We’ve seen hundreds of incredible historical monuments and archaeological sites on our HoneyTrek, but up until this point, nothing tops the temples of Angkor. Most people have heard of Angkor Wat with its honeycomb-style towers…but that’s just one building in what was the largest pre-industrial civilization ever to exist in the world. That one temple, while perfectly preserved and magnificent, doesn’t even come close to the enchantment of the hundreds of other 1,000-year old structures enveloped in Strangler Figs and bursting with Banyon Trees. We biked and tuktuk-ed the Angkor Archaeological Park for three days and could have gone for three more…see why.
With 112 buildings carpeting 400-sq kilometers of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is hard to know where to begin. A great tip that was passed on to us was to start your exploration in chronological order. The Khmer Kings started building their temple complexes in 9th century and they got more and more sophisticated as time went on…so see the “simpler” ones first and you will continually be dazzled. It’s hard to resist the urge to not see the most well known temples which are right in the heart of Siem Reap but we are so glad we hired a tuk-tuk to take us the 16km out of town to get a look at the Rolous Group Temples, where Angkor all began.
The next day we decided to continue our temple circuit by bicycle (we rented from White Bicycles for only $2/day, with 75% of that going to Project Siem Reap). One great thing about a self-guided tour of Angkor is that you can truly choose your own adventure. Unlike most Western monuments, there are few guard rails or attendants in Cambodia so you can walk the open and fallen passageways of a complex like Preah Khan (above) without restriction. We discovered this collapsed, and completely void of tourists, section by bouldering up a wall (just one of the many reasons to take your ouw RTW…ASAP).
Depending on the preference of the king in power, the Angkor Kingdom would flip flop between Hinduism and Buddhism. Regardless if the original temples were dedicated to Shiva or Buddha, these magnificent buildings have been embraced by Cambodia’s largely Buddhist population as their own local place of worship, adding new life and even more intrigue to the ruins.
After a long day on the bike and up thousands of temple stairs it was a total treat to return to the luxurious Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Resort. We soaked up the pool and the spa then over dinner we had the chance to see an Aspara dance performance. In the most flamboyantly fabulous costumes and with Gumby-like flexibility, the performers use their bodies (75% of it is in the hands) to narrate classic Khmer myths and religious stories…similar to those told on the Angkor temple walls.
Angkor was abandoned for centuries and almost entirely devoured by jungle until its rediscovery by European explorers in the 19th century. Much of the growth has been cut back but with so much time to take root, some of the strangler figs have actually become integral to the structural integrity of many temples. Whether to fully restore the temples is up for much debate but from a purely photographic standpoint, I say…keep the the trees!
If any temple can speak to the painstaking restoration process of Angkor Wat, it is Baphuon Temple. This 11th century temple, measuring an astonishing 360 x 300 x 100 feet, was built on unstable sandy ground and was in a state of disrepair when archaeologists found it. In the early 1960s they began rehabilitation by taking it apart, numbering all the blocks with countless diagrams and then put it back together. This was going smoothly until the Khmer Rouge seized power and destroyed anything that did not relate to their ultimate goal of a purely agrarian-based Communist society. Fifty-three years later, the majority of the temple is still laying in the exact position they were placed in the 60’s, but now in a state of an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle.
Let me ask you one favor…as you travel the world NEVER buy anything from a child, or give them any money. Whatever you give them (either for their postcards/sarong/music/etc or as your “charity donation”) does NOT go into their pocket, their next meal, or help them get an education…instead it goes home to their parents and re-instills their belief that their children are more valuable outside of school than inside one. It was killing us to watch this group of little girls be little employees so when they came up to sell us stuff, we convinced them to come be kids with us instead. We spent a solid 20 minutes playing plop the rock into the algae-covered pond and laughing our collective heads off with each sludgy splash.
With 216 larger-than-life faces adorning its towers, the 12th-century Bayon Temple, is one of Angkor’s most unique temples. We came here for sunset, while thousands of tourists flocked to the “go-to” spot of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sun go down over a field, and we saw the silhouettes of Bayon against a beautiful pink and purple sky.
At night nearly everyone heads into downtown Siem Reap to meander the night markets. Word must have gotten out that tourists love night markets because the city has blocked off five separate streets to hawk tchotchkes, food & massage stalls. While $5 foot rubs and pizzas are nice, the sheer volume of tourists and touts was enough to send us home after an hour. (see the slides how for the awesome local night market Anne and I found outside of town).
Now for the crowning jewel, the big mama-jama…THE Angkor Wat Temple. We arrived before sunrise to watch the dawn reveal the world’s largest religious monument, bit by bit. Was it impressive? Yes. Was it in our top three favorite temples of the Angkor Kingdom, heck no. That said it is a beautiful series of structures and it was here that we had one of our most moving experiences in all of SE Asia. I still get goose-bumps recounting his story…Our Angkor Wat guide was born the son of a farmer, so he was not hunted by the Khmer Rouge; however, his wife was not so lucky. Her father was in the government overthrown by the Khmer Rouge and knew he had to conceal his status if he and his family were going to survive in the new agrarian state. He brought his family to the countryside and they took on a new low-profile life as farmers. This plan was actually successful for a couple years, until intensive interviews and photo comparisons exposed their true identity and they met their fate at the edge of a mass grave. The Khmer Rouge soldiers proceeded to execute everyone of her family members with a single bullet to the back of their head until they reached her. They pulled the trigger…but they were out of bullets so they slammed her head with the butt of the gun and she fell unconscious into the ditch. The next thing she recalled was a village farmer holding her, telling her that he would bring her to safety IF she could remain perfectly still and silent in his rice bag while he passed potential informants. He brought her home to the space below the floorboards and proceeded to feed and raise her for two years in secrecy. Our guide’s family still visits the farmer every year, and while they never speak of what happened under the Khmer Rouge, they are all incredibly thankful for the incredibly enduring kindness of their fellow Cambodians.
After our tour, our guide suggested we continue to the top floor for a view of the entire complex. We got to the front of the line and they told Anne that she couldn’t go up because her shorts were above here knees. We didn’t travel around the world and get up at the crack of dawn to get turned away at the foot of Angkor Wat so we took the matter into our own hands with a little cross dressing. I went up to check out the view then I gave Anne my shorts while cruised the perimeter with her “minimalist” scarf wrapped around my waist.
As the center of a 1.2 million square kilometer ancient empire, covering modern day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Angkor Wat exudes a magic like nowhere on Earth. If you visit this architectural wonder be sure to visit the more remote temples, and do whatever you can to interact with the locals and listen to their stories (hiring a local tuk-tuk driver for the day will give you SO much more than a tour bus could ever provide). Wherever Angkor Wat lies on your bucket list, we think you should bump it up a few notches!
For the more far-flung reaches of the Angkor Kingdom, check out our blog on hitchhiking to the temples of Beng Mealea, Koh Ker, and the mountaintop Preah Vihear.