If there is one place on earth that is the most special and interesting, it is the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We found Cambodia to be a special place, and the Angkor temples to be one of the best and most fascinating sights in the world. As one blogger pointed, out, Angkor is both beautiful and suggestive, the temples cover a broad expanse beyond Angkor Wat itself, and nothing is homogeneous, as the complex was built over four centuries. And through these four centuries, we have only come to discover them in the last 150 years. This magnificent area was abandoned and hidden by the forest and jungle, along with years of neglect under the Khmer Rouge.
The Angkor period spans the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. During this period the Khmer empire reached it maximum splendor, along with becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Angkor was built during this zenith, led by Jayavarman II, who called himself the good king. The temples portray a high level of civilization, and an exquisite taste for art. The enormous job involved thousands of workers to move the stone, and another army of thousands doing the artisan work. Though they are long departed, they left stories of their lives, customs, and their wars.
The magnificent temples of Angkor are located near Siem Reap, and are considered the largest temple complex in the world. The entire Angkor area covers 400 square kilometers, and contains over 100 temples. A good guide is as important as a good pair of shoes. And it is not inexpensive to visit Angkor. A one day pass is $20 USD, three day pass $40, and a one week pass $60.
(As it looked in 1866)
I will concentrate on Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon, my three favorites. Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II and is considered the largest Asian pyramid. The central complex has four lotus flower shaped towers on each of the four corners. At the center is a quincunx of towers. This temple is the highlight of the complex, as well as the largest and most breathtaking. The most famous decorations are the Apsara, or heavenly nymphs, which number over 300, each different, with over 30 styles. The central complex is 800 meters long on each side and consists of bas-reliefs depicting battles, the king’s army, heaven and hell, the churning of the ocean of milk, the elephant gate, Vishnu, demons, and the Battle of Gods.
(As it looks today)
As we walked through the central complex of Angkor, we could admire the craftmanship and strength required to build this huge complex. The fact that is has stood for about a thousand years is testament to their engineering ability. It has been the bet preserved temple, and continues as a significant religious centre, first Hindu (dedicated to Vishnu), then Buddhist. It is the enduring symbol of Cambodia, appears on its national flag, and best exemplifies Khmer architecture. Curiously, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, for unknown reasons.
It is most advisable to arrive as early as possible. Sunrise and sunset are also popular viewing and visiting times. The heat during the day becomes unbearably hot and humid by mid day. We tend to start early each day, have a nice lunch, rest or spa in the afternoon, and do a little more exploring before sunset. Fortunately our car was air conditioned, and loaded with icy cold water in the trunk. Our second visit there was done in a medium size bus. In both cases, we were the only passengers!!!
We could not help but make eye contact with the local Khmer people. A large group operate small booths selling souvenirs, mostly T shirts, books, and trinkets. Another group sells water and soda, along with some small snack bags.
But the most heart rending group are the mine victims. Most of them play in a make shift band, asking for donations.
I dare any of you to pass by without donating some money. But as we peer into their eyes, we see a sadness or resignation. They have been through so much, having lost loved ones to the terror and killing of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. The children aggressively hawk their books and souvenirs. Again, it is hard to say no.
Our guide on our first visit was Srei Roath, who we maintain contact and friendship with. She is planning to get married next year as well. She proudly and expertly led us through the Angkor Wat temple, and later through many others. She has purchased some land to build a guesthouse someday as well. On our second visit, we invited her to dine with us in the French restaurant in our 5 star hotel, the Sofitel Royal Angkor. It was her first time for both champagne and rack of lamb. But she was not treated with much respect by the locals working in the restaurant, called Mahout’s Dream. It was rather obvious, and we applauded her for her fortitude. She is a real lady, and a great guide, and even better friend.
The second visit to Angkor Wat was markedly different for me. I felt much better this time, and I wanted to climb to the top of the temple. I was unable to do it the first time due to an upset stomach, though Sheri was able to make it to the top. The problem is trying to get back down, since the steps are so steep and with a narrow pitch. Most of us had to climb down backwards, on all fours. Never have I been so glad to get back to terra firma.
Also, having learned more details on the first trip, we concentrated more on the big picture. This included how we thought the temple was used by the king and locals, as well as the function of the rooms and chambers. The large stones were brought from tens of miles away (the nearest rock quarry), probably during the floods and rainy season, or dragged by elephants.
Angkor Wat lies only 5.5 km north of Siem Reap. Siem Reap has become a mecca for travelers local and foreign. Foreign investors have built many new hotels, and guesthouses abound for the locals and backpackers. Restaurants are popping up everywhere, and a small middle class is being built to support the tourist movement. The hotels are staffed by young men and women who have learned to speak English. Their parents are still on the farms, while they are learning the language of the future.
But the future of the young folks, and the future of their country depends heavily on their cultural riches of the Angkor complex. Its magnificence is greater than any man made structure on earth. This is their ticket to the 21st century, and their ability to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation. The Khmer welcome us warmly and gracefully. Every request is carefully and thoughtfully prepared and executed. They are proud of their country, despite its poor infrastructure, dirt roads, beggars, and mine victims. The people there make it special. I have not been to the Taj Mahal yet, but I consider this experience greater than the Sistine Chapel, Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame.
Aerial view during the rainy season.
In many ways, sitting in a fancy hotel, with plentiful buffets, we felt some guilt and need to help the locals. We asked Roath to take us into the old part of town, so we could visit the small shops and artisans. We also ran into many young girls and children begging for money. We were told about the young girls who sell their baby for $100 or less. We were told not to give money to the children, since they would be reward for not attending school. But they looked so poor, and so hungry, that Sheri gave most of the $1 bills she brought to the children and other beggars.
Another highlight for us was feeding the monkeys on the roadside, around the temples, and on the main roads. We bought a huge cache of bananas at a roadside stand. We found a huge family of monkeys on our way back to town. Our guide warned us to close the windows, and drop the bananas to the ground. Within seconds, our little bus was swarmed with monkeys, climbing on top of the bus, arms reaching inside, and a constant chatter outside. It was quite a scene, since their aggressiveness was rather surprising. Once we got comfortable, we threw the bananas to the little guys, since the grandpa (boss) monkey was trying to hoard all of the bananas.
We were able to make some purchases in these small stalls. When I asked for forty scarves, the shop keeper was just ecstatic. And Sheri bought several silk purses from the same lady. It must have been her biggest sale of the year. But nonetheless, these people are proud, yet humble, and poor, yet dignified. Where else in the world can this be?
We recently returned in October, 2018.