Travelling through Cambodia in May has its advantages and disadvantages. A huge advantage with travelling in the “off season” was more personal connection, physical space, and no line ups or massive crowds at tourist locations such as, Angkor Wat.
Peak season for Cambodia is from November to February when the weather is dry and cooler. Our biggest challenge was the intense heat and humidity! Walking outdoors for hours exploring ruins and climbing steep staircases in 40 degree temperatures with 90% humidity required hats, hand fans, lots of water and incredible resilience. Don’t plan to pose for photos if you are concerned about looking fresh and beautiful. Saturated clothing, beet red faces, and hair stuck to our heads is the look you will be seeing today!
Angkor Wat world heritage archaeological site is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. The ruins are located on an area over 160 square kilometers. Angkor Wat means “Temple City” in Khmer. Angkor refers to the city of Cambodia and Wat is the Khmer word for temple ground. Angkor Wat is the icon on the Cambodian flag.
Angkor Wat temple is a source of fierce national pride in Cambodia. It has been the source of conflict between religions as well as neighboring countries (Vietnam and Thailand) attempting to claim its ownership.
Angkor Wat opens at 5am for visitors who want to see the sunrise from this iconic spot. The upper level (Bakan Sanctuary) is only open from 7.30am. Angkor Wat closes at 5.30pm.
An entry pass to the temples of Angkor costs US$37 for one day, US$62 for three days (which can be used over a period of 10 days) and US$72 for one week (which can be used over one month). Siem Reap is the closest main center located 7 km away. Our Intrepid tour group stayed at the Dinata Angkor Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap.
After getting our photos taken for the $62 US 3 day pass of Angkor Pass, our day’s adventure commenced.
Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire flourishing from 9th to 15th centuries. King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire dedicated to the god Vishnu; however, the temple was transformed into a Buddhist Wat during the 13th/14th centuries.
The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. Ironically, the floating walkway which safely supported 2.1 million tourists last year as they made their way toward the ancient ruins, originates from Canada. My husband and I recognized Candock immediately!
There is much speculation regarding the purpose of the enormous Wat complex–possibly a potential tomb for King Suryavarman (who was not buried here). Even the manner in which you view the temple has been interpreted as an anticlockwise direction. Angkor Wat’s unique features, include more than 3000 charming apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. The stairs to the upper level are immensely steep, because “reaching the kingdom of the gods was no easy task.” (Particularly in 40 degree temperature!).
Angkor Wat is an architectural fascination of intricacy and transformation. To understand the history and complexity of the structures and spiritual Hindu then Buddhist beliefs, it is wise to research prior to visiting this World Heritage site. Beyond the 12th Century origins in Khmer culture, many questions remain as you tour these temples and view evidence of historical transformations at Angkor Wat.
The bullet holes in the walls and missing Buddhas speak of uprisings, wars and periods of time when peace was not obtainable. The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas (Preah Poan) used to house hundreds of Buddha images before the war, but many of these were removed or stolen.
After viewing majestic Angkor Wat our group gathered at the end of the Candock floating bridge where the monkeys entertained us (mostly from a healthy distance).
Sareth rekindled his energy with some fish kabobs while most of us searched for cool drinks and shade! Then we were off to tour Angkor Thom Temple and the Bayon.
As we trudged over the moat’s bridge (in the intense heat) we were greeted by statues on either side of the road–the faces of Southgate.
“On each side of the causeway are railings fashioned with 54 stone figures engaged in the performance of a famous Hindu story: the myth of the Churning of the Ocean. On the left side of the moat, 54 ‘devas’ (guardian gods) pull the head of the snake ‘Shesha’ while on the right side 54 ‘asuras’ (demon gods) pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction.” https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/16/cambodia/angkor/angkor-thom-south-gate
Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’. The Bayon is the captivating 12th/13th century Khmer temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. It is adorned with stone pillars originally featuring 216 stone faces created to replicate King Jayavarman VII.
Sections of the facial rock sculptures have been altered and adjusted to reflect the face shapes and cultural representation of subsequent rulers.
After King Jayavarman VII died, several kings adapted and changed the faces in the Bayon temple. Under King Jayavarman VIII, Cambodia reverted to a Hindu country and the faces in the temple were altered. Later in the 14th and 15th centuries, Cambodia became a Theravada Buddhist country and the temple was altered once again.
There is much to observe and reflect upon while wandering through the various temples at the Angkor complex.
Late lunch was perfect timing as a tropical rain storm hit while we were under cover at a local rural marketplace. We observed shop proprietors rapidly and efficiently covering their wares with tarps and plastic sheets then plugging large holes in their roofs with temporary tarps or umbrellas. Although the children trying to sell us palm leaves to protect us from rain were adorable, we were told not to encourage them or give them money. Apparently if children beg or get successful getting money from tourists then they rarely attend school and have less chance of getting educated and improving their life choices.The laterite (red clay soil) shone with new purpose when the rains ceased and the sun exposed itself once again. The rain was refreshing and we were off to tour our third temple.
Banteay Srei, the Lady Temple, built from pink sandstone looked stunning after a fresh rainfall. This 10th Century Cambodian Temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is located near Phnom Dei 38 km from Siem Reap northeast of the main group of temples.
Banteay Srei was gorgeous! The colours and intricate carving made beautiful photo shoot opportunities. A French company has been working to stabilize the ruins and improve the condition of the artifacts. The guard monkeys and adornments of leaf motifs and female deities (devatas) on doorways and walls were spectacular.
But… our tour was not completed yet!
As we journeyed back towards Siem Reap, we encountered our 4th temple which was Prasat Pre Rup. Pre Rup translated means “turn the body” and it’s believed that funerals took place here. Apparently, the bodies of the dead were rotated during the funeral. Some archaeologists believe that the large vat located at the base of the east stairway to the central area was used at cremations.
This architectural temple-mountain was built in the second half of the tenth century (961) by King Rajendraman II and dedicated to the Hindi god Siva.
When we arrived at Prasat Pre Rup another tour group was posing on the staircase while their guide snapped photos. We enjoyed touring around the ruins, climbing the steep staircases, and observing the canopy of the rainforest from the top of the “temple-mountain”.
However, we were given minimal information about the unique characteristics and religious significance of each archaeological site in the world famous Angkor Wat complex. In retrospect, I would strongly suggest that extensive front loading and research prior to your investigation of Angkor Wat would greatly enhance your understanding and spiritual experience here.
We returned to our hotel for a much needed quick dip in the pool and cool down prior to dinner! Although we had a “free” evening, my husband and I chose to add another experience to our Cambodia adventure by attending a “circus” located on the outskirts of the city. Siem Reap, population 140,000, is classified as a resort town in northwestern Cambodia and is the closest location to the Angkor Wat complex.
We were naive regarding our Cambodian ‘circus’ expectations, but our tour guide organized the remorque (tuktuk) and tickets for our experience. We had heard that the Phare circus involved Cambodian street kids and orphans who were learning life skills in the ‘circus’ entertainment industry. By attending the ‘circus’ we would be financially supporting positive ways to change the lives of these children and teens. “Phare artists use theater, music, dance and circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories.” https://pharecircus.org/
What a fabulous experience! Same. Same. But Different! When we arrived at Phare Circus Ring Road, south of the Intersection, Sok San Rd, Krong Siem Reap the place was buzzing with activity! “Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak (Association), which translates into “Brightness of the Arts” in English. PPS Association is a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental association founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugee artists in the area of Anchanh Village, Ochar Commune, Battambang Province.” https://www.bordersofadventure.com/night-circus-siem-reap/
To get children and teens off the streets, the organization teaches these youth skills to create a safe product which is then promoted and sold by other youth and adults. The money they accumulate goes directly to support their education and career training opportunities. Meanwhile, the public is also getting educated and the youth are gaining a positive purpose and new optimism towards life possibilities.
Keep in mind that due to Khmer genocide discussed in earlier blog posts, we were informed that 54% of Cambodians are 18 years old or younger and many of these youth survive without family guidance. We were totally supportive of, and encouraged by, this social and cultural initiative.
At this location there was a shop selling crafts mostly created by youth–many utilizing recycled materials. There was lovely food and drinks being created and served by the youth. Inside the humorous and athletic entertainment was performed by the older youth who had been through the education and job skills training. I particularly enjoyed the skit on the differences in fixing a power outage–Cambodian verses Foreigners!
There were posters and information displayed requesting that tourists do NOT give money to children who are begging and to phone and report if children are seen accompanying foreigners into hotels.
In addition to an enrapturing evening of entertainment, crowds of tourists were also being educated about Cambodian social awareness and responsibility. I would highly recommend attending the inspiring Phare circus if you have the opportunity to travel to Siem Reap.
Tomorrow we are up early to observe the sunrise above Angkor Wat, explore more fascinating temples then attend a cultural Cambodian dance performance!