(Day 297 to 302)
14.09.2010 - 19.09.2010 38 °C
Siem Reap is a simple little town with the same south-east Asian mix of tuk-tuks and motorbike drivers competing for our dollar. The countryside surrounding the town and the temples is very beautiful, especially in comparison to the poorer northern scenery.
It was very exciting to be here at last. The importance of Angkor to the Cambodians is immense. Angkor Wat is on their national flag. Their beer is named Angkor. Many of their livelihoods depend on the tourist dollar and Angkor is the prime destination for most coming to Cambodia; no wonder the town is so clean and incredibly well kept.
Our first objective was to organise a “Tracker” for our time here (some call them tuk tuk drivers). One that would help us discover hidden temples, where we’d do our own tomb raiding and discover hidden jewels, trek through the jungle with a machete hacking at the branches before coming across a clearing to the sound of birds and…. “Ticket Please!”. Not exactly what we expected, we had to pay to do our own discovery, $40 worth, AND there were other tourists around too!!
On our first day we decided to hire a guide to take us through the three main sites which are richer in detail and history. We started early and made our way to Ta Phrom to capture it in all its glory with the morning sun.
Made famous by the Tomb Raider movie, and overrun by silk-cotton trees and strangler vines, Ta Phrom was created as a Buddhist monastery and university, and is about as atmospheric as Angkor gets, so we were overly excited to start here. Although we didn’t need our machete, we did feel like we’d stumbled across something very special, there weren’t many tourists around; in fact there aren’t many tourists in Cambodia at the moment let along Angkor (good for us).
Ta Phrom has remained as it was discovered, although in places the trees are slowly destroying the monument, whilst in others they're holding them together. In places they've displaced the walls completely, leaving their roots to form the archways and taking over roofs that were once made of stone. This all definitely adds the magical feel of this temple.
Built from 1113, Angkor Wat took over 30 years to complete and was dedicated to a Hindu god. In size alone Angkor Wat is amazing. The outer walls run for 1.5km east to west and is surrounded by a beautiful moat which is cleaned regularly.
As we crossed the bridge and passed through the outer building we got to see the first view of the Angkor Wat towers. Just beautiful. We entered the temple and were taken around the galleries that display some of the most beautiful and intricate of Angkor's carvings. They depict battle scenes, religious processions, heaven and hell and Hindu myths, they are truly amazing pieces of work, some 94 meters in length, with great detail.
What was also interesting to see was that many of the carvings and halls were never finished as they were interrupted during wars. We came across one section of carvings which clearly shows the process of the carvings with a simple outline which is then carved around before the final image is seen.
We also experienced the serene atmosphere of sunrise over the towers of Angkor Wat which reflected in the ponds. The crowd of a hundred or more were just as sleepy as we were after waking up at 4.30am, but with hot chocolate, the sounds of bells and Cambodian music in the distance and the lotus flowers opening slowly in the pond, made it a special time.
One of the largest of the ancient Khmer cities, Angkor Thom (which means Great City) was a state capital and was believed to have a population of over a million.
Just as there are many churches in most European cities, so too are there many wats at Angkor--not just Angkor Wat, but also Bayon, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, Ta Som, Ta Prohm, and many, many more. There is also more to see than wats: Reservoirs, entrance bridges, terraces, palaces, storage buildings, city walls & entrance gates, and of course large crocodile-infested moats (well they used to be).
The size of Angkor Thom is amazing, it measures 3 km wide, surrounded by an 8m high wall which once had a 100m wide moat around it. It also contains many of the above mentioned buildings and monuments: Terraces, temples, lakes etc.
A bridge leads you into the entrance gate with two sets of statues on either side. On the one side represents Good (gods), the other Evil (demons) all pulling on a massive naga set as a balustrade (a snake with 5 heads that was depicted everywhere and included on many bridges).
The Bayon is the most unusual religious monument. It consists of 49 towers, each with the all-facing, all-seeing faces (four faces that look at the four points on a compass) that covers the temple throughout.
You then continue the visit to view the rest of the many impressive sights.
This was, in our opinion, Angkor's most beautiful, yet smallest temple. The soft pink sandstone and the beautiful intricate carvings of Banteay Srei were an absolute delight (the carvings cover an incredible amount of the temple's surface and the reliefs are often deep) during the early morning directly after watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
What Banteay lack in size it more than makes up for in beauty. We read that “some have suggested that the temple was built by women as no man could have created something so beautiful and with so fine a hand”. Us men know this can’t be true
We made our way back to the main temple area after that to see the temples of Preah Khan and Ta Som. Whilst the first one was thought to have served as a religious university, the second is a more compact temple, again with many kids selling post cards and books and impressing everyone with their counting skills in 10 different languages .
The day was ended watching another sunset over the forests surrounding these famous sites, just before a massive storm rolled in.
Our third day was more relaxed. We visited the two last temples on our list Banteay Kdei and Ta Keo.
Ta Keo is a massive temple mountain about 50m tall and was the first of the Khmer monuments to be built entirely of sandstone. It’s an interesting temple as it has very few carvings as work stopped just after the carving began due to a lightning strike.
Our top sites were:
- Banteay Srey
- Ta Phrom
- Angkor Thom – Bayon