Note: The below content is not rated on our Grovey rating system. Overall we'd probably give Angkor 5 "Groveys." That being said, each temple has its own feel and flair, and some may be more "Must-See" than others. The beauty of Angkor is that you can explore as much of it or as little as you like. Keep in mind that all temples will require some physical effort to explore, and if you are visiting during the warmed months, be prepared to add periods of rest to your itinerary.
Since we had read about the various temples in advance, Set of Drifter Brady asked our remorque-moto driver to take us to some of the "lesser" temples on our first day in Angkor. (We wanted to save the best for last.) And thus, our journey began at the gate of Preah Khan, which is not really one of the "lesser" temples at all. In fact, Preah Khan, which translates from Khmer into "sacred sword," is one of the largest complexes in the area.
Built as a “temporary residence” by Khmer king Jayavarman VII, Preah Khan features ruins that are in relatively good shape, thanks in no small part to the careful restoration currently being performed by the "World Monuments Fund." Still, the outer courtyards and interior vaulted corridors are covered in moss and lichens, while while the many bas-reliefs and various sculptures show signs of thieving by artifact robbers throughout the centuries.
No one knows quite how Jayavarman VII, often thought to the be the most "famous" and prolific ruler of the Khmer empire, built his great temples at Angkor. (If this monstrosity was his example of “temporary housing,” you can only imagine what his more permanent abode would end up like!) It has recently been discovered that each stone at Preah Khan was precisely cut to fit within the temple, meaning that no two pieces are quite the same! Sadly, while the structure, and others like it, were built with such immense precision back in the day, forces of nature have since done their part to rip them apart, stone by stone. Set of Drifters tip: Those visiting Preah Khan would do best to wear sensible hiking shoes... and to watch where they are going!
Preah Khan is a true “fusion” temple with various architectural designs pointing to Hindu gods like Shiva and Vishnu and others pointing to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. The little ladies that you’ll find dancing along the many friezes of Preah Khan are called "aspara." They are usually depicted in some form of movement, telling stories via delicate hand movements of classical Khmer dance. These aspara, or "heavenly nymphs," are not unique to the Khmer culture however, having evolved from a similar "celestial maiden" type found in India. And while aspara are usually a sign of good luck, at Preah Khan, they have not fared too well, having been ravaged through time by both invading lichen, and vandals who have lopped off their heads in hopes of routing them to some museum in Boston via the Black Market!
Taking a step inside the immense complex from the west was like walking into an Indiana Jones movie. We saw many interior walkways that at one time would have featured traditional fertility symbols of the “linga” (male) and “yoni” (female), that is if they hadn't already been stolen! The central sanctuary impresses with its stretching views to each cardinal point. In the course of its inaugural year, 18 major festivals would have taken place here at Preah Khan, and it would have taken a team of thousands to maintain the complexes properly!
The architectural motifs and designs on the east side of the temple are seemingly more in tact and fantastical. Here, a strange two-story structure of almost Grecian columns mystifies archaeologists even today. The nearby eastern gate is remarkably well-preserved even though a crazy "strangler fig" looms on one the side. (The incredulous trees are one of the main culprits of Angkor's fall into ruin.)
Since this was the very first temple, we were both taking a lot of photos to capture every nook and cranny. Looking back on these images now, we realize that Preah Khan offered way more shade and covering than most of the temples we would visit later; yeah, we weren't really sweating... yet.
Walking out of Preah Khan from the north gate we were greeted by these adorable little children asking for donations. It was the first, and last, time we saw any kids simply asking outright for money. We gave them some riels, yet we had no idea what we were in for during the rest of our days in Angkor (see “essentials.”)
Set of Drifters tip: Make sure to watch the colors of the walls as they will show you what state the temple face is in. The dark, mottled stone covered in lichen is obviously original, while the red and sandstone colors show areas which have been either restored or completely reconstructed!
Preah Khan - just northeast of Angkor Thom's North Gate, Angkor
Preah Neak Poan
After our driver Mon picked us up from the north gate of Preah Khan, he ferried us the short distance to the entrance of Preah Neak Poan, a temple that was quite different from the last, and so much smaller. Then again, the scale of Angkor’s temples are often hard to decipher since you can not compare them side-by-side.
Like Preah Khan, Preah Neak Poan was also built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Its name, which means "intertwined serpents" in the Khmer language, is derived from the two nagas who encircle the central island temple. Originally, the stone tower would have jutted out from its surrounding square moat reservoir (or baray) that, back in the day, would have served the nearby community of Preah Khan. These days, however, the ground is covered in grass and you can walk right up to the edifice to take a closer look, which is exactly what we did.
Oddly enough, the temple as it stands today, is not the original construction. Maurice Glaize, Angkor's conservator from 1937 to 1945, had the daunting task of rebuilding Preah Neak Poan after a hurricane leveled the temple completely in 1935. (An invading strangler fig tree that would have eventually engulfed the temple anyway was thankfully removed.)
The carvings at Preah Neak Poan are just as intricate as those at Preah Khan, but once again, nature and (poor) nurture have taken over. A "horse head" that would have spouted healing “holy water” to believers in antiquity is now almost unrecognizable. And those poor elephants! How would you feed yourself if you were missing your trunk?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Preah Neak Poan were its coaxing stone caves hidden off to the side. We did not stick around too long to investigate since, at this point, we were quite famished! Maybe next time.
Set of Drifters tip: Because vehicles are not allowed to travel off the main roads, visitors to Preah Neak Poan will still need to walk a considerably long way to reach the temple. We wished we had procured parasols to block out the blazing sun and gargantuan heat as this trek was not easy, made bearable only with the intoxicating sounds of the pop-up gamelan band that played at the edge of path.
Preah Neak Poan - about 2 k. east of the northern gate of Preah Khan (on the way to Ta Som)
The morning’s temple trekking kept on keepin’ on at Ta Som, the late 12th century beauty once proposed by King Jayavarman VII. (The king dedicated Ta Som to his father Dharanindravarman II who had ruled the Khmer people from 1150 to 1160.) From the onset, the overall layout of Ta Som reminded us immediately of Preah Khan, albeit on a much smaller scale. What made this temple visit a new experience was the way the ever-changing position of the sun lit the intricate bas-reliefs and in turn produced varying degrees of clandestine shadows.
Yet there was another interesting addition to this structure that we had not experienced up until this point. At Ta Som, its “gorupa” entrances are decorated with the multiple faces of what may be the Boddhisatttva Avalokiteshvara. It’s a motif of Jayavarman VII’s constructions that we would see repeated many times throughout Angkor.
The World Monument Fund, the New York based operation dedicated to preserving the world’s historic architecture, certainly have their work cut out for them at Ta Som where large boulders are strewn unceremoniously about in difficult to maneuver piles. Since 1998, their work at Ta Som has centered mostly on keeping the structure safe for visitors. Yet, if you take a closer look at some of the bas-reliefs, you will easily notice that restoration must also be on their agenda. The aspara dancers sculpted in lighter sandstone reveal either damaged carvings that have been partially restored or stolen artifacts that have been since replaced by full replicas.
We would soon learn that many of Angkor’s different temples had been "adopted" by various countries to help preserve and restore their natural beauty. We guess that makes Ta Som, and the aforementioned Preah Khan, “the American-sponsored” temples of Angkor. Interestingly, it has reported on Wikipedia by one of the WMF's former employees that their work at Preah Khan was nothing more than "a glorified maintenance program," adding that the organization was not "prepared to falsify history" by putting together some of the more difficult puzzle pieces strewn about.
Of course, one of the main sources of terror for these fragile stone edifices are the incorrigible "stranger figs" that encroach from all sides, maturing and thickening with the nutrients gathered from soil and collected water. They are quite a sight to behold; the one at Ta Som’s eastern gate will astound visitors with its insistence. If not cared for, the roots of these trees will continue to needle their way in between the rock junctions, pulling apart the structures from the roof down to the ground!
As we made our way back out from Ta Som, we fell right into the waiting grasp of... you guessed it, more quick-witted children trying to sell us a bunch of trinkets for which we had no use! The two little girls at Ta Som were almost as cheeky as our new friends Peer and her sister (see “eats” and “essentials.”) They hid behind a random temple wall and scared us on purpose! While they really deserved a chiding, we gave them some peppermint gum instead!
Ta Som - about 2 km. east of Preah Neak Poan on the road towards Eastern Mebon and Pre Rup
Prior to arriving at Angkor Wat we were under the lame assumption that all of the temples were somewhat close to one another, possible even within walking distance. This is certainly not the case. While we did witness some people biking between the various sites, “Set of Drifters” does not advise attempting Angkor solely on foot. Even on a short afternoon route from Ta Som through the main eastern sites of Angkor, our driver whisked us through long stretches of rice paddies and dried up reservoirs. (These remorque-moto respites were actually quite welcome as the cool breezes recharged us for each new temple.)
Eastern Mebon, a grand temple erected by Rajendravarman II in the 10th century, would have originally stood proud flanked on all sides by the waters of the Eastern Baray reservoir. Its architectural style more closely resembles that of India when compared to the other structures in the area. Since the temple is a few hundred years older than the structures built by Jayavarman VII, its design is much simpler, yet dazzling nonetheless. Some archaeologists believe Eastern Mebon was never quite finished, evidenced by the earthen ramps that lead up to the main entrances to the complex.
The scene at Eastern Mebon was quite different from the temples we had visited up until this point. For starters, the temple went upwards and not outwards, leaving no opportunity for shade or cover from the scorching mid-day sun! That umbrella we found at long last back in Chiang Mai certainly came in handy, but not in the way we had originally anticipated. And trust us, tough times call for tough measures. That blue ladies silk we purchased from Peer and her sister back at Preah Neak Poan came quite in handy when wiping the blinding sweat from our brows!
While we were immediately intrigued by the “orange brick" laterite, a definite departure from the "grey stone" constructions of Jayavarman VII, as we climbed up the Hindu temple level by level, we were greeted by an ever-increasing panorama of visual delights, including some rather impressive elephant sculptures! Look closely enough and you will see a number of holes bored into the bricks where plaster engravings would have at one time been added by master artisans. These pieces are long gone now.
While it is quite obvious that Mother Nature has wrecked havoc on the somewhat unprotected Eastern Mebon, it is perhaps more upsetting to see how many of the beautiful statues have been plundered or defaced. Like the many wounded at Eastern Mebon, faceless lion sentinels are found all over Angkor.
Reaching the serene “mountain top” of Eastern Mebon, we checked out one of the five towers that at one time acted as gigantic funerary chimneys. (The only way is up, for the smoke - and potentially the soul?) Interiors of the former crematoriums are still used today as Buddhist altars, and they make for a nice reward for those agile enough to reach the apex! Eastern Mebon, like many of Angkor’s temples, is fitted with insanely steep stairs that are often your only option of climbing the temples. Be prepared to walk sideways in order to scale some of the more narrow passageways! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Eastern Mebon - about 2 km. southeast of Ta Som (on the right hand side)
After visiting the temple known as “Eastern Mebon,” Mon drove us closer back into Angkor’s center, past countless emerald rice fields filled with local Khmer people toiling away in the hot sizzling light of day! Up next on our first day of temple touring was Pre Rup, a structure that could easily be dubbed "Eastern Mebon on Steroids.” Pre Rup, which in Khmer means "turning the body," was also built by Rajendravarman II, the ruler of Eastern Mebon, and features a similar quincuncial arrangement of towers.
Upon entry at Pre Rup, a couple of tenacious kids used every trick in the book to try to get us to buy their trinkets (see “essentials.”) We gave them the slip and proceeded to climb up and down the chunky steps of Pre Rup where an interesting new architectural motif emerged. The conical stone pillars are perhaps most prominent in the temple of Angkor Wat, but here at Pre Rup, and fashioned out of brilliant orange sandstone, they contrast strikingly well against the beautiful blue sky!
The term "turning the body" refers to a cremation practice involving outlining the body's form with its own cinders. This custom would have originally been carried out at the funerary altars that reside within each of Pre Rup’s five brick towers. When initially built, these monolithic brick structures would have been covered in a plaster coating of decorative design. Sadly, in the centuries since, the exterior carvings have long since been thieved.
Views from the top of the multi-tiered Hindu temple of Pre Rup are nothing short of mind-blowing. Many travel books grade the sunset from here to be one of the best in Angkor. (Since it was only noon when we arrived, we were unable to add this experience to our trip.) One can supposedly see all the way to the top of Eastern Mebon, and beyond, from the apex of Pre Rup, but without binoculars, our vista appeared more like a never-ending carpet of lush green trees... not that we had any arguments mind you!
Set of Drifters tip: Fans of the game Tomb Raider? Pre Rup would certainly have been a fun level to explore as "Lara Croft." Just make sure your shoelaces are dutifully tied!
Pre Rup is in need of some support; its outer galleries are perilously close to collapse and are buttressed by a series of wooden beams that clearly keep the puzzle pieces from toppling over altogether!
Pre Rup - about 1/2 km. south of Eastern Mebon, (also on the right hand side)
In efforts to capture the much-celebrated sunrise over Angkor Wat, we awoke before dawn on our second morning in Siem Reap to meet up with our driver Mon. During that early morning trek, our eyes widened with the evocative sights that passed by so quickly from each side of the remorque-moto. From the misty photos taken with my fogged-up camera lens, it was evident that, even at 5:30 AM, the humidity was palpable!
Visiting Angkor Wat had been a dream of mine since my freshman year at college, when I had become enraptured by Khmer complex via a chain of research that began with the historical arts and dance of Siam, continued into Indonesia (Java's Borobudur and Bali legong dance), and eventually led to the magnificence that is Angkor. Because 15 years had now passed since those days, I was filled with much anticipation that morning as we drove into the park!
From the direction of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is indeed your first point of reference when entering past the ticket checkpoint. In fact, we had seen the colossal structure briefly the day prior as a "drive-by" on our way to Preah Khan. Still, from the road, nothing can compare your for the enormity once inside its gates, the sheer magnitude of which is shrouded by a thick natural fence of greenery.
Angkor Wat dates to the early part of the 12th century, when the Khmer empire was at the height of its reign. Its name means "temple as a city," a deserving translation since the layout of the complex includes a number of different buildings scattered inside the retaining wall.
Unlike most of the temples in Angkor, the main entrance to Angkor Wat faces the west, traditionally the symbolic direction of "death." This positioning led anthropologists to surmise that Angkor Wat must have existed as a tomb, perhaps the funerary temple for King Suryavarman II who ruled the region at the time. Temple inscriptions dictate that it took more than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants to construct Angkor Wat, mostly out of sandstone - an improvement over earlier Khmer temples like Pre Rup and Eastern Mebon that feature much weaker laterite bricks.
Lion statues stand guard over the large moat that separates Angkor Wat from the "mainland." From here, a multitude of travelers from all of the world gather to take severe wide-angle shots of the temple in the distance, and yet, Angkor Wat is so far back at this point that most of its beauty is still shrouded by the West Portico. (Set of Drifters tip: It’s best to pass the tourists and move on for better photos!)
A sandstone causeway carries visitors beyond the 625 foot wide moat and past a number of smaller libraries and rather impressive anthills! Only half of the avenue has been restored in recent years, leaving the remaining side a series of uneven pave stones that almost resemble a wave in the way they crest up over ridges in the ground.
Even though the fabled sunrise seemed improbable that morning due to the high clouds, hopeful crowds gathered in all pockets of the temple’s western facade. Angkor Wat would turn out to be the most populated attraction we would experience while in Cambodia, and yet, the current masses seated outside the Western Portico are certainly not the first grouping to experience the splendor spilling out from all sides.
In fact, most written accounts of Angkor Wat begin with the China’s Chou Ta-Kuan, an emissary who visited the city while the Khmer empire was still in full swing. Chou Ta-Kuan’s large text "Memorials on the Customs of Cambodia" was based on his year long visit to Angkor in 1296, and focused on the city of Angkor Thom that we would soon visit next (see below). As for Angkor Wat, following a period of almost 400 years in which the complex lay in ruins, it was first “discovered” by westerns from Portugal in 1586. After they came and went, the next major expedition, led by the France’s Charles Emile Bouillevaux, then Henri Mouhot, and finally Doudart de Lagree, finally put Angkor on the map in the 1850's and 1860's. (The French knew a good thing when they saw it and swooped in during the following decades to restore, photograph, and attract tourists before returning Angkor back over to people of Cambodia in 1907.)
Nagas guard the balustrade which draws worshipers closer and closer to the inner temple of Angkor Wat. Once inside, visitors will see that the monument is constructed in a rigid cruciform pattern with three different levels of similarly towered layouts. The spatial arrangement of the towers is very precise and intentional, meant to mirror the Hindu image of the universe with Mount Meru at its center. Many of the concepts of Angkor Wat's Hindu symbolism were first unraveled by photographer John Thomson who spent 10 years photographing the area in the late 1800's. The Hindu connection certainly makes sense considering the trivia that King Suryavarman II often identified himself with the Hindu god Vishnu. (Who are you calling narcissistic?)
Of course, before photographs, there were drawings. Many of the earlier explorers worked with artists like Louis Delaporte to try and capture the magic of Angkor that is unlike anywhere else on earth! Those early drawings were certainly embellished, and it would still be centuries before accurate, to-scale depictions of the temples and their locations would be available.
Suryavarman II’s crown jewel is a true indoor/ outdoor temple with a vast number of confusing hallways that link the central bakan (gallery), while thankfully offering tourists a brief respite from the sun! While the exterior facades of Angkor Wat all feature a ruddy greenish/ grey or dark maroon appearance, the inner columns and friezes are awash with the traditional glowing orange of Buddhist monks' attire. But don’t let this splash of color fool you into thinking all is well. Many parts of Angkor Wat are in danger of collapse, and therefore supported by somewhat unconvincing beams and struts. In some areas, wooden stairs have replaced faulty stone steps in order to safely accommodate the millions of pilgrims that tour the pride of Cambodia each year. (While we visited, the top level was off limits completely due to safety concerns.)
In a museum setting, the plethora of stone sculptures, friezes and other bas-relief inscriptions that line the interior hallways would be presented on a pedestal behind glass encasement, or at the very least, well-lit. Sadly, here at Angkor Wat, decapitated Buddhas seem almost littered about in the shadows, the quiet victims of looters throughout the decades. It’s hard to imagine just how many statues there may have been in antiquity, or how these are even worshiped today when there are so many tourists clambering through each morning, noon, and night. Our guess is that any current devotion is relegated to the beautiful centralized shrine that appears quite simple in contrast to the overall grandeur of the monument... especially when considering the temple’s importance amongst followers of the two local faiths.
Needless to say, Angkor Wat is not just a great location to see a good sunrise, or witness the epitome of grand Khmer architecture. The temple itself could almost be considered the largest sculpture in the world. Bas-reliefs are carried throughout the space, both inside and out. And as with other partially restored temples, visitors should be able to tell by their color, which carvings are the "real thing," and which are simply replicas created to replace those previously stolen or ravaged by Mother Nature's indiscriminatory eye.
The more than 3,000 asparas on-site are amongst the Angkor Wat’s most famous carvings. Many of the beguiling dancers were damaged in the 1980's when representatives from India attempted to clean them with acidic chemicals! Ouch! More disheartening is the fact that, for some odd reason, thieves just love to steal aspara noses. (And now we ask you, what would you do with an "aspara nose?”) These days, preservation work by the "German Aspara Conservation Project" is helping to restore the beauties to their original state.
Arguably, Angkor Wat’s most intricate bas-reliefs are the ones that wrap around the almost 1 km. outer wall of the central temple. These carvings depict both important historical aspects of the Khmer empire, as well as the ideologies of the temple's two religions.
The southern portion of the western wall depicts the gory battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, as told in the Hindu epic “Mahabharata.” The reason the stone here resembles polished black marble is because, throughout the years, so many people have come through to touch the bas-reliefs with their greasy paws! Thanks so much.
Further down, near the southern section of the eastern wall, is Angkor Wat’s most famous contiguous bas-relief, the elaborate retelling of the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk." This celebrated sandstone piece details the 92 asuras (demons) and 88 devas (gods) who use the serpent "Vasuki" to churn the sea under Hindu god Vishnu's direction. (If I were Vasuki, I’d be none too happy about my involvement with the grandiose game of tug-of-war!) Unfortunately, the World Monument Fund had started a renovation of this huge attraction in 2008, and therefore, only a portion of the story was available when we visited in July of 2009.
Did you know that in Thai schools, teachers use books that claim Angkor Wat was actually constructed by the people of Ayutthaya! While it is true that the Thai people sacked Angkor in 1431, the grand structures had already been around for more than 300 years! (It’s no wonder that the Khmer and Thai people have an ongoing rivalry with one another!) Still, as the popularity and knowledge of Angkor expands, the history in which it evolved from is garnering more and more respect the world over. Maurice Glaize, the same conservationist who saved Preah Neak Poan after a hurricane (see above), likened the classicism of Angkor Wat's architecture to that of Ancient Greece, remarking that it "attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions.”
Surprisingly, the awe-inspiring temple complex of Angkor Wat, one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World,” did not become a UNESCO World Heritage Site until late in the game (1992 to be exact). That classification has continued to draw adventures seekers from across the globe ever since. We recommend that you make your visit to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat soon, while it still retains some semblance of its “off-the-radar” charm.
Set of Drifters tip: Truth be told, the best way to ensure a magnificent Angkor Wat sunrise is to visit during the equinoxes of March or September. Nevertheless, if the sunrise is a no-go, the eastern view of Angkor Wat may just be your best AM bet for grabbing a decent photo of the temple’s overall symmetry and elegance. Because of the lighting, and the absence of the long walkway that leads to the entrance, this location gives shutterbugs easier access to a close-up shot of the entirety of the facade.
Ultimately, there really is no way to experience everything at Angkor Wat in one visit. After all, the massive “city” is believed to be the largest religious complex in the world! For an entirely different perspective, you can also join one of many hot-air balloon tours that take off each morning in hopes of capturing that elusive sunrise! If we had had more time, we certainly would have pursued this option further! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Angkor Wat - about 2.5 km. north from the main ticket booth/ checkpoint for Angkor
the pulse of Angkor Thom
The temple complex of Angkor Thom, chock full with a variety of different and unusual structures, is certainly the runner-up for top “Must-See Attraction” within the park. Really a city within a city, Angkor Thom would have supported a population of one million inhabitants at the height of its power.
Built by our old friend Jayavarman VII, the fortress city is protected even today by a 26 foot-tall wall that stretches eight miles in circumference. A moat that is mostly dry today (unless graced by afternoon rains like it was when we visited in July of 2009) would have once added further shield from neighboring enemies. So, what exactly was Jayavarman VII defending? Most likely the Bayon, the mysterious, and some might say utterly preposterous temple that is easily one of Angkor's most famous... but more on that later.
Our driver Mon first took us from Angkor Wat up through the South Gate of Angkor Thom. The passage ways through the gates (or gorupas) are actually quite narrow, and we wondered if our remorque-moto would be able to muscle through the traffic jam of other vehicles (cyclists, full-sized cars, elephants!)
The South Gate features a brilliant sculptural rendition of “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a famous Hindu myth that is depicted over and over again throughout Angkor. Here at Angkor Thom, 54 stone asuras and 54 stone devas line each side of the entrance, playing the ultimate game of "tug of war" with a long serpent! When the first explorers would have arrived on the Angkor scene, this area would have been virtually indiscernible, covered in heavy jungle vegetation. Once word caught on however, the area was cleared - quite literally, the heads of the beautiful statuary decapitated and stolen for sale on the Black Market! These days, restoration efforts have replaced the missing stone heads, and the “Ocean Milk” is churned once more!
Hoping to examine one of Angkor Thom’s gorupas up close without the disturbance of the mid-morning rush hour commute between Angkor Wat and the Bayon, Mon took us next to the western gate of Angkor Thom. Since this gate empties out into the mostly dry Western Baray and a multitude of temples that are very far away, the West Gate is rarely traveled. In fact, Mon later told us that we were one of the few sets of travelers that had ever requested to come all the way out here. That is a shame since the quiet and serene environment here easily allows visitors to imagine what it must have felt like for the explorers in the 1800’s to unexpectedly happen upon the structure ensconced within the leafy jungle vegetation!
From Angkor Thom’s West Gate, we witnessed how wooden struts are used today to hold up the stone walls that feature no mortar to hold them together otherwise. Interesting to note that back at the height of the Khmer empire, the city of Angkor Thom would have been filled with other more temporary structures, wooden abodes for the villagers and fisherman, etc. The stone temples, which are the only structures that remain from this period, would have been reserved solely for the king and his family, or for religious edifices.
Of course, the most striking aspect of Angkor Thom’s gorupas are the large faces which peer out into the four cardinal directions from the top of the structures. The faces are repeated ad nauseam in the aforementioned Bayon as well. So who is this guy, and why is his face repeated virtually everywhere inside Angkor Thom?
There are rumors to the contrary, but most believe the faces represent the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who delayed his own advancement to Buddha-hood to help others reach Nirvana. Others suggest that Jayavarman VII, being somewhat of an egomaniac, had depictions of himself chiseled into the structures to prove his might! Either way, it is no surprise that Angkor Thom’s enigmatic architecture enticed location scouts to film portions of the second Tomb Raider film here.
After visiting Angkor Thom’s many profound structures, we returned to the South Gate at the end of our second day and happened upon some rather charming Angkor inhabitants. No, we’re not talking about the hilarious Cambodian children who will toss you a bon-mot or two in exchange for a riel (see “essentials.”) These locals were furry, swinging from vines, and busy eating bushels of bananas!
Yes, macaque monkeys are abundant once inside the gorupas of Angkor Thom, and we recommend an impromptu photo shoot if you happen to run into a smattering of the little rascals. We were able to get rather close by enticing the macaques with foods sold to us by the local families. (Who knew that those weird dried things for sale at stores like Joann's or Michael's were actually lotus pods, a monkey’s favorite tropical seeded fruit?)
Still, be careful when getting up close and personal. The playful creatures seem very tame at first but they do have a temper and will bite if provoked, which is exactly what one little innocent-looking kid did while we were feeding a baby macaque a banana! Not cool.
Set of Drifters tip: For an extra fee you can travel around Angkor Thom in style. Mahouts can ferry you from temple to temple on the back of an elephant, or up the steep mountain to the breathtaking nearby site of Phnom Bakheng (see below). Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Angkor Thom - about 1 km. north from the main west-facing entrance to Angkor Wat
Baphuon and Phimeanakas
Upon entering the “grand city” of Angkor Thom, our first stop was the Baphuon. The long sandstone causeway that leads up to the what is left of the temple is flanked by pools of algae; there will be no swimming in here if you know what’s good for you!
Back in the day, the Baphuon would have been one of the most impressive structures at Angkor. Alas, these days the structure is now in complete shambles, and yet it’s not “Mother Nature's” fault this time! As previously mentioned, many nationalities have laid claim to one temple or another, offering up their services to provide restoration to the weather-beaten structures of Angkor. The Baphuon's efforts are upheld by the École française d'Extrême-Orient, the same organization that made the somewhat controversial decision long ago to leave the temple of Ta Prohm to its own devices (see below).
Visitors to this “work in progress” will note that there are many parts of the Baphuon that have been dutifully restored to their original grandeur. (One would hope so since the EFEO has been rummaging through Angkor since 1907 as the sole restoration team under French colonial rule.) Still, most of the temple is laid out in a sea of individually numbered stones that litter a plot of grass out front. Utilizing the archaeological method of restoration known as “anastylosis,” the Baphuon has been completely taken apart piece-bye-piece by the EFEO so that it can be put back together with fortification! Say hello to the "world's largest jigsaw puzzle!"
During the years of dictatorship and civil war in Cambodia, work on the temple ceased for 20 years, and even worse, the EFEO's records were destroyed! Work resumed in 1995, but progress is slow! There are literally over 300,000 stones left that still need to be put back in the exact right order for the restoration project to succeed! (And no, we are not volunteering! Cleaning up our apartment is bad enough!) In all honestly, we were a bit concerned that so many of the temple’s more decorative pieces were left so carelessly out in the open. The EFEO needs to hide some of these beauties before someone walks off with them!
We imagine the restoration at Baphuon will continue for some years to come! In the meantime, a visit to the Baphuon could include a refreshing drink purveyed by the many local villagers who unceremoniously hang out amidst the rubble and use the Baphuon’s scattered stones as benches and tables!
Just steps beyond the Baphuon is the tiny, but tall, temple of Phimeanakas (say that one five times fast!) The ascension up this square beast will be quite a feat for your feet. Still, your prize at top is a series of sweeping views over the entirety of Angkor Thom’s bustling activity, including a grassy park that seems to be a favorite of the local population!
From this high vantage point, we were even able to plan our escape from the pesky child merchants below, though it must be said that by the second day, we had already enlisted a few tricks of our own to avoid their solicitations! Since they all seemed to know how to count to 10 in English, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and Spanish, we decided to pretend that we were Russian to throw them off! Well, wouldn’t you know it? After throwing out only a few "nyets,” the clever Khmer children were able to spark off retorts in the Slavic tongue! (See "essentials" for more!)
Engravings at Phimeanakas reveal its history as one of the only remaining structures from Jayavarman VII’s royal fortress! When translated, the name of the temple means "celestial palace." That makes perfect sense considering that the terraced structure juts upward in steep intervals. Set of Drifters tip: We were somewhat wary walking through Phimeanakas, as it clearly had experienced previous cave-ins. Your best bet is to HOLD - ONTO - THE - RAILING - AT - ALL - TIMES!
Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Baphuon and Phimeanakas - just north and slightly to the left of the Bayon in Angkor Thom
Royal Enclosure/ Terrace of the Leper King/
Terrace of the Elephants
As we walked out the back from Phimeanakas we passed through other remnants of Jayavarman VII’s Royal Palace. Here, local children still swim in the sandstone lagoons that once served as the palace’s absolution pools.
Passing through the jungle between Phimeanakas and Preah Palilay we came across a cute little kid hanging out in the ruins of the Royal Palace’s retaining wall. In attempts to garner tips for his services, he immediately went into "travel guide" mode, regaling us with stories of the original king’s many concubines! We couldn't believe how well versed this dude was, and while we could not resist giving him some riels, it was not for his surprising stories, but for his casual modeling amidst the ruins as if he had been sent there to sell kramas on behalf of the Ford Modeling Agency! (See "goodies" and "essentials" for more information.)
The retaining wall of the Royal Palace was especially atmospheric and a precursor to what we would witness later that afternoon at the "jungle temple" of Ta Prohm. We generally prefer spots akin to the “road less traveled,” and these ruins, reminiscent of something out of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, offered us that escape!
Eventually, we passed on to the “Terrace of the Leper King,” a section of the royal compound that, according to lore, is devoted to two of Angkor's kings that had leprosy! A statue that resides nearby the crematorium is hotly debated. While many see it as a representation of one of the kings, religious pilgrims flock here to worship what they believe is the Hindu god of the dead, Yama. Nonetheless, the terrace itself is stunning, featuring rows and rows of well-preserved carvings that render kings, concubines, and aspara figures. (You can tell them apart by what they wear; kings are adorned with pointed diadems while their princesses are draped in pearls.) One dancing aspara image viewed here is perhaps the most common throughout all of Angkor. It is repeated in many tourist replicas in shops throughout Southeast Asia!
A crocodile featured elsewhere in a water scene was once a very common threat in the jungles of Angkor, though we saw none in the summer of 2009! In fact, when tourists first arrived to Angkor Thom in the early part of the 20th century, they would have had to visit the Terrace of the Leper King via canoe since the area was more like a swamp than a jungle!
Across the "Avenue of Victory" is the Terrace of Elephants. The magnificently carved platform is where the king would have held his major ceremonies and festival parades. Today, the terrace is still attached to one lone gorupa of the Royal Palace that segues visitors onto the “celestial palace” of Phimeanakas (see above).
While vandalism has left some bas-reliefs with missing hands, legs, torsos, etc., the terraces of the Leper King and the Elephants offer Khmer artistry at its finest! (Can you guess who is behind the work? Yep, you guessed it, Jayavarman VII is at it again!) The reason that so many of the carvings here are in such great shape is because they had been buried for centuries behind a second outer terrace that also showcases impressive carvings! (As at other sites, the various colors of the stone show where different pieces have been restored or replaced altogether.)
From the Terrace of the Elephants, sightseers will now have an expansive view of the entirety of Angkor Thom. The “Great City” has long been one of the main destinations within the park, in part because it is so well manicured and proffers a lot of open space. In a way, Angkor Thom feels somewhat like New York's Central Park. In fact, the Sunday afternoon that we visited, we noticed many local families having picnics on the main lawn!
Set of Drifters tip: Have we mentioned that Cambodia is rife with prolific insects! Throughout our journey at Angkor, we saw from the corners of our eyes, many spiders, ants and even sleek millipedes charging from one temple crevice to the next!
A perfect example is offered with a trek outside the Royal Enclosure that puts tourists face-to-face with entirely different impressive Khmer architecture. Here, the behemoth ant hills will astound and amaze in their construction. We could not help but marvel at the spacial scale of their structures in comparison to that of Angkor's many temples! (These red fire ants apparently have a lot of time on their mandibles!)
Of course, it's not all insects in Cambodia. A groovy spotted toad nearby certainly blended in well with the surrounding mosses and lichen. Let this serve as our reminder to keep those peepers open for your next brush with wildlife!
Royal Enclosure/ Terrace of the Leper King/ Terrace of the Elephants - accessible from Angkor Thom’s central square with Phimeanakas a good marker, Angkor
Prasat Suor Prat
Just across the lawn of Angkor Thom’s central square is the unusual temple complex of Prasat Suor Prat. This collection of 12 laterite towers in also sometimes referred to as the "Temple of the Tightrope Dancers,” a nod to artisans from Jayavarman VII's court who could reportedly suspend themselves on tiny rope bridges that linked the towers! (Kids, don’t try this one at home!)
We quickly ventured inside one of the towers that flank a nearby pond to check out the dramatic interior views up to the sky. Back in the day, each structure would have held a statue or "linga" fertility phallus inside. These days, however, the backside of some pretty intense brick construction will be your main attraction. (Japan’s “APSARA” Society was in charge of restoring this temple, dismantling and putting back together some of Prasat Suor Prat towers that were once in danger of collapse.)
Chinese emissary Chou Ta-Kuan wrote in his 1297 journal that he had witnessed public trials taking place at Prasat Suor Prat. The process involved sending the two people on each side of the dispute into one of the temples for extensive periods of time until one of them, proving his guilt, fell ill and died from disease! Sounds like Jayavarman VII needed “Judge Judy!”
A smaller arcade temple lies just to the side of Prasat Suor Prat. Walking through its battered hallway immediately reminded me think of the video game "Tomb Raider." “Lara, look to the left... look to the right - too far down to jump!” It is no wonder that portions of the second film in this Angelina Jolie series were shot at Angkor Wat.
Fans of “Set of Drifter” Brady’s photos will note that he often shoots pictures with some crazy tilted horizontal angle... but at Prasat Suor Prat, he swears that he kept things completely “on-the-level.” The jaunty angles from the resulting images show just how screwed up this edifice really is. Prasat Suor Prat’s edifices have certainly been ravaged by the passing of time. Here, trees show their greed by literally hugging the rocks they have torn down from temple walls! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Prasat Suor Prat - directly across the central square of Angkor Thom opposite Phimeanakas, Angkor
What is that strange pile of rubble standing in the distance at the center of Angkor Thom? Upon closer inspection, visitors will be surprised that the “pile of rubble” is no pile at all. In fact, this bizarre structure is none other than the Bayon. If Angkor Wat is the perfect example of true Khmer classical architecture, then the Bayon represents its Baroque period. Here, everything seems to have been thrown in except the kitchen sink!
The Bayon’s first level seems innocent enough, its typical aspara sculptures and ornamental columns lay in ruins. Nevertheless, if you take the time to investigate, you will find that the bas-reliefs here rival even those of Angkor Wat, and the Bayon's ruler wouldn't have it any other way; naturally, it is Jayavarman VII who is behind the virtual insanity at the Bayon! Here, over 11,000 figures are carved into the 1.2 km. wall that surrounds the temple complex. While many of the bas-reliefs depict scenes of daily Khmer life, others portray vicious battles scenes such as the war that raged in 1181 between Cambodia’s Khmer population and the Chams from Vietnam.
Sadly, details like these that would have been highlights at other sites become insignificant in the grand scheme of the Bayon. In fact, we only viewed about 1/8 of the ground level perimeter before giving in to our natural instincts to climb further upward, toward the higher levels that truly make the Bayon one of Angkor’s top attractions.
You see, the Bayon is comprised of 54 towers laid out over three different levels, perhaps an homage to the 54 provinces that made up the Khmer empire during Jayavarman VII’s reign. But there’s more than meets the eye at the Bayon. As you traverse up to higher levels, it soon becomes apparent that each and every tower features the faces of the Boddhisatttva Avalokiteshvara on all four sides. Do the math: 54 towers X 4 heads per tower = 216 boddhisatttva facades at the Bayon! It all adds up to the result that no matter where you step inside the Bayon, you will not escape the gaze from one of its many serene faces! To say that it’s a bit overwhelming would be an understatement. And of course, the debate continues... are the faces really that of Avalokiteshvara or Jayavarman VII himself?
When Charles-Emile Bouillevaux reached Angkor Thom and the Bayon in 1850, he didn't even recognize the Bayon’s smiling faces, concentrating instead on the bas-reliefs and other "ground floor" oddities. You have to remember that back in those days, the Bayon would have been engulfed in vegetation and much more difficult to maneuver than it is even today. It is easy to see how early explorers may have missed the extravagance on display here if they were looking specifically for it.
The Bayon was easily the most cavernous of temples we explored in Angkor with many different levels and sub-levels that eschew visitors in and out of a number of arcades and inner sanctuaries. One suspects that if the swarming crowds of tourists suddenly disappeared, you could get lost rather quickly without a map to guide you! And don’t forget to watch your step around here! Otherwise, like “Lara Croft,” you just may fall to your death through the holes in upper levels!
While heading up to the top level, where the views get even crazier, a local Khmer artisan was spotted soaking in the inspiration all around. We loved that he was wearing a seemingly random "Harry Potter" T-shirt! From this third level, we were finally face-to-gigantic-face with the Avalokiteshvaras of the Bayon, yet since the stones were all mottled with green and grey lichen - which suggest any number of dermatology jokes - it was somewhat hard to see their definition in the harsh light of mid-day. The poor lighting conditions made this visit the most difficult to photograph in all of Angkor, and yet, when standing amidst a sea of Avalokiteshvaras from this top level, it was easy to accept the creative genius (or inflated ego) behind Jayavarman VII's masterpiece!
Now, with structures like the Bayon’s central tower almost impossible to grasp in their weirdness, sometimes it can be hard to remember to stop and "smell the roses." Keep in mind that this temple is still an important site for religious pilgrims, and while we visited, a calming Buddhist ceremony lured travelers like us in from the blazing heat for a few moments of enriching cultural exchange.
Images of the Bayon have long often been used as the commercial enticement for Cambodia's national park at Angkor, and after visiting, there is no doubt as to why! This place is like no other on earth, and is a definite must if you are coming to the region!
As we made our way slowly down the mountain of faces, we were able to appreciate their mystery a little more. Once back on solid ground, we were tired and certainly ready for lunch! Phew! That was a big one... Set of Drifters tip: Make sure you look back up at the Bayon’s central tower once you have made your complete descent. This vista will now give you a better feel of the massive scale behind the Bayon’s lunacy. And make sure you spend some more time checking out the impressive bas-reliefs on the Bayon’s north side. The colors of age on display here are spectacular! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
The Bayon - centrally located about 1 km. from any of Angkor Thom’s four cardinal gorupas, Angkor
After the impressive Bayon, we were certainly exhausted, and yet, there was so much more to see. Against our better judgment, we pressed on, asking Mon to take us outside of Angkor Thom, via its eastern "Victory Gate," to see some of the lesser temples further afoot. Our first stop was the temple of Ta Keo, a monstrous boxy structure that was erected circa 975 AD by one of Jayavarman's predecessors (#5), but never actually finished!
Upon disembarking from our remorque-moto, we were immediately impressed by its size, and it appeared that with those steep steps, it would be another sideways climb to the top! Since the construction of Ta Keo had never actually been completed, much of the detailed design work that would have been added in the final stages is missing here. And thus, the temple remains much more stark and squared off when compared to most other Angkor spots. Call this one the "Minimalist" Angkor temple.
Some believe Ta Keo was never finished because it had been struck by lightening, and consequently viewed as a nexus of bad luck! Others believe that the high quality sandstone used to construct the temple made it difficult for artisans to carve into. Ultimately, historians believe the reason is much more simple. Jayavarman V kicked the bucket half way through the creation!
Ta Keo is certainly not as impressive as other temples on your list, but its striking yellow stone slabs will be a nice respite from the never-ending deluge of mossy, mottled green stonework seen elsewhere in Angkor . Sadly, as soon as we hit the apex of the temple, our camera battery died out, and we realized we had left the other back at the hotel. The tragic turn of events made for the perfect excuse to go back to the Hotel de la Paix for a nice “relax and swim in the pool” lunchtime respite before more temple-trekking in the afternoon (see “digs” in our Siem Reap section for more information)!
Ta Keo - about 1 km. east of Angkor Thom’s “Victory Gate”
"There are few things that can stir such melancholy feelings as the sight of places that were once the scene of some glorious or pleasurable event, but which are now deserted." - Angkor explorer Henri Mouhot.
Once our batteries - both human and camera - had been dutifully recharged during a midday respite back at the Hotel de la Paix, we packed up our rambutans with some water and met back up with Mon for another trip out to the city of Angkor.
The sky was dancing with fluffy clouds as we approached the afternoon’s pièce de résistance, the ultimate “Indiana Jones fantasy temple” of Ta Prohm. (I had been somewhat saving this for the finale of our day since I knew it would be extra spectacular.)
Ta Prohm is easily one of the most fascinating locations in all of Angkor, and perhaps the entirety of Southeast Asia! At first glance, as you step up to the small rectangular ruins before the temple’s proper entrance, it looks just like any of the others: stones, moss and lichen, bas relief carvings of asparas... but there is so much more going on here under the surface.
According to temple inscriptions, Ta Prohm was constructed in 1186 as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery in honor of Jayavarman VII’s mother! And while many of the other temples in the area were also built within the same time frame, and under the same ruler’s watchful eye, none of the others look anything like Ta Prohm. Here, “Mother Nature" has added her own creative strokes, or rather, wide swaths to Ta Prohm’s long-suffering structures.
When explorers from Europe first arrived at Ta Prohm, it was no different from many of the other structures engulfed in trees, vines and shrubbery. Yet, out of "concession to the general taste for the picturesque," those involved in Angkor's massive landscaping clean-up and structural renovation in the early part of the 20th century made a conscious decision to leave Ta Prohm alone. And thus, at Ta Prohm, Nature once again buried the Man that had once tamed Nature.
As soon as Doug and I carefully stepped down into Ta Prohm, the wind started picking up and the clouds began to darken. Now 4:30PM, it was almost closing time at the park and its famed sunsets had thankfully lured most everyone away from Ta Prohm. We were two of only a handful of tourists left for the day and that virtual abandonment only heightened our already piqued curiosity. Strange unseen jungle birds soon arrived, making loud calls that quickly escalated the environment from mysterious to downright freaky!
What is going on here we both pondered in silence?
Like many of the "strangler figs" that invade Angkor’s other locations, Ta Prohm’s muscular flora are no joke, their octopus-like root tentacles literally tear the temple apart stone by stone. It works somewhat like this: After a seedling is windswept and fertilized at the top of a structure, the roots travel downward into the ground, only growing in strength and thickness as the years, and centuries, pass. The roots of one of the most insane trees inside Ta Prohm almost resemble angel hair pasta in the way they drape over the temple's many corners and folds!
Sadly, the faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that would have once adorned the four sides of the temple’s gorupas, as in Jayavarman VII’s other structures, don’t stand a chance here. At some point, it was even hard to differentiate between tree root and stone! (We can’t imagine that, in its current state, this former monastery is the easiest place in which to meditate.)
Doug and I were so engulfed in the mystery surrounding us that we eventually got separated from one another. Walking alone through Ta Prohm is a haunting and humbling experience. A sign in one of the many cluttered passageways simply read “DANGER!” Are you kidding us? Clearly, this place has caused more than its fair share of sprained ankles! I eventually geeked out and cued up some of John Williams’ music from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on my iPod, though the aural backdrop of bizarre birds was easily just as evocative. (Dare we mention that parts of Tomb Raider 2 were also filmed here?)
In his 1921 tourist journal, Paul Claudel called Ta Prohm "an atmosphere of fever and decay." Masked in a carpet of moss and lichens, there is clearly more of that on the way! In some spots, it almost appears as if someone has stained the carvings with green paint! And while insects, spider webs, looters and lichen equally aspire to smother Ta Prohm, it’s still the trees that have a leg up, so to speak, on the competition. The sheer weight of the roots, which almost resemble water in the way they find a path of least resistance through stone, must be entirely suffocating!
A guard at Ta Prohm was telling me that the stump of a fallen tree had just crushed and toppled the wall underneath a few days prior, providing further fuel to the controversial fire stirred up by the École française d'Extrême-Orient so long ago. At what point do you step in and fix a place up before it is completely destroyed forever?
The idea behind early conservationists' plans for the temple was to leave behind a nostalgic reminder for future generations of what it must have been like for explorers lucky enough to first discover Angkor's ruins. Still, it must be reported that Ta Prohm today seems to be drowning in a sea of its own vomit! With many of the passageways completely blocked off due to cave-ins, visitors should not attempt to lean up against anything around here! And yet, there is hope.
Since tall trees create a dense canopy over Ta Prohm, the ground has to be swept frequently to rid it from fallen leaves. Think about it, If the space were really left solely to its own devices, visitors here would find nothing but vegetation. Current attempts at careful grooming hold back the strength of the jungle while still maintaining the temple’s atmospheric feel.
Back in its heyday, Ta Prohm would have required 80,000 people to maintain the structure. Nowadays, the Angkor conservationist team is much smaller. Local caretakers perform the dangerous task of sifting through the moss-laden rubble in order to make sure that the place is safe for tourists. Their efforts help to mitigate any of Mother Nature’s more permanent scarring.
Given that we had taken in Angkor Wat, all of Angkor Thom (including the Bayon) and Ta Prohm all in one very long day, we left Ta Prohm exhausted, and with our senses on overload! As we exited the compound, Doug and I witnessed a local family walking home from a day of work in the markets. It struck me how vastly different their life must be to ours. They just happen to pass by this extraordinary place of dense history each and every day!
Another small kid stationed himself inside Ta Prohm as a “would-be guide.” He was just another one of those kids trying to sell 10 postcards for a $1 and/ or a cheap flutes that barely work (see “essentials.") I asked him if he lived around Ta Prohm, and if he always sold the same trinkets. He replied by admitting he always stuck close to Ta Prohm; I told him in return that he made the right choice.
Set of Drifters tip: They say the pen is mightier than the sword. But here, as with many of Angkor’s other evocative locations, the kapok tree and strangler figs are mightier than anything else! While decay is ultimately the star of Ta Prohm's show, make sure you also seek out the temple’s more delicate details, green mottled shadows and fecund moss spores.
Still not satisfied with the ruinous state of these ruins? Bang Malea, some 24 miles away from the heart of Angkor, is noted as the "true" untouched temple. Here, wooden planked walkways stretch out over the tumbled ruins so visitors can walk amidst the battered location, or so the guide books describe. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Ta Prohm - northeast of Angkor Wat, about 2 km. from Angkor Thom’s “Victory Gate”
Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang
Our first stop on our final day at Angkor happened to be the only temple we visited twice during our trip, Banteay Kdei. We had not anticipated to be so entranced by any single place, especially one that is not found on any of Angkor’s “must-see attraction” lists. Nevertheless, when our driver Mon first dropped us off at Banteay Kdei, we immediately became intrigued solely by the temple’s essence.
While it may not be the most spectacular in scope or detail, Banteay Kdei offers a unique amalgamation of many of Angkor’s other structures, and because there were less tourists on hand - and more shade – that first day we visited, we instantly felt comfortable within its confines. In a sense, Banteay Kdei felt like home. In this regard, the temple became the perfect place for Set of Drifter Brady to return in order to complete photos for his “Past Lives” series, an art project that pays homage to the places and time periods that have forever inspired him.
Since no inscription stele can be found, archaeologists are not quite sure as to whom Banteay Kdei is dedicated. You can rest assured, however, that it was built during the reign of Jayavarman VIII! (Remember that the faces which adorn the many gorupas of the temples are thought to be representations of the king himself!) What is known is that Banteay Kdei was constructed in the 12th century as a Buddhist monastery. These days, it modestly showcases one of the most beautiful central temple shrines we spotted in all of Southeast Asia! Here, locals come to meditate without all of the hub-bub generated by greater temples like Angkor’s Bayon or Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew.
Of course, like the other temples, Banteay Kdei is not immune to the elements - or Black Market art thieves! Those darn “strangler fig” trees from Ta Prohm are back and Banteay Kdei better watch out! Lichen organisms are also a constant presence, the symbiotic composites of fungus with a photosynthetic partner. And while their often brilliant colors almost sparkle off the surfaces of bas-reliefs, one wonders at what point they are doing irreparable damage.
Elsewhere, statues of the Buddha have been swiped from the ankles up - the legs are always the most vulnerable spot for hacksaws – and lovely aspara carvings dance sans nose! (Someone out there has an impressive collection of these!) Frankly, Banteay Kdei is not in good shape. According to archaeologists, its construction was hurried, and completed with a sandstone of poor quality. In the years since, much of it has crumbled away with some sections virtually just heaps of boulders lying in the mud! Restoration efforts are underway though, thanks to a Japanese team of students from the University of Sophia.
The morning of the “Past Lives” photoshoot was moody and green. It had rained most of the previous night and the wet Banteay Kdei was the perfect setting! Aside from the privacy and the coolness of the shade, the contrasting colors of orange stone and green lichen were in top form! Mission accomplished!
Eventually, it was time to leave serene Banteay Kdei and venture to a new locale. Outside, a group of musicians wounded by land mines played live music and sold their CD’s to tourists passing by. We purchased one disc and wished we had grabbed others! (Set of Drifters tip: It’s always a good idea to acquire tunes from the local cultures you visit. The music always makes for a nice soundtrack while working on the trip’s digital photo albums back home.)
Another popular destination for sunsets lies just across the road from Banteay Kdei, the eloquent and simple Sra Srang. Built as a place of respite for King Rajendravarman II and his many wives, Sra Srang features a small arcade of lion sentinels and “naga” balustrades that sit at the edge of what was once an absolution pool. This small baray was built in the 10th century and later remodified by Jayavarman VII in response to the drying up of the much larger Eastern Baray.
We saw kids swimming in the lake on our first morning and came to the conclusion that this lagoon must still be used as recreation by local residents. Now normally, this type of tranquil setting would have provided a great opportunity for relaxation. Unfortunately, thanks to a cadre of small wheelers and dealers waiting to sell us everything from wicker bracelets to Khmer-style yoga pants, repose was simply not in the cards! One entrepreneurial (or exasperated?) mother nearby even tried to sell us her baby for $1! (We still do not know if she was actually joking or not!)
Sadly, it’s hard to capture the magic all around when you are being harangued by locals on all sides. We were pretty loopy at this point and it’s no wonder that photos from Sra Srang show Doug accessorized with one of the small kid's bracelets on his ear! We needed some water STAT, and it was time to go!
Set of Drifter tip: One of Banteay Kdei's smaller residents was a beautiful newt salamander that sunbathed on the top of one of the retaining walls, and yet, Banteay Kdei is home to an assortment of even smaller residents. Watch out for both milipedes and an eager army of red fire ants that were so prolific they looked like one of those close-up shots of bugs from Survivor! Brady was eaten alive by these nasties while walking around half-naked near the small pond in the back of Banteay Kdei! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang – about 3 km. southwest of Pre Rup, or 1.5 km. east of Ta Prohm, Angkor
drive through the village of Preah Dak and the temple of Banteay Samré
Our next destination was Banteay Samré, the furthest temple from the center of Angkor that we would visit on this trip. Mon drove us far out into the Siem Reap countryside, past dazzling rice paddies and quaint villages that charmed in their simplicity - and extraordinary beauty. The trek easily afforded us some of our favorite memories from Angkor, not just because half hour voyage each way gave us ample time to cool off from the intense heat, but also because we now had the opportunity to view the real "pulse" behind rural Cambodian life! As a result, our cameras did not stop clicking while we sat in the back of the remorque-moto taking in as many "pulsations" as we could muster!
The village that separates Banteay Samré from the rest of Angkor is called Preah Dak. The agricultural countryside that surrounds it is clearly a huge source of the area's economy. Here, life is intrinsically simpler, or so it seems. Many houses and businesses are thatched solely with dried leaves, while the well-packed motorbike acts as the family’s SUV. Yet, who needs an SUV when you have an ox? In fact, we were not sure whether there were more oxen on the road or humans on bicycles! Later, a Preah Dak traffic jam consisted solely of a gaggle of school children, all dressed in blue and white, returning home from their studies. (Set of Drifters tip: We loved the large crab-trap baskets for sale along the roads in Preah Dak. If they could be brought home safely, we think they would make for some pretty cool light fixtures once turned upside down.)
Of course, much like the rest of Angkor, local villagers from Preah Dak live amongst grand temple ruins. The star in this neck of the woods is Banteay Samré, another of Suryavarman II’s temples that shares classic Khmer architectural motifs with that of Angkor Wat. In addition to a central lotus tower that silhouettes itself so perfectly against the always-changing Cambodian sky, Banteay Samré‘s impressive naga balustrades will immediately recall memories of its much larger counterpart located 12 km. to the west.
In contrast, Banteay Samré is built almost entirely of red sandstone, the rich coloration of which is arguably the temple’s best feature. The medium easily lends itself to the elaborate bas-relief carvings that still exist today. It is said that carving through red sandstone is like carving through wood, and therefore, it’s no wonder that further-flung temples like Banteay Samré and Banteay Srei are often cited as top destinations solely for their bas-reliefs.
That being said, first-time visitors to Banteay Samré will also be taken aback by how well the temple has been preserved. In fact, the structure is in such good shape that you can see clearly through each of the temple’s four galleries with little or no obstruction! This careful restoration at also makes Banteay Samré one of the easiest temples to walk through, save for a few poorly drained interior hallways that collect morning rain in large puddles that must be breached. From the centers of these small ponds, linga/ yoni pairings (the Hindu symbols of fertility) appear mightily robust!
There’s no doubt that water has been a source of much of Banteay Samré’s decay. Lichen and other parasites that resemble barnacles creep up from the ground floor and traverse across ornamental parapets that line library rooftops. (Back in the 12th century, the two concentric walls that enclose the central structure - almost Chinese in its ornateness - would have most certainly held a watery moat.)
Perhaps because it is so far from the center of tourist activity in Angkor, the grounds of Banteay Samré were mostly serene the morning we visited, punctuated only by the chirping from local bird and cicada populations. As the weather switched back and forth between sun and clouds, the mood - and colors - of the temple were equally altered. The lighting set the stage for another round of photos for the “Past Lives” series. During the shoot, two local kids stopped by to watch. We gave them some props afterward, and they graciously thanked us with smiles as they walked us out from the temple…
…and into a tourist trap! Yes, it must be revealed that, in the rainy season, there are likely to be more vendors than visitors at Banteay Samré. Upon returning to the remorque-moto, this is exactly what we encountered as Doug was virtually surrounded by precocious sales girls offering trinkets of little interest. Instead, we opted for a few cans of Coke that made our breezy trip back to Angkor all the more enjoyable! Ahhhh, the memories!
Set of Drifters tip: The “Samré” are an ethnic tribe that lived around Phnom Kulen during war time with Siam. Their descendants remain in small pockets today, holding on to a culture that features the endangered “Pearic” language at its core. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Banteay Samré – about 12 km. east and slightly north of Angkor Wat (via the town of Preah Dak)
Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda and Spean Thmor
After visiting Banteay Samre, and the long road back through the verdant rice paddies of rural Cambodia, Doug and I were surprised to find that we were a bit ahead of schedule on our final trek through Angkor. And thus, before making what would be the last stop at Phnom Bakheng, we asked Mon to drop us off at the lesser-known temple of Thomannon. We had been the regal structure many times before while passing from Angkor Thom to points east, and thought it looked rather lovely nestled amongst the tall trees that provided ample opportunity for shadow play.
Our first impression of Thomannon was that, of all the temples we had seen, it appeared the most livable. That is to say, it was neat and tidy and seemed to be in very stable (and safe) condition. It was also relatively small, and perhaps more manageable in terms of household chores; sweeping up fallen leaves around this joint would be a never-ending task!
By now, your “Set of Drifters” were Angkor pros and were able to guess who had constructed the temple solely based on its architectural principles: fine sandstone carvings of asparas, ornate entrance ways, a lotus-topped main temple? Yep, Thomannon was erected by Suryavarman II, and built in the same classic Khmer style as Angkor Wat itself. And yet, Thomannon’s towers seemed taller than most, perhaps since they were so easily accessible from the ground.
We shot a few more images for “Past Lives,” amazed at how the light filtering in through the trees made the temple’s lichen and moss coverings almost sparkle!
Next, we hopped over the road to check out the adjoining temple of Chau Say Tevoda, a spot that features a startling amount of complete restoration, almost to the point where it looked silly. We did not stick around too long here since some woman was following us around trying to give us a tour. With this being one of the last two spots we visited, we were over it!
The saving grace of Chau Say Tevoda had to be the unexpected remains of a bridge that had once spanned the Siem Reap River. The remaining supports and walkway now look rather lonely, stranded by a river that shifted course long ago. And speaking of bridges, another nearby site is worth a mention, the only remaining stone bridge by Jayavarmann VII, Spean Thmor. The ornate construction would have originally linked Angkor Thom to nearby Ta Keo (see above), though today, the bridge is undergoing restoration to save it from complete ruin by way of tree strangulation!
Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda and Spean Thmor - just east of Angkor Thom’s “Victory Gate”
The last temple visit of our Angkor expedition was the knock-out Phnom Bakheng, an enormous structure that sits atop a steep mountain just south of Angkor Thom. The original steps are no longer in use due to their ruinous state, and while a mountainside incline is available for trekkers, many opt for elephant guides to escalate them to the top - for a price!
We made our way on foot, passing by another "land-mine orchestra" along the way. The dirt path leading up to Phnom Bakheng is supported by sandbags that hold back erosion from the almost daily rains. Its numerous twists and turns were not necessarily easy to maneuver, particularly for Doug who had twisted his ankle pretty bad while trekking through Ta Prohm the day prior! (See above fore more information.)
Upon finally reaching the top, we were stunned by the sheer magnitude of Phnom Bakheng, one of three mountain-top temples built near Angkor during Yasovarman I's reign (889-910 AD). ("Phnom" means "hill.") Yasovarman I's mountain temples each feature five tiers, and seven levels when including the base and summit. Together, they represent the Hindu heavens of Mount Meru.
Due to the specific placement of its towers on each of the seven levels, scientists have dubbed Phnom Bakheng "an astronomical calendar in stone," and it must be said that the sky looms much closer here once you have reached the apex.
Though we did not think that there was not much that could astound us at this point, we have to admit that we were really taken by surprise at Phnom Bakheng. Its grand panoramic views that open up wider as you reach each new level make it the perfect “finale temple.” Literally sitting on top of the world, you can imagine why it has become the premier spot for Angkor sunsets! Sadly, due to the time of day, and the inclement weather, we did not experience one that afternoon. Still, we did capture with our cameras teeny little Angkor Wat in the background! (Sarcasm again. Even viewed from a distance, Angkor Wat is still the largest religious structure in the world!)
Another nice surprise at Phnom Bakheng was the encampment of tented classrooms and labs that surrounded its ground level, acting somewhat like a training ground for restoration projects. The grounds were abuzz with activity and offered us a peek inside off-limits zones like the one at the Baphuon. Phnom Bakheng itself is undergoing a considerable renovation, and with its many lion sentinels scattered about and laying on their sides, the temple seems to desperately need it!
Perhaps because of the difficult trek, or the time of the day, it was relatively quiet at the summit of Phnom Bakheng, save for a group of Japanese tourists and an Australian couple that we briefly traded war stories with. Together, our disparate band of travelers relished in some of the best 360-degree views available! (Set of Drifters tip: Watch out for the little yellow hot-air balloons wafting over Angkor Wat. They will help to reveal the true scale of this impressive vista that unfolds far beyond the nearby rice paddies of Siem Reap!)
Archaeologist Victor Goloubew once took Charlie Chaplin on a tour of Angkor in 1936. Their visit included a stop off at “Yasodharapura," the city that featured Phnom Bakheng as its mountain center. We wonder if the comic actor would have blushed at the sight of the “yoni”/ “linga” duo that lies out in the open unprotected from the elements! (Yellow lichen abound here, perhaps from the omission of any surrounding jungle trees to offer it shade!)
As we started back down the mountain, the aforementioned rain started to make its presence well-known. Hopping back into Mon’s trusty remorque-moto (now zipped up to deflect the approaching storm), we made it back to the Hotel de la Paix just in time to avoid a downpour! Relaxing from our three-day trek with a hearty burger at the Art Bar (see “sips” in Siem Reap for more information), we thanked Angkor for a truly unforgettable experience! We certainly hope to return again some day!
Set of Drifters tip: At the foot of Phnom Bakheng’s mountain hill, skilled artisans show how they create new sculptural pieces that will ultimately replace ones crumbling within the temples. Skilled workers from the World Monuments Fund are trained with the same basic tools and material that have been in use at Angkor for centuries! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Phnom Bakheng - just south of Angkor Thom’s busy South Gate, abbout 1.5 km. north of Angkor Wat’s main entrance