Angkor: a few days in ruins

The ruins of Angkor… what could I possibly say about this place that hasn’t already been said, already described in far more vivid terms, with far more historic relevance, by far better writers than me?

The majesty of Angkor Wat, largest and one of the most famous of all religious structures in the world… the enigmatic, smiling faces on the towers of Angkor Thom’s Bayon… the mossy, etched dwellings at Ta Prohm, wrapped in a strangle of muscular jungly verdure for centuries… the crumbling, dark grottos that tunnel throughout these sites and countless others: these better-known aspects account for a fraction of what remains of Cambodia’s über-productive Angkorian era, when the Khmer people held supreme power over of their neighbors for hundreds of years before mysteriously and abruptly fizzling out. The dream of exploring these sites inspires millions of people to visit from all over the world, and indeed, it may have been that dream that attracted us to take this trip to begin with.

It suffices to say, Angkor is a place to experience in person. As much as I can’t offer the words to do these sites justice, our photographs pale in comparison as well. But for those who never get the chance to see it themselves, I hope this photo recap at least hints at the real wonder of this place. It’s really spectacular.

Note: if any photos below don’t load, or you’d like to see them all at larger sizes, you can view the whole Siem Reap set on Flickr.

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To explore the ruins, we bought a 3-day pass to the park for $40 USD each – expensive compared to most anything else in Cambodia, but very worthwhile for the conservation it supports. Interestingly, Cambodian citizens enter completely free, which seems to be a great idea as most Khmer people do not have money for luxuries like this, and Angkor is a great source of pride and pilgrimage for the entire country.

Armed with our 3-day pass, we chose to explore the sites by bicycle, which we can’t recommend highly enough, if you’re up to the task. Leaving from our hotel in Siem Reap each day, we ended up doing quite a lot of riding (maybe 20-30 kilometers per day), but the ability to explore at our own pace and wander some of the less popular sites completely alone really added to the experience.

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Our first stop was Angkor Wat, which we approached by rounding its square moat for at least 10 minutes before we getting a glimpse of its famed towers from the front entrance.

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It was mid morning, so the light was a little harsh for pictures, but the larger tour groups were just leaving as we arrived and we were often the only people in a particular room at a time.

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Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Well, the only people save for a few monks here and there…
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Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Surrounding Angkor Wat’s interior are hallways with vast bas reliefs of ancient stories. Below are snaps from the “Churning of the Sea of Milk.”

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Elephants provide a means of transportation to several of the temples within Angkor. This day must have been slow, as most of the elephant guides were chatting on their cell phones – funny juxtaposition of past and present!

Elephants at Angkor

The Mobile Context

Elephants at Angkor

Moving on from Ankor Wat, we pedaled through the gates of Anchor Thom, which is a 9 km² walled city comprising of my temples that once collectively may have supported one million people.

IMG_3637http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6547250223/in/set-72157628374940779

Angkor Thom Gate

Angkor Thom contains many famed sites, the first of which we visited is known as “The Bayon,” which has over 200 towers with subtly smiling faces looking outward in all directions. Beneath the towers is a maze of crumbling Indiana-Jones-esque tunnels.

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

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The Bayon at Angkor Thom

Moving on again…

Angkor Thom

Next we visited Preah Khan, a quiet temple with features that hinted of Roman influence (I’m unsure why that is).

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Angkor Thom

Unlike Rome, however, the Angkor dynasties never did perfect the arch, instead edging stones over more and more until they rested against the other wall. Comforting!

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Preah Kahn at Angkor

The most atmospheric of temples we visited was probably Ta Prohm, which is known for its relative lack of preservation. Ta Prohm has all the crumbling, jungly aura you’d expect to see only in a movie. In fact, some films have used Ta as their set, such as Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider (hey, I didn’t say good films). All throughout Ta Prohm, massive, muscular tree roots appear to eat the place alive, lifting and pushing its stones around like paperweights.

IMG_3751 IMG_3758http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6547371693/in/set-72157628374940779

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Ta Prohm, Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn, Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

On the way out of the park, a quick handstand summed up our feelings on the place.

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After 2 days of biking around, we decided to get a new perspective, literally, on the Angkor landscape. So we hired a tuk-tuk and drove out to the Angkor balloon, where 11 dollars takes you 200 meters in the air for an absolutely stunning view of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and rice paddies.

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Similar to a hot air balloon, this had a large suspended cage for people to ride beneath the balloon – up to 20 or so at once, I’d guess, though we only had about 8. Unlike a hot air balloon, this one was constantly filled with helium (I think at least), and tethered to the ground. To go up, the operator would simply let the cable unwind, allowing the balloon to rapidly ascend.

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With a healthy fear of the cable snapping and sending us to space heights, here I am, just a little on edge…

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But… wow, fears aside, this was just an amazing way to cap off our tour of Angkor.

I’ll leave off with the view from the top: Angkor Wat from the air.

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