The Temple City
One of the most exotic destinations in Asia. Why you should take a trip there.
Have you ever seen the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider? It is about a fear less woman who loves adventure. The movie with great sets, shows the lead role, Lara, fearlessly crisscrossing the globe from England, Venice to Cambodia. That was the first time I knew about Angkor Wat, the exotic temple, deep in the heart of the jungles of Cambodia that is mysterious and captivating.
After seeing the movie, Angkor Wat stuck with me. Several years later I had a chance to explore several countries in South-East Asia, including Cambodia. I took a road trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia, a gateway to the ruins of Angkor Wat. The temple’s vast complex of intricate stone buildings including the preserved Angkor Wat, the main temple, is pictured on Cambodia’s national flag.
Why is Angkor Wat so unique and why does everyone want to go there? The answer is simple (it’s beauty), but first, let me dissect this sacred temple to you.
Story Behind Angkor Wat
Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat is the main temple inside the Angkor complex. Built between A.D. 1113 and 1150, it is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means City Temple.
Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, it was later converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork. Its 213-foot-tall (65 meters) central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosed walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and believed to be the home of the gods. After 1432 the capital of this kingdom moved to Phnom Penh (now the capital city of Cambodia), Angkor Wat was cared for by the Buddhist monks that remained.
How to Get Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, located near Si em Reap, is the second largest city in Cambodia after Phnom Penh. There are regular flights from Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City and also Vientiane to Siem Reap. There are also buses and vans offering services to Siem Reap from neighboring towns. Those who want an extraordinary journey could take the River ferry from Phnom Penh crossing the Tonle Sap River. When you arrive in the city, there are lots of hotels and hostels near the Pub Street, which is a known tourist area for culinary and nightlife.
Exploring Angkor Wat complex is fascinating but could be challenging. The hot and humid weather could go up to 40-45°C, and that can drain your energy. You can rent a mountain bike or a motorcycle while exploring the complex. Alternatively, you can rent a tuk-tuk (traditional rickshaw), which is more fun but costs more. To reduce the cost you can share the tuk-tuk ride with other explorers. Or if your budget allows, you could rent a private car.
Visiting the Angkor Wat is possible anytime of the year, but the peak season is from November to February when the weather is dryer and cool.
Witnessing the sunrise over the temple is something you cannot afford to miss. You will need to arrive there before sunrise, around 5.00 am, and stay until lunch time. Then rest for a couple of hours before continuing the journey in the afternoon.
It takes about 4 hours to explore just the Angkor Wat. You will need about half a day to explore the alleys and absorb the intrigue in every carving detail around the temple (excluding the Bayon Temple and Ta Phrom). The complex is full of temples, so it’s better to spend at least three days if you are curious about the remains of the Khmer kingdom.
Many Faces in Bay on Temple
Angkor Wat may be the top priority when inside the complex, but there are two other temples that display beautifully carving and architecture. One is the Bayon Temple that is about a 15 minutes
tuk-tuk ride from Angkor Wat. This temple reminds me of the beautiful temples in the Java islands of Indonesia; similar in architecture and building material.
The Bayon temple was built in the late 12th or early 13th century A.D. by Jayavarman VII, one of the Khmer Empire’ s greatest kings. It served as the state temple of Jayavarman’s new capital, Angkor
Thom. Bayon Temple is unique because it is the only state temple built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha. After the death of Jayavarman, the features of the Bayon Temple were altered according to the religious belief of his successors, thus containing Hindu and Theravada Buddhist elements that were not part of the temple’s original plans.
Bayon Temple displays over 200 gigantic stone faces. These faces dubbed the‘ Mon a Lisa of South East Asia’ came in sets of fours, each identical, and pointing to a cardinal direction. The location of the faces symbolizes the omnipresence of the person whose face is being depicted. The statues depict the face of the Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This is supported by the features of the face, in particular, the closed eyes and mysterious smile, which represent the achievement of the state of Enlightenment.
Some people argued that the faces depicted Jayavarman himself, as they bear an uncanny resemblance to other images of the king. It is also possible that the statues were meant to depict Jayavarman and the Avalokitesvara simultaneously, thus allowing the king to take on the attributes of the bodhisattva. However, the facts about the temple describe the beauty of Khmer kingdom. For a better insight, you will need a travel guide to assist you because there are lots of stories behind the walls.
The Ruins of Ta Phrom
The last stop before ending your journey at Angkor Wat complex is a visit to Ta Phrom. The location is farther away from the Angkor Wat and Bayon Temples, but this is the final stop among these unique and exotic temples. If you have seen the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Rider, the temple will grasp your attention through the great trees that tower above Ta Phrom, the sunlight filtering through their leaves, that provides a welcoming shade and casting a greenish light beyond the site. Lichens, mosses and other creeping plants sprout along the delicately carved reliefs on the walls.
Constructions on Ta Prohm began in 1186 AD. Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. A rare inscription at Ta Prohm provides statistics on the temple’ s workers. Allowing for some exaggeration to honor the king, the inscription reports of around 80,000 workers, including 2,700 officials and 615 dancers, is still astounding. Sadly, Ta Prohm was looted heavily in recent years due to its relative isolation, and many of its ancient stone reliquaries lost. Ta Prohm is extensively ruined, but you can still explore its towers, closed courtyards, and narrow corridors.
Ta Phrom is fascinating to explore. It will take almost two hours if you are curious to explore the corridors and see more of the iconic tree roots. The most popular of the many breath-taking root formations is on the inside of the easternmost gopura (entrance pavilion) of the central enclosure, nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. Some of the roots look incredibly stunning and are unusually shaped. Ta Phrom looks lusher than the other shrines perhaps because of the many overgrown trees around the area.