The Temples of Angkor

After spending hours in a very uncomfortable bus from Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia, I finally arrived in Siem Reap, the temple capital of the world. The only downside: it was pouring rain, it was dark and I couldn’t find my hostel. Not the best arrival to a place that had been on my bucket list for years.

Some frustrations and wet clothes later I checked into my hostel and went looking for my friends who arrived here several hours earlier. We enjoyed some beers and delicious Khmer cuisine to prepare us for several days of temple visiting ahead.

Siem Reap is the gateway to one of the most impressive and popular attractions in South East Asia: The Temples of Angkor. Angkor was the centre of the Khmer Empire, one of the greatest ancient civilisations in Asia. Between the 9th and 15th century the Khmer god-kings build more than 100 temples in the area to show off their wealth and power. Each king needed to outdo his predecessors so the temples became increasingly bigger and more extravagant.

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All this wealth and power drew the attention of the neighbouring Siam kingdom, who sacked the city in the 15th century. The city became lost to the jungle until it was rediscovered in 1872. Since then it has grown into one of South East Asia’s top tourist destinations, attraction more than 2 million visitors annually.

There are hundreds of temples in the area and visiting all of them would take us weeks. We decided to buy a three day ticket instead. Because the temples are not exactly close to each other we rented a tuk-tuk with a driver who would drive us around the area for 3 days.

On the first day we take what is known as the long loop. The Tuk-Tuk drives us in a long circuit around some of the lesser known temples. The great thing about this trip is that these temples are not all that popular which means you can enjoy them in relative peace and quiet. The downside, there is a reason they’re not popular, they’re also not that interesting.

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But there are still plenty of sights on this route worth seeing. ‘Banteay Kdei’ is a quiet temple that looks like it’s about to fall apart, but that’s what makes it charming. ‘Pre Rup’ is like a miniature version of Ankor Wat. East Mebon has some very nice elephant statues and, because of it’s height, some great views.

‘Ta Som’ is a very small temple, but probably my favourite of this day. It’s also known as the tree temple because there is a giant tree growing through the roof, a classic Ankor sight. ‘Neak Pean’ is a small temple build on an artificial island. Very impressive is the ‘Preah Khan’, this temple brought out the Indiana Jones in me. I had a great time wandering through the crumbling corridors and wondered what it must have been like for the first explorers who found this sight.

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After a long day of temples we headed back to the city and it once again started raining. So far we’ve been very lucky, it’s the middle of the rain season but during the day it’s mostly dry.

However, our luck would turn on the second day. We headed to a couple of temples further away from the city, about an hour drive by tuk-tuk. The drive took us through small villages and plenty of rice fields. Our first stop is the beautiful ‘Banteay Srei’. Most of the temples of Ankor are mainly impressive from a distance, but this one is particularly stunning up close. The incredibly detailed sculptures and decorations of this temple are very impressive to see. I have no idea how they managed they make all this so long ago.

We continued to ‘Kbal Spean’, a shrine build in a waterfall. It sounded much more interesting than it was. And it certainly wasn’t worth the long drive or the 1 hour hike through the jungle to get there. What’s worse, on the way back it started pouring with rain and we were forced to hike all the way back soaking wet.

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For the third day we decided to take a break from temples and enjoy the nice weather and sunshine by our hostel’s pool. Siem Reap itself is actually a pretty nice place to spend a couple of days. It has a nice atmosphere and friendly locals, nice markets and places to buy souvenirs. And it has ‘bar street’, the site of many great restaurants, clubs and of course bars. I also noticed quickly how many places offered ‘happy food’, and if you need to ask what that means you probably shouldn’t try it. There are also the tuk-tuk drivers who are all nice and friendly by day but turn into drug dealers and pimps by night. Many strange things happen here, making it a wonderful place to spend a few nights.

For our final day of temples we were taking the short loop. This circuit would bring us passed some of Ankor’s most famous temples, including the crème de la crème: Ankor Wat. A quintessential Ankor experience is to watch the sun rise behind this one, the biggest and most impressive temple. So we got up at 5 in the morning to be there in time. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for and I couldn’t be more excited. That is until my friend realises he forgot his entrance ticket and we have to drive back, and then our tuk-tuk won’t start anymore. I can already see the sky lighten up at the horizon and desperately start looking for another tuk-tuk. A little anger, negotiating and waving money around later and we suddenly find ourselves in a Fast and Furious movie. I told the driver that if we missed the sunset we would not pay him, so he drove like a complete maniac to get us there on time. And thankfully we were.

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Ankor Wat is one those places every traveler has on his or her bucket list. Very quickly these kind of places can underwhelm and disappoint, how can anything live to the expectations you set for it. But Ankor Wat actually lives up to the hype. It’s sheer size is overwhelming, seeing the sun rise behind it is a magical experience. Believe all the stories you’ve heard, Ankor Wat is simply amazing.

We spend most of the morning exploring the temple, and because of it’s vast size you definitely need several hours to see the whole thing. The nice thing is that most people, especially the tour groups, only come to see the sunrise and don’t go inside the temple until later in the day. That means it was surprisingly quiet inside, even though 2 million people enter this place each year.

Nearby Ankor Tom was our next stop. And I expected that it could only disappoint after having seen the biggest temple. But that certainly was not true, as Ankor Thom holds my favourite of all the temples: The ‘Bayon’. Ankor Thom is not actually a temple but an ancient city. Today only the city walls and several religious buildings remain. The city has 4 gateways, each approached by a giant causeway guarded by mythical god images.

Inside the city is the magnificent ‘Bayon’ temple. It’s amazing wandering around here, because everywhere you go you’re being watched by one of the 216 faces that cover the temples’ towers. The mysterious atmosphere, the maze like inner structure and the beautifully carved faces makes this my favourite of all the temples in the area.

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Our final stop was ‘Ta Phrom’, also known as the ’Tomb Raider Temple’, this is the location where Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft in the very cheesy Tomb Raider film. What’s great about this temple is that unlike most other temples, no attempts have been made to renovate this temple, meaning that it still looks the same like it did when it was found more than a hundred years ago. Trees and vines grow through the ancient buildings, walls and towers are crumbling, you truly feel like a tomb raider walking around this temple.

Unfortunately we arrived here at the same time as hordes of Chinese tour groups. Unfortunately being anywhere at the same time as a Chinese Tour group is never a good thing, they’re loud, rude and have an obsession with taking selfies in front of the most stupid things. This kind of ruined the mysterious atmosphere of the place, but when we went a little bit deeper into the temple we found some more quiet places.

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After three days of tempeling I had seen enough temples for a while. But even though I was tired of it after a while, it was still a great experience. I truly felt like I went back in time, discovering long lost treasures. It’s also fascinating to learn about the architecture, the history of the Khmer kingdom and all the symbolic meanings of the sculptures, most tell complicated hindu legends.

If you come here I suggest you take your time to see the temples. Although most of the interesting temples can be seen in one day it’s worthwhile to spend some more time here. Just save Ankor Wat and the Bayon for last because otherwise the smaller temples will not be very interesting to see. Also make sure to try some of the great food (try a Khmer barbecue!) and take in the crazy nightlife of Siem Reap.

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