After a packed first day, our second temple day was dedicated to the Large Circuit. We arrived at the first temple, Pre Rup, around 7.30am while it was bathed in lovely morning light. Pre Rup is a mountain temple design, with a steep pyramidal section and five sanctuaries on top, symbolizing the mythical Hindu mountain, Mount Meru. Being an older temple (built in 961) the construction was mainly brick, unlike the later temples which were built from sandstone. Even though this temple had a simple design, this gave it a regal feel, accentuating the main design features without confusing them with a lot of other details.
The next temple, East Mebon, was built eight years prior to Pre Rup, by the same king. It also had five central sanctuaries, but didn’t have the additional tiered platforms to make it a full mountain temple. There were great elephant statues standing guard on the corners of the temples, and very beautiful carvings on the lintels. Again, it was a simple temple to navigate around and by now we felt like we were getting a good understanding of the main parts of Angkor temple construction – discussing enclosures, libraries and pediment ornamentation like professionals!
The following stop was at Ta Som, a small temple built in the era of the prolific Jayavarman VII. He also built Ta Promh, Preah Khan, Bayon, Ankgor Thom walls and gates as well as 102 hospitals! A highlight was the main gate face towers, with one being completely engulfed by a large fig tree. There were also some interesting decorations including a carving with a small rabbit – we enjoyed trying to find the strange creatures and scenes listed in our guidebook!
The next site was completely different to the rest, Neak Pean was located in the middle of a flooded baray (like a shallow dam). Crossing the boardwalk to the temple ‘island’ there were lots of lilies, the twisted trunks of dead trees and heaps of fish in the water – some with exceptionally long noses! The temple had been partially flooded, with nagas (mythical snakes) literally swimming out of the water. The four connected pools around the temple represented the elements of fire, water, earth and wind; in ancient times the water in the pools was said to have healing powers.
Our final temple before a (well earned!) lunch break was Prea Khan, which was much bigger than the others on the large circuit. We entered at the east gate, where there used to be two rows of Buddhas. They had been chiseled off when the temple changed to Hindu worship, except for one little Buddha which was missed! Next was a row of gods and demons similar to those on the approach causeways of Angkor Thom, but with very few heads remaining. Then we passed through the huge 4th enclosure walls with large carvings spaced long them (and previously ornamental buddhas around the top). Of the temples we had visited so far, this was one of the grandest entries!
We walked about 350 metres through the jungle to the third enclosure and the main temple buildings. Through this stretch a very persistent young girl tried to sell me ten postcards for $1. Everything is $1 at the temples – coconuts, drinks, postcards, photocopied guidebooks… However, she could only count up to seven (in English) so kept repeating one, two, three, four, five, six, seven as she flicked through the different postcards in the set, but telling me there were ten. I felt very mean not buying any, they were actually quite nice postcards!
Finally we arrived at the main temple. It was a bit like Ta Prohm (built five years later) and had similar tree engulfment and atmospheric ruins. There were mazes of doors in the central sections leading out to the north and south temples. We had a challenge to see how many doorways we would need to pass through to move from the central sanctuary to the southern gate. Although we disagreed on the definition of doorways, I counted about 20! I really enjoyed visiting this temple as it wasn’t too crowded and there were lots of different sections to explore.
We asked out tuk-tuk driver where to go for lunch and although we passed a few places on the way, there was apparently one main area for tourists as it had ‘air-conditioning’ (i.e. fans!). The meal was cooked fresh to order which meant there was a bit of a wait, but it was nice to sit down in the shade and rest before tackling the biggest temple of then all, Angkor Wat.
The scale of Angkor Wat was hard to comprehend, everything was so much larger than the other temples – the huge moat, massive gallery corridors, many columns and large pools in the cruxiform galleries and of course the amazing central sanctuary. But as well as being bigger, everywhere you looked was covered with intricate carvings – the craftsmanship was astounding. This was definitely the pinnacle of Khmer temple building.
When approaching from the west, the first impression of this temple was the huge moat, and from here the central towers cannot be seen as they are blocked by the western gate. This imposing structure was decorated with beautiful carved medallions with a variety of birds, animals and flowers. There were also many lovely devatas and asparas.
Passing through the western gate, and into the scared grounds, we had the first good view of the central temple, sitting majestically at the end of a 410m long causeway. We enjoyed strolling past the naga balustrades and stopping at the ponds for some (more!) obligatory reflection photos.
The first part of the main temple was the Cruxiform galleries, with a forest of columns and 4 large pools. This was unlike other Khmer temples we visited and reminded me more of Egyptian temples. Again, we were struck by the attention to detail everywhere.
Access to the third floor and central sanctuary was up a very steep flight of stairs, and controlled to avoid congestion. The guards were also very strict on the clothing requirements here, with people being turned away when they had bare shoulders or only a sarong to cover their shoulders or legs. The view was great and we wondered how some of the carvings had been made at such great heights. Unfortunately we saw a tourist who had taken a turn for the worse – it looked to be a combination of heat, sunburn and steep climbs for an overweight person. You can’t underestimate the physical stamina required for a day of temple visiting in the heat and humidity.
Last but not least we walked around the beautiful bas relief galleries. These carvings were amazingly detailed and depicted epic Hindu mythology and royal processions. Any small (stolen) section would have been a highlight in a Western museum of antiquities…
As we were about to leave, there was a torrential downpour and all of a sudden we were splashing through huge puddles. Of course, the postcard sellers quickly became poncho or umbrella sellers and were doing a roaring trade! Running in the rain back to the tuk-tuk was a fun ending to a magnificent temple. I’m glad that we had left the best until last, and built our appreciation of the Khmer architecture before admiring their greatest work.
A Morning at Banteay Srei
On our last morning, we took a long tuk-tuk ride, through lots of small villages and rice fields, to Banteay Srei. When this temple was ‘discovered’ by Westerners they though it was one of the newer temples as it was so well crafted and decorated, but this actually goes to show that bigger flashier temples built towards the end of the empire where not necessarily the best.
The temple was constructed in the mid 10th century from pink sandstone and although small, it is covered with amazing carvings. Even though it’s quite far away, it was crowded and very popular with Japanese tourists. We took our time to explore the beautiful pediments and wait patiently where certain sections had become spots for must-have selfies.
Unfortunately, the central sanctuaries were off-limits to tourists but you could still view the wonderful carvings, though not as close as in some of the other temples. This temple made interesting use of perspective, the size of the gates getting progressively smaller, with the central section doors only about 1m high. This gave the impression that the central temple is further away than it actually is.
A few thoughts…
National Parks or monuments are maintained differently around the world. Until visiting the Ankgor temple complex, I didn’t realise how huge it was or how many people live or work inside. For example, just next to Banteay Srei we saw a family harvesting rice with a scythe.
There are still strong religious connections to the temple deities and Buddha statues had fresh offerings. This mades the temples seem more alive than some monuments I’ve visited, in some ways they are more similar in feeling to the rock art of Kakadu where there is still strong local connection with the place, rather than the Egyptian pyramids or Machu Picchu. It is also important to respect this by dressing appropriately (even if you do look a bit ridiculous in elephant pants like I did!)
Going without a guide we got a much better appreciation of the architecture by looking at all the maps and navigating around the temple highlights. I enjoyed learning about the different parts of temple architecture and noticing the changes in building material and design over the years. All the features such as the most beautiful bas reliefs and ornamental pediments were highlighted in our book, and we even had time to look for the quirky features which appealed to our guidebook author (and us!) like small animals and medallions with depictions of daily life.
Without a guide we may have missed out on the genealogy of all the various kings and some of the details of the religious stories, but we wouldn’t have remembered this when we got back anyhow. What we missed in details, I think we made up in a better understanding of “the vibe”. By the end of our touring I think we could have successfully bamboozled the average tour group, at least about the architecture (though maybe not in the key target languages of Chinese, Japanese, French or Spanish!).
Reconstruction is contentious and carried out various countries, no teams are currently led by Cambodians. There are different ideologies about how to preserve and reconstruct the temples – for example should the fig trees be removed? Should replacement stones be carved to look like the original? Different countries (or universities) seem to think that different aspects should be valued above others, this is described in an interesting article “Cutting through Angkor’s Wats Politics and Banyans”
Overall the Angkor temple complex is amazing and I would definitely count this as one of the seven wonders of the world (that are currently standing!)