you walk around you figure that they’ll be at it for many, many years to come.
In the 15th Century Baphuon was converted to a Buddhist temple and round the back you’ll find a massive reclining Buddha, undoubtedly constructed from the stone blocks that made up the towers of the original temple.
After that, it gets pretty exhausting. It’s approaching midday now, the sun is going full blast and next up is Phimeanakas, aka Vimean Akhar – the ‘temple of air’. It faintly resembles a Incan pyramid, but not nearly as tall. I decide to take a hike to the top, which was a bit of a mistake (it’s taller than it looks). Still, the view from the top was almost worth the pint of fluids I lost on the way up.
At this point, lunch was well in order and Mr Seuen whisked me a way to a little place that he knew (what were the chances?). Knowing that I was being led along, but being too dehydrated to care, we ended up at a restaurant opposite Sras Srang – a massive rectangular reservoir built by Jayavarman VII (the one with the perchance for fiddly bits) with small island temple in the middle where used to meditate. The temple is long gone, but 828 years later the reservoir is still there, full of water and more to the point, not full of leaves, weeds, shopping trolleys and car tyres. Puts your local pond to shame, doesn’t it?
I digress. The food was just fine, the shade welcomed and the beer very cold. What more could the weary traveller ask for?
Refreshed, we set off for Ta Prohm. This is the other ‘picture postcard’ temple, famous for the massive vines of the Khmer Spoong tree that infiltrate and strangle the structure. It’s all extremely photogenic and I and my fellow visitors fill many a Mb on our cameras with our photos. This place is a lot more run down than some of the earlier temples I visited, but all the more charismatic for it.
Moving on to the last stop of the day and Banteay Kdei. This is another large site surrounded by an outer wall. Mr Seuen drops me on the west side and tells me he’ll met me at the opposite end by the Sras Srang reservoir. The child-hawkers are particularly persuasive here and I find myself the proud owner of yet another set of postcards. Banteay Kdei is agreeable in it’s own way, but pales somewhat in comparison to the earlier sites. On the upside, I do get to share my visit with a heard of Brahman cows that are happily keeping the grass trimmed inside the temple.
That’s more than enough temples for one day. The pool is calling my name, so we head back to the hotel to cool off and relax. Later, I head into downtown Seam Reap to explore the sights and scope out some dining options. After Saigon it’s pretty rustic, but there’s a market to explore, a river running through the middle of town that adds some contrast and enough hustle and bustle to keep the mind and eye amused. I head back to the hotel with the bests of intentions of going returning later for a dining experience, but the I’m overcome by a bout of sloth and end up eating at the Victoria again.