A picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is this more true than the temples of Angkor Wat.
I’ve dreamt of seeing the temples of Angkor ever since high school history — long before I knew this was a popular travel destination. There are more than a dozen huge temples to see here, built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Only one of them has been in continuous use – the others were all excavated from the jungle. Who knows how many more may lie buried in the jungle?
We went to the lesser known temples our first day in Siem Reap — the ones whose names didn’t make it into the history books. The highlight was Bantea Srei — so exquisitely carved that you think it must be made of wood, not stone. They say it must have been carved by women because men’s hands are too coarse for such finely detailed work. Phae Rup for sunset was also an experience — climbing up the oh-so-steep steps to “heaven”, jostling with hundreds of people to sit on the edge of the rough stone terrace, swinging our legs and waiting for the sun to set behind the thick forest.
The next day, we visited the big-name temples. Ta Phrom, the heavily filmed temple of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, with tree trunks artistically draping the heavy stone walls. Angkor Thom, the walled city, at the center of which is Bayon, its hundred enormous stone faces staring out in all directions, each with smiles more mysterious than Mona Lisa’s. Finally, we come to Angkor Wat – The Angkor Wat — the aerial photograph of which has been reprinted in a million color charts of inferior quality, for Indian students to cut out and paste in their project books. So much more impressive in person – especially the details of the reliefs – you could spend hours pouring over them.
The third and last day, we ventured further out. Kbel Spean requires a (relatively easy) 2 km hike to a river and small waterfalls, the rock bed of which is elaborately carved. Beng Melea is the completely unrestored Angkor temple (other than a thousand unexploded land mines – gulp – being removed from the vicinity), and has its own untamed charm.
This is a surprisingly chill destination, for how popular it is. Even the touts are easy to brush off! Our driver-guide, Moni Savvanei, was really nice — trustworthy, easy to communicate with, accommodating. We stayed in a historic building — one of those large, airy colonial places with broad balconies, wooden shutters and polished floors. Food is delicious, flavorful but not too spicy. All transactions are in dollars — which must make it really annoying for those not from the U.S.
I feel dreadfully guilty seeing people orphaned or maimed or horribly disfigured by bombs and land mines. They capitalize on this, looking for tourist handouts — but who can blame them? It is a testament to the irresistible pull of Angkor that millions visit every year, despite the relatively recent Khmer Rouge history, and still-concealed death traps buried in parts of the countryside.