Angkor – family style sprinkled with rain
When you hear Cambodia, you see Angkor Wat and if you dont, they you may have to update your general knowledge, because those two are inseparable, like Paris and her tower, New York and its lady, only more. The connection is so strong that a few years ago, when a Thai actress said that the temple belongs to her country, riots broke out in Phnom Penh and the Thai embassy was destroyed. Turns out the report was wrong.
Angkor Wat may be famous, but its only a small part of the incredible Angkor that housed the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries.
I am not sure if we would have gone out of our way to visit the country, but since it was on our path, we ended up in Siem Reap (on the bottom of the map) and looked forward to visiting the temples. We knew very little about the country and the area and what it held for us, but quickly got up to speed with a few books that we found around the guesthouse.
Most people wake up in the inhuman hours of the day to get to Angkor Wat for the sunrise views. There is very little that will manage to get us out of bed at 5am, so we were not in our tuk-tuk before we had finished our breakfast.
Our first temple was more than an hour away and the ride was the best way to start the day. As we passed the waking villages showing us the lives contained within them, the cows munching on everything, people plowing the rich green rice fields and bicycles passing by, the smiles never left our faces.
Big buses would swoosh past from time to time, as did the air-conditioned cars, but my advice will be to do it in a tuk-tuk and get the full feeling of the area – enjoy the morning breeze, the sounds of the kids running around and of the dogs barking in the distance. Trust me, no bus can compare.
Banteay Srei is the “Citadel of the Women”, most likely because of its size and extensive covering of devatas (female deities who are not in dancing poses). Its miniature compared to the rest of the buildings around, but houses the most intricate of carvings.
It is a beautiful temple and a great way to start the explorations in Angkor. It is the place with most amenities we encountered, well organized and kept. Still, my kids felt that they could contribute something and insisted on sweeping the grounds with a few brooms they found…somewhere.
Back in our tuk-tuk we savored the way back.
Next, we chose Preah Khan. I read that it is one of the main temples left reasonably unrestored and this appealed to us. A lot of the sights cannot be reached by the vehicles and involve walking through the jungle, and if its rainy, a muddy beautiful path. Since it was low season there were very few tourists around and we had a lot of the places to ourselves and it made the experience even better.
The temple is quite big and the king may have lived here while Angkor Thom was being built. The experience of it is quite spooky in a way, because of all the long and dark corridors that spider from four directions into the middle, where the king’s father’s ashes are kept in a small stupa, to whom the king dedicated the temple. There is rubble everywhere and a lot of the areas are out of reach, but I loved this place, probably more than the beautiful Banteay Srei (above).
The stupa in the middle:
A lot of the bigger temples have more than one entry/exit, so we ended up coming into them one way and leaving another. This is the way we left Preah Khan:
A little reminder of where we are.
The Angkor is quite spread out and most of the times you are passing through the forest on dirt roads. Thankfully there is not a lot of development going on yet and no fancy restaurants or clean smooth highways bypassing the local life. Still, food and drink is never far away, so no need to pack a picnic. The biggest variety can be found outside of Angkor Wat, of course, but its not the only option and apparently not the cheapest. We sat down in a basic open air shack restaurant and ordered some food, which turned out to be quite tasty. Our tuk-tuk driver gets a free meal for bringing us in, so he refused our offer to join us and instead laid in their hammock to rest.
And then the rains came in.
It poured and poured and a scramble of drivers ran out to cover their tuk-tuks with a set up of well thought out pieces that roll out of the roof and can be zipped together to keep the inside dry. The hammock that Roth was enjoying was empty, as he quickly adorned a pink rain coat and in no time had the job done.
We thought, meh, it will be finished soon and continued to enjoy our lunch and the view. Soon the first rain was finished and the second didnt look any different. Maybe by the time we get to Angor Thom it will be done – we though, and we entered the pounded by the rain tuk-tuk.
The rain was making everything into the distance gray, I was not sure where we are going, but managed to see the gate to the ancient city from the back of our tiny enclosure.
Roth parked right next to the Elephant’s terrace and we waited. The earth was an orange lake with rivers flowing through. The rain sounded loud on our rubbery roof. It didnt look like it was ready to stop, any-time-soon. And then gurgle..Gurgle…BANGGGG, the scariest thunder shook our whimsical safety vehicle. The kids were now not so happy – “Mom, look at all this metal”, and neither was I, as I felt we were in the middle of this open area alone, prime to be zapped. The fun and adventure was banged out of me and I needed to have a plan B, if this turns into a full blown horrible thunderstorm. Roth got us 5 rain coats ($2) from the stalls nestled near the trees and we ventured out, free to hide in the rocky formations.
Little B was in her domain, she needs no rain protection and would have swam in those streams happily.
The Bayon they say, is the temple you should see along side Angkor Wat, if you are really short on time, or interest in that matter. And I cannot argue, it is a very interesting place. On the lower level you can see another example of detailed bas reliefs, mostly depicting daily life scenes and big battles. On the inner walls the images change and show mythological stories of various deities.
What really set this place off for us, though, were the serene looking faces, dotted everywhere on the top level and facing the cardinal directions. Big, no, enormous slabs of stone brought to life with these soft voluptuous, all-knowing faces that gave the place a very eery feeling. There is a bit of a mystery as to know they are supposed to be – maybe Siva, maybe Buddha, maybe the king or someone else – but not knowing I think only adds on to the experience.
The kids and Mr.Blab agreed, that was the best one so far.
Second last, we visited Ta Prohm – built before Preah Khan (above) by Jayavarman VII, this time dedicated to his mother. It was originally a Buddhist monastery with a lot of power and wealth, boasting a formidable collection of jewels and gold. When rediscovered in the early 20th century by the French and Maurice Glaize, they decided to leave it without restoration to cater for those with a taste for the picturesque. What a splendid idea, because it turns out we are definitely one of those people.
This place is magnificent. The fig and silk cotton trees, having carved and fought their way through the cracks in the ruins, stand tall and remind you of how old the temple really is. You dont need to be told or to read a thick book with long names written by important historians. Its right there.
Seems like some restorations have been done or are in the process of being done. There are a few wooden walkways and most of the small vegetation has been cleared, but so far nothing drastic. I am not sure how long they can leave it at this raw state, as there are a few areas that are marked as dangerous, the trees probably keep on eroding the walls, but I hope they find a way, because as it stands, this is the one that took our breath away. And the rain earlier? Only added to this temple – come after it pours to get the full effect.
And this became our favorite.
Best for last, we made it to Angkor Wat. The world’s largest religious building, a masterpiece of Khmer architecture this is supposed to be a spiritual experience in itself. Built in the 12th century, initially it was a Hindu temple, gradually becoming Buddhist in the 13th. Hidden behind an impressive moat full of water to this day and which probably protected it from the jungle during the last few hundred years, it is probably the best preserved temple in Angkor.
The entrance to it only raises your expectations. First you cross the sandstone causeway through the moat and then after passing the giant gates you enter the deep green grounds, in the past housing the people and their wooden houses, which have long become part of the soil, I imagine. Then follows a long stone walkway lined with Seven-Headed Nāga serpents, which represent the seven races in the Naga society. Those can be found at the entrances of many of the other temples, be it a lot shorter.
Then you enter the expansive inner galleries and towers.
I took very few photos in there. My elation was left hanging in the moist air. The building is huge, no doubt, but it had very little appeal to me. The moment my daughter said “Is this it?” I knew it was not only me feeling this way. It had none of the charm of the small intricately carved Banteay Srei, definitely little of the mystic spiritual feeling provided by the faces in the Bayon, and none of the intimate feeling of history served in a thick slice by Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.
The only saving grace were the bass reliefs decorating the outer walls of the temple.
So slowly walking out, we savored the scenes lining the long corridors.
Turns out, we enjoyed Angkor Wat best from a far. It looks amazing as you walk in – big and impressive set in its lush green surrounds and protected by the vast moat. If you want a good picture for your records, dont miss the little pond to the side of the walkway, which I am sure will deliver a great shot at sunset (the temple faces West), although its not too bad on a cloudy gray day either.
Even though Angkor Wat was a disappointment to us, especially having looked forward to it crowning our day, the rest of Angkor as a whole is an experience not to be missed. The old temples rich in history and meaning mixed in with the village life that runs at slow speed around them set in beautiful vistas of rice fields and palm trees make for a day or a few well worth the entry fee ($20 per adult (1 day), $40 (3 days), children free).
But no doubt, we enjoyed the sneak peak into the local life and the people the most.