One of the main reasons Indi and I were excited about coming to Cambodia lies just outside of Siem Reap in a large temple complex known as Angkor Wat. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries (it’s a huge complex) to honor a variety of gods, the name ‘Angkor Wat’ is often used to refer to the entire complex, but in actuality it’s only one small part. ‘Small’ is an odd word, as the Angkor Wat itself is gigantic. Some say it was built as a recreation of the layout of the universe itself, while other point to it as a symbolic trip through Hindu creation. It was primarily built to honor the god Vishnu and is recognized as the largest religious building in the entire world.
We met our tuk-tuk driver, Dara, and arrived before dawn to watch the sunrise over the main spires. It was a moving experience and one I will never forget. At the time of it’s construction, the Khmer empire stretched from Burma to Vietnam and boasted over one million people. All buildings were wooden, from houses to workplaces to palaces, as stone was seen as a building block for the gods only. The attention to detail and painstaking work throughout Angkor Wat speaks to this constantly.
After a few hours of gawking and taking pictures, we entered the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom. It is surrounded by an impressive moat and equally impressive walls and boasts five entrance gates, all topped with the faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. Once inside, there are a variety of temples and terraces to visit. The first one ended up being one of my favorites of the entire experience: Bayon.
Bayon Temple was built around 1200 AD and, from a distance, looks like a disorganized pile of rocks haphazardly built into a series of walls and spires. Upon closer inspection, you see that it is not only well designed but has over 200 faces of Avalokiteshvara carved in all directions, giving one the ultimate feeling of being watched. This temple allowed some climbing and wasn’t as busy as Angkor Wat, so we were able to view and admire in peace for the most part.
After Bayon, we took a walk over to the Elephant Terrace. Historically, it was used for public viewings and ceremonies and served as an audience hall for the king. Today, it is a long raised walkway and not much else. At the far end of this terrace is a different, smaller raised platform known as the Terrace of the Leper King. It was used as a royal crematorium and has some impressive bas relief carvings in the cavernous trenches between it’s walls.
Our next destination took us beyond the walls of Angkor Thom to the over-crowded temple of Ta Prohm. A 12th century temple that is known for having huge trees growing throughout the complex, it gets it’s suffocating throngs of tourists from being features in several movies, most recently Tomb Raider. It wasn’t as impressive as we’d hoped, and were endlessly frustrated with the amount of people crammed into it’s maze of corridors and ledges. The recent typhoon rains had also left a few paths submerged and wet feet tend to make me cranky. We took some pictures and retreated back to our tuk-tuk in less than an hour.
Our final stop for day one was the outlying temple of Banteay Kdei. Indi was feeling a bit tired, as we’d been temple hopping for five hours at this point, so I had this one to myself. Since there was only one other couple in this temple, this was truly the case. It doesn’t get a lot of visitors, and it shows as it was much less restored in comparison to the others we’d seen. It wasn’t a built-up pyramid or a showy collection of buildings, but one long corridor of rooms and shrines. Several areas were being held up by wooden supports and some areas were roped off entirely as being too unstable.
Templed out for the day, Indi and I returned to our hotel and took a too-long nap. That evening we ventured out to Pub Street (the Siem Reap collection of restaurants and bars) and enjoyed a nice meal and a prolonged power outage for the entire city. Dinner by candlelight was romantic at least!