THE WONDERS OF ANGKOR WAT
Architecturally magnificent and still virtually unchanged, this sacred spot is the greatest temple site in Southeast Asia
Imagine it's 1860, and you are young French explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot: you have just stumbled upon the greatest temple complex in the world, set deep in the jungles of what was then Cambodge, and you can't believe the grandeur of the ruins before your eyes. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, but sacked by the Thais in 1431, it had pretty much been left untouched for over four centuries.
In fact, visit Angkor today and you will have no trouble imagining Mouhot's sense of discovery and awe. There is very little infrastructure or "development" as yet - an unintended, but welcome, side-effect of Cambodia's many years of war, civil strife and isolation. You will see Angkor much as it was when it reigned as the pinnacle of the Khmer civilization, a kingdom that stretched from the Vietnamese coast in the east to the Three Pagodas Pass in the west, and from Vientiane in the north to deep in the Malay peninsula in the south.
Angkor is one of the three great temple sites of Southeast Asia, but the other two - Myanmar's Pagan and Indonesia's Borobodur - simply can't compete with its grandeur and architectural brilliance. Pagan's temples are set on a vast, barren plain and Borobodur, while magnificent, is just one temple.
Primarily the work of kings Suryavarman I and Jayavarman VII, Angkor Wat is a complex of many temples (including one bearing that same name), spread over 262 square kilometres of jungle deep in Cambodia.
While travel logistics are still a bit rough-edged (a plus or minus, depending on your attitude to travel), you no longer have to worry about land mines or the Khmer Rouge. Be prepared, though, for the site's omnipresent child vendors. You can always shoo them way if they become a nuisance, but I've found that they can actually be quite helpful. You will be amazed at the linguistic skills of some of these six-or-seven year old urchins, whose daily interaction with foreigners has given them a grasp of basic Khmer, English, French, German and Japanese. And they will astound you with the facts they have stored in their little brains.
A few years back, I remember being taken on a tour of the main temple of Angkor by a little girl who would point at a desecrated statue and say, "Khmer Rouge shot gun, Khmer Rouge cut head." She was right. Angkor's greatest enemy has not been time or Mother Nature but the Khmer Rouge, whichruled the country from 1975 to 1979. In the name of eradicating religion and starting a new society with "Year Zero," this blood-thirsty regime systematically destroyed artifacts that had been sacred to devout Buddhists for centuries.
They did not eradicate religion, however, nor, despite some damage, did they destroy the power and beauty of Angkor Wat. Each time I return, I am moved once again by the experience.
The site can be overwhelming at first, for there are temples everywhere, some of them 1,200 years old. I suggest you start with the most spectacular: Angkor, Bayon and Ta Phrom.
No temple takes you aback quite as much as Angkor proper, whose five towers can be seen from the town of Siem Reap, 6 kilometres away. The towers, which are also depicted on Cambodia's national flag, represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the Home of Gods and the Centre of the Hindu Universe.
This temple is surrounded by a moat, and as you walk down the stone pathway leading to its main gate you can conjure up images of the 50,000 laborers who toiled for 37 years to construct it. The outer gallery of this temple features the longest continuous bas-relief in the world. The imagery, which narrates stories of Hindu mythology, is truly exquisite. Any scholar or interested layperson will study them with delight, trying to interpret the history of the time.
The Bayon, lying several kilometres north of the main temple of Angkor, is best visited in the early morning hours when mist bathes the stone faces in effervescence. Angkor scholar Michael Freeman once wrote: "The 54 towers of Jayavarman VII's Bayon were each carved with four near-identical faces, aligned in the cardinal directions. When first discovered, it was thought they might represent the Hindu God Brahma, who is characteristically in this form. Now it is known that they are of the Compassionate Boddhisattva Lokesvara, one of the most worshipped divinities in Mahayana Buddhism that the King adhered to - probably under the influence of his devout wife. However, the significance of these enigmatically smiling faces goes beyond this, for they are carved in the likeness of Jayavarman VII himself."
Ta Phrom looks much as it did when European explorers first stumbled upon it. They must have marveled, as you surely will, at the sight of the enormous root systems of the ancient trees that cling and climb on the walls of this temple. It as if you were lost in an enchanted forest, dazzled by the breadth and reach of these wooden tentacles that curve and curl all around you. One of the trees is called the strangler fig (ficus religiosa) and you will discover that it is aptly named. As someone (I no longer know who) once wrote, "This Buddhist temple has been left to its fate of inexorable arborous ruination."
The volume of stone in and around the Angkor site is equal to that of the Great Pyramid of Cheops but, unlike the Egyptian monument, the majority of it has been carved in exquisite detail. For example, there are over 17,000 asparas (female divinities) gracing the walls of the temples. The asparas sang, danced and entertained the gods.
Whenever I visit, I always seek out at least one of the less-celebrated temples. Make time to try this yourself: when you climb to the top you'll experience a wonderful serenity, a poignant moment, strange for a land that has been so wracked by tragedy and destruction. I'm hesitant to cite specific monuments, for part of the satisfaction in visiting one of them is to find it yourself.
I will be specific about two other suggestions, though. If you would like to see a spectacular sunrise or sunset, climb the hill housing the Bakheng ruin (located on the main road between Angkor and Bayon). And, just at daybreak, walk through the main temple of Angkor Wat. Tuck yourself quietly into a corner and watch the temple come to life. In so doing, you will also experience the awesome solitude and reverence that only a place like Angkor can inspire.
Such moments, and you will have many, amply compensate for any rough edges in the travel logistics involved. You'll stay in the town of Siem Reap, where you can choose one of many guest houses (US$5-15 per night) or a hotel, the most opulent of which, the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, runs about US$340 a night.
Quite frankly, there isn't a whole lot to do in town, but I doubt it will bother you, because you are there for Angkor Wat, and that experience amounts to a pilgrimage. A taxi from Siem Reap to tour the ruins costs $20 for a full day or $10 for a half-day. You can rent a bicycle for $2 a day and cycle through the ruins, though it's tough to find what you'd need most - a mountain bike. You can also pay a motorcycle taxi to take you through the ruins for about the same price as a taxi. (Foreigners are not allowed to drive motorcycles through Angkor by themselves.)
You won't have to worry about looking for food or drink while at the site. There are small armies of vendors outside every temple, selling everything from cold drinks to chicken legs and coconuts, all reasonably priced. If you decide to let some of these kids take you around a few of the temples, give them a couple of dollars at the end of the "tour." (If you want to go it alone, say "No" firmly, and stick to it.)
I should slightly modify my comment about land mines. It is indeed safe to travel in and around Angkor, but do stay on the beaten path. (It won't be crowded.) The surrounding countryside is still littered with land mines, and no one knows where they all are. Don't go off for a walk through some farmer's field just for the thrill of it. If you want to know more about this tragic aftermath of war, visit the office of HALO (Hazardous Areas Life Support Organization), located on the main road leading into Angkor. This international non-governmental organization can give you current information, including ways to support the effort the long, arduous project of de-mining.
It costs $20 to visit the ruins for a day, but frankly, it would be ridiculous to go that far for just one day. Three-day passes cost $40; a seven-day pass is $100. You can see the main temples in two days, but need three to get to a few out-of-the-way sites. Any artist, photographer or scholar will find that even a week isn't enough. Angkor, after all, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a UNESCO publication notes, "The importance of the site makes its long term preservation both a national desire and a symbol of the reconciliation and rehabilitation of Cambodian society."
If you do want to visit this site, I'd suggest sooner rather than later. Tourist shops have not yet sprung up all around, but it won't be long before Siem Reap turns into another Cuzco, Kathmandu or Ubud. All those towns are quite lovely, but the more shops and boutiques that open, the more artificial the town becomes. The beauty of Angkor now is that very little modern infrastructure stands between you and the architectural magnificence of this sacred spot. Not only that, you can still travel to some of the more remote sites and be the only person there.
The best time to go to Angkor is from early November through February, when the weather is dry and not as hot as the rest of the year. March to June is the hot season, and the rains usually hit in late June and can stay into November. But, to be honest, Angkor is terrific anytime, in the mist, rain or sunshine.
Of all the books available for pre-travel research, Iąd recommend the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit, which gives you a good overview and history of the development of the temple complex.
Getting to Angkor from Bangkok has never been easier, as Bangkok Airways (www.bkkair.co.th) now makes the return trip at least twice daily. The flights are approximately an hour long. Upon arrival, you will pay $20 for a one-month Cambodian visa.
The adventurous traveler might want to take the overland route, whether to save money or just enjoy the experience. It's possible, both as a package and as independent travel, but fair warning: the roads on the Cambodian side of the border are horrendous and your backside will be sore. Also, don't bring many valuables and make sure you travel during daylight hours. Land travelers must obtain a Cambodian visa at the embassy in Bangkok before departure.
Many Bangkok travel agents offer packages including visa, mini-bus to Aranyaprathet (the Thai border town) and the onward connection from Poipet (the Cambodian border town) to Siem Reap. The Cambodian leg is usually broken with a stop at Sisophon, about two-and-a-half hours into a journey lasts some eight hours in all.
The extremely frugal traveler can go it alone, boarding a 6 a.m. train from Bangkok's main station, Hualampong, that arrives in Aranyaprathet at 11:30 a.m. You then take a short ride to the border, go through the customs formalities, and board local transport to Siem Reap.
US dollars can be used almost anywhere in Cambodia, but it is good idea to have some local currency (the riel) on hand for small purchases.
MORE PHOTOGRAPHS OF ANGKOR WAT