By Betty Gordon
© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.
My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the ninth post in the series about our experiences.
There are few more famous archaeological sites in the world than the temples of Angkor, on the outskirts of the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. To maximize the experience of touring the renowned Angkor Wat, a visit should coincide with sunrise or sunset. We opted for the early morning viewing.
Our guide, “Tony,” and our tuk-tuk driver picked us up at 4:30 a.m. from our hotel lobby. Streetlights are few in Siem Reap, so the 10- to 15-minute ride to the booth to buy our entry tickets was lighted only by our tuk-tuk’s headlight.
Some brave souls were bicycling on our right, negotiating a path with even less light than we had.
We had our photos taken for our IDs, and Tony purchased our tickets, $40 each, to enter Angkor Archaeological Park. At each temple, we were asked to show our ID, and purchasing the multi-day pass also saved time the next day.
Tony pulled out his smartphone and turned on its light. This was our “beacon” as we moved forward. The light attracted an energetic swarm of tiny insects as we walked up the uneven stone stairs and down the path to our positions in front of the pond at Angkor Wat, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1992.
Because we were so early, we were able to occupy space close to the pond’s edge. It was not uncomfortably crowded as our visit was undertaken during the shoulder travel season. Tony said that in high season, November to February, as many as 5,000 visitors a day tour the temples. In our time frame, he said it drops to 1,000 a day or lower.
Even in near total darkness, we could make out the iconic silhouette of Angkor Wat’s five towers. Over the next 40 minutes, as night predictably gave way to dawn, the sky became a brilliant mix of light orange, pastel pink and pale purple until the muted sunlight brought the structure into sharper focus.
Because of the haze, we knew we wouldn’t be lucky enough to get crisp photographs of the sun rising behind the towers, but our pictures would capture the palm trees and the temple reflected in the pond, the image of which has been depicted on many a postcard.
The temperature was already soaring, as was the humidity. The thought that I would take notes was quickly abandoned, knowing that my notebook paper would straightaway stick to my sweating wrist and anything I had jotted down would become an illegible mess.
Fortunately, I had studied an excellent book about the complex before leaving home. This not only familiarized me with the temples we had on our itinerary, but served to individualize the historical figures and the religious components we’d be seeing.
For anyone going to Cambodia, I highly recommend “Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook,” third edition, by Michel Petrotchenko (Amarin Printing and Publishing PCL, 2014, $22.95). Not only is it a work of scholarship, but it’s also a labor of love. The author says he’s been fascinated with the temples since 1994, and has visited more than 50 times to perfect his presentation.
The full-color guidebook capsulizes more than 80 temples before delving deeper into most of them. Detailed, color-coded diagrams and floor plans of each temple, photographs, extreme close-ups and descriptions of the architectural characteristics (carvings, statues, bas-reliefs, religious figures, etc.) provide a wealth of information.
Particularly helpful is the chronology of 500 years of Khmer kings, giving the reigning years of each and which temples were constructed under his rule.
Rereading parts of the volume after I returned home also aided in identifying some of my photographs. While at the temples, there is so much to see and absorb that visitors can easily be overwhelmed. Thus, having a top-notch guidebook served to unjumble my brain.
From the ninth to the 15th century, the Khmer kings ruled from Angkor, a region north of Tonle Sap Lake in what today is north-central Cambodia. Over the centuries, hundreds of temples were constructed, built to house representations of the divinities of Buddhism and Hinduism.
With state-of-the-art technology, some of the temples are still being rediscovered deep in the Cambodian jungle.
A combination of factors may have led to the decline of the Khmer empire, but Petrotchenko believes the most logical explanation is the repeated attacks by the Siamese kingdoms from the north. The Khmer capital relocated east, then south, finally settling in Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, jungle overgrowth swallowed the magnificent temples.
By the 1860s, Cambodia had become a French protectorate, though the Siamese still controlled Angkor. The French dispatched a team to judge the navigability of the Mekong Delta, and the mission included a three-week study of Angkor, thus “discovering” the hidden wonders for the modern world.
Angkor Wat is considered to be the greatest achievement of a Khmer king, in this case Suryavarman II (1113-1145/50?). The five sanctuaries at the summit represent “the five peaks of mythological Mount Meru, the Himalayan abode of the 33 Vedic gods led by Indra,” Petrotchenko writes. (Indra is the god of the heavens, war and weather.)
It’s surrounded by an immense, rectangular moat, representing the cosmic oceans.
We followed Tony around the site as he pointed out scenes of daily life and some of warfare depicted on the bas-reliefs. One figure that we quickly learned to identify ourselves was the naga, a mythical snake represented as a multi-headed cobra. Most impressive were the naga balustrades, pillars topped with the snake’s head almost in the form of a fan. This type of balustrade is most often found on the causeways crossing the moats.
There is quite a bit of climbing to undertake if you want to make the most of your visit. While I carefully scaled the steep stairs, grabbing a thin iron railing, to Angkor Wat’s highest level, Susan and Tony waited below.
We could have spent hours here, but we had to move on. The other temples we visited on the first day were Angkor Thom (featuring the Bayon), Ta Prohm, Sra Srang and Prasat Kravan. (Prasat translates as “sanctuary.”)
Of these, Ta Prohm might be the most well-known, in that some scenes in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” the 2001 movie starring Angelina Jolie and a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig, were filmed at the temple. The film also marks the beginning of Jolie’s serious interest in Cambodia.
The most recognizable feature at Ta Prohm is the massive, twisting roots of spung trees (Tetrameles Nudiflora) growing atop strangler fig trees, which have snaked around and over the buildings. Ta Prohm was also the temple that was designated to be left in its original rediscovered state, but the thinking has evolved and some restoration is under way.
The ginormous, serenely smiling faces at the Bayon, at the center of Angkor Thom (it means “great city”), also leave a lasting impression. Angkor Thom was the capital of Jayavarman VII’s kingdom (1181-1218/1220?), and remained the capital until the first part of the 15th century. Originally surrounded by a moat and high walls constructed of laterite, an iron-rich red clay, it “projected the power and protection of the king, and of his gods, to the entire kingdom,” Petrotchenko writes.
We had a lunch break at a roadside restaurant before ending our first temple-hopping day at Sra Srang, once a royal bathing pond, with naga balustrades, and Prasat Kravan, the earliest of the structures we saw. It dates to the early 10th century, and is not attributed to a king’s reign but to Hindu dignitaries, who put up the funds.
Each time we returned to our tuk-tuk, we were offered fresh bottles of cold water. Snacks were available from vendors at some of the temples, as was an opportunity to do some shopping. Rows of thatched-roofed huts offered T-shirts, clothing and other fabric goods, small carved or stone statues of animals and gods and other touristy souvenirs.
Eight hours or so after we started, we headed back to our hotel for a well-earned nap.
Hiring a guide
I had a recommendation for a guide from an acquaintance I made on a trip to Turkey in 2012. I contacted the guide via email and he replied that he was available for the dates of our visit. When I emailed him back to confirm which temples we wanted to visit and request information about his fee, he was suddenly “busy,” and passed along contact information for a colleague. I emailed possible guide No. 2 several times and never heard back from him.
So I turned to our hotel for help. On its website, the Soria Moria has a list of tours and activities that its staff is happy to to organize for guests, and we decided to utilize this service. The added benefit was that we could put the cost of a guide and driver on our hotel bill. (We did tip in cash, and American bills are most welcome.)
Having a private guide was definitely the way to go. We could proceed at our own pace, spending as much time as we wanted looking at the temples. The first day the guide cost $40 ($5 of that was for the pre-sunrise pickup) and the tuk-tuk, $20; the second day, $35 and $24, respectively (we drove farther into the countryside).