The past few days, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to explore the Angkor archeological area. The complex is massive, dotted with ruins of temples and the like; all tucked into the folds of the enveloping jungle. A good portion of the ruins can be explored by following one of two ‘tours’: the Mini Tour – which includes most of the largest and well-known sites – and the Grand Tour – which is quite a bit longer and a lot more peaceful than the Mini Tour. I bought a three day pass for the area, which set me back a staggering $40, instead of going with the cheaper option of a single day pass. It was definitely a good move, as the complex is far too large to adequately explore in a single day.
The first day, I hired a tuk tuk driver through my hotel. After sleeping for about an hour (I hadn’t slept the night before) we set out to the complex. I decided to get the big stuff out of the way first, so we did the Mini Tour on the first day. Having the tuk tuk driver made getting around easier. He would drop me off at a site, then go around to the opposite entrance and wait for me to emerge. Less backtracking and less time in between sites.
The first place we stopped was Banteay Kdei, or the Citadel of Chambers. It is one of the smaller complexes on the Mini tour, but was a nice stop nonetheless. Directly opposite the site is the Sras Srang, which served as a comically large ritualistic bathing area. I mean, I enjoy a large bathtub as much as anyone else, but really?
Sras Srang in the background.
Lokeśvara are always watching…
As I walked up, the child touts that are ubiquitous in the Angkor area made passes at me; trying to sell me flutes, postcards, scarves, etc. Their English was shockingly good, as was their sales prowess. They were extremely persistent, smooth talking, and unashamed about making travelers feel guilty for refusing. Still, they weren’t so bad.
The tout that gave me the most trouble is visible in the picture above (off to the right in a blue-grey shirt. He walked up and engaged me in conversation, ignoring my attempts to politely excuse myself. After several unsuccessful tries to get away, I gave up and let him tell me about the historical and architectural details of Banteay Kdei. After a while, I finally managed to make my escape, but not before he pressed me for a tip. I refused and he got upset. He started yelling at me and insulting me, upset that I wasted his time. I told him I didn’t ask him for a tour and had tried to get him to go away, so it wasn’t my fault he had wasted his time.
His response? “In Cambodia, nothing is for free. You are very stupid!”
I laughed. “Fair enough, but what does that make you?”
He gave up and went off in pursuit of easier prey, allowing me to enjoy the ruins in peace and quiet.
One thing I noticed throughout the complex was a large number of apsara bas-reliefs. Apsaras are female spirits of the water and sky, similar to nymphs in Greco-Roman mythology. They are also superb dancers, and sexy depictions of them are commonplace throughout both the Hindu and Buddhist constructions at Angkor.
After meeting my tuk tuk driver at the west end of Banteay Kdei, we drove a short distance to Ta Prohm, the next site on our agenda. One thing that sets Ta Prohm apart from many of the other sites is that the jungle is still engulfing much of the complex. Silk-cotton trees and strangler figs wind their sinuous roots over walls and through stone, constricting and strangling the dilapidated ruins of this ancient monument to the gods. The eerie and creepy-crawly environment lends itself to spectacular photography, which is why this is a very popular place for tourists.
A view of the iconic silk-cotton tree in the Ta Prohm complex, taken from the east entrance.
One of many massive Korean tour groups going for the golden photo op! Avoiding the main site pictured above, I went into the rest of the complex and found some more secluded spots for some pictures of nature overwhelming the designs of man. Here’s some good advice for the temples of Angkor: if you’re ever put off by the crowds at a given site, simply turn right or left. The majority of tourists will go right through the middle of each complex. There were many times I turned off from the traffic clogged main artery through a site to find myself alone in a gallery of crumbling pillars and worn bas-reliefs. Get in touch with your inner Tomb Raider a bit… explore!
See? No tourists =)
Ta Keo is also a great example of a tiered, or step, pyramid design. It has five levels and four sides, rising to a height of about 45 meters. The height isn’t astounding, but it still makes for an impressive structure; especially after the relatively diminutive heights of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. Plus, the sheer stairways that go up each side are quite fun to climb. Pro tip: walk sideways when going down. It’s much safer.
We left Ta Keo and drove a short way to the two sites of Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda. Along the way, we made a brief pit stop at the Spean Thmor, which my driver claimed was some sort of royal residence. Hardly anything is left now, but it made for a fun little stop.
That’s pretty much it…
I kept my hands at my sides and quickly stepped around her. “No, thank you. I feel healthy!” Yeesh.
Chau Say Tevoda was small but had some nice architectural features, including elevated walkways supported by stone columns.
I didn’t spend too long there, however, and moved across the road to Thommanon. In terms of aesthetics, I think Thommanon was one of my favorite sites. It is a remarkably well preserved Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The temple itself is set back a bit from the road on the edge of the forest, which gives it a nice atmosphere.
The temple itself contained many well-preserved carvings of beautiful devatas, female symbols of divinity in Hinduism.
We moved on from those two sites to one of my favorites of the whole Angkor area: the simultaneously majestic and creepy temple of Bayon. Majestic because of its scale and the intricate, decorative nature of the stonework. Creepy because of the abundance of massive, smiling faces adorning every one of the many towers that jut into the sky.
The faces themselves most likely represent one of two things (or possibly both). One possibility is the monarch who commissioned the construction of this temple: Jayavarman VII. The other is that of the bodhisattva of compassion, the Lokeśvara. The other option is both: assuming Jayavarman VII was one of the many rulers who considered themselves divine. Whatever the case, the final result can be described in one of two ways. Majestic or creepy. I’m gonna go with both.
Another key feature of Bayon is a number of intricately detailed bas-reliefs that illustrate a variety of themes. The painstaking attention to detail here was impressive, as was the skill it must’ve taken to chisel these carvings out of blocks of stone.
After I made it through Bayon, I camped out on the side of the road and ate some pineapple and bread for lunch while I looked at the massive ruin spread out before me. It’s kind of a surreal feeling being in the presence of something so old. To think of all the work and skill it must’ve taken to make something so big using relatively primitive means. Truly impressive (and horrible for the slave labor it must’ve taken).
I met up with my driver once more and we set off towards the final stop of the day and the big kahuna itself: Angkor Wat. As expected, the crowds at this place were as epic as the temple itself. However, I applied my ultra-crafty strategy of turning right or left and managed to find some isolated sweet spots.
Another example of Khmer genius in the naming of things, Angkor Wat translates to City of Temples and is just that. It’s an entity unto itself: surrounded entirely by a massive moat, protected by a massive wall, and elevated in the temple-mountain style above the sprawling grounds below. Originally built as a Hindu temple and later used as a Buddhist holy site, Angkor Wat has the distinction of being the largest religious monument in the world. Not too shabby.
The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded entirely by a huge moat. This is crossed by a single bridge that was packed full of tourists jostling for the perfect picture. I crossed quickly, stopping only to snag a brief shot as I passed.
Entering the complex reveals an immense lawn stretching towards the actual temple itself; which lounges like a slumbering giant in the distance. The scale of it all is stunning.
I stayed around the Angkor complex for about two hours. The heart of the temple itself, as well as the upper galleries at the top were packed with people. The top allowed for some nice views of the surrounding area and a closer look at the massive central tower of the temple.
I spent a few minutes up there, but quickly grew tired of jockeying for a good angle with the hordes of other tourists, so I went back down to the ground level for the rest of the time. I (you guessed it!) turned right and found myself a nice building completely devoid of people. I ate some more bread and water there as I watched the setting sun light up the side of the majestic building before me. Definitely an enjoyable end to a very enjoyable day!