Angkor What?

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November 26th 2014
Published: November 26th 2014
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We spend the next 2 days in Cambodia exploring the temples and ancient civilization of Angkor. "Angkor Wat" is often used to denote the entire complex of multiple temples, but it is actually just one site in Angkor, an ancient city and temple, and all of the other temples have specific names and played different roles throughout history. The first mention of civilization in Angkor is from Chinese literature in the 7th century, from merchants who likely came there for trade. It was an ideal center of commerce as it allowed for control of the isthmus of Kra at the neck of the Malay peninsula. There seemed to be a lot of political turnover and unrest until 790 when King jayavarnan II came into power. The wars against the Vietnamese then ceased for a period of time and the construction of the temples began sometime later.

The temples were constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries under various kings. They began as Hindu temples, but then had some Buddhist influences under King Jayavarnan VII. However, his successor, Jayavarnan VIII, was Hindu and worked to eradicate most of the Buddhist influences during his reign.

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are actual cities where the kings and citizens lived (Angkor Wat means "city of temples") where as the other structures are temples meant to house Hindu deities. Therefore, most of the smaller temples have multiple small rooms and steep narrow staircases because they were never meant for human inhabitation. Angkor Thom is the largest structure, but Angkor Wat is arguably the most famous. Angkor served as the hub of Cambodian civilization until the 13th century when trade and commerce shifted focus to Phnom Penh. People continued to live in Angkor until the 16th century when it was ultimately abandoned. Excavation and preservation started mainly in the early 19th century, and different countries have adopted specific temples, such as Paris, China and India.

We have our free breakfast at the hotel and Ang picks us up in a tuk tuk. You can do guided tours in a bus, or take a motorbike or a push bike as lots of travelers do. There are long distances between each of the temples though, and in order to see as much as you can, I think a tuk tuk is your best bet, and you can hire one for the day for around $15.00.

You can but 1, 3, or 7 day passes. We buy 3 day passes for $40/person. The first day we do the inner circle, starting at Angkor Thom. We first pause at the southern gate of Angkor Thom, which in itself is quite impressive, and the street is lined with large monster guards defending the city. Once we get inside the park, Jason and Sasha kick off the trip with an elephant ride. The ride itself is a bit underwhelming, but we got to feed the elephant in the beginning, and watching that majestic animal take down a whole pineapple in two smiling gulps was pretty fun. He uses his trunk as a feeler for his curiosity, and the trunk tip would contract and bend and reach around to sniff you out. So funny. I was about the size of one of his legs. They rode around Angkor Thom for 15 minutes. The conductor did not use the whipping stick, but sat on the collar and pulled on two ropes with his toes to guide the elephant. I have heard some questionable accounts of how elephants are raised and treated, so opted out of the ride. Our 44 year old elephant seemed happy enough I must if I actually have any idea.

Angkor Thom is massive. It consists of the temple, the "Bayon" which means "center of the universe" which is comprised of multiple towers with faces on them, the elephant terrace, leper king terrace, and the royal palace where the king lived. The construction of the temples is interesting. Though the scheme is massive and wholly impressive, most things were constructed by piling square stones of laterite or sandstone on top of each other without mortar or caulking. That's why with time so much of the construction crumbled under its own weight and weathering devoid of internal structure.

We continue in a clockwise loop seeing Ta Keo, or mountains of golden peaks constructed entirely of sandstone; Ta Phrom, where Tomb Raider was filmed Tomb Raider;East Mebon, a large temple surrounded by elephant statues that used to be surrounded by a 5m man made lake which has now dried up, and ultimately Angkor Wat. Ta Phrom may be my favorite. It has been invaded by huge trees which grow through and dominate the surrounding buildings, and the French decided to let it stay in this overgrown natural state. It lends a feeling of etherealness. I don't think that's a word, but, you know.

Angkor Wat is also really impressive. It is extremely well preserved, and the structures and murals are fastidious. There is a 49m long panel demonstrating the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, a Hindu tradition of the beginning of the world in which an army of Asuras (demon enemy of gods) fight over the Amrita, or the elixir of life. That's what my book tells me anyway. It's fun to walk and see the story played out.

Day 2 we arise at 4am to get sunrise pictures of Angkor Wat. Jason got elbowed out of sunset pics the day before, so we arrive early to stake our spot. After that, we do the greater circle, including Preah khan, a Buddhist university dedicated to queens mother;

Neak Pean, a temple on an Island on a lake fed from 4 rivers, Lake


Ta som, a small intricate temple;

Preah ko, a temple of 6 towers, and Bantay srei, which is the only non religious building which was constructed by the king's architect and noted as the "citadel of beauty". It is tiny on Angkor standards and a drive out of the city, but has a gorgeous pink sheen and is very well preserved. Day 2 is far better than day 1, as we are going to the less frequented temples and sometimes there are only 5-10 tourists. So much better. Eventually we go to the Bayon for some sunset pics and that was the end of our temple tour. At that point, I was templed out, but really enjoyed the visit. And absolute must do, though all temples in your future travels will then pale in comparison.

Tips for Angkor Wat:

Try to avoid the peak times in the temple, avoid the popular sunrise and sunset places, because there are plenty that are less popular and are still amazing.

2) a tuk tuk is a great option for the tour. I would suggest getting up super early and doing the early morning, taking a lunch break and heading back to the hotel, and then going back late afternoon. You'll beat the crowds and the heat.

3) don't skip the greater circle! Less trodden and spectacular

4) pick up a book on the history of Angkor from one of the vendors at the market. I bargained mine for $5. Having the book describe the history and the highlights of the temples really enhances the tour.

5) if you want a tour guide, you have to arrange it with your hotel prior to going to the temple. But you cannot just show up and get a guide.

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