Exploring the Temples of Angkor Wat

A trip to Italy wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Vatican. If you go to New York and don’t see Times Square, you are doing it wrong. Likewise, a trip to Cambodia without seeing Angkor Wat is no trip at all. And so, despite our general aversion to religious buildings (thanks to the church tour of Italy), we went to visit the temples. And we were not disappointed.

We started our trip to Siem Reap by sleeping in and using wifi, since we had arrived late and had been without contact with the outside world for some time at that point. We also tried our best to avoid the tuk-tuk driver who had taken us from the bus depot to our hotel, who, despite our exhaustion and lack of interest in negotiating with him, insisted on selling us on the grand tour of Angkor Wat with him so that he could make his money. We blew him off and grabbed a tuk-tuk driven by a guy named Sahmet, who drove the “Rolls Royce” tuk-tuk. His was not the only Rolls in the complex; we saw two others that day. But his ride was sweet. He hooked up his phone to tiny computer speakers in the top and played club music for us at the end of our first day, which made us happy.

The guidebook warned us not to go to Angkor Wat the first day, or the rest of the temples would be spoiled by it, since it was in such better shape and generally more impressive. I’m not sure I completely agree, since each temple was unique and had cool things to admire, but we’ll get to that later.

The Angkor Wat temple complex was built by the Angkor dynasty, led mostly by the king at the time, Jayavarnam VII. Like most remembered historical figures, he had a giant ego and wanted to prove that his kingdom was the bomb diggity-est. So he (or really, his slaves) built lots of temples to honor the gods he worshiped (much more interesting than prayer and helping people). Initially the temples honored the Hindu gods of Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva, as well as some lesser deities of which there are thousands. Then, as later kings came along and Buddhism became popular, the temples changed to being centered around Buddha. The original statues were destroyed or moved (in what I can only imagine to be the most frustrating and backbreaking redecorations in all of history – if only reality TV was around then) and replaced with giant Buddhas, along with carvings inside and out. Some of the temples that were built later were just Buddhist, so no redecoration needed. Then, after hundreds of years of work building and rebuilding, the temples were largely abandoned except for Angkor Wat, which has been in continual use since the 12th Century. And we are not exactly sure why.

That first day, we visited four temples, starting on the outside with Preah Kahn and working our way in. This group of temples had a style that I liked best, and the colors were more interesting, too. No they weren’t in great shape, but after over 1,000 years of abandonment, can you blame them? Rebecca and I climbed to every level of every single temple, so we were exhausted by the end of the day, but felt satisfied with our extreme Stairmaster workout, having seen some really old ruins. (Ruins are neat because you can climb all over the place, see some neat artwork, and imagine what life would have been like so many years ago.)

The second day we biked to the complex and around, seeing another six temples, including a few that were pretty close together. The one famous temple we saw that day was Ta Phrom, which is the temple that was immortalized by that great cinematic masterpiece that was Tomb Raider. The movie shows a temple with trees growing all over the place and out of it, and that is exactly what Ta Phrom looks like, only instead of being totally empty, it is always packed with tourists. The trees are hundreds of years old, so they don’t want to remove them, but they have completely disrupted whole parts of the temple. An Indian team is working to restore the temple while preserving the natural environment; I wish them great success. We returned the bikes after 9 hours, so we were complete spent, but again happy that we had had a good training day.

The final day, we started before dawn so we could catch sunrise at Angkor Wat. We huddled together for warmth, sitting on ruins near the temple behind one of the reflecting pools, with about 10,000 other tourists and their clicking, flashing cameras. Amateurs. Don’t they know that sunrise is best captured with natural lighting, and that flash will succeed in doing nothing with a subject so far away? I, on the other hand, took about 300 out-of-focus-yet-colorful photos before there was enough light to see the temple, at which point I clicked away to capture the moment. Then we went exploring after the sunrise rush died down, all in all spending about 3.5 hours at Angkor Wat itself. The rest of the day was a marathon of trying to see all of the remaining things in the complex, including Angkor Thom, the city where people actually lived and the former Angkor capital. The temples inside Angkor Thom were neat, but there were too many people to really experience them the way we had done with the outer temples.

Virtually all of the temples are in some state of reparation, with international teams of archaeologists and day laborers working to restore these places of worship to their former glories. In fact, on the second day, we met two Australian archaeologists who told us a little about their work and their experiences in Cambodia. It was from them that we learned that we aren’t really sure why the temples were left abandoned, or really what happened to the Angkors at all. They said that they were trying to find evidence to support their hypothesis that the society collapsed due to climate change – not like what we are experiencing today, but more natural events like floods and drought. At a certain point, if you are battling for survival on all fronts, it becomes less important to maintain places of worship, and that is what they posit happened. Sadly they are operating on very little archaeological evidence, since much of those artifacts of daily life were destroyed or lost long ago.

In general, we decided we liked the older temples more – the older the better, in fact – and our favorite was Banteay Srei, the “lady” temple, a 10th Century temple so named because the carvings are so intricate they were thought to have been done by women (not true, btw). That one was way on the outskirts of the Angkor complex, about 25k away from Angkor Wat. Our tuk-tuk driver had to stop to cool down the motorcycle’s radiator and refuel on the way out there, it was so far. It was during the refueling that we learned what was in those recycled booze bottles we had seen all over Cambodia. Initially I mistook them for the dirtiest water I had ever seen, and I prayed to God that no one actually drank it. It turns out that in addition to regular gas stations, drink and snack vendors all over Cambodia were selling gasoline by the liter to make a little extra money, so that there is always gas nearby. And since everyone rides motorcycles, you could easily buy enough gas from the side of the road to get you to a proper gas station, where you can fill up. Win win, and very smart, I thought, since it gets people to pull over and maybe get a snack, too. I’m thinking of trying it at home, with gallon-size milk bottles in the middle of nowhere.

We loved exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, and cannot recommend it enough. Just be prepared to be completely templed-out by the end of your visit. And bring good walking shoes, because after climbing on stone for hours, your feet will be hurting. I would even recommend hiking boots, since they get good traction on rocks and the stones can be slippery.

Next entry in the travel category will be the river boat ride to Battambang. Pictures coming soon to Flickr. Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “Exploring the Temples of Angkor Wat

  1. Angkor Wat was cool. Well actually warm but really interesting. Did you see the one bridge with all the statues? Enjoyed pictures, brought back memories.

  2. I’m glad you guys enjoyed it all and made it out to Banteay Srei! I’m loving the updates so far. (P.S. Danielle- I made your pizza dough tonight….AMAZING!)

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