We landed in Siem Reap in mid day, and right away we were swept by the intense heat of the Cambodian sun. The first day we arrived, I got skin allergic reactions from all the heat (I come from Canada, we rarely experience such high temperatures!) but I guess I got used to it, because it got better in a few days. We of course cooled off as much as possible with the local beer, “Angkor” (also the brand name of cigarettes):
Of course, we were in Siem Reap for one goal: to marvel and explore the millennium-old ruins of Angkor. I have been introduced to this magical place by one of my ex-coworkers, Christophe, at the (then) small Montreal graphic design firm Bivouac Studio. The pictures were branded in my mind; intricately carved stone temples destroyed by the Cambodian jungle… it blew me away. Now, five years later, I was standing on those very grounds.
The reign of Angkor (meaning, “city”) has started in AD 802 and lasted until 1431, when the area was sacked and its population migrated to Phnom Penh. During those years (and especially between 900-1200), the Khmer (residents of Cambodia) built some of the world’s most incredible architectural masterpieces. Over one thousand religious buildings were produced; some very minor of course, and some absolutely mind-blowing like Angkor Wat (on which 30 000 people worked for 50 years!). The area covers 1,000 square kilometres, and speculators suggest it contained a population of up to a million people. Angkor was eventually abandoned, and was rapidly cloaked by the jungle… until it got “re-discovered” by a French archaeologist – which cleared the forest and helped renovate and re-assemble the ruins.
The temples were influenced by quite a few religious movements; indigenous cults (worhip of ancestors), royal cult (god-kings), hinduism (shavaism/vaishavism) as well as buddhism. Sometimes temples were defaced and re-engraved with figures of different religions!
We went to visit the ruins of the temples by “tuk tuk” (a moto with a trailer), which brought us anywhere we wanted. It kind of felt like luxury to have your own driver haha!
So, here are the ruins we visited… I put them in chronological order so you can see how they evolved over the years:
Preah Ko – Built: 879 AD – Religion: Hindu (Shiva)
Preah Ko, meaning “sacred bull” is one of the first major temples of the empire, located in the early Khmer capital of Hariharalaya. Its six towers have been built on a platform, and you could still see carvings dating from that time:
Bakong – Built: 881 – Religion: Hindu
Standing 15 meters tall, and as big as 650m x 850, Bakong is based on a temple-mountain architectural formula… The middle tower is higher because it represents the Mount Maru – which in Hindu mythology, is something like 30 times the height of the earth, haha! For years to come, the next temples will be influenced by this style.
Banteay Srey – Built: 967 – Religion: Hindu (Shiva)
Banteay Srey, meaning “citadel of the women”, has to be the most beautifully decorated temple I’ve seen. It’s more than a thousand years old, but it has incredible carvings and engravings in pink sandstone that have been miraculously preserved! Every carving is symbolic, and some tell some Hindu stories…
Angkor Thom – Built: Late 12th century – Religion: Buddhism
Angkor Thom is actually a 3km2 walled royal city that includes many structures, including the famous Baphuon and Bayon temples. It has 5 heavily decorated gates, one for each of the cardinal points – as well as a victory gate.
Baphuon – Built: Around 1050 – Religion: Hindu
Baphuon was first built, and then integrated into Angkor Thom. It is a huge temple-mountain, which is dedicated to the Hinduism linga cult (phallic symbol of fertility). It is mostly in ruins, which makes it even cooler looking!
Bayon – Built: Around 1180 – Religion: Buddhist
Bayon is one of the biggest and most important temples in the area. It was in fact a state-temple, and is easily recognizable by its 54 towers sporting 217 carved faces. It is also well known for its bas-relief carvings, which has everything from dancing nymphs to cockfights!
Angkor Wat – Built: Early 12th century – Religion: Hinduism
Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally, and artistically a masterpiece. It is also the best preserved temple in Angkor, and one of the largest religious structures in the world! Its three towers, which are made to look like lotus flowers, rise up to 65 meters from the ground! It is again a temple-mountain, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It has also served as a state temple, but some speculate it was a funerary temple/tomb due to it facing westward…
Banteay Samre – Built: Mid 12th century – Religion: Hindu (Vishnu)
Banteay Samre was built around the same time as Angkor Wat, using the same architectural style… but of course, it is nowhere as big. The carvings are still in good condition, but the temple has been looted quite alot in the last few decades.
Ta Prohm – Built: 1186 – Religion: Buddhist
Although all the other temples are really cool, this is by far my favourite one. Surrounded by the jungle, which has merged itself into the temple – leaving it as decaying ruins, Ta Prohm makes you feel like you are almost the first one discovering it. It is a really other-worldly experience to walk in there. It surprisingly still had some killer carvings as well! My expectations were largely surpassed.
Preah Khan – Built: 1191 – Religion: Buddhist
Quite similar to Ta Prohm in both architectural and nature crushing ways, Preah Khan (meaning Sacred Sword) was once dedicated to 515 (!) divinities. It has many tiny corridors and dark secret passages…
What I like about the whole Ankhor complex of temples is that, contrary to Macchu Picchu where only the rich can visit it, every Cambodgian citizen is allowed to enter for free. Unfortunately, at the same time, it attacts many annoying sellers to the sites… often, the sellers are even four years old! It makes it very hard to access and leave a site, as they surround you and try to sell you ugly souvenirs with a really high-pitched tone… and most of the time I just ran away haha! Of course, we are on their territory so we have to deal with it.
We also had some superb Khmer meals so far, my favourite being the neverending coconut curries. You can never go wrong with them! They are so good!!
Beside the temples, we also visited something totally unusual; Kompong Phluk – a century-old Khmer village located in a flooded forest. In fact, the houses are built on 6-meter high support piers, on top of the Tonle Sap Lake – who’s water level changes every season. For most of the year, the lake is fairly small (one meter deep/2,700 square km wide). During the rainy season, however, water is pushed up into the lake, increasing its area to nine meters deep/16,000 square km wide, flooding nearby fields and forests. Right now, the water level was still very high, so you barely saw the mangrove forest, and there was less than a meter left before the water reached the houses! It looked really cool, almost like the entire village was floating! And you ask, why go through so much trouble building a village that gets flooded every year? The Tonle Sap lake is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and provides 75% of Cambodia’s annual inland fish/seafood catch. Building your village right in the middle of it makes fishing much easier! But soon, the waters will go back to normal. Kompong Phluk will see the ground and its residents will have to climb ladders six meters high to enter their homes (!!)… for now, everyone is enjoying the water; especially children (who are butt naked half the time!!)…
There are some restaurants, a school – and even a monastery in the village!!
It was quite a refreshing experience… the people there were so friendly, I couldn’t believe it. I felt a bit voyeur to enter their daily life, but they seemed used to it – and everyone would smile!!!
We then had to leave Siem Reap and reach Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital… we have been there for a few days already, and are going to Sihanookville already, but I will leave these for a later post. In the meantime, here are some street food that was sold in between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh – where the buses would stop for pee breaks!
And to my mother’s disgust (haha, sorry mom!), I tried a local specialty… fried tarantula! These babies, who are the size of a human palm and hairy as hell, are bred in holes or foraged for in nearby forestland, marinated in chili and garlic then fried in oil. It is not clear how this practice started, but some have suggested that the population might have started eating spiders out of desperation during the years of Khmer Rouge rule, when food was in short supply. I was kind of put off at first, but tried eating its legs and found that they were good and crunchy! Kind of like crunchy chicken wings, you know? You don’t eat the body though, as it is either full of eggs or excrement.
OK, that’s it for now! Tomorrow we are leaving for a nice week on the beach. We got to relax sometimes hehe!