The Temple in the Underworld

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):

Angkor beer! Kind of tastes watery, but ohhh is it ever refreshing at such high temperatures!

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!

Downtown Siem Reap, and a bunch of tuk tuks lined on the street

Andrée and Yvon on the tuk tuk. We used that to go everywhere!!!

A typical countryside scenery we would pass by with our tuk tuk

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:

Preah Ko. Notice the grass growing on the ruins! Shiva’s sacred bulls are right in front of the temple.

Some really cool ancient Hindu sanscrit written on the door frames

All that remains of a building on the grounds

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.

Bakong temple-mountain

Another view of Bakong

François and myself, in front of Mount Maru

Some cool ruins surrounding the temple (don’t you think it would fit on the cover of a Pagan Altar record?

These made me think of some kind ankhorian stonehenge

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…

Banteay Srey, viewed from the surrounding pool

Inside view of Banteay Srey

Intricate carving of vegetation, which is supposed to purify you when you pass beside it... or something like that haha

A demon who protects the temple, and scares evil spirits away

Some kind of hindu mythology scene

Monkeys fighting! Notice the bullet holes - these were done in the 70's, during the Khmer Rouge regime...

Not part of the original construction, but a gigantic ant hill built beside the temple haha... scary!

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.

The South gate leading to the royal city

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!

Baphuon temple

Its unfinished gigantic reclining Buddha. You don’t really see it, but trust me, it’s there!!

A nearby temple that looks strangely like some ancient mayan ruins...

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!

You can take an elephant ride to visit the Bayon temple!

Bayon temple Southern entrance

Dancing apsaras

A devada, heavenly nymph

The towers with the strange faces

A close-up of one of the faces

Andrée, Yvon and François exploring the temple (they are too tall to enter the next room haha)

More dancing apsaras

Bayon temple from the East

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…

François and Yvon at the entrance gate

After crossing the gate, on the way to Angkor Wat. Notice the epically spectacular blue cow-pattern outfit the Chinese woman on the left is wearing!!

Some of the beautiful carvings inside Angkor Wat. This one describes a battle.

Top pillar representing Mt Manu

Spectacular view of the entrance of Angkor Wat from the top


Inside Angkor Wat walls at the sunset

Angkor Wat reflecting on one of its pools, by sunset!!

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.

Benteay Samre building

An amusing worshipping of (what remains of) Buddha’s feet

Inside one of the wings

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.

The Entrance of Ta Prohm

A friendly Buddhist monk that was hanging out on the premises! He let me take his photo, and gave me such a friendly smile!!

Using all my strength to keep the temple walls up!!

The entrance to one of the corridors

A tree taking over a wall

A tower

The “crocodile” tree in Ta Prohm. Don’t ask me why they call it that!!

Total ruins with devada nymphs

The coolest mix of nature overtaking human work... this right here is a silk-cotton tree on top of another tree, and covering picturesquely an obscure doorway...

More killer ruins!


Exiting Ta Prohm

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…

A tree taking over the East wall of the temple

A spider that was hanging out in the temple (doesn’t it look strange?

An outside “library” or mini-temple on the promises

Inside Preah Khan, looking out

Sexy Apsara dancers

More killer trees, arghhhh!!

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!!

Pumpkin curry. Yum!

“Tropical” stirfried chicken with rice

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!!)…

The boat we rode on the lake to get to the village. It had to sail around 30 minutes before reaching Kompong Phluk!

The main “road” of the village! Notice the temple at the very back...

Everyone is naked here haha, kids are either sailing or swimming, plunging directly from their porches. They might not have the best living conditions, but I’ve rarely seen such a happy community...

Some "floating" houses

Daily life!

Such a peaceful town...

The flooded mangrove forest

There are some restaurants, a school – and even a monastery in the village!!

The huge monastery!

The school, which seemed to be only for girls?

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!

Some steamed buns, which tasted exactly like Vietnamese Banh Bao’s.

Inside of the buns! You can find pork, onions, ¼ egg, sausage, etc... sooo good!

Myself with some GIGANTIC pomelo’s!

Peeled pomelo. The skin is half an inch thick!

A beautiful cockroach salad... just kidding, don't know what kind of insect this is haha

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.

The spiders in their spider bowl

Eating a spider!

OK, that’s it for now! Tomorrow we are leaving for a nice week on the beach. We got to relax sometimes hehe!


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