Dating back to 12th century, Khmer empire ruled in what is now Cambodia, Laos and Northern part Thailand. At the center of this thriving kingdom was the majestic Hindu temple of Angkor Wat, a symbol of Khmer Civilization at its peak. But as the Khmer civilization crumbled, so did Angkor wat and its surrounding temples. In 19th century, a chance discovery revealed this ancient lost kingdom sitting in the heart of south east Asia untouched by humanity.
When I first saw pictures of Angkor Wat, I was travelling through New Zealand and didn’t have enough information. Over the course of next 8 months, I and my friend Catherine managed to put together a plan to visit Angkor Wat and explore south east Asia. The closest town to Angkor complex is Siem Reap in Cambodia. We arrived in Siem Reap on a clear and sunny morning. After checking into our accommodation, we explored the local markets and gathered as much information as possible for our Angkor adventure.
We woke up early next morning and after finishing breakfast, rented bicycles to explore the Angkor inner circuit which consists of 3 big temple complexes of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Negotiating through early morning traffic of Siem Reap, we rode towards Angkor information center approximately 4kms away to buy tickets. It cost us $62 per person for a 3-day ticket to Angkor complex which includes entry to all the temples in both Inner and Outer circuit.
Once we had our tickets, we then continued riding up north on the same route towards Angkor wat further 3kms away. Cycling wasn’t too difficult since the roads were flat and were used mostly by tuk tuk drivers and motorcycles. We reached Angkor wat at 9am, got our tickets checked at the entrance and then walked over a man-made bridge to cross the moat surrounding the wat. After crossing the bridge, we walked to the entrance chamber which was a long passageway with 3 doors, two at either ends and one in the middle. As soon as we crossed this passageway entrance we came out into a huge open courtyard with a centrally paved pathway bisecting it into two halves. Each half had a temple like structure in the middle overlooking a small pond. Right at the end of the courtyard where the central pathway ended stood Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is grand in every aspect. It has a tall central spire surrounded by smaller ones placed in 4 corners to make a perfect square. Every single wall of the wat is covered with intricately beautiful carvings which have faded over centuries. In every direction, the temple walls of Angkor stretched endlessly reminiscent of the incredible heritage of the civilization that built them.
Heading towards the far end of Angkor wat, we left the crowds behind and were now able to see this place in relative peace. From the end, we walked around the temple capturing different aspects of it in our minds and cameras. It was a muggy day and it was slightly drizzling, which actually seemed to enhance the beauty of this heavenly structure.
Kravan,Sra Srang and Banteay Kdei
After couple of hours we headed back out of Angkor wat, while the next destination would have been Angkor Thom since it is closest and biggest of all, most of the crowd usually followed the same pattern. We decided to reverse the circuit and headed east towards Ta prohm instead. Riding towards Ta prohm, we saw an orange colored building on our right assuming it to be ta prohm. It turned out to be a small temple called Kravan. Carved out of rusty orange colored stones, Kravan has 3 small temple heads perched on a rectangular platform. Behind the main structure are 2 more platforms which look like they were meant to have temples but were abandoned mid-way.
Riding on, we reached Sra srang, a huge rectangular man-made pool with beautiful sculptures at the entrance. During the days of Khmer empire, Sra srang was used as a royal pool and till date remains as beautiful and scenic.
Right opposite Sra srang is Banteay kdei, a small temple now a dilapidated ruin. Huge blocks of stones which once supported the entire structure now lay fallen around. Most of the temple has been run over by natural elements. We could now take the advantage of our reverse plan, because this temple was almost empty with most of the tourists headed out towards Angkor Thom. This allowed us to explore every part of Banteay kdei in detail without any disturbance and had us so engrossed in its beauty that we almost lost track of time. We hurried up and were back riding again towards Ta prohm.
Ta Prohm is very famous since it featured in the Lara croft movies. Most of this temple has been broken down and taken over by serpentine roots of huge trees. The temple walls look quite dramatic with roots coiling around them and slowly dismantling the entire structure.
It is one of those temples that truly symbolizes nature’s power over mankind by crushing down huge walls and monumental spires using nothing but creeping roots. We walked the entire circumference of Ta prohm, occasionally stopping to admire the intertwined beauty of human creativity with nature’s raw power and even took an opportunity to hug its majestic tree trunks.
Angkor Thom – Bayon
Our last stop of the inner circuit was Angkor Thom complex. It is the biggest of all and extends over an area of 8sq.kms. We headed into Angkor Thom through its east gate and rode through huge outfields to arrive at the center were all the structures are clustered. We stopped in front of the north entrance of Bayon and decided to quench our thirst by drinking fresh coconut water. Rejuvenated by the coconut water, we walked into Bayon temple just as the sun was getting low.
Bayon is quite enigmatic with smiling faces of Avalokiteswara carved out on all its spires and walls. The angled rays of the setting sun actually made everything look more surreal with half of the faces bathing in sunlight while others now hidden in shade. Around the main central spire is a terrace with pairs of small spires spread all over it, all carved with smiling faces. We explored Bayon and examined its smiling spires with intricate carvings and were left stunned by the sheer beauty of it all.
Dusk was now approaching quickly and we still had to explore rest of Angkor Thom. It is said that sunset over Angkor is as beautiful as sunrise. We decided to finish rest of Angkor Thom next morning and tried the Angkor view point which was perched atop a small hill between Angkor Thom and Angkor wat. We parked our bikes at the bottom of the hill and hiked 20mins all the way to the top. At the top was a small temple surrounded by a terrace looking out over the entire Angkor complex and its surroundings. We chose a spot on the edge of the terrace looking out towards west Baray and sat in silence witnessing a beautiful sunset. It had indeed been a beautiful day in Angkor Complex, and although tired with all the cycling, we returned back to our hostel satisfied and eager to explore the outer circuit next day.