The Angkor Temples

Angkor_Wat
It’s actually quite hard to get a good photo with an iPhone, okay.
Angkor Wat is Siem Reap’s main attraction, and arguably the main reason that many people come to Cambodia at all. Built in the 11th and 12th century, the ruins of Angkor Wat temple sit at the heart of a 400 acre site filled with ancient monuments, and still hold the proud title of largest religious building in the world.
Buddhist and Hindu artworks built and carved over multiple centuries show signs of change and conflict across the site, from redesigned Buddha carvings to bullet holes, and huge parasitic ficus trees grow around the ruins of the Tombraider temple- Ta Prohm. While Angkor Wat itself was built by Hindus and Buddhists working together, other temples were dedicated solely to one religion or other and so were adapted over time as rulers changed.
The view from Bakan
Entry to the Angkor Wat area costs $20 for a 1-day pass, but if you want to see all the ruins here you may want to get the $40 3-day pass or even a $60 week-long entry ticket. Tuktuk drivers in Siem Reap will lend you their services for the day for $20-$25 per vehicle, which doesn’t just get you to Angkor Wat itself and back but also takes you from temple to temple- which is very, very useful when it’s 42C outside and you realise how far apart the best bits are.
Most drivers include free bottles of cold water in the price so that you can keep hydrated as you go along, and if you aren’t enlisting a tour guide to talk you through the relevant history then you might even strike lucky, and find a guy who’ll do some explaining for you as you go from destination to destination.
Get up and visit before sunrise if you can, because not only will you get to see the sun coming up behind the ornate temple towers, you’ll also avoid a lot of the crowds of other tourists and save yourself some serious sweating under the burning Cambodian sun.
At the heart of Angkor Wat, once you’ve admired the seemingly endless depictions of battles, Gods and demons over two levels, you can ascend stairs up to the third and final tier of the building: Bakan. For this you’ll need to cover your shoulders and knees as you would in a temple, because whilst these ruins are no longer officially in use, this area was designed to place Cambodia’s King within reaching distance of the Kingdom of the Gods, and as such Bakan is still regarded to be a sacred place by Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Only 100 visitors at a time can explore Bakan, so if you’re visiting during peak times be ready for some potentially hot and humid queueing. Those of you with a fear of heights should also be warned that whilst tourist-friendly wooden steps have been built over one set of the originals to make them easier to climb, they are still VERY STEEP and so getting back down from the top might require a few deep breaths and a firm grip on the handrail.
I liked this chair. Also, that’s Bayon.
Second in the trio of “most popular” temples, the three you’ll probably be focussing on if you only have a day to visit, is the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom. Also known as the Temple of Smiling Faces, Bayon is home to 216 carvings of Avalokiteshvara – who guards the earth between the departure of one Buddha and the arrival of the next.
Bayon is home to 1.2km of carvings which depict more than 11,000 figures, many simply depicting Cambodian life in the 12th century, and some showing fierce battles between the Vietnamese Cham people and local Khmer armies. Some artworks here have been modified from Buddhist art into Hindu art, replacing Buddha with Hindu fertility symbols, as new Kings have arrived over time.
Just monkin’ around
A very jovial ruin
Another well-known attraction, though many people don’t actually know its real name, is Ta Prohm; the Tombraider temple.
Now held together by the trees that have grown through it, Ta Prohm appeals to visitors because unlike so many of the temples and monasteries (which are being restored, or remain almost strangely unharmed after being abandoned for centuries) this one has almost been reclaimed by the jungle.
While other buildings are referenced as a testament to the architectural genius of the ancient Khmer people, this is lauded as a testament to the equal power and unyielding strength of nature, with parastic ficus trees growing down and around the crumbling 12th century monastery.

 

There are dozens of other ruins to explore if you have the time, from Baphuon (which was taken apart and reconstructed brick-by-300,000th-brick) to Preah Khan (the temple of the Sacred Sword) and if you want to see them all then spending several days here will definitely be necessary.
Tickets come with your face handily printed on them (get ready to stare down a camera at the ticket office) and you’ll need to show them at the vague entry points to each temple, so for goodness’ sake don’t lose yours or you’ll end up sitting with the security guards like one of my group did!
Schedule in a long lunch to dodge the worst of the midday heat and make sure your camera is fully charged- there’s a lot you’re going to want to remember.

 

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