SE Asia #06 Siem Reap (Cambodia)
SE Asia #06 – Angkor Wat and Other Siem Reap Area Temples
This is part 6 and the final episode of our South East Asian tour of 3 countries. This one covers the area around Siem Reap Cambodia and includes the temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Ta Prohm. In case you are wondering, the word “Angkor” roughly translates from the Sanskrit word for “city” and as such many ancient areas in Cambodia include “Angkor” as part of the name.
Locations visited on this trip
Siem Reap Area of Cambodia
From Luang Prabang on the Mekong in Laos, we flew over to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Although Siem Reap has a long history including several waves of military invasions, in today’s world it is a tourist town whose only real purpose is to make money off of the tourists who visit Angkor Wat and other nearby ancient temples.
When the French explorers arrived in the 1800’s and "re-discovered" Angkor Wat, Siem Reap was just a sleepy little unremarkable village. It’s odd how the French took credit for discovering Angkor Wat as other European visitors had visited the temple ruins much earlier including António da Madalena in 1586. But in 1901, the EFEO (École française d'Extrême-Orient) – or French School of the Far East - began a long association with the temple ruins by funding expeditions in the area. The EFEO went about clearing the jungle from temples and restoring the entire sites. This is when western tourists started pouring in. Well pouring may be a bit of an exaggeration in today’s traveling world but in the first 3 months around 200 came in to see the ruins.
With the acquisition of Angkor by the French in 1907 following a Franco-Siamese treaty, Siem Reap began to grow. The Grand Hotel d'Angkor opened in 1929 and the temples of Angkor became one of Asia's leading draws until the late 1960s when a civil war put a damper on foreign tourism. Then in 1975, the population of Siem Reap, like all other Cambodian cities and towns, was driven into the countryside by the communist Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t until after Pol Pot’s death in 1998 that the country stabilized to the point where it was no longer risking your life to visit. And, once again Siem Reap was rejuvenated for the tourist industry which is where we are today.
Siem Reap is a gateway town for the world heritage site of Angkor Wat as well as several other ancient temple ruins. It is a vibrant town with modern hotels and restaurants yet still managing to preserve much of its culture and traditions. In recent years, the city has regularly ranked in the top ten for "Best Destination" lists produced by entities such as TripAdvisor, Wanderlust magazine and Travel+Leisure.
It was estimated in 2010 that over 50% of jobs in the town were related to tourism which reflects a massive increase in tourist trade since the end of the Khmer Rouge era. Visitor numbers were negligible in the mid-1990s, but in 2004 over half a million foreign visitors had arrived in the Siem Reap province which accounts for approximately 50% of all foreign tourists to Cambodia. By 2012, tourist numbers reached over two million. A large number of hotels have sprung up in the city which range from 5-star hotels and chic resorts to hundreds of budget guesthouses. With many more being built as we speak. And, to go along with these hotels are bars, restaurants, night clubs, and every other sort of tourist business one can think of catering to everyone from the early 20’s crowd to the senior citizen group.
Siem Reap attracts visitors from all over the world. And, sometimes the habits of travelers from one geographic region don’t mesh well with travelers from other geographic areas. In the early 20th century American tourists had the bad rap (“ugly Americans”), but now it is the Chinese. As it turns out, Siem Reap is a very popular travel destination for upwardly mobile Chinese and the cultural differences between this large influx of tourists from China intermeshing with western tourists has fostered a fair amount of tension. One very large hotel in Siem Ream got so much flak from western visitors about the behavior of the Chinese tourists that they designated 4 of their 7 separate buildings as Chinese only with their own dedicated check in lobby, shops, and restaurants and are the only buildings that the Chinese are allowed in and non-Chinese are excluded from.
Delivery Truck, Siem Reap
Angkor Wat is the best known of the ancient temples in SE Asia. It is also the closest one to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is just one of several temples included in what is called the Angkor Archaeological Park. Foreign visitors must purchase a pass in order to visit these temples. This is a pretty formal picture ID sort of thing (not just a paper ticket) and can be for 1, 3, or 7 days. You can purchase one day passes, good only for the day of purchase, at the temples, but multiday passes are purchased in town so it’s a good idea to pick one up the day before you plan to start your temple visits. If you get the pass after 5:00pm, then the next day is officially the first day of the pass. However, watch for the operating hours of these ticket offices as most close at 5:30. These passes are good for all the temples except for Phnom Kulen and Beng Mealea.
Be careful not to lose your Angkor Pass as the penalties are severe. If you lose a 1-day ticket, the penalty is $100. The loss of a 3-day ticket will cost you $ 200, and a 7-day ticket will cost you $300.
Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th century, is one of the largest religious monuments in the world on a site measuring 402 acres (1,626,000 m2) – but not as big as Angkor Thom next door. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
According to legend, the construction of Angkor Wat was ordered by Indra to serve as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea. But, according to the 13th-century Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan, some believed that the temple was constructed in a single night by a divine architect. Either way, the initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of the king, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer.
It is the best-preserved temple in the area and is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its creation. The temple was built at the peak of what is called the high classical style of Khmer architecture and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag. And, of course it is the country's prime visitor attraction.
The main temple complex is a square walled colonnade full of carved bas relief artwork. Inside this square is another square complex raised one story higher and then inside of that is yet another square structure on a 3rd level with 5 towers rising even higher. In front of the outer square is the grand entrance road that passes between the North and South Library buildings and then passes between two reflecting ponds. As Angkor Wat is unusually built with an east-west orientation with the front facing west, the sun comes up behind the main temple complex which makes for a dramatic photograph with the reflecting ponds in front. Depending on time of year the sun rises more or less directly over the temple. And, depending on time of year, the reflecting ponds have more or less water for reflecting. We were there in late march at the end of the dry season so the ponds were quite low. The sun was a bit off center and it was real smoky so not the greatest photo opportunity, but good enough
One of main entrance gates to Angkor Wat
South Library, Angkor Wat
Main Angkor Wat temple complex
Sunrise over main Angkor Wat Temple complex
The grandeur of the temple is undeniable but what is really incredible is that virtually every square inch of visible wall, ceiling and floor is covered with carved bas-reliefs of one form or another. They are everywhere and each one has a story. This is where hiring a guide really pays off. Without a guide these bas-reliefs are just interesting or pretty carvings. With a guide you get the story being depicted and will have details pointed out to you that you’d have otherwise missed. For example, spotting one female in a parade of males or in a relief of animals pointing out one animal that has never been native to the area, and many other oddities.
Bas Relief in outer colonnade
Every Nook and Cranny has a carving
Morning light and Shadow
Many, maybe even most, carvings are dedicated to the female form
Angkor Thom was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century and covers an area of almost three and a half square miles (9 km²) making it almost four and a half times larger than the more famous Angkor Wat. Inside this area are several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors. At the center of the city is Jayavarman's state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around.
Symbolically, Angkor Thom is a representation of the universe. It is divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon is at the center and symbolizes the link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolizes the cosmic ocean.
On each of its 4 sides, there is a long causeway leading to an entry tower just inside the moat. The bridges over the moat are flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side – demons on the right and gods on the left-to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding the city of Angkor Thom. The demons have a grimacing expression and wear a military headdress whereas the gods look serene with their almond-shaped eyes and wear a conical headdress. (Some of the heads on these figures are copies; the original ones have been removed and are at the Angkor Conservancy in Siem Reap).
Stone figures (god side) leading to one of the entry towers
Stone figures (demon side) leading to one of the entry towers
Coming back from serving the morning tourists at Angkor Thom
Just inside the moat at each of the four points of the compass (north, east, south, and west) is an entrance gate building that the causeway passes through on the way to the Royal Palace. Each of these gates is topped by four giant faces, one facing each direction. The only way into the complex was through one of these heavily guarded gates.
Large stone face on entry gate building
Angkor Thom Hallway
Bas Relief carvings
Ta Prohm was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It is less than a mile (1km) from Angkor Thom and was originally a Buddhist monastery and university.
Waiting for his clients to return from the temple
Unlike most sites in the area, Ta Prohm is the only one (so far) that is in much the same condition as it was when it was “re-discovered”. In the other sites such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Banteay Srei, they have removed the jungle which had overridden the structures and even though they did not do much “restoration” other than stabilization, those structures are environmentally more true to how they were when being used. In Ta Prohm, the folks doing the restoration decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found as a "concession to the general taste for the picturesque." According to pioneering Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize, Ta Prohm was singled out because it was "one of the most imposing temples and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it". Nevertheless, much work has been done to stabilize the ruins (best to not have temples falling on tourists) in order to permit access and to maintain "this condition of apparent neglect”.
Due to this, I found this temple the most interesting one of those we saw. And, it seems I’m not alone. The photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle crowding up to and over the walls and into the structures have made it one of area’s most popular temples with visitors.
This “overgrown” look with trees growing out of the ruins and vines wrapped around stone architecture are the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm, and have prompted more writers to descriptive excess than any other feature of Angkor area. And, this has not been overlooked by film makers, but not as much as one would expect. During the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s it was quite a dangerous country to visit, and almost no one did. During that time they killed over 2 million of their own people (The Killing Fields). So, during that time and a few decades after, most movie makers were reluctant to film in Cambodia. For example they wanted to film some of the early Indiana Jones movie scenes in Cambodia but chose not to due to the political situation. However the film “Tomb Raider” was actually filmed here with the scenes shot in Ta Prohm being pretty accurate to what is actually there.
And, of course there are the wacko’s. The “young earth creationists” gang believe that one of the carvings in Ta Prohm resembles a stegosaurus, thus proving that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time (and not all that long ago). However the carving they point to does not represent a stegosaur but instead is either a rhinoceros or a boar over a leafy background.
Banteay Srei or Banteay Srey is a 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is 16 miles (25 km) from the main group of temples that once belonged to the medieval capitals. Unlike all the other temples, this one is built of red sandstone. Although hard to come by, red sandstone is great for the elaborate wall carvings as it can be carved like wood and amazingly due to the harness of the sandstone those carvings have hardly weathered at all over time. The buildings themselves are miniature in scale, unusually so when compared to the other temple complexes in the area. These factors have made the temple extremely popular with tourists, and have led to its being widely praised as a "precious gem", or the "jewel of Khmer art."
As it turns out, Bantãy Srĕi was the only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch. Rather its construction is credited to the courtiers named Vishnukumara and Yajnavaraha. Apparently Yajnavaraha (who happened to be the grandson of king Harsavarman) was a scholar and philanthropist who helped those who suffered from illness, injustice, or poverty and this complex is dedicated to that thought. Even though spending the money on feeding the impoverished or fixing the justice system may have been a better use of money, today we’d have nothing to go see.
Banteay Srei is known for the intricacy of its carvings many of which are still in quite good, almost pristine, condition. The temple buildings appear to be divided along the central east–west axis with those located south of the axis devoted to Śiva, and those north of the axis devoted to Viṣṇu. I can just see some heated Facebook & Twitter argument in ancient times between those wanting the complex dedicated to Siva and others wishing for Visnu with some peacemaker interceding with this compromise.
But, what is more interesting is the speculation that the temple's modern name, Banteay Srei is due to the many devatas carved into the walls. The name “Banteay Srei” means citadel of the women, or citadel of beauty. Or, as it is commonly referred to, “The Women’s Temple”.
The temple was rediscovered in 1914 and was the subject of a celebrated case of art theft when André Malraux stole four devatas in 1923. He was soon arrested, and the figures were returned. And as we all know, any publicity is good publicity and the incident stimulated interest in the site, which was cleared the following year.
Of the 4 temple complex’s we visited, this wins the award for most beautiful and well preserved.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the Cambodia leg of our SE Asia trip, Please check out my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Keywords: "Jungle Temples", Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Blog, Cambodia, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogSEAsia, Khmer Temples", Siem Reap, Ta Prohm
iling and floor is covered with carved bas-reliefs of one form or another. They are everywhere and each one has a story. This is where hiring a guide really pays off. Without a guide these bas-reliefs are just interesting or pretty carvings. With a guide you get the story being depicted and will have details pointed out to you that yo
This is the one major attraction in the world we have not visited. Your pictures and
writing are well done as always.
I second Jan's comments - It is like revisiting the whole trip (but with cleaner air ;-))
I have very much enjoyed reading your accounts of our trip! Your photos are beautiful and together they have allowed me to relive the trip. Thank you!
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