Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter. This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.
Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice. It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world). Today most of the area is covered in jungle. It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there. If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.
We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park. It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect. I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there. I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples. I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources. While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park. I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.
We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything. Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day. The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes. Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance. The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected. The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic. It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River). A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple. Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight. I had to keep pinching myself. I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.
Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids. The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out. Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings. Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple). There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood). Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys. Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat. It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.
Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block. In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story. This was the case at other temples as well. Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade. Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail. It was almost impossible to take it all in. Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers. Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.
We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite. Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did. They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state. One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider). This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle. Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms. Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing. The trees around it were of mythical proportions. The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible. The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts. It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.
In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed). Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park. The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan. He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not. Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure. As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble. While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.
Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area. In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all. If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia. We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.
If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will. It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.
If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below: