Cambodia: The Majestic Temples in Siem Reap

by Carmen

This one's for all of you traveling couples out there! Carmen is featured from Two Cultures One Dream, a blog written by a multicultural couple (Carmen, from Peru and her travel partner Thomas, from Ireland) exploring the world, with particular interest in the history of the cities they visit. Check out their savvi experience in Cambodia.

~

I woke up when I heard the flight attendant announcement saying: “Welcome to Siem Reap International Airport”. For a moment, I thought that I was dreaming, as I always wanted to visit Cambodia. The Khmer Empire and culture has attracted me ever since I saw it the movie Tom Raider starring by Angelina Jolie. I wanted to see for myself these marvellous temples so I told Thomas to get a trip organised!

It was the first time for Thomas and I in Cambodia therefore we followed the instructions sent by our hotel and took a tuk-tuk from the airport. The ride to our hotel was 20 minutes, Tom chose a hotel away from the crowded area. We wanted a hotel with a pool, close to the main attractions (but not so close that we could hear the music of pubs and clubs), clean and affordable and this is exactly what we’ve got.

Cambodia is a country that is growing slowly and one of the main incomes of this country is tourism. I noticed that people tried to attend to the tourists the best they can. There is a lot to be improved in the country however, poverty is widespread and corruption in the government is damaging the country. Nevertheless, in general, Cambodians are very genuine, and are willing to help with all visitors’ questions with a smile. Most people in the tourism industry in Siem Reap speak good English, so you will not have a problem to get a beer or some food. In our hotel, we were welcomed with tea and sweet potato (my favourites!!).

After leaving our big bags in our room, I opened the curtains, grabbed my big hat and sun lotion, I was opening the door when I heard a voice….

Where are you going, Dora the explorer? you are forgetting to have breakfast first – Thomas said to me.….. He was right. I was so excited to be in Siem Reap and I did not want to miss anything that I completely forgot about our free breakfast.

After our lovely breakfast, we sat down by the pool to relax and we made a plan of what we wanted to see. The amount of temples in Siem Reap is overwhelming. It is better to prioritise the temples that you would like to visit because after three days visiting temples all day, you can finish templed out.

We had an arrangement with a tuk-tuk driver who worked for our hotel to bring us to the main temples for 15 USD per day. I cannot complaint, our driver was great, every time we where heading out from a temple, he was waiting for us with a bottle of water.

I can talk on and on about the temples in Cambodia and not even the pictures I took will do any justice to these amazing and important temples for Cambodian people and human history. But I will try my best to provide you with the important highlights of what we saw and my comments of what I thought of each one.

Highlights:

Important: To enter the temples, visitors must have a valid permit aka “Angkor Pass”. This pass may be purchased at the main entrance. For prices and how to get this pass, please see below.

 

Angkor Wat

It is one of the most famous temples in Siem Reap and the reason why most people head to this part of the world. Angkor Wat was built as a funerary temple and dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu in the 12th century by the King Suryavarman II. It is located to the north of Siem Reap and it can only be accessed through its west gate.

When looking at Angkor Wat from afar, it seems that the temple is located in one level but when you approach to the site, the temple has been built on a ramp, it has many chambers leading to different rooms or courtyards and everything is connected by hallways and staircases. The towers in the middle symbolically represent the five peaks of the Sacred Mountain of the Hindu gods, The Mount Meru. This mountain is considered to be the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology.

Inside Angkor Wat, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing, these marvellous bas-reliefs and sculptures depicting gods of the Hindu mythology, dancers and battle scenes were in every single wall and pillar in the temple. The volume of skilled craftsman that would have been required by the King to create these sculptures in stone is hard to imagine. The first thing that caught my eyes was that the majority of the sculptures in the walls are females. There are two types of females portrayed, Devatas and Apsaras.

The Devatas are beautiful goddesses carved into the stone, which stands still protecting the temple of Angkor Wat. They are facing forward and their smiles invites visitors to discover the secrets of these beautiful places. The Apsaras are dancer deities, they captivate with their elegance and eternal youth. They have been represented with different clothing, jewellery and headdress decoration.

The Angkor Wat we see today, it is not the same one as the one in the peak of the Khmer Empire. Over the years, Angkor Wat has changed. After the King Jayavarman II passed away, Angkor Wat was left unfinished. Many years later, buddhist monks arrived and in-habited Angkor Wat (this explains why the big statue of Vishnu has a Buddha head).

Besides, big trees and their massive roots have damaged some buildings and walls in the complex. Furthermore, in the 1980s, Khmer Rouge guerrillas invaded Angkor Wat, they decapitated the sculptures and sold their heads on the black market. If you have an eye for detail, you can notice the holes made by bullets in the walls. All these terrible events caused an enormous damage. However, currently the site is a UNESCO World heritage and archaeologists are trying to preserve and restore the site.

 

The four faces of Bayon temple

The second most visited temple is Angkor Thom (3.5 km from Angkor Wat), it was constructed in the late 12th century to early 13th century by a new King, Jayavarman VII. I loved this temple! and it became my favourite one. It was impressive to see the big differences with Angkor Wat. As I said previously, Angkor Wat was built primarily as a Hindu temple, however Angkor Thom, which was built after Angkor Wat, was built as a Buddhist temple.

When we stepped in the temple, the first thing we saw were these four two and half meter stone faces on top of 37 towers facing each of the four cardinal points.

These smiling faces are throughout the temple. Some towers have 4 faces, some other have only one. Looking at these faces inspired serenity, sympathy and peace, but…

Who is this man carved forever silent on the stone with his eyes closed? I asked to our guide.

Archeologist believed that the face depicts the image of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a deity in the Mahayana Buddhism. It is also thought by many due to similarities with his statues to be the portrait of King Jayavarman VII. We noticed that there was some Hindu symbols in the temple as well as some buddha statues looked restored (as if someone in the past broke them). Our guide explained that after a king passed away, his successor will “adjust” or change the temple to his personal religious beliefs and this is exactly what happened in Bayon. After the death of King Jayavarman VII, the next king Jayavarman VIII ordered the alteration of the temple to convert to Hinduism.

The galleries of the temple contain beautiful and detailed bas-reliefs depicting many different events, which occurred in the 12th century, and important accomplishments made by the King.

 

Ta Prohm (aka Tom Raider’s temple)

Located 3km from Angkor Wat, this buddhist temple was built by King Jayavarman VII in honour of his mother. The big silk cotton and strangler fig trees have taken over for this place and it has been left like this so visitors can see the power of the forest. This made us feel like if we were discovering the temple for the first time. Over the years, the roots of the trees has attached to the stone so firmly that it has broken some parts of the temple but at the same time helps to hold other parts of the temple together.

 

Pre-Rup temple

This temple is located south of East Mebon Temple and 9.3km from Angkor Wat. Built in the year 961 AD by King Rajendravarman as a place dedicated to god Shiva, a Hindu deity. Also, the name Pre-Rup means, “turn body” in Khmer, experts believe that this temple was used as a crematorium.

The best time to visit this temple is at sunrise or sunset. The temple becomes orange/red colour with the light of the sun. It is less crowded that Angkor Wat and from the upper terrace, it gives visitors amazing panoramic views. In the upper terrace, protecting the temple are seated lions carved on the stone.

However, to get to the upper terrace, we had to climb some steps, which were steep. That is why it is better to go very early in the morning or sunset to avoid the heat and this way it will be easy to get to the top, so drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and wear a good pair of shoes. Go at your own pace and people afraid of heights, you should go to the side of the temple and take the wooden stairs.

 

East Mebon

The most iconic elements of this temple are the elephants protecting the temple on each of their corners on the second platform. These statues are made from a single stone. This temple was built 952 AD by the King Rajendravarman II and it dedicated the temple to the god Shiva.

 

Baphuon temple and the great lying Buddha

The Baphuon was constructed mid 11th century by King Udayadityavarman II. This temple in a form of a pyramid was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  To reach the top level, you have to climb steep stairs.

However, in the late 15th century, the Baphuon was converted to a Buddhist temple. Buddhist monks built a 70-meter long statue of a reclining Buddha. (As shown in the picture below.) This place has been restored from the ruined state that it was left. You can find information about its restoration and it is amazing to see how they put back this temple together prior to opening it to the public.

 

See an Apsara dance

A trip to Cambodia is not completely until you see an Apsara Dance. You can find tours that include a buffet and dance show all included for 25 usd approximately. In our case, we were walking through the streets looking for something to eat when we found a place that offered free apsara dancing in Temple Club bar. The show starts at 7.30pm everyday. As mentioned previously, Apsaras are deities; beautiful females that come from heaven and with their dance entertain Gods and Kings. Apsaras are depicted throughout many temples in Siem Reap.

The show starts with 3 men playing typical music. Then a group of girls appear in gorgeous costumes with golden ornaments. The beauty of this dance is the way the girls move their hands, in slow motion but with a great flexibility in their fingers. Every move means something like an alphabet. This dance is very difficult, little girls start to learn this dance at a very young age to get the flexibility in their hands. An amazing experience not to be missed.

 

How to get the Angkor Wat Pass

  • To visit the Angkor Archeological Park, visitors must have a valid pass. The tickets can be obtained at the main ticket sales office in the Angkor Conservation Area (on Charles de Gaulle Road). This is the only entity that it is authorised to sell tickets. Your tuk-tuk or taxi driver will stop here and help you to purchase the tickets. Careful! Hotels, shops, etc are not authorised to sell Angkor tickets. The ticket sales office opens daily from 5 am until 5.30 pm.

  • The ticket is valid for all temples in Siem Reap area except Beng Mealea and Phnom Kulen, which are quite far, and these are the only two temples where a separate fee is required.
  • Do not loose your ticket, before you enter the monuments there are checkpoints to verify that the visitor have a valid ticket.
  • Passes can be purchased for 1 day(usd 20), 3 days (40 usd) that can be used for any 3 days within a week or 7 days (60 usd) to be used for any 7 days within a month. The pass is non refundable and the Cambodian driver or guide that you may bring with you has free entrance. The tickets can be paid in usd dollars (ideally), Cambodian Riel, Thai Baht or Euro. This pass comes with a photo that is taken in the ticket office with a webcam therefore the pass is not transferable.
  • We bought 3 days pass tickets to give us enough time to see the temples without rushing. In Angkor Wat and Bayon temples there are many things to see, our suggestion is to assign half a day for these temples to give yourself enough time to take pictures and walk around.

Suggestions:

  • Best time to visit Siem Reap is from November to January (peak season). We visited Cambodia in November and for us it was hot but comfortable enough to walk around. Very early in the morning, we had a cool breeze the same at night but between 10am to 3pm the sun was its best and hottest! Given that the temples are made of stone, the sun makes them very hot and the heat comes out even from the walls. That is why it is important to drink a lot of water. However, in this season prices can increase especially in December and January for hotels.
  • The peak season brings a lot of tourists but you can take nice pictures if you plan your trip carefully. Try to visit Angkor Wat very early in the morning or lunchtime. The tourist busses start appearing at 10am.
  • Lowest season is between May to October (rainy season). Travelling in this season means that you may have showers in the early morning and/or afternoon. Gear for rain will be required to walk through the temples. Hope our information was useful and it helps a little bit to know more about Cambodia or to book your next adventure.