After our ten days in Nepal, we were ready to head back to Southeast Asia. The reason for said backtracking has to do with the incredible headache related to our India visas: in short, we got them back the US in August 2014 before we left on our trip, and they were set to expire at the end of January with no option for extension. We left for India in December 2014, stayed through January 2015, and tacked on Nepal at the end as a last minute adventure. By late January, it was time to go back, this time to visit Cambodia. Our first stop? Visiting the ancient city of Angkor.
Stepping off the plane and back into Southeast Asia after two months in India and Nepal felt in many ways like a return to comfort and happiness: It's not cold anymore! Hey the tuk tuks look like chariots! The streets have closed sewage systems! No power cuts! No cow poo! They sell FRUIT SHAKES HERE!!! Plus Siem Riep, the modern day city next to the Angkor historical sights has fantastic tourist infrastructure - in many ways it's among the most tourist packed and "tourist-y" cities on the continent, but by the time we got there we were glad for a chance to be so unabashedly catered to.
The Temples of Angkor
Although most people have only heard of the famous "Angkor Wat" temple, the ancient city of Angkor, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an entire area filled with thousands of temples and other ruins. It was the center of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from about the 9th to the 15th century and controlled much of Southeast Asia. At one point in time, Angor would have even been considered a "mega city", as it contained over 0.1% of the world's entire population between 1010 and 1220. Using satellite photos and other modern technology, researchers have concluded that Angkor is the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The infrastructure system connecting the city appears to cover at least 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles).
Though modern day Cambodia is primarily Buddhist, during the periods where many (but not all) of the most famous ruins of Angkor were constructed it was Hindu. The ruins that remain today elegantly mix both Hindu and Buddhist religious symbols, both from the time of their original construction as well as their modification by Khmer (the ethnic group native to Cambodia) dynasties through the ages. Elaborate murals and statues found all over the Angkor area depict gods and stories from Hindu mythology.
Another obvious sign of Hindu design is the prevalence of phallus symbols found, well, pretty much all over every part of the entire Angkor Wat ruin complex. Called the "lingam", these phalluses are said to represent the powerful Hindu god Shiva, destroyer of the world. Often they are depicted in or on depictions of the "yoni" (the Sanskrit word for "lady bits"). Now in modern, Buddhist Cambodia, statues and shrines have been created on top of the Hindu ruins and temple sites. Archaeologist George Cœdès write that the spread of Theravada Buddhism to Angkor contributed to the erosion of the Khmer empire because "Theravada Buddhism's denial of the ultimate reality of the individual served to sap the vitality of the royal personality cult which had provided the inspiration for the grand monuments of Angkor." It was no longer feasible for the self-declared God Kings to maintain the cult-like control over hundreds of thousands of people needed to maintain the temple complexes.
In order to visit the temples, we had to book our own chariot driver for the week. (And by chariot, we mean a motor bike pulling a carriage.) This was easy, since they pick you up at the airport for free in hopes that you'll hire them - which we did. Our driver was named Mr. Hong. He picked us up each morning at about 6am. We'd grab breakfast pastries on the road and make it into the temple complex just before/after sunrise in order to explore in the morning hours while it was cool and less crowded. By about 1-2pm each day, we would retreat from the heat back to our hotel and spend the rest of the day sitting in the air conditioning, napping, charging our camera, and working on the blog until we got up the following morning to do it all over again. At night, we'd wander over to the throngs of the backpacker area to weave through the loud party crowd and find some dinner eats and organize our visas for Vietnam.
There is a reason we needed a chariot driver to get around... The ruins are huge. We would visit a ruined temple/temple complex, hop in the chariot, and drive 1/3 - 1 mile and get out to see the next one. And then the next one. And again. The complex is giant.
With that brief introduction, I'd like to show off some of our photography! Look for Andrew or I standing in some of the photos... It can be hard to appreciate the scale of the buildings without context. Andrew will cover Angkor Wat itself in an upcoming post - here are the other temples we enjoyed visiting.
Built in the late 12th and early 13th century, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike many of the Angkor temples, it has been left in much of its original condition, with vines and trees not only growing on but often through the ruins. Seeing the trees grow through and on the ancient buildings was one of the most memorable visual experiences of the entire trip.
The city of Angkor really hit the tourist circuit after the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001. If these photos look familiar, the movie is likely why. And Ta Prohm in particular. Neither Andrew nor I have seen the film, but we're told that Ta Prohm is where some of the key scenes of the movie were filmed.
Bayon is one of the largest and most spectacular of the Angkor sites. It was built in the same period and as Ta Prohm, and is known for the 216 of blithely smiling faces carved into stone on 37 (originally 49) towers. Scholars think that the faces might represent King Jayavarman VII and perhaps also the botthisava (an enlightened being in Buddhism) of compassion called Avalokitesvara. Not being very familiar with either of those figures, I chose to pretend that I was playing an elaborate game of Legends of the Hidden Temple as we wandered around that morning.
Of all the temples we visited, this was my favorite. It is a spectacular architectural feat and I don't think the photos can capture how magnificently large it is.
Ta Som is a smaller temple with only a single shrine. It's got trees like Ta Prohm and faces like Bayon. The main tree overgrowth has a fantastical number of tree roots engulfing the temple like an octopus on your face.
Andrew and I watched the sunrise from the top of East Mebon one morning. Most people go to Angkor Wat for the sunrise (which we did, too), but East Mebon was completely empty except for us, giving us the entire 10th century shrine and temple to ourselves. The light brought out the lovely reddish hues of the sandstone stonework. It is dedicated to Shiva.
Often called the "jewel of Khmer art", Banteay Srey is also built largely of sandstone, a material that lends well to its extremely elaborate carvings, including battles between monkey princes and human/animal divinations. Because the buildings themselves are built on a miniature scale, they are very accessible to visitors.
Banteay Srey was the first complex we visited and allowed us to get closer to detailed, intact carvings than any other complex in Angkor.