Touring around the Angkor Temple region is a bit mind boggling. There are so many different temples to visit and lots of conflicting advice about how to beat the crowds, keep cool in the sticky weather, the best mode of transport, whether you need a guide, which temples are must-sees….
When we visited in 2017, we decided to buy a detailed guidebook, hire a tuk-tuk driver and head out on our own. This allowed us the freedom to spend as long as we liked exploring the parts of the temples that we found compelling. We thought it might also allow more flexibility in the order of visiting temples, but in reality there are only two main routes – small circuit and big circuit. If you want to do something different this may cause confusion, particularly if there is a language barrier between yourself and your tuk-tuk driver!
We toured the small circuit first, starting with sunrise at Angkor Wat, but skipped the main temple visit, postponing this to another day. This meant we had a head start on the tour buses for the rest of the temples on the small circuit. On our second day we did the big circuit in the opposite direction to normal and finished at Angkor Wat. We also spent a third morning at Banteay Srei which is quite a bit further away, but has beautiful, intricate carvings and is worth the trek.
We didn’t do all our temple touring on consecutive days, opting to punctuate them with a trip to the Tonle Sap floating villages. This is a good idea to stop temple-itis or “Old Stones Burnout Syndrome”, as per our guidebook. We followed ‘Focusing on the Angkor Temples – The Guidebook’ by Michel Petrotchenko which had a wealth of information and very good maps.
Day One – Small Circuit
Starting early, we headed to Angkor Wat before sunrise. Being shy of the peak tourist season, there wasn’t the mass of tripod wielding tourists we’d been warned about, but there were still lots of people making an early start to their sightseeing day. Unfortunately, the sky didn’t burst into a multitude of pink hues, but it was a nice experience to see the majestic temple slowly emerging in the dawn light.
Much to our tuk-tuk driver’s surprise, we didn’t stay at Angkor Wat for long, but instead asked to go the Bayon. This temple is located in the centre of Angkor Thom, the large walled city of Angkor (the walls are 3km long on each side). We approached via the South Gate where the causeway is flanked by a row of giant stone statues, on one side 54 devas (gods) and the other side 54 asuras (demons). It was quite a sight, even though some of the original carvings were badly damaged. I was excited to see the giant faces on the gate tower, the first of many, and it definitely whet the appetite for what was to come!
Leaving Angkor Wat so early was a slight tactical error as the Bayon didn’t open until 7.30am. However, this gave us time to eat our packed breakfast, under the gaze of the enigmatic Bayon faces. We were also amongst the first people into the temple, which was great as there were lots of narrow corridors and steep flights of stairs which would have become harder to navigate with more tourists.
Situated at the centre of Ankgor Thom, the Bayon was the last complex temple built by a Khmer king. However, being out first temple to explore, and having a very elaborate layout, it was hard for us temple novices to follow the guidebook maps! In the end, we wandered around the maze of the second and third floors – squeezing through narrow passages and marvelling at the face towers. The Bayon foundation stele (which provides information about the gods worshipped at the temple and when the main idol was ‘awakened’) was never found and so there is still much debate about who the faces represent. They are serene, all-knowing and a bit of a mystery.
What I didn’t expect was that although the macro architecture and patterns in the temple design were impressive, there were also so many decorations and micro details everywhere that must have made this a wondrous place in it’s time. There were dancing apsaras on the columns, medallions of two intertwined birds throughout, gods and demons on the door lintels – and that was not including the bas-relief galleries.
One we had explored the inner sections of the temple, we walked around the amazing bas-relief galleries surrounding the outer enclosures. The inner walls mainly depict religious scenes from Hindu mythology, whereas the outer galleries have lots of historical battles. The detail was spectacular and included all sorts of animals, massive armies, chariots and even some scenes of daily life. The craftsmanship from the 13th century was very impressive. It was an early call, but the Bayon was probably going to be one of our favourite temples.
We then walked from the Bayon across to Bauphon, which had been recently re-opened after reconstruction activities. This temple was built around 1060 and according to the guidebook was “a little too ambitious for its time”, with some structural defects leading to its partial collapse. (The Khmer architects fixed these issues in their crowning glory of Angkor Wat).
The temple was repaired using a method called anastylosis, where each stone was removed from the temple after being marked and inventoried. A new foundation was built and and then the whole structure re-assembled. Where original stones were missing, they were substituted with uncarved stones, so it is apparent they are not part of the original work. In reality, it looked like a giant half finished jigsaw puzzle; there were still hundreds of stones of varying sizes and shapes scattered on the ground around the temple, waiting to be put back into their rightful place.
Due to the reconstruction work, there was a set route through the temple which involved a very steep climb up to the top of the temple and then a steep climb back down again. It was interesting that many of the Angkor monuments had been built for one deity (or religion) and then temples had been repurposed for different deities over time. Bauphon was originally a Hindu temple, that was later converted to Buddhism with some of the original stonework reconfigured into a giant reclining Buddha on the back wall of the temple. The presence of this Buddha meant that the rules on modest clothing (covering shoulders and legs) were strictly enforced. Bauphon had some nice carving on the gates and climbing to the top of the pyramid ruins and looking out over the jungle was a very different experience to the claustrophobic Bayon passageways.
Next on the agenda was the Royal Place area where we mainly focused on the Leper Terraces and Elephant Terraces. By now it was hot, sweaty and buzzing with tour groups. It was amusing to see what they were taking photos of, for example a very modern concrete elephant reconstruction seemed to be a favoured selfie spot, but not some of the original carvings. The three headed elephants and the “terrace of elephants on a hunting spree” were our highlights.
We finally regrouped with our tuk-tuk driver who gave us some cold towels and cool water. It was a wonderful relief after lots of sweaty temple viewing! We left Angkor Thom via the Victory gate, stopping at two small temples just outside the city walls – Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda. These temples had been restored at different times and it was fascinating to see that the more modern reconstruction had maybe gone a bit far in re-doing some of the ancient carvings… Although these were smaller temples, they still had many impressive architectural features.
We tuk-tuked past Ta Keo – maybe we should have visited but it looked like a very steep and exhausting climb in the sun. We were already pretty tired and there was still one major temple of the day – Ta Prohm. This temple is a favourite for tour groups due to the large fig trees growing amongst the ruins and, of course, the fact it featured in the Tomb Raider movie (which neither of us have seen!)
When preservation work on the Angkor monuments began around hundred years ago, Ta Prohm was deliberately left as it was found. However, this now presents a problem for the continued survival of the temple and there is conflict about how to balance the ‘romantic ruins’, which are slowly being smothered by the trees, with actively restoring sections that are about to fall down.
We entered from the eastern gate walking about 500m from the fifth enclosure through the jungle to the eastern terrace. The longish walk through the thick vegetation built a sense of excitement – would the temple look like the many famous images?
When we arrived at the fourth enclosure and crossed the double moats, the vibe was very different to the other temples we’d been to so far. The first impression was the green tinge everywhere – the stones covered in moss and lichen, trees engulfing the remaining ruins and the somewhat foreboding sense of the jungle colonising the site. In some ways it was quite a humbling experience, less than a thousand years ago this would have been the peak of human civilisation in terms of architecture and craftsmanship, and now nature was reasserting it’s dominance.
Probably the best part of the temple was walking around the less crowded, outer sections and experiencing the atmosphere. In these sections, it was easy to find a quiet spot to contemplate the ruinous beauty of Ta Phohm. Even with the temple succumbing to the tree’s suffocating embrace, there were still glimpses of the beautiful ornamentation that would have existed, and carvings and gods could be seen peeking through the strangler fig roots.
We then headed into the more crowded central area of the temple, with a set route to try and ease congestion. But even then, the temple had a life of it’s own and there were dead ends blocked by piles of stones, and it felt like you were trapped in some mythical garden, walking back past the same spot you’d just visited.
There were clumps of tourists forming in front of some of the more spectacular trees. Then, if you took a photo somewhere else, and people saw you taking it, they would all want a selfie there too and a line up would form…
We probably spent about 90 minutes exploring Ta Prohm, enjoying the ambience (where not too many tourists) and taking lots of photos – really you could point your camera anywhere and get a good shot.
It was really hot by now and it had already been a long day, so we headed back to our hotel for late lunch, a swim and some relaxing in the air conditioning! There were still many temples waiting for us…