Siem Reap’s main temples – a whistlestop tour

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Siem Reap has so much history, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Angkor Wat is of course the most famous ancient site to visit.  There are however a number of other significant temple complexes surrounding Siem Reap – Angkor Wat in fact means “city of temples”. The area also reveals the middle-aged history of the region – the literal translation of Siem Reap provides the first clue – Siam Defeated. All the temples surrounding Siem Reap were originally Hindu Khmer temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries to establish the capital of the Kumer empire.  This empire covered an area that is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam and at its height, Siem Reap’s population was around 1m people – the largest city in Asia.

Photo credit: Ancient  History Encyclopedia: http://www.ancient.eu.com/Khmer_Empire/

Photo credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia: http://www.ancient.eu.com/Khmer_Empire/

With the decline of the Kumer empire, some of the temples were converted to Buddhist use before being abandoned for around 300 years, during which the jungle started to reclaim its territory.  The first Westerner to see these temples is believed to be Portuguese monk António da Madalena around 1586, although French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot is widely credited as rediscovering Angkor Wat it in 1861.  Siem Reap has progressively attracted more and more visitors since then.  Today, it is Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction and this is obvious when you visit.  My day at the temples started with Angkor Wat at sunrise…

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Beautiful and serene.  Of course I wasn’t the only one to get up at 4.30am and take this lovely image.  Here is the view to my right and left…

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The numbers at sunrise pretty much set the tone for the day. After sunrise, I returned to the hotel for breakfast and wait for the full tour included in the Cambodia hash nash weekend.  At around 9am the coach departed. Our first temple of the day was The Bayon – a 12th century temple famous for the faces carved into the architecture…

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The Bayon is a bit like one of those pictorial puzzles that goes round the internet to test mental agility – spot the faces. Here are some detailed images incase you can’t see them….

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Unfortunately there were more human faces at The Bayon – far too many. The upper levels were very crowded making it nigh on impossible to absorb and take in this magnificent temple…

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Furthermore, staged picture opportunities like this did not encourage people to move on though The Bayon – as well as being a bit tacky…

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After 45 minutes or so, I was glad to get out of The Bayon, although it is most certainly worth seeing.  Next stop was Ta Prohm – a late 12th century temple which, as our guide immediately pointed out, gained more recent notoriety as one of the locations for the film Tomb Raider…

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Thankfully Ta Prohm was less crowded, or at least it felt like it to begin with.  I walked around the outside almost on my own and admired what Ta Prohm is most famous for – the trees that are now growing in and over many of the buildings…

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Once I ventured inside the temple, the survival of detail was quite astonishing given the ravages of the harsh tropical climate over hundreds of years…

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I enjoyed Ta Prohm a lot more.  The trees were fascinating and the temple was a lot more peaceful.  Yet there was no escaping the crowds…

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… or their cool tropical fashions…

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Ta Prohm reminded me of Ross Island in the Andaman Islands, another place where the jungle has reclaim its territory from man.

Our lunch stop was pleasant, but rather lengthy – our departure delayed due to broken air conditioning on the coach.  This gave us an impromptu souvenir shopping opportunity and I got acquainted with some local children selling bits and pieces. They were all very charming and polite, but it saddened me they were not in school…

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Our  last temple visit was Angkor Wat. We entered via the east entrance, ambling through a lovely treelined track passing more ruins….

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The track soon led us to the rear entrance to Angkor Wat…

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Built between 1113 and 1150, Angkor Wat is on three levels, with the top level a rather perilous climb  up a set of steep wooden stairs to the most sacred part of the temple…

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I didn’t attempt this climb, instead taking in some of the temple architecture detail …

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Inside I learned a little more about the ancient Kumer beliefs and the life they led.  Here is an amazing carving depicting the struggles with the snake, which represents evil and the dark side…

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Inside the temple there are many corridors connecting living and worshipping areas – and even a couple of ancient swimming pools.  Angkor Wat is a genuinely amazing place.  Imagine having this view and these grounds to wander around everyday…

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As I left Angkor Wat, I navigated my way past a number of vendors selling refreshments and souvenirs.  All are very friendly and not too pushy – which makes a really nice change…

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Siem Reap and the temples are well worth visiting – you don’t need to be an academic on Kumer history and culture to assimilate the scale and sense of this amazing 1000 year legacy.  The scale, detail and organisation of this civilisation is incredible. It is worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status and I am astonished it didn’t make the list of the new 7 wonders of the world, achieving a place as a runner-up.  I have been to the Pyramids several times, and Petra – in my view Angkor Wat is certainly up there with them!

Advice for those planning a trip

I was on a guided bus tour with 40 others, so didn’t get to hear all the guide had to say – plus we invariably ran to the slowest member of the group. So here is my advice – visit Angkor Wat independently.  It is very easy to set up on arrival.  Here are my other tips:

1.  Visit for three days.  A day ticket costs $20 and a three day ticket costs $40. Seven day tickets are also available. Tickets must be purchased in person as your photograph is taken at payment for your non-transferable ticket.  The ticket office is at the entrance to the Angkor Archaeological Park and is open from 5am to 6pm.

2.  The entrance to the Angkor Archaeological Park is about 20 minutes from Siem Reap.  There are Tuk Tuks and taxis everywhere in Siem Reap, so on arrival find a Tuk Tuk man you like, negotiate a price – this varies from $10 – $20 a day – or less, depending on how long you want him for.  Most speak good enough English and do this everyday, so will take you to wherever you want to go. The Tuk Tuk man will never lose you – trust me. You can also hire an official guide to go with you.  Ask at your hotel or when you buy your ticket. Here is ours – with come colleagues from other groups.  Official guides were this official uniform…

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3.  The best advice I was given by a fellow hasher was to get up for the sunrise – it really is wonderful to witness, despite the crowds.

4.  After sunrise, have breakfast at Angkor Wat.  There are many restaurants at the sunrise spot, or you can take a picnic.  By doing this, you will beat the crowds and the heat of the day, allowing you to relax in the afternoon.

Finally, make sure you wear headgear and take water – it really is hot there!

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