We decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the main temples in the Siem Reap area on our first day: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon, and Ta Prohm. We bought our tickets that morning, and when we arrived at a little before 5 am, we were already 5th or so in line. Tickets in hand, we proceeded to the main gate and got our first glimpse of Angkor Wat.
Even though I am definitely not a morning person, I had heard that the sunrise at Angkor Wat was worth missing sleep for. I was not disappointed. Angkor Wat is like the Colosseum: the first time you see it is truly magical. No matter how many pictures (Angkor Wat is the top photo destination in the world) you’ve seen and how much research you’ve done, there is no substitute for seeing the real thing. Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex in the world. Built by Suryavarman II, king of the Khmer Empire from 1113-1152, Angkor Wat is the national symbol of Cambodia. Images of Angkor Wat can be found on the Cambodian flag, the money, and on countless other objects. Unlike other temples we would see throughout the day, Angkor Wat was never fully abandoned, which accounts for why it is in such great shape for being almost 900 years old. Watching the sun rise and the sky turn from and inky pink to clear blue was a truly amazing experience.
In addition to being able to see the sunrise, getting to Angkor Wat early served two other purposes: beating the crowds and beating the heat. The crowds are Angkor Wat were thick, but June is low season, so they were not unmanageable. There were several times where it was possible to get a moment of peace and even a few pictures without hoards of tourists. Several large tour groups were arriving as we were leaving about 9 am.
The next stop was the Bayon. The Bayon is actually part of a complex of temples known as Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the walled city complex is roughly 9 km2 in area. During its peak, the city governed more than a million people. Angkor Thom is different than Angkor Wat in that both people and gods lived in the complex. Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer Empire and served as such for about 300 years before it was abandoned.
The Bayon served as the state temple of Angkor Thom and was built around the same time as the city was established. It is placed in the exact middle of Angkor Thom, representing the intersection of heaven and earth. It started out as a Buddhist temple, but was modified into a Hindu temple and then back to a Buddhist temple before it was abandoned. The Bayon itself isn’t overly large but crammed into the area are an incredible number of towers with an estimated 216 faces carved into them. This temple reminded me slightly of my elementary school playground, with tunnels and towers to explore.
Also of note at Angkor Thom is the Baphuon, one of the oldest temples in the complex. The Baphuon was built in the mid-11th century and was just recently reopened in 2011 to the public after undergoing more than 50 years of complicated restoration (due in part to the political situation in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years). The gates of Angkor Thom, especially the south gate (connecting to Angkor Wat) are really neat to see. The north gate features 54 demons and 54 gods in a tug-of-war, representing the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
After lunch, we headed back out for our two last temples of the day: Ta Prohm and Prasat Kravan. Ta Prohm (not to be confused with new Iowa State Men’s Basketball coach Steve Prohm) is one of the most recognizable temples, due to a starring role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The thing that makes this Buddhist temple unique is that the trees and vegetation that overran the temple during its years of abandonment have been mostly left as it was found. These giant trees have grown from cracks in the sandstone and now are its most distinguishing feature. It is also a reminder of the perseverance and endurance of nature. When this temple was built under the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the mid-12th century or early 13th century, I’m sure the Khmer Empire saw it as a triumph, including a triumph over nature. While civilizations and empires come and go, the jungle bides its time and waits, and eventually it will be triumphant again.
Our last stop of the day was Prasat Kravan, a small Hindu temple. This temple was dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu in 921 AD and has been almost completely restored in the 1960s. The color of this temple is slightly pink, which is a change from the others. These temples feature interesting artworks inside, and due to restoration efforts are in great shape and well worth a look.
After an exhausting day of climbing temple stairs and wandering around through hundreds of years of Khmer history in the 100-degree heat, we were ready to call it a day. A quiet night spent at the night market, bartering for trousers, watches, and souvenirs and then it was off to bed.