What’s the most iconic photo I could take in Cambodia?
Ah yes, that’d be the one.
With the possible exception of a palm tree on a beach somewhere in Thailand, I think Angkor Wat must be the first image that pops into everyone’s head when you mention South East Asia. The eponymous temple is the world’s largest single religious structure, but the ticket grants you access to the whole world heritage site, which is around 400km² of I think around 50 different temples (probably hundreds if you count the odd piles of rubble as well). They sell 3 and 7 day tickets, which temple nuts could easily use without seeing the same thing twice, but coming to the end of my South East Asia section I’m running out of time and funds so I stuck to one day only and planned to tick off the big three.
The guides tell you to arrive early to avoid the crowds. I got up at half three in the morning. Is not often I do that willingly, I hope you feel special Cambodia. I was at the temple waiting for sunrise from about 430 surrounded by heaps of people, because duh, everyone does that. Apparently however not everyone realises that there is a fair amount of time between the sky being light enough to see the inside of the building, and the sun actually appearing over the horizon. I abandoned the hordes to poke around inside the temple, almost entirely on my own, then came out to see the crowd still waiting, smugly turned round to get the perfectly timed silhouette shot then walked off as they were all shuffling towards the doorway. Hahaha, savvy tourist triumph.
Although the outside of Angkor Wat is pretty damn impressive, I wasn’t that bothered by the interior. There’s a few reasonably interesting carvings, but not my favourite. At this point I was thinking I must have serious backpacker fatigue if the mother of all temples wasn’t floating my boat, but the rest of the site was still to come.
Interesting, but I’ve seen better. (Spoiled much?)
This is the biggest part of the heritage site as it’s not a single temple but rather a walled enclosure of several temples. And terraces, whatever they’re supposed to be. The paths leading up to the gates of the complex are lined by the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’, a Hindu legend about gods and demons working together to churn the cosmic ocean to produce the nectar of immortality. Most of the churning action has been lost, but it would have originally looked like a tug of war, gods on the left, demons on the right. The demon side is way more fun.
The demons get royally screwed in the end as the gods decide not to let them share the nectar despite the fact that they helped obtain it, so I’m not surprised he looks a little miffed. Also, see? Already way better than Angkor Wat.
The main sights inside Angkor Thom are:
Bayon, the one with all the heads. Also the one with all the Chinese tour groups. Yeah, no matter how early you start it doesn’t take long for everyone else to catch up. Still, the heads are pretty cool if you manage to get past everyone.
The terrace of the leper king. I’m not sure what a terrace is for. Being ruined you can’t really tell what the original structure was. It’s kind of just a double wall. You can walk inside it, you can walk on top of it, but for some reason you have to walk the whole thing in one go. The guards will shout at you if you try to leave half way through, because apparently that big blank space isn’t an exit, you have to carry on walking. Luckily, yelling ‘I’m sorry, I need to pooooo*’ did the trick and they let me past. It’s called the terrace of the leper king because of a prominent statue that looked like it had leprosy (it’s now thought that it might actually be the God of death). There’s a reproduction statue there now and… it didn’t look particularly leprous to me.
The terrace of the elephants (linked onto the leper king, so you should really walk through both in one go). Similar layout, but this time with elephants. Yay!
Walking inside the wall.
Baphuon, aka the giant jigsaw. Called the giant jigsaw because large portions are still in pieces. Due to unstable ground major restoration work was needed in the 20th century so everything was carefully taken apart and records were made of how to put it back together. Then the Khmer Rouge came along and buggered everything up and the records were lost. They’re now trying to put it back together with no instructions. Really makes IKEA wardrobes seem like child’s play in comparison. They’re doing a good job so far though, I really liked this temple. Not sure why, I just do (how’s that for stellar journalistic skills)
The last of the big three is Ta Prohm, also affectionately known as the Tombraider temple. I love love love this one. Mainly because I seem to have a thing for interesting looking trees and this baby’s full of them. This was forgotten about for a long time and when it was rediscovered the jungle had taken over. There are signs around saying that they’re saving for a restoration project. Are they crazy? That’s what makes this one so awesome! Let’s hope they give up on that idea.
So there you have it, the small circuit of Angkor, in ascending order of coolness.
*yes, still ill when I visited, which was… challenging, but I’d already wasted most of my first week in Cambodia so I didn’t want to wait any longer. I’m happy to report that the site has good, clean, free loos, and the staff don’t give you funny looks when you return to the same toilet four times in the space of an hour.