Trivia #1: The ancient (12th century) Khmer kingdom encompassed parts of present day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula
Trivia #2: Most of Cambodia’s temples started out as dedications to Hindu gods, but went through a large scale conversion to Buddhism
Trivia #3: Temple ruins are disintegrating fast due to a lack of preservation funding – we may not see much of them in the near future as they continue to be eroded by nature and time
I’ve always been fascinated by ruins. Or rather, anything that tells me about its history and its stories of old, especially where they are culturally significant. Imagine visiting an ancient place that is largely well-preserved for hundreds of years (or even over a thousand) where time seem to stand still once you are in the presence of such places.
Over the course of history, one can glean that it is in the DNA of humankind to effect compelling structures to showcase their might and glory at the height of our power, and likewise, Angkor Wat is no exception. For this blog, we’ll be looking at a selected number of Angkorian temples in our journey to explore the greater realm surrounding the main Angkor Wat temple complex.
With this, I present: Cambodia – Of Glories Past.
If you’re considering jetting off to somewhere historically and culturally-rich with a very affordable travel budget for about five days, then look no further than Siem Reap. Located in north western Cambodia, Siem Reap is the gateway to the world renowned Angkor Wat and its surrounding temple complexes.
Well, if you would like a well-paced and light travel itinerary, perhaps besides visiting Angkor Wat as your main highlight, you could also consider what I term the Big Four attractions: Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Bayon as each locality extrudes a distinct geographic character for travellers who would like some form of variety – nature becoming one with man-made ancient temples, intricate sandstone carvings, a thousand year-old waterfall dedicated to the gods and giant stone faces.
Ta Prohm, The Tomb Raider Temple
Did you know that the hollywood flick, Tomb Raider, used Ta Prom as a shooting set in 2001? Well, all thanks to Tomb Raider, Cambodia’s famous tree temple is now on the world map! And that’s excellent news for local tourism for the much-needed economic boost. It’s now one of the most popular temples to visit within the vicinity of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ta Prohm, a modern name of the temple at Angkor, was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and it was originally called Rajavihara. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Today, it is one of the most visited temple complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region.
Located approximately one kilometre east of Angkor Thom and on the southern edge of the East Baray, it was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.
Ravaged by time, the temple was colonised by nature. The giant roots appear to be consuming the ancient temple over many centuries – one can’t help but feels that a lost world has been encountered, especially with the complex root systems binding the temple ruins into place.
Unlike most Angkorian temples, the condition of Ta Prohm remains pretty much the same when it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.
Banteay Srei, The Citadel of The Women
Considered by many to be the crown jewel of Angkorian art, Banteay Srei was cut from stones with a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carvings on earth. Its pink sandstone carvings has credited it with title “The Jewel of Khmer Art”.
Built in AD 967, it is one of the smallest sites at Angkor, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in stature. Hindu in origin, Banteay Srei was dedicated to Shiva. It is wonderfully well-preserved and many of its carvings are three-dimensional.
Banteay Srei means “Citadel of the Women” and it is said that it must have been built by women as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hands of most men. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? I’m sure any traveller would be wowed by the superb craftsmanship just from using traditional crafting tools – if you had showed me a section of it and told me it was 3D-printed, I would probably have believed you!
Kbal Spean, The River of a Thousand Lingas
Kbal Spean, also known as the River of a Thousand Lingas, forms a very important part of Cambodian historical and spiritual elements as the carvings of the Hindu gods were thought to sanctify the country’s water supply.
Located north east of the main Angkor temple complex, Kbal Spean presents a set of stone relief carvings on a waterfall. Local legend depicts that the stone motifs are actually phallic symbols of the Hindu god, Shiva.
As you walk along the river bank, you’ll undoubtedly come across the Hindu god Vishnu in a reclining position lying on the serpent god Ananta, with Goddess Lakshmi at his feet and Lord Brahma on a lotus petal.
If you have a couple of hours to spare after visiting Banteay Srei, then Kbal Spean could satisfy your exploration thirst with a 45 minutes hike (2 kilometres) through the forest uphill to reach the ancient river.
Bayon, The Temple With Many Faces
At the heart of Angkor Thom is the 12th century Bayon, the mesmerising and slightly mind-bending state temple of Jayavarman VII. The rows of stone faces epitomise the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king.
As with many of Cambodia’s temples, a vast majority of them displayed elements of both Hinduism and Buddhist influence. Bayon is also the temple where both the spiritualism of Hinduism and Buddhism co-exist in a somewhat well-balanced and harmonious manner.
Its 54 gothic towers are decorated with a staggering 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, and it is also adorned with 1.2km of extraordinary bas reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. As I wandered around the temple complex, the mega stone faces extrude a sense of stillness and perhaps, a peculiar environment of being watched by the stone gazes.
How to get to the above attractions:
As they are popular tourist hot spots, travellers will have no problems getting to any of these localities. The only consideration is how you would like to get there: joining a tour group, private car/tuk tuk hire or go on an adventurous streak by embarking on a bicycle group tour (can be very strenuous due to the tropical heat in a jungle environment!).
On a side note, Banteay Srei is located near Kbal Spean, so, it might make sense to group these two travel spots for a single day tour. Finally, while a four-day holiday in Siem Reap should be sufficient for a moderate temple sight-seeing itinerary, any itinerary above five or six days might result in a “temple burnout” – after a while, your initial excitement may wane after viewing so many temples.
Hence, I would recommend to pace out your temple visits – perhaps mornings for temple visits where it is likely to be less crowded, and back to town for a massage to soothe your tired muscles and finally, winding down with a sumptuous dinner in the evening.
Cambodia, though besieged by its horrific past and rampant poverty, is still an amazing country. Brimming with a rich historical landscape and majestic temples, a visit to Siem Reap for its temple ruins and cultural engagements is a must for any historical buff or for the adventurous at heart.
I hope that you had enjoyed reading about my personal travel story into the past of Cambodia – one of the world’s most beautiful and historically significant medieval city.