All Templed Out: Journey to the Historic Temples in Cambodia
Cambodia, a fascinating gem of a country in Southeast Asia, has so much to offer to anyone with the propensity for rustic landscape, rich history and cultural heritage.
I had the chance to tick off Cambodia from my travel bucket list a few months ago. Jannie, a friend of mine, and I packed our bags to explore just a few of Cambodia’s famed temples.
Here are some of our snapshots and narratives of our memorable, albeit short-lived adventure in this beautiful Southeast Asian kingdom. Hopefully, this might convince you to visit her one day.
So Why Cambodia?
As morbid as it sounds, what initially hooked me to go there was the article I read few years ago about Cambodia’s tragic history–the S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields, at the hands of the merciless Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
There’s something about a human’s capacity to commit unspeakable atrocities that equally intrigues and repulses me. Although I need not go far to appreciate the freedom that I am enjoying right now, I promised myself to go there so I can understand the depth of human suffering from another perspective. Please don’t judge me. We all have our own reasons for travelling.
But in today’s post, I’m not going to scare you readers by writing an essay about it. BBC and CNN can do that job just fine. I’m assuming that you are smart enough to understand the senselessness of wars and how illogical it is for humans to go to any length to kill one another.
So, I won’t tread there (perhaps, in a separate article, I might) but I will instead show snippets of our trip to all the temples we’ve visited to give you some ideas on where to start (If you haven’t already). Here goes.
From glitzy travel magazines to hippie backpacking blogs, there’s no arguing that Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s primary tourist destination.
It was built by King Suryavarman II in 12th century in honor of Hindu god, Vishnu. It was transformed as a Buddhist temple thereafter. ‘Angkor’ is a Khmer term for city while ‘Wat’ literally means temple.
Considered as the most important religious monument in Cambodia, this phenomenal masterpiece showcased the architecture, art and civilization of the early Khmer people.
Its bas-relief relics, imposing pillars and towers gives every temple-goer a glimpse into what was once a powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat has become a de facto household symbol representing Cambodia. It is even on their national flag.
To get there and all other temples within the park, you can arrange with your hotel to hire a tuk-tuk (local three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) for you. We paid $9 each to the tuk-tuk driver to take us to all temples. It was a complete rip-off because my Cambodian friend told me later that $3-5 would have been enough. So, yeah, lesson learned for us.
You need to purchase an admission pass at the main entrance of the Angkor Archeological Park. This pass allows entry to all temples. Never lose it as it will be checked in every temple visited.
These passes are available for one day ($20), three days ($40) and seven days ($60) with your picture taken on the card. Cambodian citizens don’t have to pay anything. Angkor Wat is open from 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM. We chose the one-day pass since my time in Siem Reap was limited and I have to crossover to Phnom Penh three days later.
It’s best to get there early–5 AM, if possible. We arrived quarter to 6 and there were already hordes of tourists clamoring to get in. It was like being in a rock concert, with the famous Angkor Wat as the rock star.
Our next stop was the Ta Prohm. A UNESCO heritage site, Ta Prohm boasts of photogenic ruins reminiscent of its glorious past. It was built in 1186 as a Buddhist monastery and university in honor of King Jayavarman VII’s family.
Many of its towers and walls have gradually crumbled into decay–evoking an otherworldly atmosphere straight out of a sci-fi novel. Tall trees have taken residence on top of the temples, providing ample shade from the brutal sunlight. Its roots are firmly fastened in every crevices, knocking out many of the carved stones.
One of its temples is made famous by the 90s movie, Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I remembered seeing it from the trailer. It looks surreal when you finally see it in person.
What I am a little concerned about was that some of the temples are visibly neglected and looks like it’s about to collapse anytime soon. The influx of tourists might also have contributed to its decay. I hope that authorities are doing everything they can to preserve its natural beauty while maintaining them in good condition.
Located east of Angkor Thom and southeast of Ta Phrom, Bantey Kdei is a Buddhist monastery complex contained within a wall. It was built between 12th to 13 Century during the reign of King Jayavarman II.
Just like Ta Phrom, many of its corridors and towers are on the brink of collapse. We explored most of its structure but there are certain areas that are off-limits to visitors due to some restorations being done. Still, I think that its layout is purposely left looking dilapidated to maintain its original look.
There are several carvings of mystic dancing girls and other distinctly Khmer decorations on walls, courtyards and galleries. The passageways and enclosures are a bit confusing but definitely worth your time exploring.
Ta Keo is a tiered temple built by Jayavarman V on a sand-filled land of Angkor, Cambodia. It features five pyramid towers where you can get an excellent view of the surroundings. You need to climb a small enclosure before you can get inside the temple.
It was believed to be one of the biggest monuments in honor of Shiva. However, its construction was abandoned at the start of the 10th century, just as decorations have already started.
That explains the disappointment we felt when we reached the top most part of one of the towers. We only found blocks of stones piled up and deserted, with no memorable carvings on the walls. We climbed more than 50 steps under the blistering heat only to find out that there was nothing much to see on top.
It could have been one of the breathtaking temples had its construction been completed. But, just like in life, sometimes you start with something ambitious that never gets done. You just move on–bereft of any closure. It was perfectly reasonable that Ta Keo was left as it was. There’s still beauty in the unfinished.
Would I recommend you to visit it? If you are pressed for time, just skip it and go to other visit-worthy temples in the Angkor complex.
So Many Temples, So Little Time
Perhaps, to some people, temples are just a bunch of stones creatively glued together as a way to flaunt a kingdom’s wealth and power. It is more than that.
It is a remarkable manifestation of a centuries-old civilization that thrives to make sense of their religious belief and culture established at the time. These temples are the living proof that the Khmer Empire–from its heydays to its downfall–was definitely ahead of its time.
If only time was not an issue for us, we could have explored more temples, especially in the outlying region of the Angkor Archeological Park. Needless to say, I’m absolutely in love with the temples and enjoyed our time while there. Maybe next time, we’ll come back and visit for more temples and other attractions in Cambodia.
So, were you able to visit any of these temples? If yes, share us your stories about your experience.
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