“I think it’s too cloudy so don’t get your hopes up,” the guide tells CJ and me, his head scanning the skies. He goes on about how the dry season affects the clouds, something about water cycle – but I lose track. As the sun rises, the morning light slowly transforms the silhouette of the structure into a more intricate shape, revealing its complexly interrelating parts and the depth of its geometry. “Let’s sit there while we wait for the sunrise,” the guide says. He nods to a couple of boulders at the edge of the pond, which is normally filled with water but is beginning to dry up as the dry season looms. He looks at the structure that stands a couple of hundred meters away from where we are. “During the summer solstice, the sun rises right in the middle of that tower,” he says, pointing to the central tower. The sunrise is supposed to be a majestic sight but today’s heavy clouds dampen the effect. Yet despite a potentially suboptimal daybreak, I remain in awe of the majestic temple in front of us.
The edifice in question is the Angkor Wat, whose iconic status has come to define Cambodia and provides an immense source of pride for a nation that has, for the latter part of its recorded history, been on the losing side. Our guide is Sim Sopheaktra, 38, a tablet-toting fellow who displays an impressive amount of knowledge on ancient Khmer history. Today, Sim, an official Ministry of Tourism guide, takes a break from teaching English to secondary level students to guide us around the Angkor Archeological Park, a sprawling temple-dotted space just north of Siem Reap. Cambodia’s northwestern part is home to dozens, if not hundreds of ancient temples, and the prospect of exploring some of these ruins gives me an irrepressible excitement. There are countless ways to explore the vast area, and we’ve chosen the classic Little and Big Circuits via a remork-moto.
At 6:30, the clouds have turned into a slightly lighter shade, but the sun is still obscured. The spectacle of a sunrise we are expecting is not happening, and people are starting to trickle in. Sim stands and motions for us to follow him. “Let’s explore the other temples first. We’ll return here when here it’s much less crowded.”
We’re standing just outside the south gate of Angkor Thom, around seven kilometers north of Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a wide moat, the Angkor Thom is a large walled compound (at nine square kilometers, it’s much larger than its more popular cousin) built by Emperor Jayavarman VII in 1181 in response to an invasion by the Chams years earlier. The emperor then established the compound as the empire’s new capital, launching a construction mania that saw the creation of dozens more temples within the city.
Angkor Thom has five entry points, four in each cardinal point and one on Victory Avenue that leads to the Central Square. The bridge towards the southern entrance is flanked by statues and on the top of the gate itself are carvings of the four faces of Buddha looking at each cardinal direction. “Each face represents a certain trait,” Sim says. “The north represents courage, the south generosity, the west inquisitiveness, and the east humility.”
We walk to the center of Angkor Thom and into the Bayon, one of the most iconic images related to the ancient Khmer period and the first temple you come across when you enter Angkor Thom’s south gate. Approaching it, Bayon doesn’t have the breathtaking features like Angkor Wat has. It has less to do with the cachet of the temple itself than its unremarkable features seen from outside its gates, described by Lonely Planet as “rather like a glorified pile of rubble from the distance.” Partly, this is due to the fact that the temple was constructed haphazardly. Closer, though, and the temple reveals its allure. The outer walls contain very extensive bas-reliefs that depict everyday life of ancient Khmers, along with 12th century battle scenes between the Khmers and the Chams, the former distinguished by their long earlobes.
The focal point of the temple are undoubtedly its 37 towers, most of them carved with faces that look at the four cardinal directions, reflecting the figures on the Angkor Thom’s gates. While there is still debate on who the faces represent, there are some scholars who claim they might be of Jayavarman VII’s, owing to the fact that it stands at the center of the emperor’s capital and embodies his immense building campaign. Scholars are also unsure of the temple’s function and symbolism. What is clear, though, is that standing in the midst of the faces – all 216 of them – bearing enigmatic smiles and looking at all directions can be somewhat unnerving.
Northwest stands the Baphuon, a three-tiered Shivaite temple built by Udayadityavarman II in the mid-11th century. It has been undergoing a painstaking restoration effort to restore the brilliance it lost from overgrowth and a 16th century remodelling. The temple itself is unstable and has collapsed long before French explorers stumbled upon it. The process of piecing it back had previously begun but the Khmer Rouge destroyed the records of the position of the stones. Nevertheless, subsequent restoration efforts are currently underway. Sim leads us to the tower’s western façade. “If you look closely, you can see that the temple’s walls have been designed to look like a reclining Buddha,” he tells us. I squint my eyes, trying to look for the image just as one might would in a 3D stereogram, but other than what might be the Buddha’s nose, I can’t see it.
A little further north, we encounter another three-tiered Hindu temple, the Phimeanakas. “According to legend, the temple tower was once inhabited by a Naga (serpent god) who then transforms into a woman every night,” Sim says. “The king is then required to make love with the Naga to prevent a disaster from befalling his kingdom.” While it rewards those who climb it with spectacular views, its carvings have been lost to the elements of nature, leaving it relatively barren of artistic insights.
Leaving Angkor Thom, we drop by the Chau Say Thevoda and Thomannon, two mini-temples similar in style just outside the Victory Way exit. We also pass by the Ta Keo, a temple dedicated to Shiva, but the views of which are currently marred by long metal poles and scaffolding while undergoing a massive reconstruction. Our driver then brings us a bit southeast of Angkor Thom, at the southwest of the park’s completely dried out eastern reservoir, into another iconic temple, the Ta Prohm.
Ta Phrom (literally “old Brahma”) bears the architecture and design of latter Jayavarman VII temples, though its most distinguishing features in modern times have nothing to do with anything the Khmers originally intended. Abandoned for centuries in the middle of a jungle, large fig and silk-cotton trees have grown on its walls, knocking loose piles of rubble on pathways and rendering some corridors impassable. Moss has also partially obscured some of the wall carvings. If nothing else, the place is a testament to the dynamism of the earth, a reminder of what nature is capable of despite man’s best efforts to wield power over her.
That said, Ta Prohm is a relatively polished site, with much of the overgrowth in the temple removed, leaving only the largest trees in their original positions. It’s not to say that the site has entirely lost its transcendental feel; just that it has become so accessible and popular that at peak times it’s hard to imagine the rawness the early explorers might have encountered when they first stumbled upon this place. Today, the western gate is heaving with tour groups, so Sim leads us to a partially obscured trail that snakes to the western entrance. “We’ll start here and make our way to the eastern entrance,” he says. “That way, we would have missed the crowd when we get to the Tomb Raider tree.” He’s referring to the famous part of the temple – a crumbling doorway framed by large roots – featured in the 2001 Angelina Jolie starrer.
After lunch, Sim brings us to the Angkor Wat’s eastern gate, which faces a dirt trail in the middle of a forest. In front of the stairway stands a large stupa containing the remains of a cremated monk. We make our way towards the northern entrance, where we sit under the shade of a sugar palm tree for a few minutes to appreciate at the symmetry and intricacy of the temple. With the early afternoon sun scorching the park, only a few brave souls are exploring the area. Then we enter via the temple’s western gate and explore the bas-reliefs on the first level.
Originally, Suryavarman II built the Angkor Wat as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. The temple’s unusual westward orientation might have been because Vishnu is associated with the west, though this has also led some to believe that the temple also served as the king’s mausoleum, as the west was seen to be the direction of the setting sun and, hence, death. The temple complex symbolizes the Hinduist view of the universe, with the moat surrounding the outer walls representing the ocean, the temple itself representing the continents, and the towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, where the gods reside – basically the Olympus of Hinduism.
When the region was abandoned and the capital was moved to Phnom Penh, Buddhist monks continued to use the structure, and the whole temple had turned into a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. “It is therefore wrong to say that Henri Mouhot discovered the Angkor Wat in the 19th century,” Sim argues. “If you read the history books, you will see that the temple was not entirely forgotten. Locals have been using it continuously. In fact, there are written accounts by a Portuguese monk who saw the place as far back as the late 16th century.”
The transformation of the temple from a Hindu to a Buddhist one isn’t unique to the Angkor Wat either. Many temples in the region that were built in honor of Hindu gods have been converted to suit Buddhism, evidenced by the redesigning on the walls – carvings of Hindu deities are visibly replaced by images of Buddha. This mishmash of styles reflects the religious orientation of many Khmers, who subscribe to Theravada Buddhism with whiffs of Hinduism and animism. “Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit natural things,” Sim explains. “This belief is so powerful to some locals that they refuse to say something bad because they believe that the spirits might hear them and cause them harm. So a Khmer walking in a forest wouldn’t say something like he’s afraid of tigers, because then, a spirit would send a tiger to attack him.”
Religion in general plays a major part in Khmer culture. The monarch of Cambodia is very much revered as a demigod, Sim says, that Norodom Sihanouk was cremated using technology that harnessed the heat of the sun. The Khmers believed that the late king was too divine for regular fire. Such spirituality becomes more apparent when CJ and I clamber to the top of the Angkor Wat and see the grandeur of the temple from a bird’s eye view. Local women are praying at a shrine, young monks taking a group shot by the steep staircases, and everyone else just admiring the view and relishing the serenity of the afternoon.
The next morning, due to budget constraints, CJ and I decide to explore the Big Circuit, as well as the Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre, on our own. The former, located 37 kilometers north of Siem Reap, contains some of the best surviving examples of art, while the latter, just east off of the Big Circuit, has a style very similar to that of the Angkor Wat, albeit on a much smaller scale. The trip to both sites involves a breezy ride through the countryside.
We hit the circuit proper just an hour before noon, doing a counterclockwise loop. The temple mountain of Pre Rup has some magnificent views of the rice paddies beyond. The East Mebon is another temple mountain adorned with five towers. The Ta Som looks like a mixture of the Bayon and the Ta Prohm. The Neak Pean is a small temple in the middle of a pool and accessible through a long wooden walkway that passes over a pretty swamp. And the Preah Khan is a former Buddhist monastery that has since become a huge jumble of ruins.
It’s a scorching noon, the temperature reaching the high 30s in Celsius. I’ve consumed about four bottles of water and the fifth is down to the last few gulps. But I feel like there’s so much more to see. As Sim said, Cambodia is where you can be with the gods – the place is richly rewarding, unforgettable, and spiritual. You can explore just so many ruins before you risk temple fatigue, but you never really get tired. I see them as the windows to the intricate history, not just of the country, but of the whole region as well.
We take the road back to Angkor Thom, this time entering the north gate and exiting through the south gate. As the remork-moto once again passes through the road along the Angkor Wat’s west entrance, I crane my neck to give the temple one last look. The towering structure peers above its outer walls, inviting me in a whisper to once more enter heaven.