Amy and I at Pre Rup
Near the top of the temple
After leaving Sihanoukville with a stopover in Phnom Penh to break up the trip we arrived in Siem Reap – the base for exploring Angkor. Angkor (which I previously incorrectly referred to as Angkor Wat – I’ll explain later) is the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It was the “capitol” of the Khmer Empire which lasted from about 800AD through 1400AD. Depending on your source of information (and probably because it is too difficult to know definitively) the city of Angkor encompassed over 1,000 square kilometers and had about 1,000 temples/sites within that area. The second largest pre-industrial city in the world, Tikal – located in Northern Guatemala, is not even half the size of Angkor. The area is so large that they offer one, three, and seven day passes to visit the area surrounding Siem Reap. We opted for an exhausting one day pass meeting our tuk-tuk driver, Piron, at 5am.
Angkor is actually a series of Wats and areas of ruins to visit. Our itinerary was selected the night before and it would include a sunrise visit to Angkor Wat followed by Banteay Srei, a Landmine Museum, Pre Rup, Ta Phrom, Ta Keo, and finishing with Angkor
Carving - Angkor Wat
An example of a carving.
Thom. I’ll write about each one individually as they each deserve some mention in the blog.
Angkor Wat is probably the most famous of the temples and the reason why I had previously referred to the Angkor area as Angkor Wat. After being picked up at 5am we went and purchased our ticket and we arrived at Angkor Wat around 5:30am. We brought a flashlight, on the advice of some people from Australia that we met in Phnom Penh, and we made our way through the temple in the dark following the others with flashlights. A flashlight is absolutely necessary to navigate to the sunrise location in the dark – as the walkway has a rather large split in the rocks that would have been very painful, and possibly day ending, if we would have fell in it. After a 15 minute walk or so we joined about 100 other tourists, another 200 or so would flow in behind us before sunrise. We sat on the bank of an old water basin for Angkor Wat and watched the sun come up over the main temple. Unfortunately our pictures did not turn out very good, but it was a pleasant
Amy Angkor Wat
Amy at Angkor Wat
experience. Around 6:30 we left the group watching the sun and headed into the Wat. I was immediately impressed with the carvings on Angkor Wat. The Wat is mainly made from sandstone, which actually wears easily, but many of the original carvings were still rather well preserved. I would guess that about 90 percent of all the walls are carved – this includes window sashes, ceilings, and both sides of all walls. Overall we spent about two hours at the Wat and met up with Piron for our 37km trip to Banteay Srei. I must admit, at this point in the day I was a little unimpressed with Angkor – given that Angkor Wat is known as the “best” of the temples and it did not live up to my expectations (which I should not have set) I was not that excited to see the rest of the temples. The feeling of being unimpressed would significantly change as the day went on.
By 8:30am we were on our tuk-tuk ride heading for Banteay Srei – which was a really nice break since our day was already close to four hours long. The best part of the one hour
Taylor Angkor Wat
Me on the wall - everything you see is actually carved with some picture
journey to Banteay Srei is actually the wind. Cambodia is hot – stifling hot. It is humid too. By 11am it is getting close to unbearable and at 2pm you seek shade and anything cold constantly. It reminds me a little of our weather in Nicaragua. Throughout the day, after each temple, we looked forward to our tuk-tuk ride to help cool us down. At any rate, Banteay Srei is popular because its color (red hue) is different than the majority of other temples (greyish). The temple itself is rather small, as I was expecting given my initial unimpressed viewing of Angkor Wat. Where Banteay Srei really shined were the carvings – which were so detailed and elaborate it is hard to believe that they are in stone. After visiting Banteay Srei I distinctly remember Amy and I having a conversation that after so much travel things don’t seem so impressive or usually don’t seem unique/new. I remember seeing Chichen Itza, my first ruins, and just being awe struck. I was actually a little disappointed in myself for becoming “numb” to such wonderful/historical sites – but again my impression of Angkor was not complete and it would change.
Banteay Srei Carving
An example of the detailed carvings
landmine museum we visited was the lifelong dream that came to fruition of a local Cambodian, Aki Ra. Aki Ra started fighting with the Khmer Rouge around age 10, while fighting he became very skilled at setting landmines against the enemy. Years later he would decide that it was time to clean up the mines that he had laid – along with others in the country. Since the late 90’s he has cleared over 50,000 mines, many of them using unorthodox (not approved) ways as he did not have formal training until around 2006. The museum had many of his decommissioned mines on display and a video about him. The proceeds from the museum go to help child victims of land mines – thirty children live at the museum which acts as a school, hospital, orphanage, and of course a home. He was honored as a CNN top 10 heroes in 2010. There is a lot more to his story, truly and incredible one, but I will leave it at that. If you want to learn more just Google “Aki Ra.”
Next up came Pre Rup, which has yet to be “restored” as much as the previous temples we
At the top of the temple
had visited. For me, it was great to see Pre Rup in a condition more like what 800 years of nature would do to it. It made Angkor as a whole more “real.” Most ruins that are visited by tourists today have been excavated and carefully put back together and often times re-carved. It is a treat to see something “raw” and not refined. This is where my view of Angkor started to change – I was becoming impressed.
Before our visit to Ta Phrom we stopped off for some lunch, which would be our first meal of the day (around 2:00pm – we were hungry!). I had a sandwich and Amy had some fruit since the other food didn’t sound appealing to her. After a much needed energy boost and some happier bellies we headed for Ta Phrom.
Pre Rup was the introduction to the unrefined ruins, but Ta Phrom was the zenith. Ta Phrom is just starting to be “developed” which really means it is being put back together. However, there is only a small portion that is being worked on now and for the most part you see the ruins just as they have
Posing as the other Lion that is missing from Pre Rup.
been since the fall of the Khmer Empire. Enormous trees grew on top of and around the walls of the temples. Huge stones that used to be rock walls lay scattered on the ground, yet they are remarkably in great condition. However, the main parts of the temple and walls are still intact and essentially have become part of the forest floor. There was one particular area where a hallway used to be that showed exactly how the carvings can be preserved. The outside wall of the hallway has fallen down and the rocks were piled as if dumped from a dump truck. The inside wall remained perfectly together, almost as if they had not moved at all. The carvings on this inside wall were impeccable and elaborate – it was absolutely amazing!
From Ta Phrom we did a quick stop at Ta Keo which is a smaller temple that essentially you climb to the top of and then back down. This sounds really easy, but in practice it is more difficult than it seems for two reasons, the heat and the incline. At this hour, the beating Cambodian sun and sticky humidity probably had the real feel temperature
Tree on Wat
Ta Phrom - a tree growing over the wall - this wall is probably close to 20 feet tall.
somewhere around 110 degrees – this makes for a tiring climb up to the top. As for the incline, each step is probably more like two steps high, but they are only 4-5 inches deep – so it is almost like rock climbing. The view from the top was great and the shade inside the temple was deeply needed. A faster climb down and we were on our way to our last stop of the day.
Angkor Thom is actually a group of ruins itself, but they are all so close together that the area is known as Angkor Thom. We visited Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, and Terrace of the Leper King within Angkor Thom. As you approach Angkor Thom you are greeted by a stone carved gateway that is probably 30-40 feet high – very impressive itself. We drove through the gateway and our driver dropped us off at Bayon and told us to meet him near the Terrace of the Leper King. Bayon was a massive temple with an overpowering stance – it almost seemed more “aggressive” than the other sites we had visited. Inside and out the whole complex was covered with wonderful
Buddha heads at Bayon
rock carvings – several notable large Buddha heads made up the peaks of the temple. If it was our first temple of the day we probably would have spent 2-3 hours there but it was so hot and our daylight hours were limited so we ventured on. The rest of Angkor Thom was equally impressive as Bayon but for different reasons. There were large cisterns which I assume were the water and bathing source for the Angkorians – they were probably equal to a few Olympic swimming pools. There was a wall that was probably 100 meters long and had about 50 elephants carved on it, each elephant about 5 feet high by 8 feet wide. As our day winded down we knew the heat had gotten to us. As we walked towards the Terrace of the Leper King I started walking down stairs and Amy, literally 2 feet away from me started climbing down rocks. As she saw me walking down the stairs (which are about 10 feet wide) she looks and says, “Oh, there are stairs!” Uncontrollable laughter ensued and we decided it was time for some ice cold water and we were done for the day.
On top of one of the temples.
After twelve hours of exploring Angkor, and not even seeing 10 percent of what is known to exist I walked away absolutely amazed. For me, the day created more questions than answers. I couldn’t help but imagine how long it must have taken to put it all together, how many people worked on it, and what their lives must have been like. I would guess that throughout Angkor there are hundreds of square miles of rock carvings when you include both sides of all of the walls, ceiling, columns, etc. It is truly mind boggling to think about and absolutely amazing to see - out of all of the places I have visited (on this trip and others) I think Angkor is probably the most impressive.
Tomorrow we head to Bangkok – we made our circle through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. After a few days in Bangkok we plan on heading down to one of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand to do some diving and then probably over to the Andaman Sea. It is hard to believe we have just over a month left in our travels. It seems like so little time after
Inside of Hallway
Ta Phrom - an untouched piece of carving the rock in the foreground is the exterior of the hallway
how much we have done and how much there is yet to see and do! On the other hand, it is easy to remember that most people might get a week or two a year to do things like this, if that – we have had nearly half a year already!
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