Up to a few months before I had visited, whenever I thought of Cambodia I thought of only two things: a vaguely remembered grainy picture on the news of when ‘Pol Pot’ had died. An old man laid on a bed who I knew was Cambodian, and a dictator, but not much more; and the ‘Killing Fields’, a place where there had been a genocide. Which again, I knew was in Cambodia but nothing else. Pretty ignorant, and very narrow to the negative. But this visit was my chance to change that perhaps.
I actually learnt one more thing In planning our amazing trip. At the start me and Helen started with our top three must sees or must dos. My list: 1. Everest base camp trek 2. Sumo in Japan 3. Swimming in waterfalls and stuff.
And top of Helens: Angkor Wat temple complex Cambodia.
I’d never even heard of the Angkor Wat, what was Angkor Wat?
This being Helen’s special place I left all the research to her. Which meant I had the benefit of an open ish mind but that I was arriving quite blind.
Well what a pleasant surprise. Cambodia is country soaked in its ancient and recent history, but above seems to be striving to learn from its past, which can’t be said for everywhere in the world.
We fly straight into the tourist trail jewel in the crown of Cambodia – Siemreap, a city that is the home of what I now know is (after some rudimentary googling by me) one of the most must see places in the world – Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is “…the largest religious monument in the world, one of the best preserved temples in the region and has become a symbol of Cambodia itself, appearing on its national flag”. Cool. What better place to start my Cambodia education?
Arriving late around 1030pm Mr Kat meets us at the airport in his shiny red tuktuk and brings us into town. Eager and excited we arrange for him to return at 4am to take us to see the sunrise at the mystical Angkor Wat I had now heard so much about.
The buzz in the air is tangible as you buy a pass for the park around 4.30am and in the hazy dawn swarms of people move in pensive procession to the front of the temple to wait for the sun to come up over. It is a little ritualistic and there is that hush that you find at places of respect and awe. It lightens gradually and you can see the pine cone corner tower silhouettes and the long walkways leading to the entrance become golden in the unfolding glow of the sun.
I’m sure I heard a collective gasp. Lots of smiles. A LOT of snap chats. I’m entranced. It’s very beautiful and quite calm considering the amount of people and selfie sticks here. The image is iconic and quite mesmeric as it unfolds like a pencil rubbing before my eyes.
It is a huge temple and along the walkways decorated with Naga serpent balustrades and under the entrance lintels carved with Gods and Elephants and ‘Garudas’ we walk with heads up eyes agog not sure where to start or what to do. Around the main temple there are quite stunning bas relief carvings depicting Hindu and Buddhist history; battles, sutras , the creation of earth no less (the churning of the sea of milk) and its overwhelming. This is serious stuff and not to mention – its 100 metres long with 1000s of images and what must be 10s of thousands of hours of carving by hand into each band of drawings along the whole edges.
Further inside and the crumbling sand stone stairs rise up steeply and demand respect as you climb as they would to any pilgrim at any time in their history and at the top you’re there at the altar but you’re there in a moment of history too, your two feet just another pair that’s trudged them stairs to stare and admire and – breathe.
A Buddha then the gallery of a 1000 Buddhas. Everything here is revered. We explore in awe and then we leave. It’s only 7am and little did I know that Angkor Wat however is just one temple in a vast network of monuments made between 900AD and 1200AD.
I can see why it is a seen as a special place but not quite how it tops the list it must see places in he world just yet…. But I soon learn there’s more to the Siemreap temples than Angkor Wat, and there’s more to Cambodia than Siemreap and Pol Pot.
So we went to Ankor Wat first, which some people say do do first, so you can concentrate on the amazing variety of the others and perhaps less crowds; or some say go there last, so you can build up to it. Either way I was curious to see what else this area had to offer. There are SO many temples here and after being in Nepal and India and Thailand where they all LOVE a temple there is a danger of being templed out. My advice to anyone coming is to take your time and have a day off on alternate days.
After Angkor Wat almost every new temple we immediately declared our ‘new favourite’ as they each had little quirks and differences and idiosyncrasies
Bayon is adorned with over 300 carved stone heads, all staring at you. Fascinating. New favourite !
Baphoun is a shaped like a Mayan pyramid with huge steps and viewing platforms to look all around. A giant reclining Buddha is embossed with jigsaw like bricks along the back. New favourite at least for the Buddha bit (which I forgot to photo!).
Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda are little b movie independents with less people and a little quaint cottage feel
Ta Prohm is famous as the ‘Tomb Raider temple’ as the film was shot in parts here. It’s more a quintessential jungle temple feel with trees and roots twisted and squeezed into the rocks and walls. New favourite! Branches all entwined and overgrown and we feel like proper explorers as giant roots claw over walls around us. I love trees me, new fave.
Pre Rup – looks totally different to all the grey stone or sandstone structures we’ve seen and is made of red brick lego brick structures with very few carvings. It looks more industrial and is a high climb.
Similar in style is East Mebon but this elephant statues on corners
Neak Pean is in the middle of a lake which you walk to across a swampy secret footpath
Preah Khan, our last one today is a mad maze of lots of chambers and dark bat holes and fallen rocks. We spend at least an hour poking our heads through window gaps. Here the bridge is the most impressive part, lined with Naga (serpent) statues and carvings. New second fave perhaps .
Day 3 we take a much needed day off and have late brunch and visit the Angkor national museum. This museum is an essential accompaniment to visiting the temples and explains a lot of the features and symbols and imagery. Dead interesting and there is also a good photo exhibition and a gallery of 1000 Buddha statues.
Oh and there’s one of them funny head things
Day 4 is our last day and armed with our new knowledge of Angkorian temple design we settle in for a long drive with Mr Kat who has been our driver for the last three days. He is friendly and happy and knowledgeable about the history here and wants to do kind things for us. He slows on the road to a coconut rice stall on the drive and we try the sweet sticky food stuffed and cooked in bamboo tube.
After a while he slows again this time near he ruins of a bridge. He says this bridge and road leads all the way to Thailand. Then he gazed over a farmers field and says this is where me and mother hid from the Khmer Rouge. It takes us very much by surprise. He looks pensive as he describes climbing into holes in the ground with boards over the top. He says his father was killed along with his brother. He says things are better now.
First one is Banteay Srei – ‘the city of women’ covered in carvings based mainly on Goddess Shiva. These are known as the best carvings in the complex and they are beautiful complicated curls of art chiseled into the stones a labour of love and reverence and its is hard to take it all in.
Eventually we reach Beang Mealea, a 90minite drive but certainly worth it, which is one of the most ruined of all the temples, but this gives it its charm. All around are fallen down ruins swallowed and strangled by the jungle vines. It’s so quiet here the only sound birds tweeting and chirping. Chunks of rock piled up like Lego bricks. Ivy root like Twigs like OS maps markings across the stones and the walls as I release my Inner Indiana Jones here clambering and balancing around.
Twisted tree roots shooting skywards like bellowing elephants trunks and us looking up around from below as vines slink down slow to the ground. It’s a like a nice ghost town. There’s a sense of what feels like natural order returning a kind of a metaphor for the country itself, moving on from the past, whilst retaining its identity. Holding onto the good bits and rebuilding others . A little like the years after the Khmer rouge, new shoots and old roots as a young population re addresses the balance.
‘It’s a really thought provoking place’, I tell our driver; and a smile spreads on Mr Kats face. ‘My new favourite’ I say.