Exploring the temples of Angkor

Siem Reap, 5-8 January 2020

The start to our trip around Cambodia couldn’t be better; when we land in Siem Reap around mid-afternoon a tuk-tuk is easily found to drive us to our hotel. Contrary to other countries we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks in Cambodia are spacious and comfortable and the driver offers us a fair price right away so there’s no need to haggle.

We’re booked in to a hotel/restaurant called The Tiney Fork, where we are greeted by Martin, one of the two owners. Martin immediately makes us feel welcome and we have time to rest up from a day of travelling and get a feel for the town.

Siem Reap has a population of about 140.000. The city has a cosy, well-balanced feel to it. It is touristic, but not to the point where this interferes too much with local life. Colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the old French Quarter and around Old Market on the river Tongle are mixed with wooden and metal shacks and tourist development. Siem Reap’s main attraction is the complex of Angkor, which was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, founded in the 9th century AD.

Our first evening we have dinner at a local eatery to try our first Khmer food: lok lak, which is a beef dish of French and Chinese influence. The local beer is cheap and cheerful at just $0.50 a pint.

The next morning we wake up early and refreshed, ready to start exploring the ancient Angkor temples. Martin and his wife Cheatta help us draw up a plan and we decide to start with the so-called small circuit by tuk-tuk.

Day 1: Small circuit

Han, our driver, first brings us to the ticket office before starting our explorations at Ta Prohm. Originally called Rajavihara, this temple was built in the late 12th century. The trees growing out of its ruins and the jungle surroundings make it one of the most popular temples.

Nearby we stop off at Ta Keo, a temple-mountain likely to be the first to be built entirely out of sandstone by the Khmers around the year 1000. The temple is believed to be dedicated to Shiva, and its central tower reaches a height of 45 meters.

Next we pass under an impressive entrance gate into Ankor Thom (lit: Great City), the last and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire, and, similar to Ta Prohm, established in the late 12th century. It covers an area of 9 square kilometers. Highlights of Angkor Thom include the ruins of The Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and most importantly The Bayon temple standing at its centre.

The Baphuon (established 11th century)

The Bayon’s most distinct feature is the collection of smiling stone faces on the towers clustered around its central peak. As one of the more richly decorated temples of Angkor, The Bayon is sometimes described as the baroque style of Khmer architecture. In our opinion it is definitely one of the most impressive structures at Angkor!

Got totally photobombed here!

The most famous site is saved for last when we visit Angkor Wat. A few other tourists seem to have the same idea.. Measuring 162 hectares, it’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. In fact, these days 97% of Cambodia’s population is said to follow Theravada Buddhism.

Hitting a near sensory overload at this point we’re happy to call it a day and retreat to the hotel to indulge in local draft beers and rice wine infused with bark, sold locally at the market in small plastic bottles.

Day 2: Big circuit

Today we’re back to renting a scooter. Yesterday, Han provided us with the perfect introduction to Angkor, so we’re ready to delve a bit deeper into the action at our own pace.

We make stops at Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Som and Neak Pean, each of which offers something unique.

Ta Som, recent addition to the restoration program (WMF)
Neak Pean, temple on the lake.

Before finishing the big circuit at Baksei Chamkrong and Phnom Bakheng, we make a stop off at Preah Khan. This structure was built in the 12th century for king Jayavarman VII to honour his father. It was the centre of organisation, with almost 100.000 officials and servants. Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, which means numerous trees grow among the ruins.

Not to get ‘templed out’ too much, we decide to mix things up a bit at this point and end the day at APOPO, a Belgian NGO, which trains southern giant pouched rats from Tanzania to detect landmines. These trained Hero-rats can sniff out anything from tuberculosis to narcotics, but the ones here are used to smell up to a trillionth of a gram of TNT. So far they have helped clear out over 45.000 landmines in Cambodia, great stuff!

When we get back to the hotel, Cheatta surprises us with palm wine and Khmer desserts she’s picked up from the market and we spend another another great evening with her and Martin a.k.a. the loveliest hosts in the world.

Day 3: Outlying area

Still feeling the effects of the night before a bit, we drive 40km north to Banteay Srei, another one of the older, 10th century temples, built largely out of red sandstone. The elaborate decorative wall-carvings are a sight to behold.

Driving outside the confines of Siem Reap gives us the chance to see a bit more of the countryside that makes up the larger part of Cambodia. We’re in the middle of the dry season and make regular stops to take in the surroundings.

On the way back we end up taking a wrong turn while trying to find Banteay Samre. After parking our scooter next to the dirt track we stumble into someone’s backyard where we’re given directions to the temple. Not long after we find what must have been the original entrance way to the temple. Then this appears:

Even more rickety than it looks.

All obstacles cleared, we arrive at the temple, where we’re the only visitors today. Banteay Samre is said to show similarities to some northeast Thai monuments. It was restored beautifully by Maurice Glaize during WW2.

To conclude our conquest of Angkor Wat I have one last trick up my sleeve: an arduous climb in the midday heat up to Phnom Bok. If this won’t finally sweat out the last of the palm wine, nothing will. Starting the ascent, I can see Lauren’s mind calculate: “You made me cross a dangerous bridge, now you’re making me climb a mountain..”. But we make it to the top, without any kind of fall-out, and the last temple is glorious(ly ruined), with some spectacular views over the surrounding area. Worth the effort, and this officially concludes our conquest of Angkor!

At its height over a million people lived in Angkor, while London at the same time only housed 50.000. Mind blowing stuff, one of the most amazing things we have seen on our travels!

The next morning we’re sad to have to say goodbye to Martin and Cheatta when we’re leaving for Kratie. Thank you both for an amazing stay, and we hope to see you again, in Siem Reap, Scotland or wherever!

2 thoughts on “Exploring the temples of Angkor

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