Siem Reap literally means “Siam Defeated”, and somehow “commemorates” the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and the Khmer. The Khmer Empire was once a powerful Hindu-Buddhist empire in Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries. Angkor, the empire’s grandeur capital, was left by the Khmer in the woods after the empire had fallen.
Hundreds of years later the ruins were discovered by the French and revealed once again this archeological wonder to the world. I have heard a lot of great things about the site until recently I visited there, and it was such a fulfilling spiritual experience that I learned about history, culture, and religion.
I started my visit with a Grand tour which I appreciated the poetic scene and serenity walking through the ruins. Some parts of them are restored, and some of them are left untouched with trees growing on the temples, mosses crawling on the walls, or piles of rubbles lying on the ground. The fascinating stories left me wondering what the Khmer’s life was like a thousand years ago.
The next morning we hopped into the car and our private guide took us on the Small tour to see the national wonders of Angkor.
Stretching an area of 1.3 by 1.5 kilometers, surrounded by a moat, Angkor Thom is a rectangular city that rivals any other architectural wonders in the world. In the Khmer language, Angkor means “city” and Thom means “large” therefore Angkor Thom is a “Large city”, which was the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. It was the royal center of the city with schools, hospitals, and a sophisticated water system. Our Small Tour began at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the main entrance of the archeological site. At the front of the gate is a causeway that spans the moat with a row of devas on the left and asuras on the right, each row holding a naga in the attitude of a tug-of-war (Sadly many of the heads of the devas and the asuras were either stolen or destroyed). It appears to be a reference to the popular myth in Angkor’s “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”.
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
The myth comes from the Mahabharata but is relayed in complete form in the Hindu epic Bhagavata Purana. The story starts at the beginning of the world when Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) have been fighting for 1000 years in an effort to create Amrita – the nectar of immortal and incorruptible life.
Eventually, Vishnu advised them to work together and obtain the elixir instead of fighting. The Devas and Asuras started working together by churning the Cosmic Ocean (the milk of the ocean). They used Mount Madara as the rod and Vasuki (Naga) as the rope churning string. Vishnu incarnated himself as the tortoise Kurma and used his back to support the rotating mountain.
The gods (devas) held the tail of Vasuki and the demons (asuras) held the head. Herbs and ingredients were put into the ocean and the mixture was churned by devas and asuras tugging on each side. After 1000 years, the Amrita finally emerged among many other treasures such as the goddess Lakshmi, the elephant Airavata, the horse Ucchaishravas, a wishing tree, and the lovely Apsaras.
The devas and asuras fought over the treasures. Vishnu intervened and helped the gods to win the battle. Rahu, an asura, disguised himself as a deva and sneaked into the group of devas to drink the Amrita. Surya (the sun-god) and Chandra (the moon-god) discovered and alerted Vishnu. Vishnu decapitates Rahu as he was about to swallow Amrita, leaving only his head immortal and flown, so the head of Rahu “eats” the sun and moon and those were eclipses… (a lot of details in the story that could just go on… and on)
Bayon is probably the most popular and most-seen temple in Angkor – because the temple is richly decorated and filled with serene giant stone faces that are always referred to as the “Khmer Smile”.
The giant faces are supposed to be the face of the supreme Buddha, with no accident the faces also look like the great Khmer King Jayavarman VII. He was a Buddhist king, but he embraced Buddhism and Hinduism. The Angkor Thom ran under dramatic change of religion under his rule, but he respected both religions which could be reflected by looking at some of the designs within the temples.
This masterpiece is located in the center of Angkor Thom as a focal point. So the temple has a great number of visitors, and so much more crowded than other temples (even though it was in the early morning – must be the tourist from the sunrise tour). To me, it kind of ruined the mood a little bit, compared to the other temples.
Ta Prohm, the tree temple, also called “the temple in the Tomb Raider Movie”. I didn’t actually see Angelina Jolie’s action movie (or I have seen it, but then I forgot). Yet it was popular as the temple was embraced by strangulating roots of giant trees that form a unique and atmospheric scene. It was raw – just like the way most of the Angkor monuments would look when they were first discovered by the French hundreds of years ago. It is a reminder of how the Khmer once conquered nature and then nature took back humanity slowly, but powerfully.
One of my favorite temples as it’s quiet with pink and green stone walls, giant trees… basically an essence of everything in Angkor.
Took 35 years to build, the Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple (dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu) and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century. Because of its magnificence, Angkor Wat survived the demise of Hindu culture and become a pilgrimage spot for Buddhists throughout the world. In Khmer word, Wat means “temple”, and Angkor Wat means “temple city/city of temples” in Khmer. 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants were involved in this massive construction, and over 5 million tons of sandstone were used to build the temple – Together with Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and Borobudur in Java, it is the three largest Buddha pagodas in the world.
in fact, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument on earth (with an area of 1.6 square kilometers), and it is featured on the Cambodian national flag.
The Angkor Wat has five magnificent towers (which could be seen on Cambodia’s flag) and the central tower was symbolized as a mountain where the gods live (Mount Meru, for the three Hindu chief gods: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). Visitors could queue up and climb the stairs to the top of the tower and enjoy a nice view of the greenery surrounding the temple.
Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west – which scholars suggested that the King intended it to serve as his funerary temple; and it has an unusual solace effect during sunrise. There are 1,200 square meters of carved bas-beliefs in Angkor Wat, depicting eight Hindu myths. One of the most important depictions would probably be “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”.
The temple is heavily decorated with Hindu gods and natural elements like foliage branches, tendrils, or medallions.
Lintel and Colonnette
A lintel is a decoration piece of the doorways. The shapes of lintel in a temple, whether it’s cylindrical or octagonal, tell a lot about the period that the temple was built or restored.
A colonnette is a post to support the delicately carved lintel.
Travel tips of the Angkor Tour
- Getting around the city: I recommend tuk-tuk. The city area of Siem Reap is not huge therefore it would be very much convenient to hire a tuk-tuk and travel anywhere as you pleased. It’s usually US$2-3 per trip and I totally accept that. I stayed at the Victoria Resort (which was amazing, and I will show you later on.) which takes only 5 minutes by tuk-tuk to the bustling pub street and night market.
- The hotel offered free bike rental, however, it’s not that special to get around the city by bike and I don’t think it’s easy to park. We had a 30-minute looped around the Royal Garden area and that’s it.
- I saw there were elephant rides in the Angkor archeological park but it was elephant slavery. As a matter of fact, an elephant died not long ago as it was working under immense heat and it caused protests. I won’t recommend it.
- The Grand tour and Small tour by tuk-tuk tour are great for budget travelers, but I would recommend a private tour with a licensed tour guide and a driver. In general, the guides and drivers were very attentive with bottled water and iced towel stored at the back of the trunk. The guide provided great narrative, stories, and information about each site and I learned in which period each temple was built by looking at the engravings on the lintels and shapes of the colonnettes, and I learned about some Hindu and Buddhist legends, like the famous “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” and “Mucalinda sheltering Gautama Buddha”…1-day Grand Tour: US$ 25-30 1-day Small Tour: US$ 15-20
- Visitors should dress properly for their visits to the temples for respect. I heard short pants shouldn’t be worn but I saw lots of short pants under the immense heat; I also witnessed some guards may request tourists to “cover up” before entering the temples (who was actually wearing a flimsy top and hot pants…come on). I supposed there aren’t rigid guidelines but it’s up to the tourist to judge by themselves.
- Bring an extra battery and take lots of photos. I used up my battery for my Leica for the Small Tour (which usually won’t happen my Leica could last for days.)
- In Cambodia, the US currency is widely used. All prices are in USD even for local groceries, massage parlors, restaurants, and bars… Tourists won’t necessarily change money. However, the locals would give you the Cambodian dollar change if it’s less than a dollar. Somehow I for quite a lot of chump change at the end of the trip. I kept a few, donated them to the music players at the temples (the victims of landmines), and bought some souvenirs. Note: Torn or old US dollar notes may not be accepted in the country.
- I have seen photos from my friends about the Cambodian kids begging on the road naked. I was told many of them may not have the chance of going to school! I went earlier in 2016 and honestly, I didn’t see many; hopefully, the education situation in the country has much improved. Even if I saw one, the tour guide told me we should refrain from giving them money (or even food) as it would give them a wrong message that does not need to work hard and earn money, and they might simply quit school and work on the streets.
- I would recommend a short visit to the Siem Reap Angkor National Museum, and going for the audio tour! The audio tour offers a lot of information about the tradition and history of the country which would benefit your visit to the temples.