Although I have already written about my experience at Angkor Wat; there is a lot more to the Angkor Temple Complex than that. We visited so many temples while we were in Siem Reap we almost got templed out.
Before I go into more detail about the Keep Calm part of my title, with the exception of the obvious reference. Now, the Kmer have been through a lot, I understand that and I intend to try to bring some awareness to that in future blogs. Unfortunately, because they have been through so much, it is such a poor country and westerners are all seen as rich, it can be interesting and in some cases scary talking to Kmer people. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone there is like this of course, but let me share a couple of my experiences with you before we get onto the happier notes of exploring the temples.
Almost our first interaction with a Cambodian was as we were leaving the airport in Siem Reap, we saw that getting a taxi was only a dollar more than getting a tuk tuk, so we decided that given we had our bags with us we would just get the taxi.
So we got the taxi and everything seemed fine at first, the taxi driver seemed really nice giving us little bits of history as we went, then he asked us if we wanted to go on his tour the next day. Now at this point we hadn’t decided exactly what we wanted to do each day so my husband asked if we could have his card to call him, at which point his attitude totally changed and he became super aggressive. He said something along the lines of: No! No card for you! You backpackers are all the same, when I saw you I prayed that you would take a tuk tuk, but no you took a taxi. How am I supposed to feed my children I keep getting backpackers like you who wont take my tour, my children will starve!
He went on like this basically for the rest of the journey, until dropping us off at the wrong hostel. My husband and I basically remained silent as neither of us was sure how to handle the situation and it was actually quite scary.
The other incident wasn’t unique to Siem Reap, but it was worst there. Basically outside all of the temples there are people trying to sell you things, including children (who it asks you in the ticket guidelines not to buy from as it dissuades them from going to school). And if you say ANYTHING, including “no thank you” (I did try to learn some Kmer but it is the hardest language I have ever tried to learn and nothing stuck) people would become aggressive in a similar manner to the taxi driver, talking about children starving and saying that they would remember you. You couldn’t look at something for more than five seconds without being harassed to buy it, and on the streets of every city we visited you were haunted by the cry of “tuk tuk”.
Anyway, now that has been said I can concentrate on the positives of the Angkor Complex. There are several large temples in the complex, the standard “tour” offered by tuk tuk drivers goes past these. The tour is essentially dropping you off at each of these spots and charging you extra if you want to go to any of the temples that are not on the tour, even if you only want to go to one of the temples not on the tour instead of the tour.
We did visit several smaller temples as we had a three-day pass, including some that were not on the tour, but if I am honest I can’t quite remember the names of them as it is now several months since (yes I am ridiculously behind on these blogs). But I can remember the visits.
The first temple we visited was one of these smaller ones, we thought it would be good to experience a smaller less crowded temple, before battling the crowds. We were right, the place was almost empty, except for cats and it was a really nice introduction.
This was where we first encountered the Cambodian lions, which I think I talked about in my Angkor Wat blog, but here all of their faces were missing so all we saw was statues of extremely shapely bottoms. I assume that the faces were missing for similar reasons to why many of the buddhas were missing heads in Angkor Wat.
As we got closer to the temple I found myself surprised as to how much of it was in tact, there were large stone walls all around the outside and completed buildings on the inside. Unfortunately there were barriers at most entrances as they were not safe to enter. That didn’t stop the cats though.
Outside of the temple there was a long stretch of cleared road, so I am not sure whether originally the temple had been that large or if it was just the road that had always run up to it.
I was also surprised at how intact a lot of the carvings were at this particular temple, being that it was a small one and there were no signs saying it was being restored by donations from a country (we saw these later at other temples), I doubt it was being restored at all. There was even some fairly intricate work on one of the doors.
Anyway we enjoyed clambering around on the stairs and pathways, for perhaps longer than warranted on such as small temple, but there was so few people around that we couldn’t help ourselves.
Eventually though we made our way back to the tuk tuk driver we had hired for the day. The second temple we visited was actually much larger and, in fact, famous. I am talking about Ta Prom, but you may (or may not as it was a pretty awful film) know it as the tomb raider temple. I believe it is very briefly in one scene before Lara Croft falls through the floor into a studio in hollywood.
Famous as it may be, it still had a draw for me as it is one of the temples which nature has tried to claim back. It shows the cycle of humans conquering nature only to be reclaimed by it, and then of course introducing hoards of tourists. This temple was much busier, with people being brought in by the bus load, but despite all that it was possible to find quiet spots.
The trees which have overgrown this temple would be impressive in any setting as they are enormous, but growing into stone, they are spectacular. Even before entering you come across one of the magnificent (although slightly dead looking) giants.
As you walk through the first door, there is another spectacular tree with its roots interwoven with stone. There was a queue to get photographs with it, but we decided it was worth the wait and someone in the queue even offered to take the photo for us.
There was a route to follow, but this was very crowded so we sort of made our own way. As with all the temples we visited we were very careful, not to go into arias that looked unsafe, we didn’t climb on any rubble and we tried to stick to well-worn paths (Cambodia is still heavily lined with land mines even in areas such as this).
We soon got lost among the ruins and trees, it did feel like being in Tomb Raider or more like Indiana Jones although we weren’t quite so adventurous, weren’t running for our lives at any point or found anything that belonged in a museum. Unfortunately my camera also ran out of battery part of the way through so most of the images are my phone’s inferior camera quality (which shouldn’t be so noticeable by the time they are uploaded here) with no zoom function.
Eventually we emerged on the far side of the temple and decided that would be a good time to stop and have some snacks we had picked up before heading out. This was also when my husband first discovered that he had the ability to do a time-lapse on his phone, and so tried it out on some busy ants while we were eating.
After lunch we went back into the temple, we seemed to be in more crowded areas than before, but we did manage to find the bit of the temple used for Tomb Raider and my husband made me do my best Lara Croft impression, which was pretty terrible so I made him do one too.
We wandered around a bit more before heading back to our tuk tuk. We had asked to go to a third temple which our tuk tuk driver had said was not possible, we didn’t mind as we were pretty tired and my camera had run out of batteries, so imagine our surprise when we ended up in front of that temple instead of back in Siem Reap.
This temple was the smallest we had been to that day, it was also in a the worst state of repair, we wandered through it fairly quickly not realising quite how small it was only to be greeted on the other side by more children trying to sell us things. We quickly escaped back into the temple to have a bit of a more thorough look around.
Although it was smaller and in worse repair, you did seem to be able to go inside more of it than the other two temples and it was here we first started to notice that there was a pattern where inside each tower there seemed to be some kind of bowl for collecting water.
There were also a few interesting residents in two of the towers here, in one of them we definitely heard bats, we had a bit of a closer look and sure enough there they were. In another we didn’t here or see any creatures, just their home, there was a large bee hive hanging down, so we didn’t stay in there too long. The bee hive was interesting as the hives that you get in the UK are the stereotypical round shape you see illustrated in Winnie the Poo, or the boxes which bee keepers have. These were more like flat disks, I had seen something like it in the new Jungle Book film, but at the time I had wondered as I had never seen hives that shape, well now I have.
On a different day we decided to tackle some of the larger temples and ended up basically going on what I mentioned before as the “Tour”. We started out at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is actually a massive temple, much larger than Angkor Wat, which includes several other temples inside it. It is the newest city in the Angkor Temple Complex built during the height of the Kmer empire.
Our tuk tuk driver basically dropped us off at one side of the moat and gate and picked us up on the other side after we had had a chance to take many photos. There was also an interesting looking boat on the moat, I imagine it was just there for show but it was quite nice to see anyway. It was quite clear that most of the heads of the statues along the bridge had been replaced, but they had mostly been replaced rather than left headless.
It was easy enough to get over the bridge as you could easily keep to one side of it, but at the other side it was a different matter. You could see how initially this could have been quite the strategic bottle neck as cars, tuk tuks and pedestrians all fought to get through this small entrance way in both directions. Eventually we made it through however and met our tuk tuk driver on the other side.
Next on our itinerary was Bayon Temple which is actually inside Angkor Thom, our tuk tuk driver dropped us off and gave us a rough indication of where to go, he showed us where Bayon was, then told us to go to the temple next door called Baphoun, make our way though the Royal Palace and he would meet us after the Elephant Terrace.
On our approach to Bayon we saw a few monkeys, these seemed to be making a bit less trouble for the tourists (or the other way around) than the ones we had encountered in Angkor Wat, they seemed to basically be keeping to themselves and playing in the water from the recent rain. We avoided them anyway, took a few pictures from further away before entering Bayon.
You may well have seen images of Bayon, it has hundreds of faces carved into the stone, except they are all the same face of the ruler of the Kmer empire at the time, he was a buddhist emperor and it is a buddhist temple although it is thought that he also thought of himself as a god-king which is why his face adorns each tower.
As we approached and first entered Bayon I was disappointed as I had seen many images of people completely surrounded by these faces and while there were some visible at the top towers they were far from everywhere. From ground level it looked very similar to the temples we had already visited.
However all of that changed when we started to go up. We followed some very steep stared which lead up to the roof, and suddenly there were faces in every direction. While some of the faces had had some weathering and destruction most were still there and looking at you all with the same serene expression. It was really quite a unique experience.
This temple was fairly busy in the upper reaches as well where it had been fairly quiet on the ground, but it was worth it and there where some quiet areas to sit and reflect.
On our way back down we found that in our rush to get to the top we had missed a level, so we had a small explore in that level too. It seemed a bit more enclosed than the other temples and there was quite a bit of scaffolding around. I guess to support the people wandering around on top.
We moved on to Baphoun, which I knew very little about, of all the temples we visited this challenged my fear of falling more than most. To start off with to get to the temple itself we had to cross a long and narrow walkway which had quite the drop to either side of it.
Once on the other side we went around the outside walls, which didn’t have much between you and the fall to the outside. There were some more sheltered areas at the corners, these also held the smallest doors we had seen so far. Both my husband and I had to duck quite a bit to get through them as neither of us are short people.
The route then took us further to up, but not yet to the top of the temple, via some incredibly steep stairs. I have the feeling the Kmer empire had a thing for steep stairs (as well as it matching the angle to the north star and all that).
On the plus side this temple was far less busy than even the first one we had been to and there were several occasions where we had the level we were on to ourselves. There were some almost Romanesque style corridors lined with columns and arches before we came to another set of stairs, taking us up again to as high as we were permitted to go.
There was one level higher but this was cordoned off, which I was quite glad of. Anyway it gave us some nice views of both up and down, before descending all the stairs again, which was harder than climbing them.
We went on from Baphoun to the Royal Palace, as we walked there from Baphoun we went through some “gardens” which were basically jungle. We saw some more impressive trees as well as a giant millipede. We came across a temple which was really in a bad state, we couldn’t even go up it. But we did see our first elephant statues, a prequel to the elephant terrace and this was one of the places that had a sign saying that it was being restored by a country (I think this one may have been the Czech Republic).
We also came across two enormous man-made ponds, and there was practically no one around so we stopped here for some lunch and a bit of a break.
We didn’t rest for long and when we continued, and soon came across the elephant terrace. At first we were unsure why it was named this, however there was a handy information board that told us this is where the king mounted his elephants. I will come back to why riding elephants is actually really harmful to the elephant in another blog, but given this was a different time entirely where it is unlikely they had any knowledge of animal welfare it doesn’t belong in this blog.
As we made our way along the elephant terrace we eventually came to some carvings of elephants, or at least their heads, and it made me suddenly realise what the interesting pillars were at the south gate, they were actually elephant trunks except the heads at the south gate had weathered out of all recognition.
When we left the elephant terrace, we decided to treat ourselves to an ice cream as it was a really hot day and our tuk tuk driver found us before we had even finished paying. He insisted taking us to the other temples on the tour, although by this time we were pretty temple fatigued, and by this time the temples seemed to seem very similar to the ones we had already seen. We did see a really big spider and some frogs too.
The last temple we went to was a bit more interesting, it was much more sprawling than built up and there was buddhist nun inside, which seem to be a far rarer site than monks. Opposite the temple as well there was an even larger body of water, with steps down to it, so I imagine it was at least partly man-made.
We really enjoyed exploring the amazing ruined temples in the Angkor Temple Complex, it made us feel like proper explorers, but after three days of it, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, especially when it is really hot.