Be whisked off early in the morning for a day of exploring an ancient Khmer city and the world’s largest temple. Walk around UNESCO sites at Angkor Wat, and marvel at the ancient 12th century capital city of Angkor Thom. Let your guide beguile you with tales of the Khmer empire and the once prosperous civilization that existed here. Learn the fascinating history behind Cambodia’s temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
Living Vicariously Through the Naga:
The Enigma Lives On in Siem Reap…
Ensconced in the rainforest and steeped in centennial
mythology, lies the province of Siem Reap, home to the variegated archaeological
extravaganza embodied by Angkor, the old seat of the Khmer Empire. Once
shrouded in mystery, this verdant area is dotted far and wide with architectural
wonders, however a particular quartet of magisterial temple complexes, open to
the public today, accounts for much of its widely deserved mystique: Angkor
Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm.
The historical promenade through Cambodian history
could not begin at a better place than Angkor Wat. After a brisk, vertiginous walk over the frontal moats and their
tall lily pads by way of the “floating” bridges, Angkor Wat starts etching its “mountainous”,
verdigris contours on the horizon, in all its pomp and pageantry. Some tall
palm trees here and there, wandering rhesus monkeys, endless meters of loggias
reflecting over the water, and monks clad in orange walking back and forth, act
as merely the castellated gateway and battlements to King Suryavarman II’s main,
multi-story building and its five signature turrets set against a perennial
Given the magnitude of
this World Heritage structure, it would take more than one afternoon to visit
it properly. Suffice it to say, to this day Angkor Wat is the largest standing
religious building in the world. Still and all, its essence is to be found
primarily in a threefold enigma. First of all, it is per se rather puzzling
that Angkor Wat should be originally consecrated to none other than the Hindu
divinity Vishnu. Today, Angkor Wat is both Hindu and Buddhist, but considering
that Hinduism is not as geographically widespread as Buddhism from India
eastwards and that it is an older religious philosophy, it begs a more in-depth
question as to what exactly happened. Hence, the (originally and equally) Hindu
Ko Samut Teuk
Dos legend, also known as Samudra manthan (in
Hindi); in other words, The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
to this founding epic, Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) were
forever at war to dominate the world. Ever more tired and running out of the
strength, the Devas asked Vishnu for help. As a token for his help,
Vishnu asked the Devas to search for Amrita, the Sacred Elixir of
Immortality, from the depths of the cosmos. However, because the task was so
difficult, the Devas were forced to ally with their antagonists, the power-voracious
Asuras. Using Mount Meru as the pivotal point and the King of the Nagas
(snakes), Vasuki, as a churning device, both factions placed themselves at
different extremities of the Naga and started pulling, while many
treasures emerged from the Ocean of Milk. In time, the Asuras, being
closer to the head of the Naga, were eventually poisoned by the fumes it
exhaled, only managing to save themselves when Amrita was delivered to
them by a divinity emerging from the Ocean of Milk. This episode did not
go unnoticed by the Devas; they promptly informed Vishnu, who managed,
in turn, to steal back Amrita and hand it to the Devas, so that
they could reign supreme and banish the Asuras to hell.
legendary tale represents the second enigma of Angkor Wat, and is virtually
“unlocked” in the impossibly beautiful bas-reliefs stretching along the
49 meters of the east gallery, a grand spectacle where what could have
been remnants of muted
pink, ochre, and terra-cotta hues can still be slightly discerned by the naked
eye between carvings. Also unlocked within Angkor Wat is the third
enigma, whereby a Naga princess wed the First King of Ancient
Cambodia, giving rise to the Cambodian people or Khmer. In this respect,
Angkor Wat has various massive balustrades in the shape of the seven-headed
Naga, each head representing the seven “races” of the Naga people. A recurring
theme in the Angkorian temples, the seven-headed Naga is part and parcel
of Khmer cosmology, as are the Apsaras, the celestial dancing creatures
whose main purview included entertaining royalty and divinities on earth with
their perfunctory expressions.
hypnotic tour through Khmer chronology continues between Angkor Wat and Angkor
Thom, where a short pit-stop to the Baksei Chamkrong temple gives us a
taste of what would seem to be yet another enigma. According to various
“conspiracy” theories, there are uncanny stylistic similarities between the
Mayan Pyramid of the Great Jaguar (in Tikal, Guatemala) and Baksei Chamkrong!
Clearly, the knowledge and discoveries acquired thus far on the matter are not
enough to reframe history, so to say; nonetheless this testament to the universal
aspect of human imagination makes for some quite fascinating journeys!
part, Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer Empire, boasts a masterpiece
triad of its own, the first of such being King Jayavarman VII’s exquisite 350-meter
long Terrace of the Elephants. Once a royal platform to salute his military
forces, this terrace features intricate carvings of lions, elephants and Garudas,
the bird-like creatures pertaining to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology, and
stalwart nemesis of the Nagas. Located just off the Royal Square is the
Terrace of the Leper King. Although there was a king with leprosy in Cambodian
history, the name derives mainly from the erosion found on the statue of Yama,
the God of the Underworld, carved within this site. This terrace might have
been used for funerary/cremation rites.
the most distinctive temple in Angkor Thom is the “baroque” Prasat Bayon.
Entering through the South Gate, one is confronted with nothing short of yet
another enigmatic vision, as 200 towering giant faces (four per tower) look
down on you with their seraphic smiles and sphinx-like countenances. Although
it is unclear whether the faces depict Lokesvara (the Buddhist bodhisattva of
compassion) or King Jayavarman VII, the two hypotheses do not
necessarily exclude each other. While the bas-reliefs within the temple,
portraying military scenes and other mundane events, are also worthy of note, the
deeply rooted “intimidation/awe” deriving from the “scoping stares” remains the
main highlight of the Bayon. For all we know, they might have been –and still
are- quite a bulwark against the evil eye, if anything!
eternal voyage of the Naga continues in the Neak Pean and Preah Khan
temples, located north of Angkor Thom. Upon first impressions, and having to
cross a long walkway on swampy waters before reaching the former, it is hard to
believe that there might be a temple at the end of the glittering trail.
However, Neak Pean juts out from a central sacred pool (believed to represent
the mythical Lake Anavatapta and to have healing powers), surrounded by two
“underwater” sculptures of the Naga. As regards the latter temple, it is
the proof that nature (usually) claims –or ravages, in this case- back its own!
At any rate, not even this inevitable and “vengeful” predicament has managed to
cover up the ineffable magic of Preah Khan, home to Jayadevi (a sister-wife of
King Jayavarman VII), among others. Moss, lychen and ferns slowly brush over
the rubble and rickety beams framed by quasi-trompe l’oeil flourishes, while a
vast array of delicate carvings, reliefs and friezes, not to mention the
standing library ruins and stupa illuminated by the sun, complete this eerie,
albeit paradoxically idyllic, setting on the green.
The encroaching nature and weathered look of Preah
Khan, however, is solely a prologue to the real devouring power of the forest subsequently
witnessed at Ta Prohm, the culminating phase of this open-air museum survey. As
soon as Ta Prohm’s ruins are approached, the elusive footpaths give way to a stunning portrait of luxuriant
foliage and creeping vines that lift as if they were deep-green shutters
following each occasional waft of wind. Here, the Nagas and Apsaras have relinquished
their leading roles to the true main protagonists, tetramelacea (tetrameles
nudiflora), ficus strangulosa and
ceiba pentandra (kapok), names that, given their peculiarity, would seem those of
gods, but actually refer to gigantic trees. Their imposing barks have literally
taken over the temple complex, coiling up the ruins like the Nagas themselves… or is it that the
trees are living vicariously through the Nagas
and viceversa? Alas, not even Lara Croft
could have possibly deciphered this last enigma, bound to live on for the
centuries to come! But, like Lara Croft’s alter-ego, we shall
11 Février: Pénélope et Mickaël sont allés visiter le musée national d’Angkor pendant la sieste d’Heloïse. Voulant aller au jardin de la ville de Siem Reap, ils se retrouvent dans un hôtel de luxe avec piscine à cascade. Ils trouvent ensuite le vrai jardin qui abrite une fois de plus de “jolies” chauve-souris 🦇.
12 Février: deuxième lever matinal 5h45 pour les temples d’Angkor. Visite d’Angkor Vat, qui est le plus grand édifice religieux mondial. Il est entouré de douves et est très impressionnant. Lorsque nous sommes arrivés, il y avait déjà beaucoup de monde qui attendait le lever du soleil 🌞. Il est vrai que ça vaut le coup d’œil. Émilie voyant des enfants fouiller dans les poubelles, elle leurs dépose un paquet de gâteaux sur la poubelle mais cela ne les a pas fait réagir, on s’est demandé s’ils cherchaient à manger ou s’ils faisaient le tri pour revendre le plastique ?…
13 Février: Après le petit déjeuner nous partons pour Banteay Srey qui est un village situé près de Siem Reap, oú se trouve une réserve de papillons 🦋. Mickaël par souhait d’économie veut louer un scooter, mais Émilie n’est pas pour, vu la circulation au Cambodge et cela lui paraît plus agréable en tuk tuk. Nous finissons par louer le scooter pour 10$ la journée. Quelle aventure!!! Au final le village se trouve à 20km avec une route pleine de trous et de poussière et des gros camions qui nous doublent. On demande si on est sur la bonne route aux locaux, ils ne comprennent rien ou ne connaissent pas☹️. On a mal aux fesses et au dos ( imaginez 20 km à 4 sur un scooter). Mais tout finit bien, car nous arrivons à bon port. La visite est courte mais très sympa, on a pût observer quelques belles espèces de papillons, et leur évolution d’œuf à chenille 🐛 puis cocon, chrysalide et 🦋. Mais on voit aussi des phasmes énormes. Pénélope nous fait une petite crise d’angoisse 😰, ça faisait longtemps, car elle ne veut surtout pas qu’un papillon se pose sur elle. Hors elle porte un t shirt jaune qui leur plait bien, d’où une petite danse frénétique sur place qui a fait halluciner notre guide. Suite à ça,elle croise un petit serpent dans une allée donc là, s’en est trop pour elle 😩. Nous repartons vers Siem Reap en changeant de route, pour améliorer notre confort, mais surprise , c’est la route des temples qui est interdite aux étrangers à scooter. Donc on se fait arrêter au Check point d’entrée par les vigiles, on leur explique la situation, il nous laisse gentiment passer en nous faisant la morale: « interdit de s’arrêter, de prendre des photos sinon 400$ d’amende 😬. La fin du voyage se termine sans encombre, tellement bien qu’Heloïse s’est endormi en chemin 😴comme les petits cambodgiens.
In 2009, Wife, Daughter and I visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This April, almost nine years later, Wife and I made a return trip to Cambodia to visit the city of Siem Reap and the adjoining Archeological complex of Angkor Wat.
We had been thinking about this since a conversation with two travelers in Yogyakarta. They recommended visiting the Prambanan temples and then those of Angkor Wat to compare.
In Siem Reap, I loved the small little restaurants in the tourist area that had tasty vegetarian options. In an effort to keep my purines low (wish it were just pralines that had to be controlled), I have eliminated most meat from my diet. When we moved north to a more commercial area, we enjoyed the fresh market produce of fruit and vegetables found in two huge open markets.
I put my narrative in the comments of these photos. Each captures an interesting experience.
Our first place, Five minute walk to shops and restaurants, ten minutes to tourist area
The Missing Socks Waffle Restaurant and Laundry. Neighborhood is well wired.
Angkor Wat in Minature
Our second place, 15 minutes from the Leu Thom Market
In the Angkor Wat complex it was difficult to analyze all the different styles and imagery. We made four different trips to the archaeological site finding different perspectives and experiences each time. Although it is interesting to stand among the temples exemplified by iconic photos, I found the temples in ruins surrounded by blocks fascinated me more.
Sunset from Prae Roup
Angkor Wat welcoming committee, guard your glasses and cameras
Iconic image of principal palace/temple
Many temples are still accessible via steep staircases
Attempting to highlight the contrasts to show the bas relief work
And the winner is, Tree
Old tree, Old blocks, Old man
Back showing Archaeological IDs
Front showing completed puzzle
Some sites were crowded, some places we were alone.
Modern artifacts overwhelm the ancient ones
Hotel in Siem Reap: Rose Royal Boutique Hotel
Favorite Restaurants: Madame Moch and My Little Cafe
Direct flight on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur (KLIA2) to Siem Reap
Direct flight on Air Asia from Siem Reap to Bangkok (Don Mueang DMK Budget Terminal).
Walking and Tuk Tuks (officially called Remorques). They can be called using the GrabCar App. Another time, I might rent a bicycle as there are bike lanes around the temples.