After our eight-day tour of Vietnam, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as the launching point for day-trips to the magnificent temples of Angkor. We had been looking forward to this visit ever since reading about the temples while researching our trip, but especially after meeting and hearing stories from other travelers doing the SE Asia circuit.
The temples of Angkor were built by successive kings of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 15th centuries. They served as monuments both to the king and to the gods, and are absolutely stunning in their structural perfection and decorative intricacy. The best-known and largest of the temples is Angkor Wat, which is the world’s largest religious building. When the Khmer empire fell to the Siamese army in the 15th century, the entire complex of some 100 temples was abandoned and eventually completely overgrown by jungle. It remained this way until the mid-1800’s when they were rediscovered by a French botanist, which led to years of restoration work.
We spent two full days exploring the temples with the help of a fantastic guide who taught us a lot about the temples and their history, as well as more recent Cambodian history and ongoing national issues.
Angkor Thom — This walled city was one of the last building efforts of the Angkor era and was enclosed by four defensive walls, as well as a moat. To enter the complex, you cross one of five causeways lined on one side with god images and on the other side with demons. The main temple within Angkor Thom is called Bayon and was one of our favorite sights. Each main tower has four smiling images — one at each compass point — that are possibly in the king’s likeness. They are huge and impressive, even in their somewhat crumbling state. These towers are surrounded by an outer wall that is chock-full of incredibly intricate bas-relief carving. Our guide explained many of the different carvings, which show aspects of daily life in the Angkor empire, as well as stories of warfare and battle.
Angkor Wat — This is one of those places where you arrive and can’t really believe that you are seeing through your camera’s view-finder the same image that you have seen in so many travel guides or coffee-table books. Walking down the causeway toward Angkor Wat gives you a first glimpse of the stunning temple, and we were more and more blown away by its scale and beauty the closer we got. Like at Angkor Thom, there is beautiful, intricate, and symbolically complex bas-relief carving on the main lower walls of the temple. We were glad to have our guide with us because he was able to explain the religious stories depicted in the carvings, and also give us background information such as how in the early ’90s an Indian restoration crew used a chemical for cleaning that ended up causing visible decay of the stone towers. Since the Angkor complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, apparently there are new and more regulated policies in that arena.
Ta Phrom — This temple was not completely cleared of its jungle covering, so there are still trees growing from the tops of walls, as well as roots that completely penetrate and snake out of the temple walls and roofs. It is a very cool sight and also served as one of the filming locations for Tomb Raider.
Benteay Srei — Some 30 kilometers from the heart of the Angkor temple complex, this tenth-century temple is well-known for its incredible intricacy and state of preservation.
Floating Village — During the afternoon of our second day in Siem Reap, we drove out of town to visit a floating village located on one of the river branches leading to the huge Tonle Sap Lake. We took a two-hour boat ride through the fully functioning village and saw floating restaurants, stores, battery generators, fish nurseries, and even a floating basketball court.
Finally, on our last night in Siem Reap, we met up again with our new German friends Joe and Bine, whom we originally met in Hanoi. We had been following a very similar route as they had been, so we ended up meeting for dinner in three different cities: Hue, Hoi An, and Siem Reap. (Hi, Joe & Bine!)