the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.


A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

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