The Most Magnificent Temples in the World?
By Lucy Laycock
Silhouetted by the hazy mid-morning sun, the temple rose up out of the ground, turrets reflected in the motionless lake below. It seemed that we were in our very own Indiana Jones movie, surrounded by lush green vegetation and with vultures circling above our heads. It can only be imagined how French explorer Henri Mahout felt in 1860 when he stumbled upon this forgotten metropolis of soaring towers, dramatic carvings and endless courtyards, swallowed up into the heart of the Cambodian jungle.
The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit ‘nagara’ meaning ‘city’, which gives some indication of the sheer grandeur of this astounding temple complex. Built originally for the King Suryavarman II, this awe-inspiring site flourished as the capital of the Khmer Empire from approximately the 9th to the 13th century. For various political reasons the city was abandoned and the capital was relocated to Phnom Penh, marking the end of the Great Khmer Empire. Thankfully the subsequent rediscovery and restoration of the site allows visitors from all over the world to enjoy the Angkor Archaeological Park once again, and provides a stunning demonstration of how the world’s largest pre-industrial city functioned.
Today Angkor forms a crucial part of the Cambodian tourism industry, attracting over a million tourists every year. Frequently heralded as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, the ancient city is a photographer’s paradise, and offers a staggering 400km² of temple ruins and monuments.
Many tourists arrive before daybreak to watch the sunrise crawl over Angkor Wat’s majestic towers. However, we were advised to arrive later to avoid becoming part of the manic circus of tuk tuks racing around the ruins. This was valuable advice, as we remained one step behind the crowds, often finding ourselves entirely alone in shaded courtyards and free to explore Angkor’s secrets. Another option is to stay until sunset, and watch the stunning scenery melt into darkness.
The size of the archaeological park is overwhelming to the first time visitor, with Angkor Wat alone sprawling over 1km. This stunning temple, dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, is the most visited of the Angkor temples and is a proud symbol of Cambodian nationality. It is said to represent Mount Meru, heaven on earth and a celestial home for the Gods.
It is possible to hire a guide either for individual temples or for the day, a worthwhile investment to appreciate the fascinating history and architecture of the ruins. Our guide was friendly and helpful, and helped us discover the secrets of this particular temple. He led us through the labyrinth of endless passages and shared ancient superstitions and stories. Mysterious chambers revealed Buddhas shrouded in orange cloth, perched amongst incense candles that filled the air with perfume.
The other area most popular with visitors is Angkor Thom, and within it Angkor’s strangest temple: Bayon. Impossibly ornate, its towers depict 214 smiling faces, and the walls are richly decorated with carvings of historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer. The stories behind these are largely forgotten in the mists of time, and the visitor is left to contemplate the 9km long gallery of elephants, battle scenes and Khmer dancers.
My favourite temple was the mysterious ruin of Ta Prohm, recognisable to many as the original ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Here the destructive power of the jungle has not been stalled and gigantic gnarled roots twist and grip the temple walls. We clambered over fallen stones and became lost amongst the ruins, discovering their secrets for ourselves. Photographs fail to capture the restful atmosphere, and the majestic, silent power of the ancient trees.
We were overwhelmed by the number of beggars, vendors and monkeys who inhabit the temples. On the positive side, their presence means that the backpacker will never go without a bottle of coke, pocket map or handy Vishnu statue! However be prepared to be polite but firm as the children were particularly persuasive and at times a nuisance.
At only a day’s journey from Bangkok, and 6 hours from the capital of Phnom Penh, a visit to Angkor provides a unique opportunity to see the last evidence of an ancient age. Tickets are available for 1, 3 or 5 days, and are sold on the door and printed with the visitor’s photo. Those on a whistle stop visit should research which temples to visit, as the site is inexpressibly large and there are some interesting sites off the main tourist trail.
- GETTING THERE: Angkor is located 15 minutes from Siem Reap, where there is a selection of affordable accommodation. Tourists walk, bike, drive and even ride elephants around the temples, but the most popular option is to take a tuk tuk. The drivers are knowledgeable and will help you decide a route incorporating the sites you wish to see. Most guesthouses will help you organise this and agree a fair price with a driver.
- EAT: Finding food whilst at Angkor is no problem. Dozens of small noodle and snack shops have sprung up around the temples, and competition keeps prices lower than in Siem Reap and certainly within the reaches of the budget traveller. Tuk tuk drivers are usually allowed to eat for free if they bring diners, so you are doing them a favour too. If you fancy something a bit more special, Angkor Cafe lies just outside Angkor Wat’s main entrance. The prices are still within reach of most budgets, and the air-conditioning provides a welcome respite from the heat.
- WEAR: It is important to remember that Angkor is a Khmer holy site, and it is best to follow a respectful dress code of “long trousers/skirt and covered shoulders.”
- BEWARE! Watch out for the monkeys! They are pesky! On a serious note, don’t feed or approach these critters, as they are often bad-tempered, as my friend discovered!