07/16/2014 - 07/28/2014
The Angkor Archeological Complex is an expansive collection of temples spread throughout the countryside around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Most of the temples have undergone some serious adversity, having been abandoned, overrun by the jungle, defaced by European collectors, and even deliberately destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in their attempts to usher in "year zero." Despite extensive ongoing reconstruction projects, there are still many temples that are little more than piles of rubble. That being said, the sheer quantity ensures a wide range of conditions, from the decaying, overgrown, Beng Malea to the intricate and well preserved stone carvings at Banteay Srei, to Angkor Wat itself, incredibly preserved in all its glory. Especially interesting were the variety of architecture and designs, and the apparently dramatic shifts in religious thought. Three days was a great amount of time to visit many, but certainly not all of the area's temples. Of course, it seems like such a shame to have visited one of the world's most amazing sights with nothing more than an iphone camera, but we got some good shots anyway. Highlights from our three days:
Banteay Srei was built by a philanthropist in the mid 900s AD, dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. The red sandstone allowed for some of the most intricate stone carvings in the entire temple complex, and gives off a pinkish hue in the early morning.
Beng Malea is presumed to have been built in the 12th century, around the same time as Angkor Wat as their architectural designs and layouts are similar. At 77 km from Siem Reap, it is one of the less visited temples, and in fact the access road was built relatively recently. This temple is completely unrestored, with trees, vines, and moss growing right on the rocks. Visiting entails scrambling over rocks and through crevices, which made this one of our favorite temple visits. Unfortunately it is also a favorite spot for Chinese tour groups, so visiting early or around lunch time is a good idea. Too far for a tuk tuk, so you'll have to get a car and driver, but you can combine this with other far away temples and the river carvings as well.
Ta Prohm is another temple that was at one point buried deep in the jungle. It is more restored than Beng Malea, which means a lot more structural integrity and a better sense of the scope and history of the place, but also much more accessible, which means huge crowds and directed pathways so nobody is scrambling around ruining the site. This place has an abundance of iconic imagery (this is the famous Tomb Raider temple), with huge trees growing right out of the rocks. Visit as early as you are willing to get the place to yourself.
Bayon is a remarkable sight, right smack in the middle of the old city of Angkor Thom. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, this temple was built under King Jayavarman VII, and designed in three levels, the most distinguished of which is a group of 37 towers sculpted with the face of the Buddhist saint of compassion. It is speculated that the uncanny likeness between this saint and the King himself was no coincidence and it was a bit eerie to imagine life here with 200+ sculpted faces resembling the king looking down upon you at all times. The uniqueness of the design and the excellent preservation/reconstruction efforts made this one of our favorites.
Angkor Wat is the crowning jewel of the complex and the only temple in the complex to have remained an important religious center since its construction in the 12th century. As a result it is remarkably well preserved, and with its setting amidst deep Cambodian jungle and lily pad covered ponds, it really is the undisputed highlight of the complex. To avoid the crowds, visit for sunrise and then wait around for all the sunrise tour groups to go to breakfast. And for the perfect pre-sunrise breakfast, be sure to get a pork and egg baguette with hot sauce from the vendor across the street before going in.