A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

On temple safari in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunrise. The start of my 'temple safari' in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Exploring the 401 square kms of temples thrills like the search for lions or giraffes in the wild. I'll try to restrict myself to brief facts in this piece - otherwise I could overdose on superlatives.

Angkor Wat was created in the 12th century in King Suryavarman II's reign. It took 37 years to build - Cambodians call it the eighth wonder of the world. Immediately I see Angkor Wat, I understand why.

Angkor Wat's lotus shaped towers are symbols of heaven.

The three main towers at Angkor Wat represent Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva.

Angkor Wat's five central towers are shaped like the five on a dice - this is the Hindu configurement.

50,000 people built Angkor Wat. The temple survived the cultural obliteration carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s. 50,000 monks were killed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. In total, almost 2 million people died in Pol Pot's genocide.

Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious structure. The sandstone used to construct the temple was transported down Siem Reap river, then carried by elephants to the temple site.

Inside Angkor Wat, I explore long corridors, walking in the footsteps of God Kings.

I come across an eight handed statue representing Vishnu inside Angkor Wat.

There are hundreds of metres of bas-relief, this one depicting the descent to Hell - these wall engravings cover the corridors inside Angkor Wat, showing ancient battles between Gods and demons.

A moat surrounds Angkor Wat - 1300m x 1500m - the water symbolises purification, life and protection.

Angkor Wat is said to be the peak of Khmer architecture in Cambodia.

Tuon shows me round the temples. Tuon is my rent-a-brain for the 3 day temple safari - he knows the answers to hundreds of questions I ask. Tuon enjoys writing about the temples and sharing his knowledge with visitors. He is very proud of the Siem Reap temples for surviving the Khmer Rouge regime - Tuon tells me that his immediate family were the only survivors in their village of the Khmer Rouge. All their friends and wider relations were murdered in the late 1970s.

Tuon takes me to Angkor Thom next, the Great City, home to 1 million people in the 12th century, when London and Paris had a mere 30,000 inhabitants each. We go through the gate to the Angkor Thom complex - 54 Gods and 54 demons line the entrance.

Angkor Thom was built in 12th to 13th century in King Jayavarman 7th's reign. It took 39 years to build and it represents the unification of Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia.

On the towers of the Bayon temple in the Angkor Thom complex, King Jayavarman 7th's commanding faces overlook his ancient Great City.

The King's face is depicted three ways on the Bayon towers:
1) eyes closed: representing meditation
2) one eye open, one eye closed: representing the idea there are always two ways in life - the positive and the negative, life and death
3) both eyes open: representing the King's love for his people

This relief at the Bayon temple shows a maternity scene. King Jayavarman 7th built 102 hospitals and 121 travellers' rests in Cambodia for his people.

At the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, I step through crumbling door frames. It's like climbing into ancient picture frames to explore the past.

A group of Hindu dancers light up the Bayon temple.

In the Angkor Thom complex, I am blessed by a Buddhist Nun. She removes my sins (thanks) and wishes me good luck on my travels.

The Buddhist Nun ties red thread around my wrist as she blesses me. I love her kind face.

A Cambodian man sits in front of Buddha. I like his shiny black trousers - stylish as well as spiritual.

Next, the Baphuon temple in the Angkor Thom complex. Baphuon is known as the world's largest jigsaw puzzle as it was meticulously reconstructed, stone by stone. On this wall is a 70m x 9m reclining Buddha.

The shade of tall trees in the Angkor Thom complex is welcome.

Phimeanakas temple in the Angkor Thom complex is a pyramid-shaped Hindu temple.

We come to two enormous swimming pools in Angkor Thom. Tuon tells me that the large pool (45m x 125m) was for women and the small pool (25m x 45m) was for men. Then Tuon tells me that's because the King had 500 wives and 3000 concubines. I wonder if the King knew all their names.

A Buddhist monk blesses (soaks) a Cambodian family.

Then on to Ta Keo temple, dedicated to the God King and Shiva the destroyer.

Ta Keo is 65 metres high, representing the ascent to Heaven.

The steps in Ta Keo temple are very narrow and steep, representing the difficult journey to get to Heaven.

During construction in the 10th century, lightning struck this temple, taken to be an omen - so it was never completed.

My first glimpse of Ta Prohm temple is this gate into the 'jungle temple'. King Jayavarman 7th built Ta Prohm to honour his mother.

My guide Tuon and my driver Loch can't wait to show me this temple. They are really excited for me, which I appreciate!

Inside the jungle temple, there are spung trees with silver bark.

I walk the path beside the temple walls.

Inside Ta Prohm, Tuon tells me that this temple represents the four states of mind of the King - kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. Nice guy.

500 year old trees are inside Ta Prohm, that's as old as Shakespeare.

Here's the door featured in the movie Tombraider - a swarm of tourists queue to have their photo taken here.

This is the view up the Tombraider tree - Angelina Jolie woz 'ere.

The temple towers inside Ta Prohm are open to Heaven above, in deference to the Gods.

An apsara dancer peeks through tree roots.

Elephant and snake shaped tree roots at Ta Prohm - nature is the best designer.

A seed lands 500 years ago and today there is a wooden waterfall of roots that spill down the temple wall.

Next, the world's largest swimming pool - fancy a dip?

The five towers of Prasat Kravan, originally a Hindu temple, are now said to represent unification of five religions in Cambodia.

Pre Rup temple, this is the view up the crematorium tower, where Kings and priests were cremated.

Banteay Srei, lady temple, citadel of women.

Monuments and wall engravings at Banteay Srei are dedicated to Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva and their wives.

Even the cafe at Banteay Srei is built to please - I want bamboo ceilings in my garden!

East Mebon temple - 2 metre elephants stand in each corner of the temple. Thousands of working elephants transported the sandstone, laterite and brick used to make this temple.

The wall detail at East Mebon temple.

Ta Som, constructed in 12th to 13th century - the five towers inside represent Buddha.

A 300 year old tree inside Ta Som.

Neak Pean temple - this water temple is said to lead to nirvana - can I go please?

Around Neak Pean temple.

Finally, I visit Phnom Bakheng, the mountain temple, home of Shiva the destroyer. There are 108 towers here, a holy and happy number. You can just see the towers of Angkor Wat in the distance.

The floor of Phnom Bakheng - mind the gaps.

A monk waits for sunset - he perches on the edge. And I think that there are still dozens more Angkor temples - I have only scratched the surface of the Cambodian temple experience.

The sun sets at Phnom Bakheng.

That night, I meet up with writers Megan and Ally - they're writing about their travels and working on novels. They are about to start their temple safari the next morning. We buy a 3 dollar juice each to steal an hour at a fancy Siem Reap hotel. I put my temple feet up on the comfy sun lounger. And dip my legs in the pool.

And I allow myself to explode with adjectives as I tell Megan and Ally about my experience of the temples - ASTOUNDING, BRILLIANT, CREATIVE, DRAMATIC, EXCITING, FANTASTIC, GREAT, HUMBLING, INNOVATIVE, JAW-DROPPING...

I could go on.

And on.

But I think you get the picture.


  1. Oh Charlotte you've painted such a beautiful picture! I CAN'T WAIT FOR NEXT WEEK!! YEEEEE!

  2. This single destination seems to be a whole voyage... I like very much the photo of the monk perched on the edge. How high is it ? It's like he's waiting for jumping...
    On the big stairs of Ta Keo temple, the woman going down looks like a lilliputian ! I appreciate the fact the Cambodgians have not arranged a modern way to climb, but kept the old and traditional giant steps : the notion of adventure is saved !

  3. Yes, the temples are an adventure - there was still so much more to see than I had time for.

    The monk on th edge - the drop was about 25 metres to another ledge below - about 50 metres to the ground.

    And the steps, they were great - like mountain-climbing.

  4. Oh Charlotte! Beautiful beautiful photos. Do I ever get the picture. Thanks so much for sharing. I am now more determined than ever to get there!

  5. Thank you Sarah. I don't often say to other travellers 'you must go there' because I think everyone should discover the world in their own way. But I make an exception with the temples of Cambodia. Incredible.

  6. Phimeanakas temple was pretty cool. I wasn't expecting to see something so similar to the Mayan ruins in Mexico! While I was walking up all I was thinking was OMG don't you dare lean back!

  7. I wimped out of climbing Phimeanakas - some of the other climbs though, bloody hell they were steep!

  8. Awesome Place i want to go!!!!

  9. Allen, Angkor Wat is the true meaning of the word awesome. Truly a wonder of the world.

  10. Bayon Temple is a massive central structure in the centre of the Angkor Thom compound.

  11. your blog post shows fantastic pictures, thank you for showing us