Monday, 27 October 2008

The temples of Angkor

When visiting Cambodia the famed temples of Angkor usually perch at the top of any visitors’ must-see list.

And rightly so. Angkor must have a strong claim to truly be the 'eight wonder of the world'.
These massive, crumbling complexes, hidden away in the jungle just outside the town of Siem Reap have wowed generations of visitors and inspired many writers to put descriptive pen to paper.

So I’m not going to have a go myself. Instead we thought you might find the following tips of use when planning a visit to Angkor.


Hire a tuk tuk driver. It’s a fair drive out to the entry gates to the temple complexes and the sites themselves cover huge area.

Plus it’s likely to be hot- very hot - making walking considerable distances between the spread-out sites unviable for all but the masochistic. We hired our tuk tuk driver, the lovely Mr Pea, for a cost of about $10 a day.

Alternatively you could hire a bicycle, but be prepared for a soaking - from sweating and/or , if it’s the monsoon season, tropical downpours.

Beware of the heat. Angkor can get very hot. Only the most ambitious tourists choose to plod around in 30-plus degrees during the middle of the day, so try and visit sites in the morning and later afternoon, sticking to the shade during the hottest hours.

Even better, do like a tuk tuk driver and take along a hammock to sling up between two trees when it all gets too much!

If you happen to time your visit during the monsoon, like us, be sure to get back to Siem Reap before the clouds open for their daily downpour. Your driver will know when this is.

There is nothing quite as wet as chugging through a thunderstorm in a tuk tuk.

Winnie the Pooh need not fret - there is plenty of food and drink on sale around the sites - this is Cambodia and you can be sure that wherever you go kids and women will be chasing you with bottles of chilled water and fresh fruit. "Hallobananamisterpineappulllll?"

A pass to all the sites is not cheap for foreign visitors, particularly those on a tight budget. You basically have two types available to you: a one-day pass ($20) or a three-day pass($40). There is no two-day pass.
One day is simply not enough to visit more than a few sites and you’ll regret not spending more time there so we suggest you plump for the three-day pass.

However, not that if, like us, you are all templed out by the end of day two then you simply have to wave goodbye to the third day you’ve paid for (they take your photo and print it on your pass so you cannot sell it on).
There is so much to learn about the history of these sites. You can only start to appreciate this with a dedicated guidebook. These are hawked by street vendors and bookshops all around Siem Reap and the temples themselves.
Try and buy one from one of the many amputees (victims of landmines) who are trying to make a living. $5 is a reasonable price.
Brush up on your knowledge of Buddhism and particularly Hinduism before you visit. Both were imported from India so anyone who has visited India will notice the striking similarities.
Many of the temples of Angkor were built when the Khmers followed the Hindu faith, so even a basic knowledge of this religion and its various gods helps.
If you choose to view a sunrise over one of the temples be prepared to get up at an obscenely early hour.
Be sure to neck a couple of Khmer coffees before you leave your guesthouse - I don’t know what they put in them but it certainly wakes you up.

Which sites to visit?
There are so many temples to visit that it’s quite bewildering working out where to start. Everyone will have their own particular interests but we found the following sites particularly worth visiting.
Ta Prohm
Built somewhere between the late 12th-late 13th century and ‘discovered’ by the French in the 19th century, this site is unique in that it was the only one the colonialists left in pretty much the state they found it in.

This was a deliberate decision by the French so that visitors could see for themselves the impact that the natural world has on mankind’s creations if left to get on with it.
The result is absolutely stunning - you walk through a fantastical world of crumbling ruins and massive tree roots, where seedlings have grown atop the masonry and literally taken over the building like something out of Day of the Triffids. Spellbinding.

The Bayon
Situated in the very centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the dilapidated ruins of this temple are striking for the number of massive faces built into the masonry.
No-one seems to be able to agree on quite how many faces there are looking up on each of the four-sided towers but its well over 200.
Weather-beaten and decorated with lichen these faces remain strangely powerful; all-seeing big brothers for the Khmer empire.
Also notable for its bas-reliefs, featuring thousands of individuals figures, generally having a good ruck in one of the various Hindu tales.

Angkor Wat
To many the Daddy of them all, although I’m inclined to disagree. But then I was dragged out of bed at 4.30am to come and see the sunrise here only to find another five hundred other grumpy tourists already there all fighting each other for a view and a people-free space at which to aim their little digital screen.

But don’t let that put you off. Angkor Wat is spectacular and, once you’ve left the crowds behind you are free to wander the cloisters and extensive crowds, with little interruption.
Designed as an entire microcosm of the Hindu universe, featuring a quincunx of towers and the most ambitious carvings you’ll ever see, Angkor Wat is an architectural marvel you won’t forget.
Even if Angelina has long since packed her hotpants are headed off to Africa.

Phnom Bakheng
A crumbling old edifice atop a hill which affords wonderful views across the flat landscape.

With the huge, grand old flights of stairs leading up to the top in a state of severe disrepair we walked up a deserted track skirting around the hill in order to reach the temple.
Be warned: whilst most temples have some sets of steep and exceedingly narrow steps, Phnom Bakheng’s are particularly challenging.

Preah Khan
Another temple seemingly succumbing to the vegetation where, like Ta Prohm, Strangler Figs and Silk Cotton Trees threaten to outshine the buildings themselves as the star attraction.
Crumbling masonry, intricate designs carved into the Sandstone, fragile stone lintels propped up by groaning timbers, massive heaps of rubble: Preah Khan’s got it all.
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