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The Temples of Angkor

June 19, 2013

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We arrived in Siem Reap on Christmas Eve after a pothole-filled adventure on one of the many daily buses from Phnom Penh.  Our particular ride was decked out with tropical decor and played PSY’s “Gangnam Style” as its anthem for about half of the journey.  In honor of the holiday, the bus operators hosted a drawing for random and uniquely wrapped presents, and my number landed me an iPhone 3 cover.

Despite the distractions of these amusing antics and the nausea-inducing driving, I was thrilled to be arriving in the home of Angkor Wat!

View of Angkor Wat from the west entrance.

View of Angkor Wat from the west entrance.

Angkor Wat, sometimes referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, is the largest temple complex inside the Angkor Archeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Park is located 6 km from Siem Reap and includes around 40 archeological sites containing the remains of Khmer temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Interior courtyard of Banteay Srei.

Interior courtyard of Banteay Srei.

Tackling a visit to Angkor can be overwhelming given the number of sites, size of some of the larger temples, and magnitude of the park which spans over 400 square kilometers.  Knowing that I (the rabid temple enthusiast) was traveling with someone who easily succumbs to severe bouts of temple fatigue, I did quite a bit of research before our trip on how many days and which temples to visit.  One of the best resources I came across was The Road Forks‘ post on How to Avoid Temple Fatigue at Angkor.

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Stupa and relief sculpture at Preah Khan.

Ultimately, we settled on a 3-day pass ($40/person), though one ($20) and 7-day ($60) passes are also available. Our B&B helped us arrange a tuk tuk driver for our three days, and given the vastness of the Park with substantial distances between many of the sites, I think this is the ideal mode of transportation for exploring Angkor.

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Shallow relief at Bayon and tourists riding elephant at Angkor Thom.

We had three priority or “must-see” temples in mind: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Banteay Srei.  I took the advice of The Road Forks and reserved one for each of our days in the Park in the hopes of sustaining our excitement and warding off the dreaded temple fatigue.  Ta Phrom, where Tomb Raider was filmed, and Ta Som were also high on my list.  In the end, we visited these and three additional temples based on recommendations from other travelers and our tuk tuk driver, as well as after driving by and commenting “that looks cool!”.

Here’s the low-down on what we saw, including our most and least favorites and additional advice for future travelers to Angkor.

Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat is the mother of all temples in the Angkor Archeological Park.  The temple was built in the 12th century as both a sacred site for the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu and as a mausoleum for the Khmer King Suryavarman II.  The complex includes several smaller buildings, which are libraries, off the main entry bridge, and the porticoes around the main complex are decorated with intricate bas-reliefs recounting famous stories from the Hindu books.

This site is at the top of most all tourists’ lists and was our first stop on day one.  Many visitors come here first thing in the morning to watch the sunrise, but I would advise either coming or returning in the afternoon when the sun has moved into the west and the light is at its best for taking pictures of the complex.

Superlatives: Most iconic, largest, only guided tour taken

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei entrance with lion guardian.

Banteay Kdei entrance with lion guardian.

We came to Banteay Kdei at the urging of our tuk tuk driver who promised that we would not be disappointed with a stop here.  He was right!  I adored the open porticoes, the remnants of colorful pigment on the stone, and the picturesque disarray of the complex.  All of these aspects made for quite a photogenic site with natural framing devices in the form of never-ending series of doorways and windows.

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Passageways within Banteay Kdei.

Banteay Kdei was a large monastic complex and unlike Angkor Wat and other temples at the Park remains largely unrestored.

Superlatives: Biggest surprise

Ta Phrom

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Entrance to Ta Phrom and one tree taking over the interior of the portico.

After this temple was featured in the movie Tomb Raider, it has become quite popular with visitors to the Park.  The complex was built around 1300 and is largely surrounded by jungle.  Many roots and entire trees spiral around and intertwine with the stonework at Ta Phrom, creating an interesting juxtaposition of man’s ingenuity and nature’s power.

At the time of our visit there was quite a bit of construction going on inside the temple’s main courtyard, and piles of dislocated stones could be found throughout the complex.

Superlatives: Most construction, most shade, most reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies, Tomb Raider (duh!), etc.

Angkor Thom

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Entrance and Buddha sculpture inside Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom.

After Angkor Wat, I was most excited to see the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom.  Bayon’s 216 colossal stone sculptures of heavy-lidded, smirking faces have made it a favorite of tourists, and this was one of the most crowded temples we visited.

Monumental faces at Bayon Temple.

Monumental faces at Bayon Temple.

These faces are found on each side of the 54 towers that rise from Bayon’s third level.  It remains uncertain if these sculptures are meant to represent the Khmer King Jayavarman VII, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, or a combination of the two.

Also in the Angkor Thom complex, which was once home to around one million people, lay Baphuon temple and the Elephant and Leper King Terraces.

Superlatives: Most photogenic, most crowded (Bayon), farthest bathroom

Preah Khan

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Doorway and tree growing out of Preah Khan.

Built before the completion of Angkor Wat, Preah Khan was Jayavarman VII’s first capital.  The complex is not as well-manicured as Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom but is quite charming in its state of disrepair.

Like Banteay Kdei, there are many long uninterrupted passages and series of doorways here, as well as some pigment on the walls.

Superlatives: Most ramshackled, most danger and warning signs

Ta Som

WWW and I at Ta Som entry gate.

WWW and I at Ta Som entry gate.

Ta Som is a rather small complex that is perhaps most famous for the tree that has overtaken one of its primary gates.  Also, like many temples in the Park, Ta Som has Bayon-style faces adorning its towers.

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Gate at Ta Som.

Superlatives: Smallest, least crowded

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Banteay Srei Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Banteay Srei, also known as the “Women’s Temple,” is a fair distance from Angkor Wat (37 km) and many of the other sites in the Park.  Therefore, even though the temple itself is compact and a miniature of other temples, travel to and from this site will take about half a day.

Detail of naga and relief sculpture at Banteay Srei.

Detail of naga and relief sculpture at Banteay Srei.

Banteay Srei is quite striking due to its red sandstone and extremely intricate and well-preserved carvings.  Amazingly, it is believed to have been built in the 10th century, about 200 years before Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.  Additionally, it is one of the only temples in the Park that was not built by a monarch.  Instead, it was constructed by a courtier and tutor to the Khmer king.

Superlatives: Most detailed carvings, best preserved

Pre Rup

Outside the entrance at Pre Rup.

Outside the entrance at Pre Rup.

Pre Rup was an unexpected addition to our itinerary.  After driving past this complex each morning and marveling at its beauty, I finally requested on our third day that we stop at this temple on the way back to Siem Reap.  Climbing up the multiple levels of the complex, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.  While the temple isn’t very large and doesn’t have many extant carvings, I found its silhouette rather majestic.

Superlatives: Most simple design, quickest stop

Which temple is your favorite?  Or, are there any I missed and need to add to my next itinerary?  Also, how do you combat temple fatigue during your travels?

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