Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Angkor Wat - The Wonder of the Khmer Civilisation

Angkor Wat at sunrise on day 2
It’s difficult to write about Angkor Wat and keep it interesting.  Basically it is an ancient site with a load of old temples dotted around a huge area in central Cambodia and unless anyone has a real interest in this type of thing it will all seem a bit dull and little of what I have to say about our experiences here will hold anyone’s attention for very long.

However, for personal reasons we would like a record of how we spent our time here but friends and family (and anyone else) can be forgiven for glossing over this particular chapter although anyone who wishes to visit may find some useful information on how to tackle a visit there.

By way of brief background, the majority of the surviving buildings (monuments, temples and palaces)  were built over a period of four centuries from the middle of the 9th century.  Religious monuments were dedicated to both the Buddhist and Hindu religions, depending on the beliefs of the ruling monarch at the time.

Sunset at Angkor Wat on day 1
There was other building during this period and, it is believed, afterwards through to the 16th century but it most of these were perishable and therefore did not survive.  Although conflicts between neighbouring nations and other factors shifted the seat of power to modern day Phnom Penh in the 15th century, the kingdom of Angkor survived until the 16th century.  Certain temples were abandoned but Angkot Wat remained a place of worship throughout to the present day.

The north eastern corner of
Angkor Wat
Once we had arrived in Siem Reap we had to come up with a plan of action and an itinerary of some description.  The park covers a massive area and there are so many different temples and other buildings that it would be almost impossible to visit them all even with a 7 day pass.  Not if you want to enjoy your time there. 

Luckily we had our trusty tuk tuk driver, Walter, on hand to guide and advise.  We had to admit to Walter that we found our mission incredibly daunting, were completely fazed by the whole Angkor Wat thing, and didn’t really know where to start.  Unless you seriously intend spending 15 hours each day marching from temple to temple you are not going to see everything you want without collapsing from exhaustion at the end of it.

Part of the interior of Angkor Wat
We had no real plan whatsoever.  We knew we had to prioritise but we had no idea where to start, how to spend our days and I can’t stress enough that at this point we could were seriously overwhelmed by the whole prospect.

Angkor Wat is actually the name of the main temple complex and the best known of all the temples in the area.  Angkor is the name of the ancient city area and Wat means temple.  Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu complex in the world, the largest religious monument in the world, and one of the most instantly recognisable images on a par with the pyramids.  

The raised external gallery which
encircles the whole
of Angkor Wat 
The Angkor Archaeological Park is massive, covering hundreds of square kilometres, and includes many temples, buildings and terraces in various stages of collapse, restoration or repair, some of which are miles away from the main Angkor Wat temple itself.

We had 6 days to explore this wonder of the world and felt this timescale seriously limited our options.  Most people seem to choose to spend only 2 or 3 days as many are time restricted, however some, to our amazement, spend only a single day at the site, darting about set routes from dawn to dusk taking in only the major attractions.  This was not how we wanted to experience Angkor. 

View from the west of Angkor Wat
So lacking any real inspiration we decided that we would spend our first day at Angkor Wat, it being the main star of the show, and catch the sunrise.  

After that we would wander around the temple for a couple of hours before heading back to the guesthouse to mull things over a bit and see whether we could come up with a realistic and workable plan.

Day One – Sunrise at Angkor Wat

View from the south - a 7 headed naga
can be seen just to the right of
the walkway
We emerged from our guesthouse at 5.00am rather bleary eyed and Walter was waiting outside for us in the dark with his tuk tuk, all bright eyed and bushy tailed.  He took one look at us, uttered the magic word “coffee” and we were whisked quickly to a local cafĂ© which was bustling with all the local tuk tuk drivers having breakfast at that ungodly hour before beginning their day ferrying about tourists.  We downed our delicious Vietnamese-like coffee, felt duly rejuvenated, and were soon on our way.

We stopped at the ticket office and bought our 7 day passes and as we headed towards Angkor Wat we joined a growing convey of tuk tuks transporting fellow tourists doing exactly what we were doing – heading to the star of the show hoping for a spectacular sunrise.

Another classic view from across
the lake to the east
of Angkor Wat
It was still pitch black when we arrived but there were lots of other people heading along the main causeway across the moat so we joined the growing crowds.  Sensible people had brought torches as the ground was uneven and there were a few obstacles along the way and the sun was still nowhere to be seen.

We weren’t sure where we were heading so we just followed the procession of people in the dark.  There must have been a couple of thousand people doing exactly what we were doing and once we passed through the western stone gates leading us inside the walls surrounding the huge complex we joined the throngs in front of the east facing part of the temple and spent the next hour or so just hanging about waiting for the sun to do its thing.

Another classic view with the library
on the left
While we were waiting we bought the recommended book “Ancient Angkor” available throughout the site from sellers everywhere.  The book contains all the information you could possibly want about the temples including who built what, when and why, what the carvings, sculptures and bas reliefs all mean, the stories they tell, or the actual events they depict.  

This book was invaluable and really does provide you with all the information you could possibly want or need including certain points of interest to look out for and how long you need to spend at each site.  Invaluable though it is, there is just so much information you can take in and you quickly begin to glaze over.  We weren’t so interested in all the details that we wanted to take an exam in it but the book is useful.

Carvings on a pillar in the outside gallery
One particularly interesting point the book makes is that it is a myth that Angkor lay abandoned and undiscovered for centuries until it was rediscovered by Europeans (specifically a Frenchman) in the late nineteenth century.  In fact, as I said at the beginning, the main temple at Angkor Wat has always been a place of worship and while it is true that many of the temples were abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the jungle, none were ever entirely forgotten about. 

This is a typical urban myth peddled by European colonialists although it is fair to say that this Frenchman (his name escapes me) was responsible for bringing the site to the attention of Europeans who, during the Victorian era were increasingly fascinated by ancient sites, began to visit the temples and worldwide interest in the site steadily grew.
Stone figures holding a naga on
the causeway

As we patiently waited for the sunrise it became clear that as sunrises go, it wasn’t going to be a particularly spectacular one.  However this did not dampen our enthusiasm or diminish for us the occasion of being at one of the world’s most famous landmarks as the familiar outline slowly became clear against the growing light of the morning sky.  The atmosphere was nothing like we expected and it was not unlike waiting for the headliner to come on at a music festival (only a bit quieter and a lot warmer).  It was truly an experience that left us a little awestruck.  

Paul walking through the
gate to Angkor
The dawn sky slowly filled with light and the iconic Angkor Wat outline gradually revealed itself.  As we stood there, we found it hard believe we were actually there.  Paul had wanted to visit Angkor Wat for over 25 years and to finally be there really was a dream fulfilled.

When it was obvious we were not going to be treated to picture postcard sunrise we decided to leave the crowds and start exploring the temple itself.  We headed around to the south and started to walk around the external gallery first which is where many of the exquisitely preserved bas reliefs are can be found. 

Over the centuries there has of course been damage, both accidental and deliberate – some damage was caused during the civil war but mercifully little, even terrorists seemingly have some respect for religious monuments.  Mostly it has been simple wear and tear over the years, the artwork being exposed to the elements over the centuries, and basic neglect.

Apsara carvings at Bayon
We wandered around the north gallery, marvelling at the skill and talent of the ancient artists, and then when we reached the western end of the temple we bumped into monkeys.  Not literally of course, but there were plenty of the little primates hanging around the tourists to see what, if anything, there was on offer.  We had no food to tempt them with so just watched them as they frolicked about gratefully accepting fruit from visitors who had come prepared, completely unfazed by their human spectators. 

After a few hours exploring the temple, the sun was beginning to beat down with a ferocity that was becoming difficult to bear, and it was time to meet up with Walter again so we headed back to the tuk tuk car park which was packed solid and where by some miracle Walter found us among the sea of tourists.

A Buddha through a doorway
We were returned safely to our guesthouse and after a short discussion with Walter we decided that we would spend the rest of the day studying the guide book, and try to plan some kind of itinerary for the next few days.  One thing was becoming increasingly clear to us:  there were so many temples and they were spread over such a huge area that it seemed that even a week would not be long enough to visit all the sites we wanted to. 

By the end of the day we were not feeling any more optimistic that we would be able to make the most of our visit to these iconic monuments.

Bayon Temple - you can just about
make out the faces of the Buddhas
Day 2 – Angkor Thom (Bayon, Bapoun, Elephant Terrace, Leper King Terrace, Royal Palace, Phimeankanas

As arranged Walter met us outside our guesthouse the next morning at 6.30am.  An early start meant that we would begin our day sightseeing before the unbearable heat descended and we would also reach the first temple before the crowds turned up.  This turned out to be a good decision and became our routine for the rest of our visit (except the last day).

On our second day we decided to tackle Angkor Thom which is a complex of temples and terraces, situated quite close to the Angkor Wat Temple.  Where Angkor Wat was purely a place of worship, Angkor Thom was a combination of temples, palaces – more of a small town.

Bapoun Temple with its
impressive walkway
Our route took us past Angkor Wat and as we did so the sun decided to put on a stunning performance so Walter stopped so we could take a few photographs.  As we stood there mesmerised, watching the golden sun light up the sky behind the temple we knew this was a sight which would be imprinted on our memories forever (but a photograph always helps for good measure!).  After several minutes we were soon on our way again.

Our first stop at Angkor Thom was a main causeway across a moat (moats are a particular feature throughout Angkor!) and through an impressive gate.  Once again, Walter stopped to give us an opportunity to take some photographs.  The bridge causeway was flanked by a huge naga either side. 

Phimeanakas Temple
A naga is a many headed snake (usually 7 heads) and they are found everywhere throughout the Angkor Wat site (and indeed, throughout Cambodia and other parts of Asia but mainly Cambodia).  The naga was held by a line of warriors in varying stages of disrepair and although there are similar causeways, this one is the best preserved example. 

We were then off again, headed towards the Bayon Temple and we were fortunate to have the place almost to ourselves because it was still early and despite our little stop-offs we were still ahead of the crowds. 

Leper King Terrace
The Bayon Temple is famous for its many huge Buddha faces on each sides of the many spires (for want of a better word) and also for the many carvings of apsaras (dancing girls which are one of the clear indications of the influence of Indian culture in Khmer civilisation). 

There are also carvings throughout the Bayon Temple, and some evidence of restoration but we simply enjoyed wandering around, marvelling at the talent and skill of the craftsmen from centuries ago.

A small section of the
Elephant Terrace
From there we walked to Bapoun Temple was our next stop and this was reached by a long narrow raised walkway.  This was one of the few temples where women were only allowed to enter if they covered their knees and shoulders (this rule does not of course apply to men which part of me finds a little irritating but when in Rome…).  

Although my shoulders were covered, my shorts missed my knees by an inch so I was barred from entering and Paul went in alone.  It was impressive enough from the outside and, according to Paul, the inside involved climbing to three different levels, much the same as the next, so I didn’t feel like I missed very much.

Ta Prohm
Other parts of Angkor Thom included the Elephant Terrace which is, as you can guess, a massive terrace of carved elephants.  Next to that, is the Leper King Terrace which is another collage of intricate and well preserved carvings.

Also forming part of Angkor Thom is Phimeankanas and the Royal Palace, both in varying stages of disrepair and restoration but nevertheless impressive. 

By now it was about 1pm and we had just about taken in as much as we could so we headed back to meet Walter at the allotted place.

Ta Prohm
We were still feeling a little overwhelmed but slightly less so.  When Walter dropped us off at our guesthouse he suggested that following day he take us on what is known as the Grand Tour, and we were happy to be led by him.  

It was clear that Walter was knowledgeable about the whole site and while he clearly did not want to appear rude, it was clear we needed some serious guidance and he was able to recommend itineraries based upon what our individual requirements were, how long we had, and what our interests were.  He was also keen to make sure we saw all the “important” sites and he was quickly becoming invaluable.  

Banteay Kdei
By the end of day 2 we were beginning to feel as if our plans were coming together.

Day 3 – Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Neak Pean, Preah Kahn

It was another early start and at Walter’s suggestion we embarked on the Grand Tour starting with Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm is iconic among the temples of Angkor and will be familiar to most as being the temple famously reclaimed by the jungle, albeit in a controlled manner.  Nature has been allowed to repossess the temple but in order for it to remain accessible to exploration and safe for most visitors, and to protect the structure of the building, the authorities do control it to a certain extent.  

Pre Rup
Trees roots have crept over walls, through doorways, in between bricks, and vines twisted around pillars and lintels.  Dead or weakened vegetation has been removed or cut back in places to keep the building relatively safe. 

The trees and vines entwining the buildings give the impression that the temple itself is living and breathing entity.  The temple appears to blend into and become part of the surrounding natural landscape.  If you were to conjure up in your mind’s eye an image of Angkor Wat, it is likely it would be a snapshot from Ta Prohm.

East Mebon
To be there, to be confronted with these images with your own eyes, is impossible to describe.  This was particularly so for Paul as it had been his dream to visit Angkor as long as he could remember, and to finally find himself standing before each iconic monument was certainly for him one of the highlights of this trip.

Ta Prohm was not the only temple to be engulfed by the jungle but because it was the first time we witnessed this phenomena it was all the more remarkable.   Little did we know that throughout the Angkor park we would see this fusion of nature and man made structure at almost every turn.

The unique island temple of
Neak Pean
Once again, thanks to Walter’s guidance, we were lucky to visit Ta Prohm early before the hordes starting arriving at about 8.30am.  It was becoming abundantly clear that an early start, while absolutely knackering, was a sure fire way of seeing at least one temple in relative peace and it made our visits all the more atmospheric.  

Walter was an absolutely gem of a guide because he advised us which temples to visit early, leaving the less well attended ones later in the day when most visitors would be following the well-trodden route.

On day 3 we also visited Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, East Mebon and Preah Kahn and Neak Pean – all temples on a route easy to follow on a single day without rushing around like idiots.  

A gopura (temple gateway) at
Preah Khan being
overtaken by tree roots
Neak Pean is unique as it is an island temple but there is not much to see and we didn't waste too much time there. 

Preah Khan was similar to Ta Prohm with the invasion of nature but the temple has been allowed to decay and it is almost a better example.  We preferred Preah Khan for this reason.

Once again we were back by about 1.00pm, the heat of the day getting just a bit much, in need of a little afternoon nap  before heading out to Pub Street for a bite to eat.

Day 4 – Banteay Srei, Kbal Spen, Banteay Samre

Beautiful carvings at Preah Khan
Day 4 was a day spent travelling quite a bit because the three sites were some distance from Siem Reap. 

We began at Banteay Srei which is a small temple but covered in amazing carvings of apsaras and other symbolic bas reliefs.  

Once again, we were early and there were few tourists around so we were able to wander around at our leisure, without stepping on anyone’s toes (and managing to get a few decent photographs giving the impression we had the place to ourselves!).  

Nature reclaiming at Preah Khan
It is hard to explain the difference it makes when the buildings are quiet; the atmosphere is so different and you don’t feel hurried along and the buildings don’t have the feel of a museum.

Visiting early in the morning also bathes the temples in a beautiful light depending on the structure but Banteay Srei was lovely to visit in the morning.

It was a small temple but there was plenty to look at and we spent at least an hour wandering around before heading off to our next stop.

Banteay Srei in the early morning
Another popular site is Kbal Spen which involves a rather long walk up to a waterfall and a natural bridge where carvings have been shaped along the river bed.  Being the dry season, the waterfall was not particularly impressive but it was a beautiful spot and a lovely walk to the top.

Neither of us could really see the particular attraction of this particular site, to be honest, particularly when you compare it to the many intricately carved and impressive temples elsewhere at Angkor.  However, we enjoyed the long walk through the jungle, the views as we walked up the mountain and we were in the area anyway.

Some of the carvings at Banteay Srei
Our last stop on day 4 was Banteay Samre which was another temple with many carvings and bas reliefs and also a rather laid back resident cat.  The temple itself was, well another temple, and I am at a loss as to how to describe yet another magnificent example of the Khmer architecture.  

Even when we were there we struggled sometimes to summon up sufficient enthusiasm for each building, some so obviously more magnificent than others, but the less than magnificent can hardly be described as mediocre.  I can only imagine it would be boring as hell reading about it and that pictures will be much more appealing to the vast majority.

The waterfall at Kbal Spen
Day 5 – Beng Mealea, Lolei, Preah Ko, Bakong

We visited Beng Mealea on our fifth day and this temple is one which does warrant some description.  This temple is about an hour’s drive from Siem Reap and one which is missed out by those on a whistle stop one day tour but we cannot recommend it enough. 

t is the only temple which has been left as is.  It was abandoned (although never forgotten and that distinction should always be made) and left to nature and the elements. 

Banteay Samre
When interest in the Angkor Wat site grew, this was the one temple which was left as it was found; no effort has been made to restore, rebuild or, it would seem, make particularly safe (although there are a few handrails and wobbly wooden walkways but they do not instill a great deal of confidence). 

Walls have collapsed and roofs fallen in and no attempt has been made to sort any of it out.  As the building has slowly crumbled, so the jungle has slowly crept in to reclaim the space it once occupied and as a result the temple is a stunning example of ancient temple and tropical jungle entwined.

Beng Mealea
In order to see the best of this temple you really must take a local guide to show you around this building otherwise you would never discover certain parts of crumbling building which look like it will collapse should you even think of venturing inside.  You access certain parts through gaps so small it wouldn’t cross your mind to attempt to crawl through.  

Even I struggled to squeeze into certain parts of the building through small doorways, passed fallen stones, and through small windows so as you can imagine Paul found it incredibly difficult.

Classic shot taken
from a roof
The guides themselves are people from the local village and this is a rare occasion in Cambodia where the local people benefit from tourism in an area.  Usually the government will try to ensure that it is the government that profits as much as possible but it is important to try to support local people but I digress.

There is no set fee for the guide service and you simply follow your allotted guide through the maze of collapsed rubble, up and over collapsed walls and roofs, crawling through impossibly small gaps, all in order to see the finest example of man made structure and jungle fighting for supremacy.  The guides point out carvings of particular interest and although their command of English is limited, it is certainly more than sufficient.  And you have to remember these are poor, uneducated people, so the fact they know any English at all is admirable.

Lolei temple -
shame about the
The tour lasts about 45 minutes after which you give what you think the tour was worth (we are probably always over generous but we hope that makes up for the idiots who think a dollar is enough for someone’s time and knowledge).  Once we had our guided tour we then went back inside to spend longer going around again at our leisure and although it is quite a small temple, it really is one not to be missed and one where you can easily spend a good couple of hours.

We also visited Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong on day 5.  Lolei was a lovely typical example of a simple temples with late dry season hairy grass roofs but unfortunately covered in scaffolding!  

Preah Ko was small but pretty (another Khmer temple - what can you say?).

Bakong was quite impressive, but by this time temple fatigue was well and truly beginning to set in.

Preah Ko
Day 6 – Thommanon, Chao Say Tevoda ,Ta Keo, sunset at Angkor Wat

This was our final day and we had always intended starting later (at about 2pm) and spending the afternoon exploring Angkor Wat Temple some more (you need to visit at least twice because it is just too much to take in in one visit) and then spend our final hours at Angkor by staying to watch the sunset around 6pm.

However, Walter had other plans.  He was really quite concerned that we had not visited Thommanon or Chao Say Tevoda or Ta Keo, temples he considered to be popular and therefore we should add them to our itinerary.  

So, persuaded by our trusty tuk tuk driver, we started at midday and headed out to the three “must sees”.  The change in our plans involved Walter making 3 extra short trips and he refused to accept any additional payment for this, he just seemed genuinely concerned that we see these three temples.

And we are glad we did, the light was very good and the temples were all beautiful.  

On our way back to Angkor Wat however poor Walter burst a tyre and we were stranded for 20 minutes while he unhooked his motorbike and ran off down the road with it (literally).  Rather impressively he was back in no time and we were soon deposited at Angkor Wat for a final wander around the main attraction before what we hoped would be a grand finale of a sunset (to make up for the mediocre sunrise 5 days earlier).

Sadly that was not to be the case and the sunset was as unimpressive at the sunrise had been when we first started out.  But we nevertheless enjoyed spending our last hours wandering around Angkor and then just sitting on the grass gazing at Cambodia’s most famous landmark, the iconic symbol of Khmer culture, as the sky darkened marking the end of our time at Angkor.  We both agreed that nothing could disappoint us after 6 amazing days exploring one of the most famous sites in the ancient world.  

Chao Say Tevoda
Credit must be given to Walter, who was a fantastic guide, always greeted us with water and beer in his cool box, and without his help we are not sure we would have seen as much as we did.

On a final note, we visited Cambodia towards the end of the dry season and if we were to return (which we would like to) we would do so during the rainy season.  Certainly the temples appear different covered in greenery and they would take on a life of their own.  Indeed, the whole of Cambodia would be immersed in water and take on a different identity. 

Ta Keo
Maybe one day…

(More photos below)

Approaching Angkor Wat
from the east gate
The north east
corner of Angkor Wat

The star of the show
Examples of beautiful carvings
Yet more carvings
Another view from inside the walls at Angkor Wat
One of the pools inside
the temple
Examples of painting
One of the exterior walkways

The sunset was promising but
never materialised

The southern exterior gallery
Our last glimpse of Angkor Wat

No comments:

Post a Comment