Foot loose in the mystical Angkorian kingdom

Posted: March 13, 2011 in South East Asia
Tags: , , ,

After a long.com journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia, we arrived as tired as a Michael Bolton record at Golden Temple Villa. The border crossing gave us the usual headaches; our pockets were royally fleeced for visa services (oh the foolish mistakes you make when tired) and the touts wouldn’t leave us alone. However, we met a lovely French couple that was up for sharing a taxi, so with a little bit extra deniro we took the swift route to Siem Reap.

Luckily for us we had booked the right place. The welcome was wonderful. Two happy, smiley Khmer ladies greeted us and showed us to the restaurant. We were given warm towels to refresh our faces and iced-tea to quench the thirst, whilst the reception team went about checking us in. Such a great idea – remove the guest from the pandemonium of reception after a long journey. We were then shown to the room – pretty good quality with AC, TV and free wifi so I didn’t have to talk to my jani….

With only one day to spare in Siem Reap we needed to be ruthless with our planning.  Through reception we organised a tuc-tuc driver for Saturday 12th to take us around the Angkor Wat temple system, cherry picking the key sights to avoid rushing through like a speed-addled tourist. That sorted, I escorted my jani to the night market to pick up some local produce for our home that doesn’t yet exist. She’s good at shopping that one!

Understanding the Angkorian legacy

We had come to Cambodia with the mistaken idea that Angkor Wat was a single ruined city of a bygone empire. However, Angkor Wat is simply the centrepiece of a vast complex of pyramids stretching for miles and miles. The temples are the pride of the nation and have transformed the Cambodian economy to make tourism one of the principle income sources.

The Angkorian era lasted from AD802 to 1432 during which the Khmer Empire was the regional powerhouse. They constructed enormous reservoir and irrigation systems (1000km2) that enabled the support of its huge population. According to historians, the empire’s decline was in large part due to the environment on which it was dependent; deforestation and erosion led to problems with irrigation and there is evidence of prolonged droughts. The Thais also contributed in the 14th and 15th centuries, sacking the city of Angkor and making off with the leading minds of the day.

I can only imagine the sheer sense of awe that the European explorers had when they first laid eyes on a wild Angkor with half ruined temples strewn amidst pristine forest. Nowadays, whilst beautiful and spectacular, the paths laid for mass tourism take away some of the allure. We arranged a tuc-tuc driver for the day to ferry us around the huge distances between the main sites – a bargain at $15.

Banteay Srei

Situated over 30km from Angkor Wat, it’s a mission to get here but well worth the journey. The approach through the countryside is beautiful and the temple is stunning. It’s a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and cut from pinkish stone that has been sculpted into some of the most intricate carvings you will ever see. The detail of the stonework is incredible and we found it hard to pull ourselves away. As we walked back to the exit, a gaggle of small children jumped out the bushes and offered us postcards. As we went to make a purchase, they disappeared smartly shouting “Police”. 20 seconds later a police officer came round the corner. Something told us they had done this before.

Banteay Srei

Ta Phrom

Visiting this temple gave us the romantic view of ruins and nature that we had envisaged. Ta Phrom is a 12th Century Buddhist temple and has been completely overtaken by nature. High trees dominate the crumbled ruins and roots are entwined with walls.  Many of the corridors are impassable and vast piles of fallen stones abound. There is an air of abandon here but you are left with a clear impression of the wonderful architecture that once dominated the forest. This temple was used in the filming of Tomb Raider; so I tried hard to imagine Angelina Jolie in tight leather outfits.

Ta Phrom

Angkor Thom

The drive to Angkor Thom is wonderful. We passed through small Cambodian villages with the local farmers going about their daily work. Small children ran out and waved as we passed. The pace of life in the country is so calming. We had a diversion when our tuc-tuc driver’s wheel exploded. We spent 20mins playing with the local kids at the side of the road as he sorted repairs having conveniently broken down outside a car repair shack.

Angkor Thom is a fortified city built by the Angkorian King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century and sits to the east of Angkor Wat. At its height it had a population of 1m people when London was a fledgling town with only 50,000. There are so many buildings you can lose the will to live but the most beautiful is Bayon, containing 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling faces. The faces smile down at you from every angle, giving you an eerie sense of being followed.

We skipped passed the Baphuon, referred to as the giant jigsaw puzzle because archaeologists took it apart piece by piece but the Khmer Rouge destroyed their records and it wasn’t until 2008, after painstaking reconstruction, that it was finally in a fit state to be opened to the public.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat

Affectionately referred to as the heart and soul of Cambodia, it is the largest religious structure in the world and the epicenter of Khmer culture even today. It is the only monument that was never abandoned and has been in continuous use.

We reached Angkor Wat last and by now were a little fatigued by the heat and sheer volume of ruined temples. It is a stunning building and its scale is mind-boggling.  The approach is over a giant stone causeway to the huge entrance gateway with ornate towers and immense walls. It is supposed to represent the spatial universe in miniature.

However, we were slightly underwhelmed because it doesn’t have the allure or romanticism of the ruined temples amidst the forest. What is impressive is the fact that the sandstone blocks used in construction were quarried more than 50km away and floated down the Stung Siem Reap River using wooden rafts.

We had planned to wait at Angkor Wat to see the sunset but with over 1hr to wait we decided to call it a day and head home for a well-deserved rest. The Angkor temples are incredible, of that there is no doubt. The question is do you have enough interest in the history and buildings to spend more than 1 day here? The guidebook recommends 3 days to take in the majority of the complex but we agreed that 1 day was sufficient and our interest would not hold beyond that.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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