Friday, March 9, 2012

The Temples of Angkor

The outer wall of Angkor Wat
While we were in Siem Reap with our friends, we visited several ancient temples that were of great religious significance during the time of Angkor, a mighty empire whose heart was in present-day Cambodia. The empire flourished, and the temples were constructed, between the years 802 and 1432. I’m not going to go into much detail on the history, or even on the temples themselves, because I’d just as soon not sound too much like a tour book! But I would like to mention the temples we visited, tell you what most stood out to me, and share a few pictures. And for potential visitors who’d like to know: Admission is via ticket. The ticket allows you to enter any of the temples, and all of the temples require a ticket for entry. The tickets are available only in one place, so no stopping at the outlying temples on the way in before you have a ticket. Tickets are $20 for one day, $40 for three days, or $60 for seven days. The three-day passes can be used on consecutive or non-consecutive days over the course of one week and the seven-day passes can be used over the course of one month.

The encroaching jungle at Ta Prohm
Our friends hit Angkor Wat itself first, for a sunrise photo visit. Jeff, Alexa, and I—quite literally—were not up for the occasion. So our first Angkorian temple was Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm, unlike most of the other temples, has not been reclaimed from the jungle, at least not fully. Trees grow in its courtyards, massive roots grow along and over its walls, and tumbled piles of stone are everywhere. If you’ve ever seen the movie Tomb Raider, you’ve seen parts of Ta Prohm, although the jasmine bush was fake and obviously everything that happened once Angelina Jolie fell through the ground happened in a studio. The most striking thing about Ta Prohm was the atmosphere. In the main courtyards, it felt much like the other temples, but it was large enough (and deserted enough, first thing in the morning) that you could wander off and experience the place largely on your own. When on your own, it felt exotic, ancient, mysterious. My Lonely Planet tour book calls it “other-worldly,” and it’s right. Ta Prohm is one of those places I definitely would like to visit again, next time with my tour book in hand and without the need to hurry up and find a restroom when I was only halfway through my exploration! (For the record, all of the temples we visited had very nice restrooms nearby.)

Angkor Wat: the view once you pass the outer wall
That afternoon, we visited the crown jewel—Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat (on which a floating village was built for Tomb Raider), with the tourist entry being via a wide sandstone causeway. It’s impressive from the road, when all you really see is its outer wall. Once you pass through that wall, though, it’s even more amazing. The path is bordered by naga balustrades and flanked by two libraries, then two pools. Finally you come to the retaining wall, and once you’re through that, you approach the temple itself. The temple complex is three stories high, with several towers, courtyards, and galleries, as well as additional library buildings. The size and grandeur of this complex were overwhelming. Much of the carvings are still very clear, which is impressive considering the time and weather conditions here.

An example of Banteay Srei's intricate bas-reliefs*
The following morning, we visited Banteay Srei, or the “Citadel of the Women.” Banteay Srei was a very small temple, but the lack of size didn’t detract from my experience of it at all. This temple has been restored, but more than that, it’s just … pretty. The carvings are intricate, and are likely to remain so, as they are roped off from visitors, unlike at the other temples. It was very crowded at this temple, so it isn't a great place to try for tourist-free photos, although it's possible with a great deal of patience and luck. Like Ta Prohm, at the exit, there was a band set up, with Cambodians playing traditional instruments. Their sign indicated that the musicians were victims of land mines, and they were playing music and requesting donations in lieu of begging. After listening to them for a while, we had the choice of two paths to get back to the entrance. We chose the one that everyone else was ignoring. It paid off, with some great views and no competition for the best photo-taking spots.

DY Proeung*
We spent the rest of that day shopping and relaxing, before leaving Siem Reap the next morning. However, the three Roluos temples were not very far out of our way, being located just off National Highway 6, so we stopped at all three of them on our way back to Phnom Penh. These three temples were the oldest we saw. In many ways, they were not as impressive as the others, but we wanted to visit because of their historical importance, as some of the first stone temples.

The temple at Preah Koh was not all that impressive in itself. It was small, and although it was interesting, it didn’t have a real stand-out quality like the others had had. However, across the street from Preah Koh was something definitely worth seeing: scale models of several Angkorian sites. When we went to see those, we realized that they were only the beginning. The site hosts a distinguished Khmer artisan, DY Proeung, one of the few masters who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Proeung now trains younger artists in the ancient skills, and small sculptures and bas-reliefs are created and sold (at excellent prices!) at this site. I purchased a bas-relief of a group of apsara dancers and another of two elephants; Jeff purchased a model of Angkor Wat after speaking with DY Proeung and even taking a photo of the artist with the model.

The second Roluos temple was Bakong. Like Angkor Wat, Bakong is surrounded by a moat and approached by causeway. There were several outbuildings—towers and sanctuaries. The temple itself was three levels, with the steps getting progressively steeper the higher you went. That was deliberate, as it was not supposed to be easy to approach the gods. We spent some time wandering on each level, catching our breath before heading up the next flight.

Laundry at Lolei
A short distance away was Lolei, the final temple that we visited. The reservoir that used to surround Lolei now is rice fields; our driver hadn’t been to Lolei but said that he’d heard it would be inadvisable to go during the rainy season because the fields would flood, but the road seems to have been improved (i.e., raised) since then. The temple ruins themselves were not particularly spectacular at Lolei. What struck me instead were the people. There were two children stationed at the top of the entry steps, asking for money. Unlike the children at the other temples, however, these children were accompanied by an adult, dressed in school uniforms, and asking for donations to the charity school in the village. In addition to these well-behaved and not at all pushy children, monks were more in evidence at Lolei than elsewhere. There were buildings just a few feet from the ruins that evidently serve as a monastery, with monks visible inside as well as on the grounds, and their laundry was hung under the buildings and on nearby trees and shrubs.

After our brief visit to Lolei, we settled into our van for the short leg of our trip, back to Kompong Thom for lunch, and then the long leg to Phnom Penh. We enjoyed a few last hours with our guests before we all turned in for the night. They left early the next morning. It was a very enjoyable visit, and I’m grateful to them for prompting us to make our first trip to Siem Reap.

*This picture was taken by my husband, Jeff.

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