Siem Reap is a city made famous, due to the nearby ruined city of the Khmer empire; Angkor. These temple ruins were only rediscovered in the 1860’s and had been poorly looked after, damaged and looted during and after the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer empire reached its greatest power and size during the 12th century. But the ruins of the capital of Angkor date from 9th-16th centuries and are spread over hundreds of kilometers. Due to the lack of documents about Khmer life during this period, the ruins of Angkor give us the best insight into the history of Khmer people and their culture.
Most tourists spend 1-3 days viewing the temples of Angkor, but since we have a little more time, we opted for the 7 day pass which costs $72. The archaelogical park of Angkor is government run nowadays, but the huge numbers of tourist offer locals a good opportunity to make a living; although this can lead to some pushy selling tactics. As tourists, this is just something you have to put up with and try to ignore, but we did find it quite annoying. We had some patience and politely declined, but when you walk out of your hostel at 4:30am to get your bike the last thing you want to hear is ‘Tuk-tuk sir?’. It’s funny, but also tragic that this is how people make a living.
Anyway annoyances aside, we decided to start our Angkor discovery at the Angkor National Museum. This is a well designed museum detailing the history of Angkor, Cambodia’s kings and more details about Hindu and Buddhist imagery. It was really interesting to read about the different kings and see how carving styles changed over time. We would definitely recommend getting the background information from the museum before seeing any temples. The other advantage of the museum is that it has lots of statues and carvings, which were removed or looted from temples, that are being displayed and protected. You won’t see many statues left in the temple ruins and those that do remain are headless or broken. Many of the figures for worship were placed over offerings of gold and treasure and this is one of the main reasons looters overturned and sacked them.
On our first day of temple visits, we decided to do the classic small circle which includes Angkor Wat, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and covers 17km. We started a little later than planned and cycled via the ticket office to Angkor Wat. It’s around 8 km from Siem reap to Angkor Wat and the roads are in good shape.
Our first stop was Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and most publicised temple of them all. At first sight, it is truly impressive and crossing the moat is quite daunting. Being big isn’t the only reason it’s famous, it was also the seat of power at the height of the Khmer empire in the 12th century. Interestingly it faces West rather than East which could be due to it being more of a funerary temple or purely because it was dedicated to the god Vishnu who is associated with the West. Whatever the reason, we were amazed by the vastness and completeness. It is supposed to resemble Mount Meru, the mountain of the Hindu gods and we would say it’s not a bad interpretation.
Our walk took us through the centre of the temple where huge pools flank a cross shaped central walkway. The rock carvings are incredible depicting the gods and nymphs (apsara). We queued to enter the inner sanctum or Bakon. Upon reaching the steps we really felt like we had a mountain to climb. It was so steep and even the replacement wooden steps are tiny. Maybe it suited the tiny footed Khmer people, but how they ever managed to climb knee/thigh high steps is a mystery. Once we made it to the top, we were pleasantly surprised by the lower visitor numbers, intricate carvings and breathtaking views of the temple complex. Then we had the tough task of descending and finding our way to the outer gallery. We had read in the museum that the outer gallery has bas reliefs of various Hindu legends that were worth seeing. We found them somehow, and spent quite a while wandering the perimeter admiring them. The most famous is the churning of the ocean of milk; an act by which the warring devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churn the ocean to obtain the elixir of immortality to secure control over the universe. They do this by alternately pulling on the two ends of Vasuki (king of serpents) wrapped around Mount Mandara as the churning rod. Once the elixir is created, fighting breaks out again, but Vishnu helps to secure it for the gods who then defeat the demons.
After a couple of hours exploring Angkor Wat it was getting hot. Although it’s the cool dry season, temperatures usually hit 34 degrees Celsius and by 11am it’s already becoming incredibly tiring. We had a break for lunch and made a plan to combat the heat.
We cycled straight by Angkor Thom and onto a few smaller temples, namely Ta Keo and Ta Prohm. Ta Keo is almost like an easterly facing mini Angkor Wat but with a lot fewer carvings. This is because building was never completed and without carvings it appears plain amd therefore larger. It is also the first temple constructed from only sandstone, a huge undertaking when it was built in the 10th century. Architects still marvel at the way in which typical carpenter style joints were used to join sandstone blocks, showing that the Khmer craftsmen were alot more familiar working with wood than stone.
Ta Prohm on the other hand is a monastery temple fighting the jungle, with trees sprouting from it’s walls and ceilings. It is famous for a scene of Tomb Raider which was filmed there. Ta Prohm is certainly very different from the other more restored temples, but was obviously a highly decorated flat style temple before the jungle took over and increased it’s flatness. The trees growing from the ruins are mainly silk cottom and strangler fig trees. The decision was taken to minimally restore Ta Prohm to give visitors a chance to see the temple as it was found, although today access is restricted to a one way board walk, which detracted a bit from the mystery of exploring a temple in the jungle. The king who built Ta Prohm was prone to modelling temples on his family, so his mother (Goddess of the Perfection of wisdom) and elder brother are both represented by God’s in the temple. In it’s hay day Ta Prohm 12,640 people lived within Ta Prohm’s walls and 79,365 were employed in maintaining and running daily life. It’s hard to imagine people living here since all the wooden structures are long gone, but it must have been a safe feeling city to inhabit.
A full 6 hours of templing and tourists was more than enough for us. Having cycled in the heat, we made our way back to our hostel to jump in the rooftop swimming pool.
Our second day at the temples was set to be the grand circuit. Now the Grand circuit officially has seven temples spread along its 26 km, which is far too many for a day. Lucky for us we had already seen Angkor Wat we cycled straight to Angkor Thom.
We had been looking forward to Angkor Thom and it has to be said that its various parts didn’t disappoint. It was the longest enduring and final capital of the Khmer empire; since the kings had a habit of moving around a lot. It was built by King Jayarvarman VII in the 12th century and was the seat of power until well in the 17th century. Angkor Thom consists of Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Royal Palace Bayon, the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King and a few smaller temples. One could easily spend hours seeing all of them. When Angkor Thom and Wat were used as capitals, there were many more buildings spread around all of the space inside their walls. Sadly they were all built out of wood and other materials which means none of them exist anymore. Their space is now occupied by forest.
We started at the gate house where huge faces watch you enter the city. Then we arrived at Bayon where 216 (this number is strongly disputed) giant faces smile serenely down at you from the towers. Potentially they signify a King’s vanity but also represent the newest and most buddhist of the monuments of Angkor. Arriving early was good because the resident bats were dropping their digested dinner onto the Chinese tourists, who were taking innumerable selfies; maybe there is such a thing as karma. Besides the faces, the whole temple is ornately decorated and the bas reliefs in the outer gallery depict historical battles and daily life including cooking, musicians and hunting. Bayon is unusual in its layout due to additions and alterations by sucessive kings and uniquely, the central towers final form is circular. Bayon also lacks outer walls in the vicinity of the temple but this is accounted for by its central position within Angkor Thoms walls.
Escaping the Chinese and their selfie sticks, we went to Baphuon. Baphuon is a huge mountain temple which became the biggest jigsaw puzzle imaginable. It was built on sand which made it very unstable, so when restoration began, the entire temple was dismantled. Restoration was abruptly abandoned during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and civil war and documentation was lost. After 61 years, restoration was finally completed including the reassembly of the reclining buddha in the Western wall. We struggled our way up to the top of the jigsaw mountain and enjoyed finding the buddha in the wall.
Baphuon from the walkway (as you can tell it is not on the tour group circuit)
Our next much briefer stops took us to Phimeanakas and the terraces of the Royal Palace. The Terrace of the Elephants has huge carved elephants along its length whereas the leper king terrace has a kind of hidden terrace with ornate carvings of nymphs and garudas. Historians link the name of the Terrace of the Leper King to the idea that one or more of the Lhmer Kings was a leper. It was getting hot again, so we hatched a plan to stop at only a few temples on our way back.
The Terrace of Elephants
We chose Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Som. Somehow we managed to visit Preah Khan twice (from two different directions and entrances) and only realised as we left for the second time. Funny, but we even took a right turn towards the temple a third time before we realised we were about to visit it again. It is a nice temple with lots of small rooms and stupas, which originally built to honor the kings father (you probably only need to visit it once though). It was documented to be the home of 1000 teachers, and perhaps was more of a Buddhist university city and than a temple.
Next up was Neak Pean, which to be honest neither of us found fascinating. It is located on a square island in the center of a huge rectangular lake. To reach the island we crossed the lake via a boardwalk and it was scorching hot. On the island there are five pools and a few statues. It was supposedly built to represent a mythical himalayan lake whose waters could cure illness. It’s thought sick people visited to bathe in the waters. Today only a few statues and a few small buildings can be seen in and around the pools. You can easily leave this attraction out if you are pressed for time.
Our final temple of the day was Ta Som which is a fairly small temple dedicated to the father of king Jayavarman VII. It is rather small and not as spectacular as some other temples but still nice. On the plus side is is also a lot less busy as big groups tend to leave it out. Done for the day we just had a long cycle back to Siem Reap before an afternoon nap.
Our third day was supposed to be an easy and short one, but something went wrong. We cycled the 13km to the Roluos group, which are the oldest temples in the area. There are three: Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong. We visited Preah Koh with almost no other tourists (hooray!) and then Bakong. They are both worth seeing. Preah Koh consists of 6 brick towers each dedicated to a different deity or relative. They are partially adorned with lime mortar that previously covered the towers entire surface. Bakong is a pyramid temple, but sadly many of its carvings have not survived. We did however like the large elephants of the corners of the pyramid.
After, we had the idea of visiting Tonlé Sap, the large lake in the area which is filled by backflow of the Mekong river. It didn’t look so far on the map and the route took us through some lovely Cambodian villages. During the dry season the lake is at a much lower level, meaning we cycled an extra 9 km to reach the ‘floating’ village. When they call it a ‘floating’ village, what they really mean is village on stilts which can appear to float when the water level is extremely high. Before we got there we were stopped by an official looking guy at a carpark with some makeshift tents. They guys there then asked for $20 each to sea the village. Of course we refused such a rip-off but before we had cycled back somebody came running and suddenly the price dropped to $5. Being fairly sure that this was not legit we settled for $2 each. Needless to say we didn’t receive a ticket in return. Between there and the village we cycled past more than a hundred boats waiting to take tourists on tours out onto Tonlé Sap. The village of Kampong Phluk was loud, busy and fairly high above us on stilts as we cycled through. We were glad we hadn’t paid to see it float. Disappointed we turned around and cycled over sand, rocks and potholes all the way back to Siem Reap. It hadn’t taken us long to cycle the 60km, but the heat did exhaust us. The rest of the afternoon we spent relaxing at our hostel.
Day four was a much needed rest day from temples and cycling. We had cycled 133 km on city bikes over 3 days. Since we are totally useless at doing nothing, we decided to do some shopping and make a visit to see some rats. The rats at Apopo are very special, they are African Giant Pouched rats trained to detect TNT. Apopo is a Belgian N.G.O. which started in Tanzania but has worked in many countries to clear land mines and unexploded ordonance (UXO). Cambodia is unfortunate to have the largest number of incidents per capita involving mines and UXO in the world. However, Apopo is trying to change that. Using their awesome rats they can check and declare land free of mines faster than traditional methods which enables Khmer people to use their land without danger. We had a demonstration by Jones the rat, who quickly found the TNT ball and ran back to his handler for some banana. It was a very worthwhile visit and something more tourists should see what this great charity does.
Our next day was destined to be an early start to see sunrise. Angkor Wat is a special temple as twice a year at the summer and winter solstices the sun rises directly over the largest central tower. Despite the fact that this only happens twice a year, sunrise at Angkor Wat has become a must-see, and consequently creates a scrum of tourists leaving hotels at 4:30am to watch the sky change from black to blue. We opted for an alternative approach of visiting Pre Rup to see sunrise. This meant a 4am start and cycling 14 km in the dark. The stars were out when we set off, and it was surprisingly cool. We climbed the stairs of Pre Rup by torchlight and got a prime seat in the centre. Now all we had to do was wait, and of course eat breakfast since we were both pretty hungry. The sunrise was nice but we aren’t totally convinced it was worth it. The morning light following sunrise was however great for photos and exploring. The main reason for the unimpressive lightshow was the mist and haze in the air and the lack of cloudes. We think this might generally be better closer to rain season when the air should be clearer.
East Mebon was our next destination, although we arrived before it officially opened. When the sign was moved we were first in. East Mebon is constructed from bricks, sandstone and laterite. The bricks look a bit like holey cheese as previously stucco decoration was attached. It also has some great 2m high elephants looking out from all four corners. It currently appears to be a mountain temple, but was infact on an artificial island in the centre of a large lake called the East Baray. Today this lake no longer exists but it would have been up to 5m deep, making the temple a little less mountain like.
Our final temple of the day was Banteay Kdei, which was thought to be the prototype for Angkor Wat. It was used by buddhist monks as late as the 1960’s despite its dilapidated state. Templed out once again and still tired we retired to the poolside around 11am.
Our final day of temples was set to be by tuk-tuk. Cycling the 47 km each way in the heat was too much, so instead we paid $30 for a ride to Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean. It was quite exciting to jump in a Tuk-tuk and be driven while you eat a bakery breakfast. Our driver was good, if a little slow when pulling across oncoming traffic. An hour and 20 min later we were at Banteay Srei. Somehow we appeared to be in a well developed tourist attraction with expositions, shops instead of shacks and marked walkways. We wandered in and found the glowing red sandstone of Banteay Srei or the temple of women. It is the most beautiful temple we visited with perfect intricate carvings all over it’s walls. It’s situation in a forest with surrounding rice paddies and wetland area just make it all the more memorable. Built by courtiers rather than a king, it is surprisingly flamboyant. It has also been superbly restored and protected from all its visitors. Another part we enjoyed was the exposition detailing the temples history, rediscovery, looting and restoration. This is definitely a must see temple. The other surprise was that we were not the only ones there. Considering its distance to Siem Reap, it was surprisingly busy and there were more Chinese there than in half the Angkorian temples.
Our final temple of Angkor wasn’t really a temple at all. Kbal Spean is a collection of carvings located in the Kbal Spean river. Known in English as the valley of a thousand lingas, most of the carvings are phalices, the non human representation of Shiva. The walk to the carvings through a national park is lovely but best done early in the morning. Arriving at the river, it wasn’t hard to spot the lingas lining the river bed. The other ornate carvings were harder to make out but definitely more beautiful. The imagery of Vishnu reclining on his serpent while floating on the river seems very fitting to the location. The carvings are believed to have been made by a group of hermits, and as the water washes over them it becomes sacred. This river then flows full of sacred water all the way to Angkor. It was a nice walk, but a long way from Siem Reap especially by tuk-tuk.
Phew! We made it through a week of templing and we hope we have managed to describe them at least a little. Sorting photos by temple is proving a little tricky with so many carvings and impressive structures.
Our time in Siem Reap has been well worth it. We would recommend spending a week discovering Angkor and seeing a few other sights especially Apopo. Cycling is a great low-cost way to get around (bikes can be rented from $2) but sometimes it might be worth getting a tuk-tuk and sweating a little less. Our top tip would be to get a nice hotel/hostel with a pool to chillout in at the end of the day.
Next stop Laos…