Angkor Wat – One of the seven wonders of the world

Angkor Wat reflected in my sunglasses

Angkor Wat's reflection on my sunglasses

Angkor Wat, the mysterious city of temples in North Cambodia has long been on the top five locations that I want to visit. It didn’t dissapoint me, and after three intensive days of sightseeing my verdict is clear, if you’re even close to Siem Reap then you can’t afford to miss out on the beauty, size and sheer impressiveness of the Angkor temples. Imagine walking around in the thickest of jungles, slashing your way through plants as thick as your thigh. Then imagine the surprise and awe that Henri Mouhot must have felt when he as the first european rediscovered the fabled realm of the Khmer empire. A staggering 213 metre high temple in the middle of the jungle bearing the carved faces of a long easforgotten king. The tourist industry has changed what Mahout first discovered into a well documented tourist attraction, but the sheer size and multitude of the Khmer temples are still enough to drop the jaw of any visitor.

To get things straight, Siem Reap used to be a tiny dump of a town lying on the outskirts of the ruins of the great Khmer empire. After the last couple of years of tourism boost the sleepy town of Siem Reap has gone through developments and building at a speed that probably only Dubai can match. Hotels, bars, restaurants and entertainment in general has popped up everywhere in an attempt to cater for the immense waves of tourists that come to see the temples. The temple area is although so large that it never feels crowded, and there is plenty of opportunity to wander of and find your very own part of a temple for some daydreaming. Siem Reap is all about dining and accomodations, that’s it! There’s also a chance to get some seeing hands massages or general spa treatments, but in the big picture Siem Reap is nothing but a place to put all the visitors to Ankor overnight. I do recommend the bar street though, as they have happy hour going at the same rates as in Phnom Penh. A generous 50 cent per draft beer is definently something to write home about, as there is nothing more refreshing than a cold beer on a hot night out in Siem Reap.

We got into Siem Reap in the morning and ended up going with a tuk tuk driver that approached us at the bus station, since he was offering deals on the same guesthouse that we had spotted in our trusted Lonely Planet guide. This was the Garden Village Guesthouse. We figured that it had to be pretty good since it was Lonely Planet’s top pick and it was within our budget. This was one of those times were you actually gave an extra bit of thought to the Lonely Planet’s Brasil scandal, since this was definently not as promised. The guesthouse that he took us to was as cheap as promised, meaning that you could get outdoor dorm rooms for a really cheap rate, only seperated from your neighbour by a piece of mosquito fabric. It was getting a bit late so we figured we would just stay the nigh there and opted for two double rooms after some bargaining. The rooms were spartan to say the least and were situated at the back of the guesthouse where the surroundings were dominated by a huge concrete pool filled with mud and what not else. My point with this is to discourage others from going to that guesthouse, and more importantly not to trust Lonely Planet for all their accomodations. We moved out the next day to the Angkor Voyage Villa not far away where we got an airconditioned room and hotel quality beds at a friendly and comfortable place for a few bucks more. Definently worth it! The Cambodian stew I had at the Angkor Villa was btw one of the best meals on this trip, the staff was friendly, recommended! Check it out, , they got us a good deal on one room for four people 🙂

We ended up agreeing on a two day tour for four people with the guy we met at the bus stop. As you have either a one day, three day or full week pass to the Angkor temple grounds we opted on three straight days of hard sightseeing. If you have time enough I would recommend getting the week long pass and having a few days of relaxation in between, as the sightseeing days can get fairly long and doesn’t involve a lot of relaxation. As I said we ended up with a two day tuk tuk trip and planned to rent a bike on the last day and do some sightseeing on our own. In retrospect I very much recommend this as having your own bike gave you a bit of freedom to do some exploring on your own instead of always following someone else’s directions.

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Me taking pictures of Bayon

For those of you who aren’t too familiar with the Khmer empire and the Angkor temples I’ll give you a quick explanation of the most important facts.

The Khmer civilization was one of the most remarkable to flourish in Southeast Asia. Between the 8th and the 13th centuries, a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kings created magnificent temples in stone. To my surprise Angkor Wat is just one of many, but have become famous due to it’s size and the fact that it’s one of the best preserved temples. The area around Siem Reap is filled with numerous temples and we had to choose a handful of them due to the limited time we had there. I’m not going to bore you with details of the history behind this place but summed up in one word I guess it’s all about machochism. Alright.. I will have to bore you with a little bit of history.. It started with Jayavarman the II who managed to unite the scattered and independent Khmer tribes to create the first empire. The empire then shrank and grew in turns over the next 500 years, reaching it’s higdays under kings like Surayavarman II and Jayavarman VII. They each kept moving their capitols now and then since the normal way an accension was done was to kill your predeccesor. And who want’s to live in the capitol of your late dead brother? So they all had to best their previous ruler and build bigger and bigger temples dedicated to whichever god that suited them best at the time, if it was buddhist or hindu or even one of their deity gods. It probably made living under the Khmer a hardship, but the sentiment that these temples leave behind stands the test of time to prove that the Khmer empire was far more advanced than anyone else in that period of history. Compare it with London who had a measly 50 000 inhabitants in comparison to Angkor Thom’s 1 000 000 people and you get the picture.

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Local Cambodian kids giving Karl Kristian a taste of the local fruits

We got picked up on the first day at around 10 am as we had opted for a sunset day on the first day and a sunrise day on the second day. Our first stop was Angkor Thom, the biggest remnant of the Khmer capitols that is left behind. The city itself is huge, with a variety of temple complexes within the city grounds. The city is constructed in a square shape with four huge gates at each of the four walls. The reason why Angkor Thom grew so large and complex as it did was that it was very well fortified, meaning that it was easier to rebuild or build more temples inside it than to start a complete new fortification somewhere else. Angkor Thom is therefore one of the cities that several of the Khmer kings called his own.

After passing Angkor Wat on our right hand side and continuing into the Khmer kingdom I felt my heart race for the first time. The exhilaration of being in a legendary place like this was exactly what I had envisioned. The forrest looming large on each side, containing untold secrets and myths of old, served as a natural gateway to this ancient kingdom.
As we closed in on Angkor Thom the southern gate stood majesticly ahead of us, the head of Jayavarman II staring down on us, daring us to enter his realm. The approach to the gate, crossing the moat, is lined by an avenue of statues. On the left an on the right, two rows of figures each carry the body of a giant serpent – a seven-headed naga – almost in the attitude of a tug-of-war. The figures on the left are gods, while those on the right, with fierce grimaces, are asuras (demons). This is a parallell to the image of the Churning of the sea of Milk which is a famous Hindu religious concept. The gates themselves, 23m high, have a triple tower carved with four faces. These faces, as with the multitude of faces within the temple grounds bear a striking resemblance to the king, Jayvarman VII himself, and is thought to be the first version of a big brother society as we know. If your king is looked upon as a god, then him looking down on you from every angle in your daily life strikes a clear connection to the fright many have of a CCTV society in our modern world.
Karl Kristian and me spent some time photographing the gate and the tug-of-war before we crossed the gate. In Khmer mythology, the crossing of the bridge was a symbolic crossing of the journey between the domain of the humans and the domain of the gods. Not that it felt any different, but then again who would think that the domain of the gods would be jam packed with japanese tourists snapping photos like there was no tomorrow..

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The serpent being pulled in the tug-of-war by the demons and gods with the southern gate to Angkor Thom in the background

The temple within Angkor Thom that we mostly wanted to visit was the Bayon, a complex temple that is probably on of the most enigmatic and powerful religious constructions in the world. In essence, it’s a mass of face-towers that together create the illusion of an ascending peak. Out of originally 49 towers, only 37 are left standing today. Most of these towers are carved with four faces on each cardinal point. The Bayon is famous for its complexity and maze like construction. The temple is easily accessible as there are no proper entrance, but plenty of smaller entry points. Even though Bayon was the first temple we visited, it is definently one of my favourites, as it’s big enough to find a lonesome spot in. The feeling of walking around in this maze of stone alleyways takes you back to an age long before ours. The calm, knowing faces of the face-towers stare back at you whenever you peak out from inside the temple, imagining that you’re Indiana Jones for a day is just too easy!

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Bayon with it's many face-towers looking down at you

Our tuk-tuk drivers gave us a short presentation of the temple ground and where we could find stuff as there is not a lot of official posters or similar that describe what you’re actually seeing. I would recommend getting one of the detailed Angkor guide books the day before you go anywhere and read about whatever temples you are planning on visiting the next day. I bought the book “Ancient Angkor” written by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques and found it to be an interesting read with numerous illustration as well as a very good guide to the different temples. It didn’t cost me more than 5 USD! A book should almost be a prerequisite as it’s a lot more interesting to have a look at the temples when you actually know what the story behind them are, instead of just wondering if Tomb Raider was filmed at this exact temple.
Our Tuk-tuk drivers gave us a few hours to wander around the temple ground and then finishing off with lunch at one of the many small restaurants that have sprung up inside Angkor Thom. As there are a lot of restaurants to choose from and usually not that many tourists, it’s relatively easy to make a bargain and get some discounts on atleast the drinks.

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A butterfly that landed right next to us in Ta Phrom

If I continue like this I will probably end up with the same volume as my Angkor book.. so to save the few of you readers that have actually read my post untill now I’m going to cut it a bit shorter than planned. As we did three days of sightseeing I will write a bit about the favourite temple we had each day, when I write we I mean my favourite temple 🙂

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Eli in front of Banteay Srei

Day two was our sunrise day and as the amateur photographer that I am I was very dissapointed with the sunrise that we got. Due to fog and some clouds it simply looked like someone had the sun on a dimming switch and slowly turned it brighter and brighter with no clear view of where the sun was actually rising.. So we didn’t get a single good picture of that! Alright, back to the temples! My favourite temple on the second and last day with the tuk-tuk drivers was Ta Prohm with Banteay Srei on a strong second place. For the movie buffs out there Ta Prom was the location in which most movies from Angkor temples have been filmed, like Tomb Raider and Two Brothers. The lure of this temple is that it’s in exactly the same state as it was when it was originally rediscovered. It was chosen by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient to be the one temple to be left in its “natural state”. The only work that was done, was to prevent further collapse and the clearing of enough vegetation to allow entry. The temple is overgrown with large trees that after hundreds of year without intervention from humans, now look like they are a part of the original building plan. The trees intertwine with brick and sandstone, creating what looks like the perfect symphony of man and nature. Ta Prohm was another of Jayavarman II’s great temples. Like Bayon you have the opportunity to walk completely alone if you venture out of the main streams of tourists, giving you the ability to feel like you are exploring the temple all by yourself.

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Karl Kristian walking past one of the intertwined trees at Ta Phrom

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The tree created a near perfect frame for the face of this Apsara dancer

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On day three we had decided to save some money and do a bit of the sightseeing ourself. We had heard of the white bike tours who supposedly rented out bikes with the money going to charity organizations, but as we got a bit short on time we ended up renting some close to shabby bikes from a rental shop directly opposite our hotel. If you’re smart you leave right when the sun rises in the morning, to escape the warmth of biking in the middle of the day. It is, as we all know, really hard to get up in the morning.. so the four of us, Karl Kristian, Eli, Veronica and me didn’t manage to get on our bikes untill about 10 am. There is pretty much only one rule regarding ticket to Angkor, remember to bring it! As we had biked the 4 km or so to the ticket office at the outskirt of the temple area I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten both Eli and my ticket.. So I had to bike all the way back, and being a bit late I just managed to have to do this at the hottest time of the day.. I got back to the ticket booth, tired, sweaty and finally with both tickets!

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Some of the many children that sold stuff around the temples are drawing a picture for Karl Kristian

Our goal for the day was to see the most famous of all the temples, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is not a long bike ride from town at all, so no worries if you don’t feel like you’re in shape. If we could do it, you can as well! Our tuk-tuk driver told us that he wouldn’t recommend going biking as there was a chance of robbery, don’t listen to this.. The road from town to the temple area is mostly in the city of Siem Reap itself, and when you pass the ticket check point there are police everywhere to keep you safe. So don’t listen to the tuk-tuk drivers atleast as they are just trying to make more money.

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Angkor Wat is the biggest religious structure in the world and contains a completely realised microcosm of the Hindu universe, culminating in the five peaks of Mount Meru where the gods live. We ended up spending the entire day from we got there untill sunset. I would actually recommend a bit of biking around or simply some relaxation if you do it the way we did since the best time to be at Angkor Wat is when the sun is setting. If you are interested in photography like Karl Kristian and me are there are endless opportunities for sunset photography at Angkor Wat. Not to say that this is the best place as we snapped way too many pictures on these three days.

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Angkor Wat in all it's glory

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Karl Kristian jumping off a ledge with Angkor Wat in the background, classy!

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If you are interested in learning more about photography, then reading a guide to photography and testing out your new skills at one of the Angkor Temples is pretty much the best education you can get. Here you have the possibility of some of the most beautiful man made sunrise, sunset scenarios around, as well as plenty of possibilities to find secluded photo opportunities just for yourself. The two of us learned a lot in just these three days!

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Me relaxing with a coconut in front of the Angkor Wat, definently classy!

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And of course, a group picture of the four of us in front of Angkor Wat

With its massive towers and stunning basrelief it’s easy to understand why Angkor Wat has become as famous as it is. The silhouette of the three towers that you can see from the front of the complex is a logo that you can find on pretty much anything that is produced in Cambodia. The Cambodians is as proud of the symbol as the Americans is of displaying their flag, and in Cambodians defence I understand why. It is hard to describe it, but it beats the hell out of any church I have been to in Europe 🙂

Some tips that other travellers to Angkor’s temples might find useful:
– Arrange an itinary in advance, either on your own or with a driver. Bargain!
– Bring plenty of battery and memory cards as there is so much to see!
– Be patient with the kids selling stuff and try to make their day a little bit more bearable, as they are only instructed to sell stuff by their parents.
– Buy a book or a map!
– Rent a bike, it’s worth it! And they cost about 1 USD per day…
– Stay for sunset every day, the changes in colors are absolutely amazing.
– Don’t worry about food or snacks as it can be bought pretty much anywhere.
– Enjoy it!!!

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