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The Amazing Angkor Wat Temples

The Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap are Cambodia's major tourist attractions. They are the remnants of the great Khmer Kingdom of the 9th until 15th century. The large archeological area contains many different temple complexes. In a few days we try to see a diverse subset of these temples.

Apsaras, or heavenly nymphs at the Angkor Wat temples

Sunset

At 4 PM we hop on the back of two motorbikes to go to the Angkor Wat temples. When you buy a ticket for the following days, it's free to watch the sunset on the prior day. Our drivers drop us off at the moat of the main temple complex, Angkor Wat itself. As we pass the bridge and gate, we see the large complex. We have to walk a few hundred meters to reach it, though, seeing the temple changing from a postcard into a large three dimensional structure with a lot of detail. We walk on and climb the first two levels before we look up to the towers. The climb to the third level is steep, so there we take a rest and enjoy the view.

On all levels, the temple is decorated with reliefs of apsaras, or heavenly nymphs. A lot of them are well preserved and very beautiful. The towers are less well preserved, although it is clear that there was a lot of detailed decorations on those as well.

We wonder around a bit on the third level, and when we have seen enough, we search for a good spot to watch the sunset. We pick a spot on the side, close to the stairs with metal railing, for the less adventurous tourists to descend. Funny to watch most of the older people descend, praying or shaking their heads. But everybody reaches the lower levels safely, and after the sunset, so do we.

Smiling on the Bayon

Smiling faces on the Bayon temple in Angkor ThomThe next day we really start our Angkor Wat temples tour. We let our drivers bring us to Angkor Thom first. This is a walled city with different temples in it. We pass the impressive gate, preceded by two rows of statues of gods holding a snake. Then we approach the most important temple of Angkor Thom, the Bayon. From a distance, it resembles a pile of rocks, but coming closer, we recognise more and more smiling faces. Walking through the temple, even more faces show up, and we wonder at the piles of rocks that need to be assembled, to form even more smiling faces. The surrounding walls of the temple are decorated with reliefs, depicting war scenes and scenes from daily life in the glory days of Angkor.

Apart from the Bayon, Angkor Thom has several other temples, but those are in bad condition or are being restored. We walk along those and again we wonder at the rocks that still need to be sorted out. A huge amount of work that will probably take forever. On our way back to the Bayon we pass the terrace of the Leper King, and the terrace of the Elephants. The first is a platform from which the king used to address his people, the second part of the wall around the royal palace, decorated with reliefs of numerous elephants.

Jungle

Trees growing on the temples of Preah KhanFrom Angkor Thom we take the so-called big circuit. It brings us along a number of temples in the area. First, we stop at Preah Khan, a former monastery. It is a large building with corridors and sanctuaries. It is partly overgrown by the jungle, and collapsed. Some trees are still standing on the walls, embracing the structure with their roots.

Then, there are several temples in classic Angkor style. In this style, the temple represents the holy abode of the hindu god Brahma, Mount Meru. So the central temple is situated on a hill, reachable via 2 or 3 levels of terraces. Every terrace is decorated with towers on the corners, and statues along the stairs. The size and decay of each temple complex differs, but the layout is the same.

Neak Pean is an exception to the rule. It's a collection of ponds, decorated with statues. In the middle, largest pond is an artificial island, surrounded by two snakes (Naga). The four ponds around it were fed from the middle one, via a mouthpiece shaped like a horse, elephant, lion, and men's head. The ponds are currently empty, but a few musicians in the bushes make for a pleasant experience.

After the late lunch we complete the big circuit, but we take it slow. There are a lot of temples, and we still have two more days for exploring to go. We do take our time for famous Ta Prohm. This famous monastery is similar to Preah Khan, but still completely covered by the jungle.

Trip to the River Sculptures

River sculptures at Angkor WatThe second day we decide to visit the most remote of the temples, in combination with the even further situated river sculptures. After fierce negotiations with our drivers, who ask for more money for this trip, we set off. At first, the road is good and we pass villages and dry rice fields. But the road to the river is a dirt road. Our drivers are trying to keep the speed, however, and so we arrive bruised and dusty.

But before we reach the river, we have to hike through the jungle. We follow a path with several steep stretches up. It's a good thing it's dry, it would have been very slippery and dangerous otherwise. After 45 minutes finally we are rewarded with a small waterfall. We cool off here and take a rest before we follow the river up to find the river sculptures. Along and in the water are large stones with reliefs of gods and apsaras. Unfortunately, only a small part is accessible, the rest is being restored. Nevertheless, this exploring trip was certainly worth the effort.

Detailed decorations

Detailed decorations on the temples of Banteay SpreiAfter the descent (more difficult than the ascent!!), we jump on the motorbikes and race over the potholes to Banteay Sprei, the remote temple. This one is special because of the detailed decorations which are still intact. The pink towers are full of reliefs of completely cut out leaves and figures. But apart from the main towers, this temple is also in decay, and we wonder if it will ever be completely restored.

On our way back we only visit Banteay Kdei, another monastery with long corridors and sanctuaries. On the other side of the road is a lake, in which children are playing and swimming. But it doesn't seem very clean water if you ask us.

Sunrise

The third day of our temple tour we go early to watch the sunrise from the temple mountain. It is a popular place for the sunset, but we think it's even better for the sunrise, since the sun will rise behind the Angkor Wat temples. The climb up is tricky, since the original steps are completely gone. The temple itself is the Mount Meru, so we have to climb a little more. And then, it's time to wait, relax and enjoy the view. But unfortunately, Angkor Wat is a bit far, it's noisy (those touristsÂ…) and the sunrise isn't that great, no beautiful colors. We could have stayed in bed a bit longer.

We climb down and decide to visit Angkor Wat. This time, we take our time to explore the complete complex. The lowest terrace is surrounded by a large corridor with reliefs on the inside, depicting war scenes, mythical tales, etcetera. A description is in our guidebook, and we search if we can found what is written there. Very nice and educational.

Then we climb one level and notice that people are busy restoring the apsara reliefs. We ask if they are rebuilding the broken pieces, but they are only using the original materials for the reconstruction. They also tell us that in the past some have tried to remove moss with chemicals, but those were more harmful for the stone structures than for the moss.

On the top level we take a look in the central tower. Unfortunately, the original statues here are removed a long time ago, probably stolen. Currently, there are only small Buddha statues here, as the site is still used for religious purposes. Only the religion has changed from Hinduism to Buddhism.

After Angkor Wat we decide to leave the temples. We got a little temple tired but nevertheless, the Angkor Wat temples are very impressive. The diverseness and grotesqueness of the temples, the details on the decorations, the jungle around and in between, it's all great. But there is still a lot of reconstruction work to do.

For more information about the Angkor Wat temples, lots of activities around Siem Reap, and other tips, read the Holiday in Angkor Wat website.



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