Who has not heard of the Angkor Wat? When one travels to Siem Reap, it is only to see the temple complex. While I had read several books on the temples before my trip, I didn't quite know what to expect, like how large the temple grounds are and how to get from one temple to the next.
Guidebooks can describe the temples in detail. I'm no history buff, so you cannot count on me to give you an accurate account of the temples but I can tell you what it felt like to be there.
I hope I've got the pictures labelled correctly because, pardon me, after seeing several temples, they all began to look quite similar. Incidentally, the Cambodians love to use the word 'similar'. Most of the people in the service industry can converse in English. They can also be very opportunistic.
When we landed, we took a cab to the hotel. The distance from airport to our hotel is about 3km and the ride cost us US$7. Within minutes, the cab driver managed to convince us to book him for 2 days so he could bring us around.
"Only US$30 a day, from sunrise to sunset. If you book 2 days, I will give you discount."
We figured if a 15-minute journey cost us $7, then $30 for 12 hours must be an excellent deal. Incidentally, that is the market rate though we learned later that traveling by tuk-tuk only costs half as much. We consoled ourselves that a cab would provide better protection in case it rains. We had no rain during the 2 days.
In Siem Reap, there is an obsession with sunrise and sunset. The guides will tell you not only which temple to be at, right down to which spot to position yourself to catch the best views of the sun.
Of course, not wanting to miss out, we found ourselves rising at 5am just so that we could rush to Angkor Wat in pitch darkness to watch the sun rise over the five towering gopuras. It seemed that the entire tourist population had the same agenda in mind because the turnout was huge (see photo below). It was like watching a soccer match without the players and ball.
We were first bombarded by the very persuasive hawkers, "You want coffee? You want chair to sit and watch sunrise? You buy coffee, we give chair. You want coffee later, my stall no 17."
Then as more and more sunrise watchers turn up, I began to hear chatter in Japanese and Korean around us. The Caucasian guys, with tousled hair and bed smell, sat very still on the chairs, half asleep from a late night of partying.
Photo courtesy of our friend Kiwi who was there a week before us.
At this point, I need to tell you about getting to the temples. We got there in a cab but many tourists arrived in tuk tuk or on a bicycle (rental is so cheap, like $1 a day). Angkor Wat complex is a short drive away from the town centre (5.5km away). At the entrance, you need to buy a day pass for US$20 per person which allows you entry into all the temples in Siem Reap. A 2-day pass will cost $40 while a 3-day pass is only $50.
There are security personnel at every temple entrance who will check your pass. If you lose it, you will have to purchase another one. One thing you don't have to worry about in Siem Reap is the transport. There are numerous tuk tuks waiting at the entrance of every main temple. Needless to say, there are plenty of kids trying to sell you postcards, books and souvenirs too. They can be very persistent.
If you ask me, the sunrise at Angkor Wat wasn't too spectacular. Maybe it is just over-rated or we weren't there on the right day (like Equinox or something) for we only saw the sky brighten up, and night turned into day, sans glowing ball of orange everyone was shooting for. That was it.
At this point, most of the young and sleepy tourists would have slunk back to their hotels to continue sleeping or eat breakfast while folks like us forged on. I think 6.30am is the perfect time to explore Angkor Wat because it is less crowded and the sun's rays are still gentle. The only disadvantage is, with the low light, you can't get good photos.
Angkor Wat temple is probably the best place to view the bas-reliefs and Apsara - beautiful, supernatural women who are youthful and elegant, and proficient in the art of dancing. The intricate and exquisite bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat wrap around the outer walls for almost 1km!
The Cambodians are very compassionate towards animals. Everywhere we went, we found dogs and cats in their homes and at the temples. They are by no means scrawny or mangy looking, and seem well taken care of.
The temples are typically very monochromatic as you can see from the photos.
How long should one spend at each temple? It really depends on your level of interest. Some people spend hours at one temple and return again and again to the same one. We spent an hour exploring the Angkor Wat complex.
Angkor Wat was probably built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II to honour Visnu, the Hindu diety with whom the king identified. It is oriented towards the west, symbolically the direction of death, which led scholars to conclude that it must have existed as a tomb. Visnu is also associated with the west, so it could have also served as a temple.
The size of Angkor Wat complex is quite staggering. It is surrounded by a 30 m apron of open ground and a 190m-wide moat which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5x1.3km. It is one of the most inspiring structures conceived by mankind. The construction involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants, yet was still never completed.
The sun was just beginning to cast its golden rays on the spectacular complex when we left. We didn't have the luxury of time to hang around, so we moved on to the next temple which is just a short drive away.
The most cost efficient way to temple hop is by tuk tuk or bicycle. It's not practical to walk as they are rather far apart and the heat can really sap your energy. Trust me, you will need to conserve energy for exploring the temple grounds.
The next temple, Angkor Thom is built on a sprawling piece of real estate, about 10km in extent, with a scattering of many temples smaller in scale than the Angkor Wat. The awe inspiring gates, carved with elephant trunks and four magnanimous faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara grab you first, whether you are entering from the N, S, E or W.
Flanking the south gate are huge stone monuments of 54 demons and 54 gods engaged in tug-of-war. Like most temple complexes, the Angkor Thom is surrounded by a massive moat that was able to stop the hardiest invaders from penetrating into the ancient city. What is so interesting about Angkor Thom is that it was a living city, with humans and gods co-habiting there.
As you enter the towering South gate, the ancient city of Bayon comes into view. Built by King Jayavarman VII who wanted to promote a new religion, the city features 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 enigmatic faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear a resemblance to the great king himself.
Bayon is one of the most fascinating temples at Angkor. Resembling a pile of rubble from outside, it features stooped corridors and steep flights of stairs inside. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon as many years of its origin remain unknown to researchers.
Beyond Bayon lies Baphuon, undoubtedly one of the most impressive temples in its heyday. Located just 200m away from Bayon, it is a pyramidal representation of mythical Mt Meru.
An elevated walkway made of sandstone brings you to the central structure of Baphuon temple.
Nearby are the remains of the royal palace compound, fronted by the Terrace of Elephants, the king's royal viewing gallery for public ceremonies.
As you can imagine, by now, the morning sun was getting quite intense and we were hiding under the shelter of a large tree, eating croissants the hotel had prepared for us in the wee hours of the morning.
At this point, our camera batteries have gone flat from overuse and we had to resort to using the phone camera for the rest of the journey. Enroute to the famous Ta Prohm temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, we stopped by Ta Keo, a stark, undecorated temple that would have been one of the finest of Angkor's structures, had it been finished.
It was here that I met the smoothest Cambodian operator. Let me tell you why.
While we were contemplating the easiest way to ascend the steep steps, a young man approached us and offered to show us the safest path. As we walked, this knowledgable chap told us about the history of the temple and why it was never completed. Ta Keo was struck by lightning during construction which may have been a bad omen that led to its abandonment. The granite used was so hard, it was almost impossible to carve, which explains the undecorated walls.
After a hard climb, the view at the peak was quite rewarding. At this point, he kindly offered to take a photo of us. It was all very nice and I was already reaching into my pocket for a $2 tip which is considered generous by Cambodian standards.
He surprised me by insisting on a $5 tip instead, saying he needed it for his university education. I gave him what he asked for but left the place feeling like a sucker. If you're planning to travel to Siem Reap, you must prepare yourself for encounters like this. It is a tourist destination afterall and everyone is after your tourist dollar. While there are no beggars in Siem Reap, everywhere you turn, someone is trying to sell you something. There is a marketing spiel for anything, from postcards to souvenirs, tuk tuk, massage and taxi.
Guess who is the most famous female celebrity in Cambodia? She's the beautiful and sexy Angelina Jolie! After filming Tomb Raider at Ta Prohm temple, she went on to adopt a Cambodian child.
Needless to say, Ta Prohm is a must-see not because of the movie, but simply because it is the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor. We walked through a jungle to get to Ta Prohm. Indeed, this temple stands out from the rest as most of its crumbling towers are locked in the embrace of the vast root systems.
Ta Phromh is a temple of courtyards and narrow corridors which are blocked by piles of stone walls dislodged by tree roots. Due to the jungle environment, most of the ruins are covered in a layer of moss or lichen.
If you follow the itinerary above, you could easily spend an entire day hopping from temple to temple. Why not end the day watching the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, one of the first temple-mountains built in the Angkor vicinity.
It's quite a hike up the hill but you can choose to ascend by elephant at a steep price of $20 per person, one way.
It took us about 20 minutes to get to the top, on foot of course.
On the way up, we spotted butterflies and spiders.
We were promised helicopter views of the Angkor Wat temple complex at the summit. Indeed, we could see the impressive towers albeit in the far distance. Calling it a helicopter or aerial view is abit of an exaggeration.
Phnom Bakheng has 5 tiers, with 7 levels representing the 7 Hindu heavens.
The steps leading to the top are very narrow and steep. I am certain many people have tripped and fallen here because of the challenging climb. I was told medics are always on standby just down the hill to attend to accidents like this.
The view at the top was really spectacular. On one side, you can see the Angkor Wat peeking out amongst dense vegetation while the Tonle Sap Lake dominates the landscape on the other side.
It was still early and the sun wasn't ready to set yet. Perhaps that was the reason why hordes of people were making their way here. Even though we were at the summit of the temple with nothing but the sky above our heads, I was beginning to feel claustrophobic, I had to escape from the crowd.
Descending on the narrow steps proved to be just as challenging. I can't imagine the human crush after sunset. We made our way down slowly and was glad to leave the madness behind.
We might have missed the sunset that day but I think it was a wise move because tourists were arriving by the busloads just as we were leaving the temple grounds. I conclude that there is too much of an obsession with the sunrise and sunset in Angkor.
For the adventure seekers, there are many more temples scattered all over Siem Reap. During our visit to Savong Orphan Centre, we came across a few of the smaller ones in the villages. The village folks must be amused to see camera-totting tourists traveling all the way to their backyard to gawk at temple ruins.