Siem Reap / Angkor - 9th September 2008 @ 11:25 am «   »

Location: Cambodia : Siem Reap / Angkor

A relatively easy bus ride from Phnom Penh got us to Siem Reap at about 2pm on Saturday. We didn’t want to spend too much time looking for a hotel so we went with one of the 1st ones we came across. The afternoon was spent strolling through the small central part of town visiting the market and making use of the many but-1-get-1-free draft beer offers advertised at bars and restaurants situated on a short strip affectionately known as ‘Bar Street’.

The main reason for coming to Siem Reap, and Cambodia really, is of course to see the fabled Temples of Angkor. About 6km north of town lies a mystical, other-worldly place that is simply impossible to describe. Cambodia, for the most part, is as flat as they come as far as topography is concerned, but this area is covered with thick jungle and beautiful tall trees. Seemingly out of nowhere rise these impressive structures that look dated and weathered in such an authentic and mythical way that one would guess they were built to look like that. But they have been shaped and worn by nature over centuries during a time when they were forgotten by civilization.

The hundreds of temples that survive today is a fraction of what once formed the vast capital of the ancient Khmer empire, systematically built under order of the Cambodian devaraja (god-kings) between the 9th and 13th centuries. Rediscovered in the 1860s, Angkor Wat (the name of the most well-known temple, but one which has come to represent the whole area) was reintroduced to the world and, as a result of intense interest over the following years, a massive project was undertaken at the start of the 20th century to systematically clear away centuries of vegetation & jungle that was slowly busy devouring the sacred buildings. Only interrupted by the war during the 1970s, the project has made great strides in rebuilding the ancient structures and restoring them to a level that approaches their original grandeur.

To get the most out of our visit we set aside 3 days for visiting Angkor’s temples. The pricey entry fee for a 3-day pass was a sting, but worth every penny. On the first morning the alarm clock went off at 4:15am – we rented bikes and cycled the 6km-odd to the temple of Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise – absolutely breathtaking! Being the main attraction of all the temples it was absolutely packed with people, but they soon thinned out after the oranges & reds of the morning sun started to fade away.

To give you an idea, Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, surrounded by a moat which more closely resembles a sizable river. The central structure has three pyramidal levels, surrounded by large galleries and corridors each one enclosing a square, culminating in a 55m high central tower. The rock walls are covered with detailed carvings and the outer enclosure is surrounded by an 800m-long series of intricately carved bas-reliefs.

We spent about 2-3 hours inspecting the halls and walls of Angkor Wat before moving on to Angkor Thom, an ancient fortified city another couple of kilometers north. The city’s square perimeter is marked by a 12km wall, 6m high and 8m thick all the way around. As we slowly cycled towards the entrance, the huge structure of the southern gate started to appear from behind the trees lining the road. We parked the bikes and spent close to an hour gazing and snapping away at the carvings of 4 enormous faces (said to be that of Avalokiteshvara) on top of the gate and the dozens of larger-than-life-sized figures lining the bridge across the moat. It’s difficult to explain what this place is really like, so we’re hoping that our photos will paint a better picture.

Once inside the city’s confines, the first temple en-route and built exactly in the centre, is Bayon, which is perhaps the most impressive to look at from a distance and came to be one of our favourites. Remember the Avalok-something fellow we mentioned earlier? Well this temple has a massive 216 of these same Mona Lisa-like smiling faces carved out of rock spires on all 4 sides, each one being at least 3m high. With 1,200m of bas-reliefs and more than 11,000 figures carved out of walls lining a maze of alley ways and corridors this place is simply amazing.

After that we dropped by the temple of Baphuon, the Terrace of Elephants, & The Leper King, as well as a few others inside the city walls – all of which were magnificent in their own right.

Moving out of Angkor Thom, a lengthy visit to Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed temples in the area, took up most of the afternoon. This temple has been left just as it was found about 150 years ago where massive trees are slowly winding their roots in between the rocky structures, making for surreal scenes resembling that of an Indiana Jones movie set (parts of Tomb Raider was actually filmed here).

Just before sunset we made our way back to Angkor Wat for the last light of the day and some more photographs, but a cloudy horizon spoilt things a bit. Cycling back to town in the dark we realised that we had been going at it for 13 hours straight with hardly a break.. and that was only the first day.

To spare you the agonising details, the abridged version of the subsequent days follows: We never made it back for sunrise again (we simply couldn’t get ourselves to set that alarm clock again), but we had various return trips to most of the temples mentioned above, as well as a string of additional ones. Honourable mention to Preah Kanh & Ta Som. If pressed for time when you’re here – and trust us, you have to come here – don’t bother with Phnom Bakheng or Preah Neak Pean.

Day three saw a very quick visit to the ruins as the weather started moving in and after only 2 or 3 hours we scurried back to the bikes and only just made it into town before the heavens opened. That night, as before, we enjoyed great food at good prices – try an ‘Amok’ of any kind when next in these parts (coconut based curry-like soup).

It was up early again for our 07:30 bus pick-up for the short-haul trip to Battambang. Famous last words..

For all Angkor Temples click here (Angkor Wat below).

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

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