Siem Reap (see-'em REEP) is the gateway to Angkor Wat, so it's a small town that has grown to try to accommodate the 2 million or so tourists who come to see the temples every year. The town is full of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, a tourist market and a regular market for locals, a few temples, schools, and drivers - tons of drivers. One can hire a tuk-tuk (basically a little carriage hooked onto the back of a motorcycle - and these are unlicensed), a "moto" (motorcycle), a bicycle, a taxi, or a posh car to visit the temples. Or book a tour on a big bus with other travellers.
The Siem Reap river runs through town and has a lovely walk alongside; the frequent bridges have statues that are replicas of various guardian animals from the cluster of temples nearby.
So it's touristy, but charming. Definitely worth spending a little time enjoying this small city.
I hired the driver we had from the airport to our hotel in town. Very nice young man, nice car with AC, and a mid-price option. Biking between temples is probably wonderful, but in 95 F (32ish C) weather, with all the traffic, well, it wasn't my idea of fun. Besides, the temples are large, and walking all around was going to be enough exercise for the day. (My pedometer clocked 7 miles on day 1, 5+ on day 2, and 4+ on day 3. Temple trekking is great exercise!)
Here's a map of the entire Angkor region, covering most of the temples. I've marked the map to show which temples I went to on which days - three temples a day is a pretty good rate, though I tend to look at details and spend time chatting with the people who live or work at the temples. If you go for the overview, and don't talk as much with the people there, you could probably do about 5 temples a day. But I like to hang out and get to know a place, so I explore a bit more slowly.
The Cambodian flag features Angkor Wat. That's how iconic this temple is!
Also, the area is open for visitors from 5:30 AM to 7 PM - I'm sure sunrise is gorgeous, but it can get crowded. Sunset is about 5:30-6 PM right now, so 7 PM has got to be pretty dark.
So, temple by temple, and in the sequence it which I visited them:
Angkor Wat is the major temple here, the one that everyone flocks to see. So yes, it is insanely crowded.
The general procedure is that your driver (or you on a bike or moto) goes to Angkor Wat checkpoint, where you purchase a pass for the temples. You can do a one, three, or seven day pass - the three day pass is for any 3 days in a week, the seven day pass for any 7 days in a month. You don't need to do consecutive days, though that's what I did since I was by myself. Anyway, you pay, they take your photo, you get the pass, they punch a hole for the date, and you enter. (And show the pass at the gate for each and every temple you visit.)
Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples; in fact, it is the largest single religious building in the world.
The whole area of temples is referred to as Angkor, with Angkor Wat being the "Capital Temple" or "City Temple" (depending on how one translates the original Khmer).
Angkor Wat is still a functioning temple, with visitors who come to worship here, as well as monks and a pagoda school. I met some of the monks in training, but more about them later.
Since it is still a functional religious site, women are supposed to have their shoulders and knees covered - so below-knee slacks or skirt, and no sleeveless. Not easy in the heat, and yes, I was melting the entire time. (Sunhat is essential, too.)
The entire Angkor area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and absolutely deserves this title - the complex is not only important culturally, but also historically. Some of the temples were built as Hindu sites, some were Buddhist, some switched in the middle of being built so are both - the whole area shows the transition of religions in the region. Plus they are architectural and art marvels - the stone for Angkor Wat came from 80 km away, and was hauled to the location by elephant! The buildings are huge and amazing, and covered with carvings in the stone, telling the stories of the religions as well as the histories of the people. And all of this occurred while Europe was still in the Dark Ages!
Each temple has a gate (or a few entrance gates), and an impressive walkway to the main temple. Many are walled, or surrounded by a moat (which makes for nice reflections of the towers).
Angkor Wat, built around the 13th century, has both the wall and then an inner moat. There are sort of corridors, or maybe a colonnade, along the side. Most people go straight to the inner temple, where you can walk up the stairs and get closer to the towers. I walked through the colonnades to avoid the crowds, plus I was amazed by the intricate carvings in the stone. One side portrays the battle of the demons and gods, all Hindu creation stories. The other colonnade has carvings telling the story of Buddha - this is one of the temples that switched religion mid-building.
Somehow, in my wanderings, I ended up in the cemetery - I'm not sure if kings or heads monks or who was buried here, but it definitely was the cemetery. Lovely stupas (the sort of bell-shaped structure), with all kinds of carvings.
I also met two junior monks, or monks in training. Public school is not available nor free everywhere in Cambodia, so many poor families send their children to the temple schools. Some of the children are expected to become monks, and so even at 7 or 8 years old, they are wearing the saffron or orange robes.
So there I was, walking around among the lovely stupas taking photos, and a cute 8 yr old boy runs up and says hello. He's in a burnt orange tunic with a bright orange sarong. I say hello, and ask if he's a monk. He says yes. I ask if he's a monk in training. He says yes. I ask if he's going to school here - yes. (He wasn't very talkative, though he was friendly and smiling.)
Then his friend came up, scowling, and asked me where I was going. I told him, imperious 9 yr old student monk, that I was a little lost but I was just walking around, and I thought I'd go up the way a bit and turn back toward the temple. Bossy kid was okay with that. (I find bossy kids to be funny, since I know they turn into the leaders of the next generation.) Third monk trainee comes up, smiling, and I try to get them chatting. But some man drives up with a few women, and he starts bossing the children around. The women go to one of the shrine-type areas and start putting offerings around the statues, and begin their rituals - so I couldn't get any more information out of the children, and I walked off.
I found wonderful side views of the main temple - so I maintained the practice of going around the outside of the structure whenever I visited another temple in the complex.
There are other buildings in the Angkor Wat complex, but I only had two hours here. And I spent extra time with my junior monks, so I started heading back to the parking area to meet my driver. And I found, well, I'm not sure what, but it was fascinating.
There was a group of teenage monks, maybe age 14 or 16, all in their bright robes. And one man (tourist? teacher?) trying to organize the boys for a group photo. The way he was lining them up by size, and the way they were so willing to do what he wanted, I really couldn't figure out if he was doing a graduation photo or what. It was just funny to watch, and take photos from the back.
Once he got the boys arranged, he started taking photo after photo. So I walked over next to the photographer, and started making faces, trying to get the boys to laugh. (They didn't.) I took a photo as well, with the Angkor Wat towers in the background. (I think this is my favorite photo of the day.) I bowed to the other photographer, who was surprised to see me. Then bowed thank you to the boys, and got several smiles and laughs, since they knew I was just being silly. I enjoyed my teenage monks!
Angkor Thom (pronounced "Tom") is the site of the old capital of the Khmer Empire. Parts date from the 10th century, but with the four faces of Buddha on the towers, we know this was built as a Buddhist site, not Hindu. (The four faces of Buddha represent the all-seeing and ever-present power of Buddha.) Most of the present structure dates back to the 12th century.
There are other wonderful stone carvings on the walls, representing various Bodhisattvas (saints) - often women, which I found interesting.
There are the original stairways up to the top level of the temple, very narrow and steep stone steps that aren't great for worn and slippery sandals. One of the women selling items told me that there were new, wooden stairs around the side, so that's where I headed to walk up. (I did watch some Chinese tourists struggling with coming back down the old stone steps, and that convinced me to take the wood steps!)
It really is incredible to see the Buddha faces up close!!! Best I can figure out, the towers were made from big blocks of stone, set in sort of a stepped pyramid kind of shape. Then the stones were carved to create the four faces of Buddha. I can't imagine the artists doing the carving on the ground, and then having people put the faces back together while building the towers. The only thing that makes sense is to build the tower and then carve the stone. But I don't have any proof of this, so who knows.
There were also wonderful carvings in the lower sides of the temple. Just as in Europe at the time, not everyone could read. So the stories and histories of the people as well as the religions were portrayed in images. While people think this is art history, it's also just the history of the people, of the culture. Pre-writing history.
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider)
Ta Prohm (ta-PROME) temple dates from the late 12th to early 13th century. This might be the best known temple to younger people, since the temple was featured in the movie "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider" - yes, the Angelina Jolie movie. My youngish driver, Heng, kept calling it the Tomb Raider temple. I've never seen the entire movie, so I have no idea what part the temple played in the movie.
But this is one of those temples where you can see the jungle trying to reclaim its territory. Really, the bush was cleared to make room for these temples, centuries ago. And ever since, the jungle is trying to take back the land. Trees grow on top of walls, or on porticoes and side temples, roots growing down the sides and eventually crushing the building beneath the weight of the tree.
Parts of the temple have been rebuilt by archaeologists, one giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Without a picture on the box to guide the re-builders.
In most of the temples, there are doors with steps up and down - I noticed that at many of these doorways, the steps are carved in almost a cloud shape. Just one more lovely detail created so many centuries ago. I always am amazed by the human need to make functional objects attractive and beautiful. Of course, there may be some kind of spiritual or religious concept behind the shape. Maybe one ascends another step toward Nirvana, raising higher in one's consciousness. Maybe it's sort of like Mary ascending to Heaven on a cloud. No idea. Just one of those archetypal images, clouds in the sky being somehow closer to heaven and the deity or deities, closer to perfection, closer to wisdom and paradise.
And while some religious sites of all cultures FEEL spiritual, sort of a calm and quiet and other-worldly sense to them, it isn't easy to get that sense here. I think there are too many tourists, too many visitors. Especially the people who need to pose in front of every carving or doorway to take a photo, the endless selfies to prove one was here. It kind of negates the universality of the spiritual, to focus so much on the self. (I'm not being critical here, although I do hate spending ten minutes waiting while people pose and re-pose and everyone in a group takes the same photo of each other. I'm just speculating about why these sites didn't feel as spiritual as, well, many other temples and cathedrals I've visited.)
Anyway, Ta Prohm really is a lovely temple with carvings and porticoes and colonnades. Absolutely movie worthy.
I know, this is a loooong blog - but it made more sense to put the temple trekking into one blog, rather than a blog each day. So, Neak Poam (pronounced NEE-ack POE-am) is the first of my three temples visited on day 2.
Yes, people walk up these stone or brick steps. No, I did not - there are the convenient wooden steps around the corner of the building, better suited to modern feet. (Plus while I'm not short, I'm not tall, so I prefer steps that don't make me feel like a mountain goat climbing sheer cliffs.)
I'm not sure if it was "bring your child to work day" or what, but this adorable little girl was hanging out with several of the guides and guards. Each temple has the blue-shirted guards, who check for tickets. The beige-shirted people are helpful guides, who have information about the temple itself, as well as can tell you where to find the wood stairs, or the bathroom, or whatever.
The lion guards stand sentinel all across the middle level of Neak Poam, with various towers rising skyward. There wasn't much information available either on site nor online, so I'm not sure of the age of this place. It would seem that most likely this began as a Hindu temple, given some of the images - the dancing figures, the elephants, all that. But, like most places in Cambodia, it eventually became Buddhist.
A guard or guide beckoned me over to a tower on the upper level, and showed me that it was actually a giant chimney, open to the sky! While some Israeli tourists told me that was where corpses were burned, since that is the Hindu practice, I'm not sure - the inside of the chimney wasn't black from years of soot and smoke. Maybe it was designed for that purpose but never used? Not sure - and my guide lady didn't speak much English. She did hand me a burning stick of incense, and showed me where to add the incense to a tiered holder. (And of course I added a small donation to the box. Oh - Cambodia uses both Cambodian riel and US dollars. Confusing, but, well, we adapt.)
Ta Som is a lovely Buddhist temple in the Angkor area. One is greeted at the front gate by the four faces of the ever-present, all-seeing Buddha. (And yes, it does seem as if Buddha is considered the deity here, rather than a teacher, as in some other Buddhist countries.)
One of the things I found interesting about this temple - well, most of these temples, actually - is that the doors and windows all seemed to line up. They were built in a straight line, perhaps symbolizing the straight and narrow path one must follow to Nirvana. It was often like looking down a well, or up a chimney, seeing the concentric squares or rectangles reaching on into seemingly infinity. I'm not sure of the meaning, but this centering of the apertures was most definitely deliberate and therefore symbolic of something.
Bas relief sculpture of armed guards stood on each side of windows and doors, with various women Bodhisattvas scattered inbetween. The women most likely showed different aspects of human nature, or characteristics of holy people - but I particularly liked this woman showing us her lovely earrings!
This temple was built somewhere in the late 12th-early 13th century.
According to the signage at Preah Khan, this temple was built in 1191 CE, ten years after the king, Jayavarman VII, ascended to the throne. He dedicated this temple to his father, Dharanindra, who is represented in the central sanctuary by the savior god Lokesvara. (Yeah, no idea how to pronounce these names.)
The name of the temple, Preah Khan, means "sacred sword" and was written in Sanskrit on the founding stele at the temple.
This temple compound was originally a thriving city, with various populations contributing to the functioning of the temple site.
The entrance to the temple was one of the most impressive, with a long road flanked by short pillars covered with dancing figures and deities.
I especially liked the giant guards standing outside the front entrance, although their heads had been removed. I was often told by the human guards that the heads of many statues were removed over the years by different conquering powers - most often named we the Thais, who supposedly removed the heads and smaller statues, to either sell or put in museums. Sort of like the Elgin marbles, right?
Centuries of tomb raiders. Long before Lara Croft.
The Greek or Roman looking building was the library at Preah Khan - kings often housed their libraries at the temples, since not everyone was literate. The monks, like the monks of medieval Europe, could read and write, and thus were responsible for keeping and caring for documents of the time.
This temple also featured the concentric doorways, with the stupa in the center. The black stupa replaced the statue of the king's father, which was removed. (Not sure why it was removed, nor where it was moved to.)
Banteay Srei (Lady Temple)
Banteay Srei (pronounced ban-tee-AY SRAY) is one of the oldest temples in the area, dating from the 10th century. This temple is Hindu, dedicated to the god Shiva. It's quite a distance (some 25 km, or 16 miles) from the other temples in the Angkor area, and located near a lake.
Even though it's older than many of the other temples, the carvings are much clearer, and the temple is in better condition than many.
Another unique feature about this temple is that it was built from red sandstone - so it has more color, and the sandstone is much easier to carve. (Although I would think it might erode more quickly than the stone used at some of the other temples, but that doesn't seem to be the case.)
Also, the buildings aren't built to the same huge, over-sized scale at the other temples (think of the size of Angkor Wat) - these buildings are built to a more human scale.
As you can see from my photos, there were huge groups arriving at the same time as I did. But I have tricks to avoid crowds - wander off to explore side buildings; walk around the outside for a bit; walk through the site, and then go through again once the crowds have dissipated; if everyone takes one direction, walk in the opposite. So I managed to see things without the ever-posing group. (Really, I tried to enter while a group of young ladies posed and re-posed umpteen times. I don't understand the need to pose in every single doorway or window, or next to each statue. Sorry, I just don't.)
So, popular Cambodian belief is that this is the Lady Temple. That women built the temple, that it housed female monks. Or nuns. Banteay Srei actually means "citadel of the women." However, scholars believe that the temple was named this both for its smaller scale as well as the beauty and intricacy of the carvings, and that it was never home to solely women monks or nuns.
The temple was consecrated in 967 Common Era, and is the only temple of the group NOT built under the auspices of a monarch. Credit for this temple complex is given to a courtier named Yajnavaraha, counsellor to the king of period, and grandson of an older king. Yajnavaraha was a scholar and philanthropist, who helped those suffering from poverty, injustice, and illness. His student was the future king Jayavarman V (ca. 968 - 1001).
There's a lovely park area behind the temple, and then one walk either to the left past a few other structures, or to the right to go on the "nature trail" which goes by the lake. Most people were heading left, so of course I went to the right.
Down by the lake, I met a group of the ever-present children who were selling postcards. Not that I buy much, we're travelling and have no room. Plus it's amazing how little one really needs. Anyway, the children are cute but persistent. I pointed out that the crowds were in the other direction, and they should try to sell there. The children explained that the police are there, and they will arrest them for selling postcards. And that they sell the postcards to make money to go to school - they sell in the morning, and go to school in the afternoon.
Okay, I'm a sucker for funny kids and school sob stories. We worked out a compromise where I gave them a thousand riel (worth 25 cents) and the youngest let me take her photo. We joked a little (the boy kept upping his price - "ten postcard for a million dollah") and then I walked off. One girl walked with me to show me which way to go, and we talked a little about school. But then she saw a policeman on a scooter and took off running - and before I could tell the cop that the child was just helping me find the route, he took off after her. Heng, my driver, told me that the cop won't put her in jail, just will take her to the station and scare her. That the policy is no children selling stuff to tourists, since some tourists find it annoying. I told him we should go to the police station so I could explain what happened. He said they'd listen and take her in anyway. I felt badly for the poor kid, but, well, what could I do? I tried. I offered. Sigh.
We're almost finished. I promise.
Banteay Kdei (ban-tee-AY k'DIE), meaning "citadel of the monks," dates from the end of the 12th to the beginning of the 13th centuries, under the rule of Jayavarman VII - grandson of the student of the guy who is credited with the Lady Temple, Banteay Srei.
This is a lovely Buddhist temple with the four-direction Buddha heads at the entrance gate. This temple complex once housed 274 statues and images of Buddha. Really! Two hundred seventy-four! And very few still stand. Most of them were broken by a group who splintered off from the Buddhists and became Brahmanists, a sect of Hinduism. So they didn't want statues of Buddha, and wanted a return to Hindu imagery. (Bodhisattvas were allowed to remain.) Sort of like the British iconoclasts who beheaded statues of saints, claiming them to be too Catholic and not Protestant. Or even the Taliban, and ISIS today, destroying artworks of non-Muslim periods in their countries. Scary, how some things never change. (I'd rather save the artwork. I'm not devout enough in any one belief to say I'm right, you're wrong, and all your stuff must be destroyed. Don't understand that concept at all.)
Anyway, some of those 274 Buddha statues were buried by the monks at the time, and are being excavated by archaeologists today. This is an ongoing restoration project, and you can see in the photos that some of the structures have reinforcing supports as they are being reconstructed.
This was the quietest temple I visited, with the fewest visitors. Very quiet and peaceful, and I was enjoying the meditative quality. Spiritual. Feeling the presence of centuries of worshippers, despite the upheavels this site has gone through.
As I wandered through the halls and corridors, I was beginning to just sort of float, intellectually. (I'm trying to set the stage for what happened next.)
So I'm getting all mentally relaxed and meditative and spiritual, and then I enter one room that just smells sort of (or really) like rat urine. With, uh, mouse or rat droppings around the place. And oh no, I'm sure I no longer hear the whisper of the wind, or the temple bells, I hear chattering rats!!!!! Seriously, I can hear them!!!! Ugh, nothing freaks me out more than rats! Even knowing there are snakes in Cambodia, cobras, that I might encounter a cobra while climbing around these ancient stones, doesn't scare me as much as a rat. Or a horde of rats!
So I have a sudden freak out! Maybe a rat panic attack. Seriously, my pulse starts racing and my breathing speeds up and I have to leave. NOW! Get out of this room, this hallway, and into open space that doesn't sound like rats!
Yeah, I know. I have no idea if there were really rats or not. Just felt like it.
So instead, I found a nice cow family. With tourists petting the very sweet little calf, who was happy to have her head scratched.
This is just a little temple, 10th century, standing all by itself, looking like a stepchild or orphan.
It has a tall central tower or pagoda, with two smaller buildings on each side. I think modern visitors enter from the back, since the doors are on the other side. Inside several of the structures are bas relief sculptures, portraying Hindu deities.
Made of red brick, the edges have weathered and darkened, so it looks a little like a roan horse, red with dark edges.
Very pretty little temple on its island in an artificial moat. This structure is being studied by archaeologists from a German university.
Thank you for joining me on this tour of nine temples in the Angkor region - hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!