There are so many guides written revealing the wonders of this magnificent place that I won’t try and do it justice. It became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992 and now receives 2.5 million visitors a year across its multiple sites. Our hotel in Siem Reap had copies of The Angkor Guidebook in our rooms and I was transported.
Jim (and Landy) had already set off for two full days in the Angkor Park without me, due to my being struck down with a violent stomach bug. He was particularly proud of climbing up to and down from the Baksei Chamkrong temple, as the guide book said that some tourists became so scared of the descent that they got stuck at the top.
Today together, we took the gentler guided Sunrise tour which started in front of the Lotus ponds.
We arrived at Angkor Wat just after 5am and we were led by torchlight through the East Gate down forest tracks, past buildings that were hidden from view in the darkness. We were not alone, and other small groups of early risers crunched down the forest tracks and were visible only by the twinkling of flash lights in the gloaming.
In the distance we could hear the chanting of orange clad Buddhist monks who were already at Prayer. The higher levels of Angkor Wat temple were off limits today because it was the weekly Buddhist day of prayer.
The temples had originally been built at a time when the Hindu religion, emanating from India, was official in Cambodia and this temple was constructed to honour Vishnu, the Protector.
Vishnu is one of three main Hindu Gods (Brahma - creation, Vishnu - preservation and Shiva - dissolution, the trimurti Gods). These Gods are recognised by their unique symbols and vehicles, which are universal. Brahma appears on a lotus stem emanating from the naval of Vishnu. Make of that what you will!
Vishnu’s symbols, the disc, conch, mace and ball represent fire, water, wind and earth respectively. His vehicle is Garuda, a half man, half bird creature.
Shiva can be represented by a Linga, basically a phallic symbol of fertility. In early Khmer art, Shiva is often represented by simply a Linga - basically lots of phallus’s.
Although in Brahmism he is also depicted as an aging long bearded aesthetic and his ‘attributes’ include a rosary, a flask, a drum, a human skull and a trident.
It is fun spotting these various forms in the artwork and temple architecture and the statues in the various museums and towns. But the predominant God here was clearly Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat temple was dedicated.
There are also many Linga and Yoni shapes in various temples which signify the origins of life, emanating from a union between the Linga (representing the male sun) and the Yoni, (a square shape with a hole in the middle) representing the female earth.
The ancient historical periods in Cambodia were depicted as Pre-Angkorian 1st - 8th Century, Angkorian 9th - 13th Centuries and post Angkorian 14th - 20th Century. Some of the temples emanate from the earlier period, but most of those we saw were constructed in the so-called Angkorian period.
Religious allegiances went back and forth a bit and whilst the early Khmer Kings favoured Brahmanism (particularly Vishnu), their later Kings advocated Buddhism and the many heads of Vishnu became multiple Buddhas etc (Dont expect me to get this totally correct!).
The Angkor Wat temple has hosted Buddhist monks since the 16th Century and these fabulous buildings were designed for prayer and worship and scholarship. New residential quarters for the monks have been constructed nearby and to this day the temples are still used for prayer and worship.
Many of the other ancient buildings had been totally lost deep in the jungle undergrowth for many centuries and their provenance lost in time. This was until they were rediscovered and documented by French archeologists in the 19th Century and since that time, with the help of Unesco and the close friendship ties with other countries these fabulous buildings and their statues have been revealed, restored and massively studied and visited. Whilst many beautiful statues from these places can be found in Cambodian museums, pieces have been removed illegally from these sites and taken to neighbouring countries (and the UK). The sites are now overlooked by local guardians ensuring that what remains is protected.
There are a number of ancient libraries whose stored documents prepared in plant materials have been lost. But across the sites there are surviving inscriptions in stone revealing much information about early Cambodian history, some of which have been relocated to museums and other learned institutions for study and safekeeping purposes. It is from these texts and bas relief carvings and insitu inscriptions and tablets that have inspired much that has been written about the buildings and past rulers.
On arrival early before sunrise, still in the dark, we planted ourselves firmly on the far side of the lily ponds facing the temple and we hoped for something spectacular. As the sun crept up, we realised that it was quite cloudy. I was pretty sick to see what two professionals could do with their powerful lenses and my efforts in the indifferent light are reproduced here. Still a marvel in spite of my limitations.
Angkor Wat 1100-1175 AD, was constructed by a great Khmer King, Suryavarman II. He had modestly included sculptures of himself in some Anghor Wat bas reliefs.
The temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is surrounded by Unesco protected jungle landscape, is vast (1300 x 1500 metres square) and the temple at its heart is built in the centre of a moated site.
The temple complex itself, is formed of a central mass of quincunx towers, concentric galleries and a wide connecting causeway leading to the deep moated exterior walls. It is these towers that leap out in the revealing daylight etched majestically against the sky.
King Jayavaram VII was also a big temple builder and built Angkor Thom, a town with multiple buildings including some 12 temples. The population has been estimated at 700,000 at a time when the population of London was about 50,000. He is known for the proliferation of massive human faces etched in stone that are a prominant feature of these ruins to this day. He also built 121 rest houses, not unlike the Silk Road, Caravanserai familiar in the earlier part of our travels plus 102 hospitals throughout his kingdom. In his Mahayana school of Buddism, he honoured his ancestors, and himself, by creating images of deities in the likeness of his own ancestors
Bayon 1177-1230 AD King Jayavarman VII
Bayon is a temple set in the centre of Angkor Thom. The approach involves negotiating a route around the resident primates.
This amazing building has fantastic external bas reliefs in situ, depicting images from everyday life.
They include food preparation, childbirth and early midwifery, the removal of lice from someones’ head, the collecting of fruit.
Many of these images are using utensils and pots and depicting a lifestyle still found in rural Cambodia villages 1,000 years later.
Ta Phrom - (trees) 1186 King Jayavarman VII to honour his Mother.
This temple is still undergoing restoration. Much of the damage has been done by the encroaching jungle.
What gives this spot particular prominance is the way that the ancient trees have insinuated themselves through the building structures and have beeen retained as part of the iconic imagery of the place.
Angelina Joli starred in Tomb Raider which was filmed amongst the temple walls and fallen stones comprising Ta Phrom.
Preah Vehear Temple 1005-1050 AD Suryaverman l and Surayaveram Il
Preah Vehear Temple was on a completely different site and construction was started by an earlier Khmer King, although much of the construction was completed by the same king that built Anghor Wat.
After driving 200km North from Siem Reap, our first challenge was to locate its ticket office, which was not at the entrance to the site. Without tickets our entrance was barred, but locating the magic spot was something else, because any helpful signs, in this jungle landscape that there might have been, were all facing away from our direction of approach!
This temple itself, was situated on the top of a massive promontory, arising from the surrounding flat plains. It was only accessible by 4x4 cars or taxis and for once Landy saved us a hefty bill as she chugged confidently up the precipitous route. I did have to gulp on the last stretch as it seemed almost vertical! However, the local vehicles surged up, so on we went. When we arrived at a plateau (the most unlevel plateau ever) where the cars stopped, the space was teaming with sellers, drinks and parking attendants. We came to an abrupt halt under a tree and paid for parking and then scampered past the drinks and cafes to the temple complex which stood in a beautifully uncluttered peaceful landscape.
The land rose gently from the first level and a stone pathway led straight up to each of 6 levels which had a series of magnificent ancient temple buildings in various states of disrepair. It reminded me slightly of the stream of visitors puffing up the hill in Greenwich Park at home, to reach the meridian and the fine views across London.
The vast majority of visitors streaming up, were local and it was definitely a place for a family day out.
Near the top there was a ceremonial pool for cleansing where we met a family recreating around the pool.
Many of the temple archways we passed through depicted the mythical Churning of the Ocean of Milk story derived from the Mahabarata. In the beginning of the world, the gods and the demons were fighting in the hope of creating Amrita liquor to render themselves immortal. Tiring of this constant struggle, Vishnu intervened and proposed that they worked together. They took to churning the oceans with a five-headed Naga (snake) in a thousand year long kind of tug of war, using a mountain as a pivot.
As well as finally producing the Amrita, the churning threw up Apsaras (heavenly dancing ladies), Lakshmi and various other mythical wonders who find a place in the bas reliefs and archways of Angkorian and Pre Angkorian art.
There were many sightings of the many headed Naga draped around the temples and the processional gateways.
The gods and demons pulling on the rope to churn the ocean of milk are also ubiquitous. The gods below are at one of gates leading into Angkor Thom.
When we reached the highest spot on the top of the hill, we arrived at a cloistered square with a sacred temple at its heart. Here families removed their shoes and entered to pray.
The final climb up a mixture of wooden and original stone steps led to a plateau with 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside. It was cloudy when we were there so the views far beneath were hazy and different from the vistas on a clear blue sky day.
These buildings were constructed under orders of Suryavarman II in the 9th-12th Century. It beggars belief how they transported the heavy sandstone up this very steep hill to the top.
The walk back down to the car and the welcome coconut sellers, was through trees to garner some shade.
Was it worth 400km round trip? Well yes, when we had time on our side. We enjoyed the yomp up to the top and we felt a sense of achievement having made it to one of the lesser known spots and down again, still favoured with a Unesco badge of honour.
We congratulated Landy on her achievement up the steep approach and felt she had paid her dues for once!