Ex­plore the amaz­ing city of Angkor

Angkor Wat is one of the most fa­mous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in Asia. Filled with fel­low trav­ellers, it can be over­whelm­ing at times. Annabel Venn gives her ad­vice on how to beat the crowds and ex­pe­ri­ence this fab­u­lous site in peace

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The small light flick­ers on the front of my bi­cy­cle, barely il­lu­mi­nat­ing the dark road ahead. A minibus full of snooz­ing pas­sen­gers passes me, rather too close for com­fort, of­fer­ing me a brief glimpse of where I am ped­alling. With a free hand, I wrap my Cam­bo­dian krama up around my neck; it is al­ready warm but the cool breeze is chill­ing at this time of the morn­ing. Not of­ten am I per­suaded to get up be­fore the sun does, but to­day I am guided by a sense of ex­plo­ration. Ahead of me lies the an­cient city of Angkor.

The site of Angkor

Angkor Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park is vast, over­whelm­ing per­haps. Four hun­dred square kilo­me­tres of crum­bling tem­ples scat­tered amidst thick jun­gle, and at the heart of it lays Angkor Wat, a sight that epit­o­mises South East Asia. Si­t­u­ated 6 km to the south is Siem Reap, once no more than a small vil­lage, now de­scribed as the gate­way to Angkor. Fall­ing to the hands of the Kh­mer Rouge dur­ing the Cam­bo­dian geno­cide, it has re­built it­self into a hugely pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion, of which the tem­ples of Angkor are un­de­ni­ably the main draw. Plan­ning a visit gen­er­ally re­lies on two fac­tors; time and bud­get. Many rec­om­mend a min­i­mum of three days, al­low­ing time to take in the tem­ples fur­ther afield, and it would cer­tainly be easy to plan a week-long itin­er­ary. Tick­ets to the site are avail­able as a one-day, three-day or one-week long pass. A one-day ticket gives you ac­cess to the site from 5 pm on the pre­vi­ous evening, mak­ing it fea­si­ble to hire trans­port for the evening and watch the sun go­ing down – a welcome in­tro­duc­tion to the majesty of Angkor.

Get­ting around is sim­ple; you only need to spend a short time in Siem Reap to re­alise the plethora of trans­port op­tions avail­able, rang­ing from the com­fort­able seats of a pri­vate car to atop the noble ele­phant. For in­de­pen­dent trav­ellers the re­mork-moto (of­ten called a tuk tuk in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries) is a pop­u­lar op­tion. Ne­go­ti­ate with one of the many driv­ers you will find in Siem Reap (although it is likely they will find you first!) – most fol­low a set route but it can be adapted to suit a per­sonal itin­er­ary. While most speak a good level of English, hir­ing a guide or pur­chas­ing a com­pre­hen­sive guide­book can be fun­da­men­tal to the en­joy­ment and un­der­stand­ing of a visit around a site with rel­a­tively lit­tle in­for­ma­tion. I found a sec­ond-hand copy of ac­claimed An­cient Angkor by Michael Free­man which be­came my font of knowl­edge.

For me, trans­port was a sim­ple choice – a bi­cy­cle. Be­ing a reg­u­lar cy­clist at home, I was con­fi­dent I could cope with a long day in the sad­dle. How­ever, as I handed over the princely sum of $2 for a whole day’s rent, I was im­me­di­ately re­minded that rather than my beloved road bike, I was be­ing paired with the hum­ble Asian bi­cy­cle. Still, at least its fea­tures were mem­o­rable; a sad­dle that pro­duced a noise not too dis­sim­i­lar to a honk­ing goose ev­ery time I shifted my weight, wonky han­dle­bars that re­quired me to steer slightly to the left in or­der to re­main head­ing in a straight line, and brakes that de­manded ev­ery ounce of my strength in or­der to be re­motely ef­fec­tive. I had also over­looked the heat of the Cam­bo­dian sun. At night it was warm; when the sun came up it was hot; by mid-morn­ing it was sti­fling; by mid­day, pos­i­tively un­bear­able. At the very least it en­cour­aged some faster ped­alling to ben­e­fit from the breeze!

Al­ter­nate route

As some­one who is keen to stay off the main tourists trails, I was some­what ap­pre­hen­sive about vis­it­ing a site which boasts over 2 mil­lion visi­tors a year. It is not un­com­mon to see queues of tourists wait­ing to have their photo taken in front of a par­tic­u­lar door­way or view­point. Not un­sur­pris­ingly, Angkor Wat is one of the most pop­u­lar places to view the sunrise, the warm glow of the sun ris­ing up from be­hind the im­pres­sive tow­ers. The ex­pe­ri­ence is breath-tak­ing, but you will need to be pre­pared to share the mo­ment with hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of chat­ter­ing tourists, fir­ing cam­era shut­ters and ‘selfie sticks’ raised high above heads. With­out dif­fi­culty I made the de­ci­sion to find my own space for sunrise, choos­ing in­stead to visit Angkor Wat late in the af­ter­noon.

I left Siem Reap at around 4.20 am, stop­ping en route to pur­chase my en­try pass. By the time I reached Angkor Wat around 45 min­utes later, the hoards ar­riv­ing in mo­torised trans­port had al­ready ar­rived. Tour groups piled out of their air-con­di­tioned coaches, clutch­ing an ar­ray of bot­tles, cam­eras and um­brel­las. I passed the en­trance and turned left, pos­i­tive that I would not re­gret miss­ing out on their ex­pe­ri­ence.

The road felt al­most com­pletely de­serted as I passed un­der the south gate of the Angkor Thom com­plex, dull shad­ows of the stone carv­ings cast on the path. Ar­riv­ing at the huge struc­ture of Prasat Bayon, its many tow­ers jut­ting into the sky, hushed mut­tered voices were within earshot. There were a hand­ful of re­mork-mo­tos, and only a few other bi­cy­cles were vis­i­ble as I chained mine against a nearby tree. Glanc­ing up, it was pos­si­ble to make out a few of the huge faces which have be­come so dis­tinc­tive of Bayon’s fea­tures. I climbed the first few steps and en­tered a dark cor­ri­dor, flick­ing on my head torch only briefly to set­tle my foot­ing. Emerg­ing onto a rocky plateau, I sat for a while, wait­ing. The tow­ers over­shad­owed ev­ery­where I looked, and as the sun broke through the trees, stony smiles lit up across the iconic faces. Ac­cord­ing to a few sources, the ex­act owner of these faces re­mains de­bat­able; ei­ther the bod­hisattva of com­pas­sion, Aval­okitesh­vara or Bayon’s cre­ator, King Jayavar­man II. They watched me as I ex­plored the eerie tun­nels and dark pas­sage­ways, paus­ing to de­ci­pher the in­tri­cate carv­ings of seem­ingly ev­ery­day life – fish-sellers

at a mar­ket, a woman giv­ing birth and men pre­par­ing their ele­phants for bat­tle.

Leav­ing Angkor Thom be­hind me, I ped­alled through the Vic­tory Gate and headed east­wards. The road was quiet, not de­serted, but quiet enough that I could be­gin to savour the re­al­ity of where I was. I stopped mo­men­tar­ily at a few lesser-known tem­ples en route, in­clud­ing Chau Say Tevoda and Thom­manon, be­fore reach­ing Ta Keo. Noted for pos­si­bly be­ing the first tem­ple made solely of sand­stone, its green hue stands unique among the browny-grey colour of oth­ers. The state tem­ple of Jayavar­man V, who was only 17 when it was con­structed, is said to have never been com­pleted as it was struck by light­ning, an evil omen. Some ar­chi­tects be­lieve this to be the rea­son why there are no ex­ter­nal carv­ings; oth­ers sug­gest the hard sand­stone was too dif­fi­cult to carve. Sadly much of it was closed for restora­tion, so I con­tin­ued on for one kilo­me­tre, ar­riv­ing at the west gate of the pic­turesque Ta Prohm tem­ple at around 8.30 am.

Orig­i­nally called Ra­jav­i­hara, work started on Ta Prohm in 1186 and is one of only a few tem­ples with an in­scrip­tion de­tail­ing its ori­gins, found on a stone stele dis­cov­ered within the tem­ple. Once home to 12,640 peo­ple, Ta Prohm has been left pre­dom­i­nantly to the mercy of Na­ture. An­cient stran­gler figs climb the stone tem­ple walls, twist­ing and wind­ing their way to­wards the jun­gle canopy. ‘ There is a poetic cy­cle to

this ven­er­a­ble ruin,’ my guide­book reads, ‘ with hu­man­ity first con­quer­ing na­ture to rapidly cre­ate, and na­ture once again con­quer­ing hu­man­ity to slowly de­stroy.’

Iconic photos of er­ratic tree roots are used on nu­mer­ous brochures, and it is clear to see why. As I en­tered, a nun was ar­rang­ing sticks of in­cense into a pot of sand, the in­tense smell waft­ing through the door­ways. I po­litely de­clined as she thrust one in my di­rec­tion, not wish­ing to part with a fist­ful of dol­lars in re­turn. Hav­ing en­tered from the west gate, by mid-morn­ing I soon found my­self strug­gling against the nat­u­ral flow of tour groups. A wooden path runs roughly through the mid­dle – an at­tempt to cope with ris­ing visi­tor num­bers – but leav­ing this path and ex­plor­ing the outer edges of the site of­fers some rel­a­tive soli­tude. Known as the ‘Tomb Raider Tem­ple,’ I had a very per­sonal rea­son for vis­it­ing, as my

god­fa­ther was one of the lo­ca­tion man­agers for the film fran­chise. How­ever, I could not help but won­der if the suc­cess of the film had been di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for an in­crease in tourism, and the ques­tion­able neg­a­tive im­pact this could have cre­ated for the tem­ples.

Ped­alling on to the Bud­dhist monastery Ban­teay Kdei, I was wel­comed by the uni­formed guard as he checked my en­try pass. He asked me if this was my first visit to Angkor and gave me a brief history of the tem­ple, hav­ing worked there for three years. As I ex­plored, once more I was watched by sim­i­lar smiles to those of the Bayon tem­ple. Cross­ing the road, a gen­tle walk around the wa­ters of the royal bathing pond Srah Srang of­fered me com­plete peace from any­one else. Most tour groups re­turn to Siem Reap for lunch, so if you can stand the heat of the mid­day sun, it is a good time to ex­plore the pop­u­lar tem­ples. For­feit­ing my usual packed lunch, I suc­cumbed to another op­por­tu­nity to have my favourite Cam­bo­dian dish, lok lak – a rich beef dish with a lime and pep­per sauce, usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied with a salad. There are plenty of places to eat around the site, al­beit with in­flated prices; I propped up a plas­tic chair in the shade of a stall on the road­side.

Fol­low­ing the loops

All morn­ing I had been fol­low­ing a route known as the ‘Small Cir­cuit,’ a 17 km loop tak­ing in the most ad­mired of the Angkor tem­ples. It is usu­ally ad­vis­able to stick to this loop, sav­ing the Big Cir­cuit for another day, but af­ter lunch I back­tracked to join the big­ger loop go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, as I was lim­ited by time. Af­ter­noon stops were brief but var­ied – ad­mir­ing the view of sur­round­ing rice fields atop Pre Rup; gaz­ing in awe at the huge, well-pre­served stone ele­phants guard­ing East Me­bon tem­ple; re­sist­ing ev­ery urge to jump from the board­walk into the crys­tal clear wa­ters of Preah Neak Poan. Con­tin­u­ing west the road presents Preah Khan, renowned as a fu­sion of ded­i­ca­tions to Buddha, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Com­par­a­tively empty due to its lo­ca­tion, the site is a maze of long cor­ri­dors, lined with

in­tri­cate carv­ings and guarded by na­gas, ser­pent deities. A two-tiered in­de­pen­dent struc­ture is strik­ing and unique among all other tem­ples – not only show­cas­ing the en­durance of Kh­mer ma­sonry, but also pro­vid­ing a use­ful ref­er­ence point for ori­en­ta­tion of the huge area.

En­ter­ing Angkor Thom once again, through the north gate, I paused for a fresh co­conut on the road­side. As the lady wielded a ma­chete to hack the top off, I was struck once again by the grandeur of the ru­ins around me, the last great cap­i­tal of the Kh­mer em­pire. I spent a short time look­ing at the tem­ples I had only seen shad­ows of in the early morn­ing, not do­ing them jus­tice with ex­plo­ration, but not want­ing to fill up the re­main­ing day­light hours with too much. De­part­ing through the south gate, the spindly trees lined along the bank of the river were per­fectly re­flected in the still wa­ters. I paused to watch some chil­dren play­ing with a troop of mon­keys by the side of the road, shrieks of laugh­ter erupt­ing as one gib­bon hopped onto my bike sad­dle and perched there, eat­ing a banana.

My penul­ti­mate stop was at the moun­tain tem­ple of Ph­nom Bakheng, un­doubt­edly the most pop­u­lar sunset view­point. A 20 minute climb up the hill of­fers a spec­tac­u­lar panoramic view over Angkor. I vis­ited at around 3.30 pm, find­ing it com­pletely de­serted ex­cept for a pair of el­derly Chi­nese ladies who were strug­gling with the climb in the op­pres­sive heat. They laughed as I of­fered my hand to help pull them up. A flight of ex­cep­tion­ally steep stairs stood be­tween me and the top, and I was grate­ful I had lis­tened to the ad­vice to wear a pair of sturdy shoes. Look­ing out over the Western Baray, I found my­self com­pletely alone, not for the first time that day. It felt miles away from the noisy mo­tors and in­ces­sant chat­ter of Siem Reap. In the dis­tance I could see the ris­ing tow­ers of Angkor Wat, my fi­nal des­ti­na­tion.

Angkor Wat at last

‘ Rel­ish the very first ap­proach, as that spine-tick­ling mo­ment when you emerge on the in­ner cause­way will

rarely be felt again,’ my guide­book stated. I was hes­i­tant. Too of­ten I had met other trav­ellers who had been un­der­whelmed by the iconic view they had seen so many

I paused to watch some chil­dren play­ing with a troop of mon­keys by the side of the road, shrieks of laugh­ter erupt­ing as one gib­bon hopped onto my bike sad­dle and perched there, eat­ing a banana

photos of. I was im­me­di­ately struck by the sym­me­try, un­like many of the other tem­ples where it is hard to see the sum of all its parts at once, but there in front of me was Angkor Wat – the largest re­li­gious mon­u­ment in the World, stand­ing ma­jes­tic and proud against a back­drop of vivid blue sky. Per­haps I had saved the best un­til last, but my ini­tial sight of Angkor Wat was sim­ply breath-tak­ing.

De­clared by UNESCO as a World Her­itage site in 1992, the Kh­mer peo­ple are fiercely proud of Angkor Wat; the tem­ple was added to the na­tional flag in 1863 and is one of only two coun­tries cur­rently to fea­ture a na­tional mon­u­ment (Afghanistan be­ing the other). Cov­er­ing a 500 acre site, Angkor Wat was de­signed by King Suryavar­man II and built be­tween 1113 and 1150. Hindu mythol­ogy claims that the Gods lived on Mount Meru, its five peaks sur­rounded by ocean. Angkor Wat is said to be a di­rect re­flec­tion of this; each of the five tow­ers shaped like un­opened lo­tus blos­soms, the whole tem­ple sur­rounded by a moat.

Per­haps the tem­ple’s most un­usual fea­ture is that it was built fac­ing west, a di­rec­tion usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with death in Hindu cul­ture. This has led some ar­chae­ol­o­gists to be­lieve that the tem­ple was built as a mau­soleum to hon­our its cre­ator. Fur­ther ev­i­dence is found in the bas­re­liefs which are read counter clock­wise. Yet de­spite the sug­ges­tion of links to death and fu­neral rit­u­als, beauty is abun­dant in the 3000 carv­ings of at­trac­tive ap­saras, each unique. Stood at the foot of Bakan, the up­per level cham­ber, it is unimag­in­able that some­body could not to be im­pressed by the work­man­ship, an orig­i­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the clas­si­cal style of Kh­mer ar­chi­tec­ture. ‘Kh­mer bricks were bound to­gether not us­ing mor­tar, but by a veg­etable com­pound. Over five mil­lion tons of sand­stone had to be quar­ried from a site 25 miles away from here,’ I over­heard a guide ex­plain to his group, ‘it was floated down the river on planks of wood.’

Look­ing around me it is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive. In­scrip­tions have im­plied around 300,000 work­ers and 6000 ele­phants were in­volved in the con­struc­tion. With the sun melt­ing into the dis­tance, I joined a grow­ing crowd at the north­ern pool to watch the Angkor Wat dis­ap­pear into dark­ness for another day.

Ex­cur­sion to Beng Me­lea

That evening an un­ex­pected meet­ing with a talk­a­tive re­mork-moto driver named Kou left me ques­tion­ing my per­sonal foot­print as a tourist in the town of Siem Reap. Af­ter speak­ing with him a while, I asked him what he felt the im­pact had been on Siem Reap as a re­sult of the in­creas­ing tourism. “I think it is good and bad,” he replied, “it is bad when I see groups on big buses as they do not ex­pe­ri­ence the sights or sounds or smells. But it gives me work, and I want to help peo­ple see my Cam­bo­dia and not the tourist Cam­bo­dia.” I needed very lit­tle per­sua­sion to ac­cept when he of­fered to drive me out to Beng Me­lea the fol­low­ing day, promis­ing to take the long way round and show me his coun­try. “You pay me what you want,” he said.

Beng Me­lea is lo­cated 77 km from Siem Reap by road, re­sult­ing in fewer visi­tors mak­ing the hour-long car jour­ney to see it. The two-hour drive in a re­mork-moto was spec­tac­u­lar. We bumped along burnt-or­ange roads, a stark con­trast to the sur­round­ing vivid green pas­tures. Farm­ers worked in the fields, fish­er­man stand­ing waist deep in a murky river waved as we passed, mo­tion­ing for me to join them in the wa­ter with beam­ing smiles across their faces. Chil­dren and dogs ran along­side us, an­i­mated shouts of ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ By the time we reached the main road to Beng Me­lea I was well and truly shaken up, but Kou had been true to his word and shown me that some­times the long way is the most mem­o­rable. The first glimpse of Beng Me­lea is im­pres­sive, a tan­gle of roots and branches stran­gling the bricks be­neath. The ini­tial en­try point is a steep me­tal stair­case up to the first level. At the top an Ap­sara care­taker spot­ted my cam­era and pointed to­wards a crum­bling door­way in the ru­ins, seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble to ac­cess. ‘Photos, go there’ he ex­claimed in

stilted English. He pointed a weath­ered fin­ger to­wards some makeshift stone steps, mo­tion­ing the way. ‘Aw kohn,’ I replied, strug­gling over the maze of moss-cov­ered bricks. As two tem­ples that have been over­run by na­ture, it is easy to com­pare Ta Prohm to Beng Me­lea. How­ever if the for­mer was a par­ent, guid­ing her visi­tors over a wooden walk­way to­wards a safe pas­sage, then Beng Me­lea would be the grand­par­ent, spoil­ing you with paths and nooks to ex­plore, with no real guid­ance or care for safety. Ta Prohm has been man­i­cured; Beng Me­lea is rough and raw. I could not but help feel a cer­tain sense of guilt as I scram­bled over bro­ken rocks and through lichen-cov­ered door­ways. Bending to avoid a low-hang­ing vine, I man­aged to rip my trousers, laugh­ing to my­self as I ne­go­ti­ated the bricks like a rock-climber, veg­e­ta­tion run­ning amok ev­ery­where around me.

Cre­ated by the same King Suryavar­man II re­spon­si­ble for Angkor Wat, it is hard to imag­ine how Beng Me­lea could ever have been sim­i­lar to its bet­ter-known cousin. For a sense of what it might have been like to be one of the French ex­plor­ers dis­cov­er­ing Angkor, Beng Me­lea might be the clos­est thing; it is not some­thing to see, it is some­thing to do – the ul­ti­mate def­i­ni­tion of a ‘lost tem­ple.’

On the drive back to Siem Reap, Kou asked me what I had learned from my visit to Angkor. My an­swer was sim­ple – not enough. Be­ing on a bi­cy­cle had al­lowed me to take the oc­ca­sional re­mote dirt track or short­cut, but I had left with so much undis­cov­ered and un­learned. I made a prom­ise to Kou, and to my­self, that this was not go­ing to be my only visit to the tem­ples of Angkor.

North­ern gate of Angkor Thom com­plex

Right: In­tri­cate carv­ing from Angkor Wat

Above: Colos­sal faces from Prasat Bayon

Preah Kahn tem­ple

Above left: Plan of Angkor Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park Right: Stone carv­ings along the bridge at Bayon tem­ple

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