Warning: lots of pictures ahead!
I had booked a tour through Trip Advisor (Full-day small group tour of the Temples of Angkor Wat) with Cambodian Journeys. The night before the tour we received an email from the tour company letting us know that they would be picking us up at our hotel at 7:40 am. The price was very reasonable and the reviews we had read were very positive.
We headed down to the lobby of our hotel at about 7:30 to find our tour guide already waiting for us. He told us to call him Sam (a shortened version of his last name). His English was excellent and he was a very personable guy (so important in a tour guide). He told us that there were only 5 people in our group today and that we would be going to pick up the remaining people in a few minutes. At 7:45 we were picked up by Sam’s driver, Mr. Thin (pronounced Chin). We picked up a man traveling with his nephew at one hotel and then a woman that was visiting the temples while her husband was doing business in Hong Kong at another. We would be visiting several temples today starting with the most famous, Angkor Wat. Apparently there are 1,080 temples in Cambodia; over 40 are in the Angkor Wat area!
We would be entering the temple grounds from the east and walking to the west entrance. This is opposite of how most tours operate so was a great strategy for avoiding some of the crowds. We had to make a quick stop at the ticket office to purchase our entry tickets. Your picture is taken and printed out onto the ticket to avoid fraud. Pretty clever! There were quite a few people lined up to buy tickets but Sam found a line that was empty so we were quickly able to procure our tickets and continue on our way.
Of the 15 million Cambodians, about 95% are Buddhist. Angkor Wat is now a Buddhist temple but was originally Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu. It was built in the 1100’s by 3000 workers. The sandstone it was constructed out of was floated down the river on rafts and then hauled by elephants the remaining distance, a total of 53 km. It took 35 years to build and carve the incredible array of carvings that adorn every surface. Siem Reap was the old capital of the Khmer Empire which consisted of 54 states. The king had a palace built separate from the temple. In the 16th century the temple became Buddhist and still functions as a monastery today.
There is are moats surrounding the temple but they are not the type of moat that was put in to protect a fortress. Instead, they represent the “cosmic ocean”. The wall surrounding the temple is not for protection, it represents the “wall of the universe” and the tower represents Mt. Maru, the “mythical mountain that is the center of the universe” (climbing up to heaven).
We stopped to view the temple and observe the three towers representing Brahma (creator), Vishnu (protector), and Shiva (destroyer). Sam pointed out the gods represented in the entryway. Turning the corner into the Gallery, the history of Cambodia is found engraved on the wall. One can see king Suryavarman II (who had the temple built) surrounded by his family.
As we progressed down the wall, Sam shared with us the modern history of Cambodia. He walked about Pol Pot’s regime and the Killing Fields. Although a peace accord was signed in 1991, it wasn’t until 1993 when the UN sent peacekeepers to Cambodia that the country was at peace. Two billion dollars was sent to rebuild the country. This is the reason that US dollars are accepted here the same as Khmer Riel because of the gratitude of the nation. When the Khmer Rouge were in power the they tried to destroy the temples. Many artifacts were stolen & sold, including statues that were in the temple. They cut the heads off of the Buddha statues.
At the end of the wall were the Hindu depictions of heaven and hell. There is a Hindu “St. Peter” that determines who goes up and who goes down. Think of earth as ground zero; above it are 37 levels of heaven and below it 32 levels of hell. The top level of heaven is nirvana. If you are at any other level your spirit exists there for 200 years and then returns to earth to “try again”. Through meditation and good deeds you can reach the upper levels. The depictions on the wall show happy people in the upper levels; those below ground look miserable. I especially like the poor guy with nails pounded in all around.
Turning the corner there is an entire wall representing the 1000 year battle between the snake and the gods. The snake is tied around the mountain and is getting pulled back and forth by the gods. This churns up the ocean which in turn creates the Apsara (dancing women). At one end of the wall is the head of the snake; at the other is the tail being held by the god Hanuman (the monkey god).
We climbed some exceedingly steep and narrow stairs to the second gallery. Just a side note: all of the stairs here are very steep, very narrow and very uneven. You need to be in relatively decent shape to manage them. It is also hot and humid which makes stair climbing that much more difficult. If you have any mobility issues, this is not the place for you. There are a few wooden staircases but for the most part you are climbing up and down ancient steps.
There were a few monks around but they appeared to be tourists, given the fact that they were taking pictures of themselves using selfie sticks. There were also a couple of monks that you could pay to give you a blessing. Some of the monks were quite young. Something that I learned was that a man here is only a monk for one to three years and that you can leave at any time. Becoming a monk is to learn the ways of Buddha. Many of them go into the rural communities to share that knowledge. When you cease being a monk, you can marry. I confess that I am ignorant regarding Hinduism; I thought being a monk was much like being a priest – a lifetime commitment. There is a monastery across from the temple. One of the reasons that this particular temple is in such good shape is that it has been continually inhabited through the centuries.
There was a long, long line for those that wanted to climb to the third gallery. Sam said that it was about a 45-minute wait in the hot sun. We all voted to skip it. I guess the view from the top is spectacular, but I will never know. I think I would’ve melted if I had to wait out in the heat and then climb a ridiculously steep set of stairs. Instead, we walked around the second level. I tried to capture just how steep the steps were, but I’m not sure if you can tell. These steps are not for tourists, by the way. They are the original steps that were used by those worshipping here in the past. There is a separate staircase that the royal family used. It is much less steep than the one for the “regular folk”.
We had now reached the western entrance to Angkor Wat. In front of the temple you can see the reflecting pond. It is supposed to be quite spectacular to watch the sunrise from here.
It was time to load up the van for the short drive to Angkor Thom. It wasn’t nearly long enough to cool off in the air conditioning. Bummer. Angkor Thom was built as a Buddhist temple in 1181. At the time over 1,000,000 people lived here in a 3km x 3 km area. In comparison, London’s population at the time was 35,000. The bridge leading to the entry is lined on the left by statues representing gods; on the right are demons. On the gate, a 3-headed elephant is visible (a common representation here).
The temple inside is known as Bayon. There are 54 towers, related to the 54 Khmer states. Every tower has a face of the king that had the temple built. It is known as the smiley-face temple. Between the 17th and 19th centuries the temple fell into disuse and the jungle started to take it over. In 1856 the temple was found and the French cleared the jungle that was encroaching on it.
We examined the carvings in the walls. Same pointed out the army carving was made up of both Chinese and Cambodian. The Chinese are the ones with the short ear lobes; the Cambodians have long ear lobes. He pointed out musicians, families of farmers, a Chinese celebration, students learning from a teacher, a naval battle (with scenes of village life underneath) and cockfighting. We climbed up the steps and were given some time to wander around and look at the towers.
Lunchtime! Sam took us to a nice restaurant near the temples. I had chicken amok again. It was just as good as last night’s. Yummy! We had an enjoyable lunch with our tour-mates. We lucked out in that everyone on the tour was very easygoing and fun to talk with. We really enjoyed our time with them
We had one final stop on our tour, Ta Prohm. The jungle has overtaken this particular temple. Ficus trees are growing through parts of it and cannot be cut down without damaging the temple. As we walked along the path toward the temple, Sam told us the legend of the Thlork tree. You can look it up online if you are interested but the legend explains why in a Cambodian wedding, the groom carries the scarf of the bride (representative of the fact that men must respect women). This led into an explanation of Cambodia being a matriarchal society. When a couple get married they move in with the wife’s family. The groom must pay a dowry to the bride’s family. Daughters have the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents.
Speaking of weddings, a Cambodian wedding takes place over 1 and a half days! The half day is for the blessing of the union, the full day is comprised of 18 ceremonies (including the groom carrying the scarf of the bride). Each of these ceremonies requires a separate dress! These dresses are rented. Can you imagine how expensive it would be otherwise? Typically, 200-1200 are invited to the wedding. However, guests pay to attend! So, the more people you invite, the more money you get. There’s an incentive to have a huge wedding! The event is catered by a restaurant. After paying for the meal, the couple gets to keep whatever money is left.
We could hear drums beating in the background. There was a band playing which was comprised of victims from land mines. They were selling CDs. After the war, there were 7,000,000 land mines remaining. Highly skilled teams continue to clear these mines but there are still 1,000,000 remaining. Every year there are still people injured due to these remaining mines. Cambodia land mine experts are sent around the world to help clear land mines in other countries. There is also unexploded ordnance (US bombs) along the Cambodia/Vietnam border. So, that is why there are so many maimed people around the area.
The temple of Ta Prohm was dedicated to the king’ s mother (matriarchal society, right?). The ficus trees are embedded in the temple now. It makes for some interesting pictures. The temple is being restored but the trees cannot be removed.
We had a full day of temple viewing; it was fascinating. Sam was an excellent guide. If you are in need of a guide, he can be found on Trip Advisor (Journeys Cambodia). It was very hot but we were provided with plenty of cold water and cooling cloths. The temples were spectacular; definitely worth a visit.
Tomorrow we head to Phnom Penh via Cambodia postal van. It is a 6-hour drive. For $9 we will be riding along with the Cambodian mail through the countryside. It should be an interesting journey!