(If you are a history buff, read this paragraph, otherwise you can skip ahead to the next) Angkor literally means 'Captial City' or 'Holy City'. 'Khmer' refers to the dominant ethnic group in modern and ancient Cambodia. In its modern usage, Angkor has come to refer to the capital city of the Khmer Empire that existed in the area of Cambodia between the 9th and 12th centuries, as well as to the empire itself. The temple ruins in the Siem Reap area are the remnants of the Angkorian capitals, and represent the hieght of the ancient Khmer architecture, art and civilization. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II in Hinduism beliefs.
The temple itself is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level. As it's the center of the temples today, it also served as the center of Khmer political and military dominance of the region. King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive 'temple-mountain' dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. The temple faces West so it's believed he also built it as his funeral temple. Once a year, on the solstice, you can see the sun rise directly above the middle tower of the temple. When looking straight at the temple you can only see 3 towers as the other 2 appear hidden. (While Dave was snapping pics I was paying attention to Toc).
The sunrise was indeed spectacular, and I can't do it justice by describing it so you'll have to enjoy the pictures. After our fill of pictures and fighting with the other Asian tourists for prime foto spots, we walked the rest of the bridge with Toc to one of the external libraries and then to the reflecting pool for some more great pics. At this point most of the other tourists were starting to disband and Toc told us they were headed back to their hotels for breakfast so we'd soon see the place clear out. Breakfast sounded good since we hadn't eaten yet and there just happened to be a line of hawker stalls nearby, some who were serving food. So we took a break and enjoyed some breakfast (banana pancakes for Dave, mixed fruit pancakes for me) at the base of Angkor Wat. At this point we started to notice the kids.
We'd read and heard about it, but now we got to experience all the kids coming up to us trying to sell us anything from postcards to bracelets to wooden flutes to clothing (although no one was purchasing the clothing because "If me mates at the local pubs saw me wearing that, they would make fun of me"). A polite reply of 'no thank you' is supposed to send them away but these guys really test your patience (these kids have a comeback for every excuse, they even blamed the fact that they were not in school to the upcoming new year). It's hard not to get mad at them but have to remember that they are just doing what their parents tell them to do. I blame their parents. We also noticed our same Belgian friend at breakfast which was ironic and again said hello. Nearby the hawker stalls we also saw a Buddhist monastery and a few small shacks. Toc told us that very few people can live there otherwise the site will lose its UNESCO World Heritage status. It's a shame as these folks are the descendants of the millions of Khmer who have been here for centuries.
Stuffed from breakfast we were ready to head inside Angkor Wat and begin actually exploring the temples up close. Much is now roped off, Toc said, because locals tried to rub copies of the intricate carvings and starting rubbing away the sandstone. Most of the temples have been looted as well, so that the most holy Buddha statues are sold on the black market. All the columns, pathways and doorways in the temples are exactly straight and point exactly in their cardinal direction. Dave asked Toc how they engineered this feat without tape measures and levels and Toc explained that no one knows, but one theory is that they used straws and water to build the temples exactly straight (that must have been one long straw).
We even stood in the middle of Angkor Wat which gave you a view of each direction perfectly and was truly the center of the temple universe. We also enjoyed the stories from the carvings on the walls, most were Hindu legends of war scenes and Aspara dancers. They are so intricate and detailed it's amazing to see up close. We toured the first level which include the pools to collect rainwater, the libraries and the echo room (a room where you could let out aggression by striking your chest so it echoes but a shout will not - see the attached video). The second floor had most of the statues but these had been looted and so either their stands or just their bodies remained. The third and top level was closed today because it was Buddhist day and no one but Buddhist monks were allowed up there. We were disappointed but what can you do.
We finished exploring and headed back over Rainbow Bridge. It's called this because it's supposed to represent the link between Earth and the stone temple of heaven. Toc went to wake up Perry who enjoyed a snooze so we could head on to the next wat, Bayon. Bayon is probably the second most famous temple in the Angkor ruins, most famous for the giant stone faces carved in the temple. It's a Buddhist temple built in the late 12th century under King Jayavarman VII and has 37 towers most of which have four carved faces oriented towards the cardinal points. The temple was built and re-vamped a few times so some of the faces are a bit mixed up.
At this point it's broiling, just 9:30am and we're dripping with sweat. We pushed through because the giant faces are really incredible up close. Toc pointed out some neat foto opportunities where we could rub noses with one of the faces, and smile just as big as the biggest smiling Buddha statue. The wall carvings on this temple were really interesting because they depict historical battles between the Khmer and the Cham (the current Vietnamese). After exploring a bit, it started to get really crowded so we opted to move on.
We walked over to the next wat, Bauphon. This Hindu temple was constructed in the 11th century by King Udayadityavarman II. It's a really big temple mountain but is mostly closed inside for renovation because it's mostly collapsed and in ruined condition. We could, however, walk around the perimeter to view the massive temple and see the large reclining Buddha that lines the entire West side. We also started to see some large trees with really large and invasive roots around this time which was really interesting. We then walked over to the Royal Palace area. The Royal Palace doesn't exist anymore although we saw pieces of red clay on the ground.
It had been destroyed in one of the many wars here. Across from the Palace wall was Phimeanakas, a sandstone pyramid without any carvings that served as the King's temple. It's the tallest temple in Angkor city that you can still climb, so we scampered up to the top. It was a bit steeper than we anticipated and by the time we got to the top we were quite hot. There was a nice lady hosting a shrine and she offered us an incense stick and said a good luck/well-being blessing for us. I figured we needed it to get back down! The views from the top were good and it was amazing to think we're climbing all over these stones that are thousands of years old.
We successfully climbed back down but were a bit winded by the time we did. This was also the second time a Cambodian asked me if all Americans sweat as much as I do. Apparently I'm not used to this weather of 95-100 degrees F and 110% humidity. Moving on, we visited the Terrace of the Elephants, an impressive two and a half meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants.
It faces East just outside the Palace gate, and is where the King used to address the soldiers before battle and also host celebrations. At this point we concluded our tour of Angkor City and located Perry to head to the next stop, Ta Prohm.
Ta Phrom is also known as the Tomb Raider temple as Angelina Jolie filmed a few scenes here. Again, we can't get away from her! Anyway, this temple was built as a Buddhist monastery, originally dedicated to King Jayavarman VII's mother. During it's time, it held enormous rooms of jewels and gold. What makes it so unique today is that it's only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth. It's intentionally been left partially unrestored and massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors making it feel like a jungle temple. Unfortunately, it's been explored so much that the recent installation of wooden walkways and ropes detract from the truly jungle atmosphere. That and the heaps of other tourists all vying for the same photo where Angelina Jolie ran through a doorway.
It was our first chance to explore a bit where the temple was overgrown with trees and roots so that made it rather interesting. Toc took some good pictures for us which was nice. We also had the pleasure of joining the other groups of Asian tourists and it brought back many a fond memory when we heard picture-counting in Chinese (ee, err, san - or 1, 2, 3).
Although we were tired, Toc wanted to stop at one last temple before heading back. It didn't have a lot of carvings and looking back now I can't find it on my map so I'm going to chalk it up to being super tired and fading so we can't remember the name They do tell you not to cram too many temples into one day! We enjoyed a breezy tuk tuk ride back to the hostel and asked Melissa where we should go for lunch. At this point we were starving so she recommended Khmer Kitchen, a local place in the tourist area. I enjoyed a pumpkin and coconut soup dish and Dave enjoyed a beef and pineapple stir-fry.
While eating we were treated to a show of a British family taking a Dr. Fish foot bath which was entertaining. After lunch we made plans to visit Beng Mealea the next day and then enjoyed a lovely siesta and I fell asleep for at least 2 solid hours. An early wake up and temple-climbing will do that to me I guess! Around 7pm we figured we should look for dinner and went to a pizza place recommended by Melissa (again). She said it's better than the pizza in Canada and while it was very tasty I think she's been gone too long. It still tasted like pizza from Cambodia. What probably didn't help was that we were right on the river under the lights after dark so the bugs were out in full force and kept dropping on our laps and table. After a full day we were definitely ready to call it a night and crashed.
We set 3 alarms to make sure we were up by 4:30am and we left right at 5am with Perry (now our dedicated tuk tuk driver) and Toc Luk, the English-speaking guide for a day at the wats (temples). It was surprisingly cool this early in the morning which was nice and made for a pleasant drive through the city since Angkor Wat, our first stop, is about 5km north of town. We first stop at the ticket booth where all tourists need to purchase either a 1, 3 or 7 day pass to visit the temples. We opted for the 1 day pass as weren't sure our plans for the rest of the week and could always purchase more in the future. We then continued on around the moat to the main gate where Perry dropped us and headed off for a nap while Toc took us over Rainbow Bridge through the gates to view the sunrise over the temple. At this point the other tourists started showing up and there were hundreds of them, strewing all over the grounds. As we sat inside the gate waiting for the sun we recognized the Belgian bloke from yesterday's dinner and said hello. Small world, I guess. We waited about 30 minutes for the sun to fully rise over the East towers of the temple and meanwhile we enjoyed a history lesson from Toc.