To go from writing a post about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime to describing the awesome spectacle that is Angkor Wat feels very strange, like moving from one reality to another. After spending a few days there, Angkor Wat has become one of my top 10 all-time places I’ve visited (others include the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, Lake Louise and the Rockies in Canada, Vancouver in Canada and the Terracotta army in China to name a few).
Angkor Wat and UNESCO
Angkor Wat (‘City of Temples’) is the name for the main, and most well-preserved, temple, but, confusingly for the uninitiated, it’s also the name of a UNESCO World Heritage site which stretches over 400 square km. I was surprised when I was there at exactly how large the site is – and how many different temples there are. As well as temples, the site consists of moats, ‘hydraulic structures’ (e.g. dykes, canals and reservoirs) and communication routes. And, of course, jungle.
Angkor was the capital and centre of the Khmer kingdom for several centuries (9th-14th AD), and UNESCO describe it as one of the most important archeological sites of South East Asia. During this time the site itself was actually a city, with many people living, farming and working there. The structures that remain are the stone temples which were created as Hindu and/or (!) Buddhist temples. I read somewhere that the main temple at Angkor Wat is the longest-serving temple in the world, as it has been in continuous use since it was built – the temple is still being used despite the hordes of tourists visiting.
The site itself is next to the town of Siem Riep, an understandably-more-expensive-than-other-parts-of-Cambodia town, which is pretty much all geared up around tourists visiting the temples. Given our guide told us there can be nearly 3 million visitors a year, you can see why. One night I got a tuk-tuk home on my own, and when I got out and paid, the driver said ‘I-come-pick-you-up-for-Angkor-temple-at-what-time?” which was clearly a sentence he had leant by rote (and not something I was interested in – I was impressed by the assumptive close though!). I didn’t fall in love with Siem Riep, but I don’t think it was any different from any other Cambodia town, it was more that the difference between Angkor Wat and Siem Riep was pronounced, which put into sharp contrast some of the less likeable elements of a Cambodian town – the litter everywhere, the drive to sell something to tourists and consequent harassment (‘you like the beautiful scaaaarf? Two dollaaaaaar!’ – loop this and you will have a soundtrack to Siem Riep), and the inevitable growth past its current infrastructure – one night while we were there there was a power-cut which took out two of the main streets, including the restaurant I was eating in! Luckily my food had already been served…!
We spent a couple of days on the Angkor Wat site, and I would love to go back and spend more time there. It felt like there were endless temples to explore, with fabulous art and architecture all around. As well as being awe-inspiring structures in their own right, the temples are also decorated with art and pictures designed into the stone. The most interesting of these for me is Bayon, a temple that displays scenes from everyday life at the time of the people – very unusual and for historians a real treasure trove.
The detail on this is amazing. For example, it includes portrayals of different races (e.g. Chinese and Cambodia) – you tell by the shape of the eyes and ears, so we were told. There are scenes of families and war, of working and eating, musicians and fishermen, acrobats and cockfighting. Faces and bodies are expressive and it’s easy to empathise with these depictions of peoples from a thousand years ago. Bayon is also the temple of ‘faces’ – it has about 50 towers, each with up to four faces, and inside the walls of the temple, more traditionally shows scenes from the mythology of the time, including the gods of Hinduism.
A 30 minute drive out of the main complex, Banteay Srei is another temple with very well preserved temple carvings. As it was a little way out, it was also quieter, which was nice in the unstoppable heat of the afternoon. The colours of Banteay Srei were different from other temples, a dusty-dusky red, glowing in the sun.
My favourite temple was Ta Prohm, also called ‘The Tomb Raider temple’, as scenes from the Angelina Jolie film were shot there. Rather than the extensive restoration that many of the other temples have had, this temple has been left mainly in the condition in which it was found. This creates a different sort of atmosphere – a temple of ruins where trees are entwined with stone columns, where the elements and nature deftly push human design out of their way, or create a tableau where it seems that the temple was designed around the jungle rather than the other way round.
Sunrise over the towers of Angkor Wat
A highlight of the trip was going at 5am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat itself. We sat on the stone to the side of the entrance to the temple – in itself an immense structure – lined up in silence. Waiting in the dark, the surrounds surprisingly quiet despite the many hundreds of tourists waiting with us, was a time of anticipation. Sleepy and a bit wriggly, I wasn’t sure if the spectacle would be worth getting up at 4.30am. But when the sky started to lighten, and the temple, previously unseen, started to show in the first dark blue, then purple, azure, pink, grey, and all the possible mixes in between, my brain was flooded by beauty. I took more photos within a 30 minute period than in the UK I might take in a month.
We were lucky in that we had the most perfect weather for our visit – very hot, which was fairly normal for Cambodia, but also beautiful blue skies, which really made the temples ‘pop’ as we looked up at them. I hope it also made for some worthwhile photos. Rather than make this too long a post <cough>, I’ve included a gallery below with some of the photos I took of the temples. I hope you enjoy looking at them, and imagine while you do, that you are a farmer in the 10th century, working with your rice day by day, and living in a thriving town shadowed by the towers of Angkor Wat.
I would recommend a visit to Angkor Wat on anyone’s ‘bucket list’. If you do intend to go, a useful guide can be found here at wikitravel.