Angkor Wat

Midway through our stay in Thailand, we hopped on a plane from Bangkok to Siem Riep, the ancient capitol of the Khmer empire. We had been told by many people that the ruins at Angkor Wat were too amazing to be missed and we were excited about the opportunity but we had no idea how awe struck we would be for the three days that we spent visiting them. We arrived at night, around 9 pm, finding ourselves in a very tiny little airport, completely primitive. And this turned out to be much the story for all of Siem Riep--poor, struggling, and focused heavily on developing a tourism business, using the most powerful draw imaginable, the ruins of Angkor. Our taxi driver found us a hotel, based on what we were willing to pay, $20 per night. That got us a relatively new hotel, clean and comfortable, with an energetic and helpful staff. Coming from Bangkok, we had experienced some real dives for as little as $12 per night. This was quite nice. As usual we were lugging our multiple and heavy bags--prepared for any eventuality over a 6 month period. One entire backpack was loaded with books and was really quite heavy. Our driver immediately offered to be our driver during our visits to the temples and ruins for $25 per day. This was a standard fee and meant you had them for the day to take you wherever you wanted to go. He suggested that we wouldn't need a guide that he would be able to be our guide. Since we were eager to get started the next morning as soon as we had a decent night's sleep that seemed fine to us.
Angkor Wat, while the largest and grandest, is only one of the many temples in this area. Other temples, by the names Angkor Tom, Banta Srei, Ta Prohm, Bayon, Preah Khan, and Neak Pean, though smaller, were almost as amazing in their own individual ways. This entire area just reeked with history and grandeur. To think that in the 12th and 13th century, a population of over 1 million people lived around and supported this amazingly rich and prosperous civilization. Eventually, however, they were conquered by their neighbors in Thailand and the temples plundered of all their gold and precious jewels. What remains today, however, is really quite amazing.
We spent 3 days from 8am to 5pm visiting these temples and ruins and after the first day, decided that we needed a guide as well as a driver. The driver was not a certified guide and therefore not permitted to enter the temples with tourists. We came to understand that the guides undergo a rigorous training program in which they master the history of Cambodia as well as the temples, and become valuable resources of information to those visiting the area. It costs another $25 per day but was well worth it. We met a guide in the course of the first day who was taking around some other American tourists and tentatively lined her up for the next day. She seemed perfect, but unfortunately, come the next morning when she was due to show up, someone else was there in her place, with a story that she had another commitment and had given our names to him. Overcoming our initial disappointment and suspicion we went with him. Our ultimate conclusion however was that given more time we would have found a guide with better English skills. He knew his stuff but his accented English was difficult to comprehend and required our continuous intense effort.
There are 3 different passes available for visiting the temples--one day, three day, and seven day. We had the three day pass and made full use of it, but if we had it to do over again, we would have stayed a week and purchased the seven day pass and seen even more and perhaps done it more leisurely, maybe not using a guide every day and spending some time exploring Siem Riep.

Cleaning the mote The apparent river in this picture is actually a segment of the moat surrounding the temple of Angkor Wat. The moat, surrounding the temple, is 200 yards wide and a mile in every direction. The temple was built in the early 12th century, took 32 years to construct, required about the same amount of stone as the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and required a million people to complete. But what makes this temple more amazing is the elaborate stone carving throughout. Established as a Hindu temple it was dedicated to the god Shiva. Something we found amazing was that no one lived here or in the other temples either. They had caretakers who kept up the grounds and assisted with ceremonies, etc. but even the Kings would come only to participate in ceremonies at designated times of the month or year. These temples were the homes of the gods not of humans and as such were the only structures built of stone--the most valuable and durable building material. The people you see in boats and inner tubes were cleaning the moat of overgrown plant life. Other workers, with scythes were trimming the grass. There were no machines, just manual labor. It's difficult to imagine the size of this temple. Inside the moat, the grounds of the temple were built on 500 acres. It is built on 3 levels the inner and highest most level reaches a height of 210 feet from the ground. We climbed to the top and spent hours exploring. The stone stairways were steep indeed and not for the timid or phobic. There were no crowds and we could simply sit in awe of what it took to build this and what it might have been like back in the 13th century.

bas relief galary After entering on a very long causeway across the moat we eventually came to the first level of the temple which was essentially a large rectangle with 4 galleries of carved stonework, each depicting stories from the Hindu epics or the history of the Khmer empire and King Surayavarman II. These alone could have absorbed a day of keen interest had we the time to spend. The picture at right shows a sidelong view of one of the galleries. We came to understand that the great Hindu epics, Mahabarata and Ramayana were depicted over and over in art work throughout Asia. As you can see, there were no crowds. Until we could hire our own guide, we made a point of sidling up to any passing guide and trying to stick close to them to see what we could pick up.

bas relief-Angkor Wat
This is a close-up of the bas relief seen above and illustrates a battle scene with many warriors and elephants. The well informed guides are able to explain many of the details seen here and their significance in the story being told. The shine on the relief is from the touch of human hands, which is actively discouraged for preservation's sake.
An interesting point of history is that when the Khmer empire was defeated by the Kingdom of Siam in the 1500's, Angkor was plundered and then abandoned. It was not until 1860 that the French re-discovered Angkor Wat hidden in the jungle overgrowth.

Angkor Wat at sunset This picture of Angkor Wat was taken from the temple mountain Phnom Bakheng, built by Yasovarman ( ruled 889-910). It is a popular place from which to photograph Angkor Wat and watch the sun set. We hiked up the hill just before sunset and found many tourists had done the same thing. Some enterprising Cambodians even had elephants there for riding to the top. Here were people, young and old, collected from all over the world, speaking dozens of languages, sharing the experience of watching the sun set over the relics of the great Cambodian empire.

Ta Prohm The next temple we visited was the 12th century Buddhist temple called Ta Prohm. This was straight out of Indiana Jones and the lost temple of Doom. Whereas other temples re-discovered by the French were restored this one has been left as it was found, fallen down and engulfed by the surrounding jungle. It was incredibly eerie, especially with the strange birds who periodically came flying through in a flock, screeching as they passed. The view at the left was the main entrance of the temple. We came to understand that during the building of these temples, gold and precious jewels were frequently imbedded into the stones or carvings and later as the temples were plundered, much damage was done, looking for these treasures. In this particular temple it was amazing to see how many of the stones lay scattered throughout, having fallen from the walls or roof structures. It was also amazing what free reign we had to explore the ruins, crawling through the rooms and over the piles of stone and throughout the grounds.

Ta Prohm overgrowth A sample of the way the jungle had invaded the temple is visible in this picture. We remember this as being the strangler fig whose seeds germinate higher up in the branches of a host tree, then grow downwards looking for soil and wrap themselves around other trees or in this case the temple. Eventually, the original host tree is strangled to death and only the fig remains. Trying to remove the tree now would lead to further damage of the temple so it is left as it is. There were many examples of such invasion and the scale of these trees was huge as can be seen by the people standing at its base. It was an eerie experience that day, the weather was misty and overcast, and aside from occasional screeches of the resident birds, not a sound could be heard. The few visitors there wandered the labyrinth of halls, buildings and paths in silent awe.

Ta Prohm Because of the intense moisture in this jungle environment much of the temple was covered with lichen and took on various greenish or reddish hues. It was really cool. In our first day we had been to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm and had had totally different but equally fantastic experiences. Our first day had been unguided except for the assistance of our driver who got us there. We had a useful guidebook or two and were trying to learn more about this amazing Khmer civilization. We were just as intrigued now by the puzzle of Pol Pot. How had this megalomaniac been able to annihilate his country and push it back decades in its development. Our guide over the next two days had an interesting, though probably inaccurate theory that Pol Pot was "manipulated" by pro-Chinese or pro Vietnamese influences which wanted a weakened and impotent Cambodia . Other readings I made suggested that inherent weaknesses in the Cambodian approach to politics were more to blame. Rigid, uncompromising and unwilling to look at their own faults and failings has historically led to the result of autocratic and arrogant regimes and policies through the centuries. Pol Pot's madness was especially destructive to the Cambodian nation because it systematically destroyed the entire educated and artistic elite.

Land mine victims Another result of 20 years of continuous armed conflict were the land mine victims. In and around many of the temples were people of all ages who had lost limbs to these horrible devices. Some begged for money, but others like this ensemble, performed traditional music for their income. They were talented and amazingly joyous in their performances and visitors were fairly generous in their donations. Still, their lives are massively impacted, only very rarely did we see the use of artificial limbs. Most amputees traveled around on crutches or on the ground. Travel around the temples is still restricted in some areas because of land mines. We made a point of picking up the local newspapers in each country to see what was in the news. Apropos of this subject, while we were in Siem Riep we read of a political assassination, the fifth of this year and occurring just a few days ahead of the visit by a United Nations representative who was visiting to investigate previous political assassinations. What was most interesting about this story was the quote in the newspaper by the police that they did not consider it political but rather due to some settling of a spirit curse. Animistic and spiritual explanations are still rampant in Cambodian society and accepted by all. To us it was an example of how easy it is for the police to cover up political murders while working in league with those currently in power.

Preah Kahn
Our guide took us to this temple, Preah Khan, and pointed out the long row of headless gods. He had first been to this temple in 1986 when all the heads were still present. In the ensuing years, enterprising and unscrupulous dealers of antiquities had beheaded the statues to sell them to collectors all over the world. The looting of the treasures of Angkor flourished during the years of Cambodian civil strife when guarding the treasures was hardly a national priority. Things have improved greatly in recent years.
These headless gods are holding a giant serpent and on the opposite side of this causeway are devils who are also holding the serpent having a gigantic tug-of-war, Churning the Ocean of Milk to extract the elixir of immortality. This Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a story repeated in several areas of Angkor.

Restaurant Kids These little boys were playing near an outdoor restaurant, where their family worked. They were shy and yet very curious about the foreign visitors and their playmate's activities. The older children there were busy selling postcards, simple carvings and small trinkets. It was apparently quite profitable for many children, who skipped school to earn money for themselves and/or their families. In fact our guide told us that many impoverished families are moving to Siem Reap and other cities to find work. Here, as in other parts of Asia, the fastest way to learn English was to be a street hawker. They seemed remarkably facile with English if they were selling postcards or other such things. These older children were also the most self-assured and daring--never afraid of talking to any foreigner.

The Bayon The Bayon was also a remarkable temple. Built in the late 12th century, it is thought to represent a symbolic temple mountain. On the first of 3 levels are the most remarkable bas reliefs--combining numerous domestic and everyday scenes with historical details of battles won and lost by the Khmers. In the uppermost level are the erie, smiling visages (200 of them) looking down from 54 towers, symbolizing the 54 regions of the Khmer empire. We just sat and looked up at all these faces looking down at us. Though not as large as Angkor Wat it was intense and mysterious. This was the temple I most wanted to return to just to spend more time and absorb its mysteries.

Bas relief-Bayon The bas relief shown here is a small example of the detailed portrayals of life in the ancient Khmer world. At the top you see the plentiful supply of fish found in the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). Even today it is one of the worlds richest sources of freshwater fish. Beneath the water scene are the Khmer people engaged in trading, fortune telling, and even cock fighting on the right side of the scene - unchanged daily activity to this day.

East Mebon This is one of four elephants guarding each corner of the Eastern Mebon temple. He is dressed in tassels and breast plate finery, a revered animal of the empire. Elephants played an important role in ceremonial functions and in battle, and are depicted in numerous bas reliefs. The Khmer armies in fact, had tens of thousands of elephants to use in battle, which no doubt gave them a great advantage. The sight of that many elephants alone, must have been terrifying to any enemies.

Banteay srei This tiny little temple called Banteay Srei, was one of the most impressive temples we saw in Angkor. On our last day we requested to see this one based on what we'd read. The taxi driver wanted $10 extra because it was farther out than the rest of the temples. But it was an interesting ride. Along the way we passed palm sugar farmers who sold their palm sugar at road-side stands wrapped in cylindrical palm leaves. Palm sugar if you haven't had it is a culinary delight. We had already been experimenting with it in Thailand in a cooking class we took there. This was fresh, soft and oohh so sweet--not like what you would find in the States. Banteay Srei. From a distance, it almost seemed like a toy temple. Like many others it had a moat surrounding it. What made it especially stunning was the deep, rich sandstone carvings. The sandstone was of a pink hue giving it an incredible visual impact especially at sunset. It was built in the 10th century, dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.

causeway of Banteay Srei This was the causeway before arriving at the moat and already the atmosphere was thick with a sense of the ancient. As we sauntered slowly over the sandstone path we tried to imagine ourselves in the ancient Khmer kingdom. Here in Angkor was the heart of a kingdom that stretched from Vietnam in the east to Yunan, China in the north and to the Bay of Bengal in the west. This empire grew to such phenomenal size and wealth largely because of its highly developed irrigation system which enabled them to grow vast quantities of rice and therefore support huge populations, numbering well over a million. This supported a large army and gave them the means of conquering their Cham and Siamese and Burmese neighbors. It's not known exactly why their Siamese neighbors ultimately prevailed over them in the 14th century but the greatness of the Angkor period was never duplicated in Cambodia.

Banteay Srei shrines

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

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