The Angkor area, just outside of Siem Reap in Cambodia is home to over a thousand (yep, you read that right!) structures – ranging in size and recognition from tiny piles of rubble to the magnificent reconstructed Angkor Wat at its heart.
Like, this place is actually HUGE and on the whole an incredible beauty to behold, but to visit and walk among these great structures was really something else! We purchased a three day pass to the UNESCO world heritage site outside the city and following the advice of heaps of other travellers we’d met, booked in with a Tuktuk chauffeur- the brother of RattaNa – our police station saviour from Phnom Penh.
The Siem Reap area is enormous and we have a hundred million squillion images to share, so we are going to try and split the posts up into two less-talky, but uber-visual parts…
Part One will cover the enormous site of Angkor Wat & the famous pink temples of Banteay Srei, with Part Deux looking at the temples of Ta Prohm (Affectionately known as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’) and the many faces of Bayon temple.
So, let’s get into it and start with the mighty Angkor Wat!
When you think of Siem Reap, the enduring first image to mind is of sunrise over the banks of Cambodia’s world-famous, and most iconic temple; Angkor Wat- showcasing its grand silhouetted profile in all its glory.
As one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of The World’ it is a place everyone is encouraged to visit- with an emphasis on making the journey specifically for this early time of day… and for that reason (being contrary) combined with extreme laziness, the reason why we didn’t do it that way and visited during the height of day instead.
With the sun beating down on our backs, we escaped its rays by exploring the warren of hallways and sheltered courtyards that make up the largest religious monument in the world.
We definitely recommend waiting, both for later in the day AND for later in your itinerary, to visit… We came to Angkor Wat only after going around all the other temples on our hit-list and to be honest – it knocked our socks off… well worth the wait!
The Angkor Wat area alone measures a massive 162 HECTARES. That’s over four times larger than Vatican City! In contrast to most of the temples in the Siem Reap region, the site was never abandoned – and as result, it has been conserved and added to over the years.
A few things jump out at you when you first arrive at Angkor Wat… The first (and most obvious) is the scale of the place. Gigantic sandstone blocks were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen and transported some 50kms down – floated down the Siem Reap river on rafts.
The site, which faces to the West, is believed to have been used as a tomb for the Suryavarman II sometime early in the 12th century – its speedy construction motivated by a desire to get it finished before the old fella popped his clogs – which he did sooner than expected fighting the Vietnamese.
Allegedly, 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants helped in the construction – yet the plans were not ever fully completed. Amazingly, it was built in just 37 years – crazy what you can do in such a small period of time! Menwhile, we are still waiting 8 years on for a simple bypass road through Hamilton, in New Zealand.
The second thing that jumps out at you is the level of detail adorning almost every single wall… Beautiful carved reliefs tell stories of great battles, historical events and mythology… They are so incredibly detailed!
As the Angkor complex’ most famous temple, the larger, central buildings were super-busy with tour groups and solo travellers alike getting lost together in the cavernous corridors and congregating at the central courtyards where local Monks were offering blessings.
These areas were so great at showcasing the ridiculous scale and complexity of the place, though we also really enjoyed the smaller buildings leading up to the entrance… being at the height of the day, we were lucky to have many of these to ourselves when we visited!
Our next site felt like it was a million miles away, but turned out to be well worth the distance. We hopped on our Tuktuk and enjoyed the breeze through our hair as we zipped through the beautiful Cambodian countryside to one of the more remote Siem Reap temples. Banteay Srei.
This site is unique to the Angkor temple complex in that it is constructed using red sandstone. The sandstone gives off a pinkish hue which, combined with super detailed carvings to rival that of Angkor Wat resulted in its being named ‘Citadel of women’ or ‘Citadel of beauty’… the carvings so elaborate and delicate that they are considered too fine to have been carved by a man. YEP.
Around the temple there are many beautiful carvings of women; lotus flower in hand, in traditional dress, portraying scenes from Ramayana (an epic Indian poem). There are also heaps of carvings of monkeys! … Not entirely sure of their reason for being there, but regardless, who doesn’t like a monkey statue?!
Every inch of Banteay Srei is beautiful and so different from all the other structures, that are a little more fully restored. Being out of the way and a bit trickier to get to also helps to thin out the crowds a little, allowing you the time it deserves to slow down and admire.
!BONUS TEMPLE! : BANTEAY SAMRE
On our way back from Banteay Srei, our Tuktuk took a detour to a bonus temple; ‘Banteay Samre’ – which we were advised is one that most people don’t get taken to… as if to prove a point, we saw no other tourists there at all and that interestingly, it was being set up for a wedding! Epic location or what?! This was a big one – lights being set up around all the buildings and a reception area laid out in the adjoining gardens.
Following the other temples, the buildings here were less instantly impressive, though we had some great banter with a group of local kids running round the grounds… introducing themselves as “You give me dollar”(!) I replied “YOU give me dollar? – OK then!”
They laughed and started to follow me around the temple, playing hide and seek… it may not have turned out for them as planned, but was a good example of giving kids something more than just money out in these parts!