End-July I spent almost a week with the family in Siem Reap, Cambodia, visiting the various sites around Angkor. The heritage from the old Khmer civilization. The trip hugely exceeded my expectations and I can recommend anyone to put Angkor on their wish list.
Much has been written about Angkor and I certainly do not have the aspiration to turn this into a comprehensive write-up on temples, history, architecture, etc. I’ll merely try to convey the beauty through some selected pictures. What turned our trip into a fantastic experience overall was the choice of the tour guide, the hotel and a couple of extra’s we added and helped make the difference, like a visit to the Angkor National Museum the last day or attending an Apsara dancers show during one of the evenings. In addition a good guide book is mandatory, if only to read up on Angkor before visiting. From several books I ordered I have found “Angkor, Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples” by Dawn Rooney to be the best one.
We stayed at the Heritage Suites Hotel in Siem Reap. It is associated with the “Relais & Chateaux” association of hotels and we chose it based on the high ratings it received in Trip Advisor. We were not disappointed! This is a little jewel. A boutique hotel nestled in a quiet corner of Siem Reap. The suites are just fantastic. Spacious, clean, beautifully decorated and well appointed. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful with any request. You receive better than 5 star service in relaxing and friendly surroundings.
To assist us with our visit I contacted what turned out to be an extremely professional and effective tour company, About Asia Travel, based in Siem Reap. They designed an itinerary taking in to account the diverse needs of our group aged from 8 to 74. As a result we had a planning designed that accommodated everyone’s wishes from photography to easy walking. We managed to avoid the large crowds in many places and see some of the sites from a very different angle. Above all our tour guide Mr. Bunchay was fabulous. His knowledge was outstanding, his patience and friendliness exceptional.
A “not-to-miss” activity is getting out of bed at 4:30am to be on time at Angkor Wat for the traditional sunrise picture. While it has been done a million times over and beautiful copies can be bought, no version of the sunrise is more treasured than the one you took yourself. Just because it shows you and everyone else you have been there. You got up early and you pried yourself a spot on the front line in between the hundreds of other visitors who have exactly the same ambition. So here’s my version of the Angkor Wat sunrise.
The temple at Angkor Wat is the most recognizable feature of the entire archeological site. It’s represented on the flag of Cambodia showing the importance it carries for the entire nation. It’s not clear whether it was built as a temple (to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu) or as a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II who had it built in the first half of the 12th century. It is estimated it took about 30 years to build. It’s remarkable in many ways. First it’s one of the best if not the best preserved structure as over the years the jungle did not take over. Key reason is that it became a place of worship over the years and hence was always well kept and attended to by Buddhist monks in particular. The most sacred part is the upper level. It is closed on Buddhist holidays. The conical center tower represents Mount Mehru, the seat of Lord Shiva, in Hindu religion. The center of the universe. A must see in addition to the upper level is the galleries of bas-reliefs representing three main sources, Indian epics, sacred books or warfare during the Angkor period.
The Bayon temple is another amazing structure. It’s about 100 years younger than the Angkor Wat temple. Built by Jayavarman VII dedicated to the Buddhist religion. The majestic impact of the temple comes entirely from the more than 200 very large faces carved on the 54 towers. Yet it also has impressive bas-reliefs.
Ta Prohm’s beauty lies in many aspects. First and foremost in the fact that not much of the jungle in and around has been cleared by the archeologists. Hence it leaves the visitor with the same impression as the early explorers who encountered the sites of Angkor shrouded in jungle growth. Large trees have rooted themselves in to the structures. The temple was built by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist temple dedicated to his mother. It’s very large and very appealing to any visitor because of the impression it leaves of still being “un-touched”. When wandering around one feels that “Lara Croft” will be around the corner somewhere anytime.
My personal favorite is Bantey Srei, “Citadel of the Women”, about 25km north of Siem Reap on the road to Kbal Spean. It was built in the 2nd half of the 10 century, so it’s older than Angkor Wat, and it is dedicated to Lord Shiva. What makes it remarkable is that while it is older, the decorations are extremely intricate. The fact that they are very well preserved adds to the charm of the place. The hard pink sandstone which allowed for sandalwood-like carving amplifies its appeal.
Kbal Spean, the “River of a Thousand Lingas” lies about 10km east of Bantey Srei. It requires an arduous 2 km climb through the jungle to a small river. The bedrock of the river is covered with plenty of Hindu inspired carvings of the various Gods (Brahma, Vishnu, etc.) and with plenty of “lingas” interspersed. Lingas represent (male) fertility and Lord Shiva’s creative energy force.
The Gopura is an omnipresent feature for all temples and structures at Angkor. It’s a gateway and is a main feature of the walls that surround the temple. Some look like really large gateways with three trunked elephants in the corners and Buddha-like faces on the four sides of the central tower. They can be well over 15m tall.
What makes all these temples and buildings so unique is that they are covered with intricate carvings, be it on the walls, the lintels above the doorways, the bas-reliefs in the galleries, the roofs, etc. The carvings represent apsara’s, angel like female divine figures, Buddha like faces, Hindu mythology figures and stories. They are very detailed. Some are better preserved than others, or have suffered less from erosion and vandalism. Some have not been completed and provide an insight on how they were established starting from the plain face of the stone to the final carved out individual pieces of art. Each one is unique though and also gives a good representation of Khmer culture in the Angkor period.
A definite must is to attend the classical dance performance at the Apsara Theater of the Angkor Village. It’s a small wooden theater in the shape of a wat with limited seating. A set menu is provided. The dance performances are exquisite and make it obvious that what is today for instance also known in Thai culture, merely has it’s roots in Khmer culture. The same troupe can also be seen performing at Angkor Wat temple during the day.
What makes Angkor attractive also is that it is not a museum. It’s a location that is still very much alive and part of the daily lives of the Cambodians. Most temples are still in use so you can see plenty of Buddhist monks wandering around. You see old ladies attending to the shrines inside the temples, you see plenty of children trying to convince the tourists to buy souvenirs and postcards.
Last Updated: 23-09-2012
Copyright © 2012 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved