Angkor Wat (Khmer for “Temple City”) is not only one of the largest religious monuments in the world (spreading out over 500 acres) but one of the most recognisable. Built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th Century it is believed to have taken 30 years to build; and was not only the Kings state temple and capital city but a Hindu monument to Vishnu as well. It converted to Theravada Buddhism in the latter part of the 13th century and as you look at the stone walls, you can see where many of the engraved Buddha’s faces were scratched off hundreds of years ago by Buddhists trying to lessen its links to Hinduism. The first level of Angkor Watt is engraved with Bas reliefs stretching over 1200 metres long, measuring 7 feet from top to bottom. Various historical scenes are depicted, from the battle of Kurukshetra in the West gallery to the Armies of King Soryavaman in the South, as well as the Judgement by Yama – Heaven and Hell. The most famous however is the story of the “Churning of the ocean milk” in the East gallery
“The Ocean of Milk is churned by gods and demons to generate Amrta, the elixir of life. the purpose of the churning is to recover lost treasures such as the sourer of immortality, Laksmi the goddess of good fortune, the milk white elephant of Indra, and the nymph of loveliness. The retrieval of these objects symbolizes prosperity. It takes place during the second ascent of Visnu, when he is incarnated as a tortoise”
The quote here is taken from the Cambodian Tourist board website although we had learned a little about this at the National Museum the previous day (I would definitely recommend a visit to the museum before you visit the temples)
1.7 km away is the “Great City” of Angkor Thom. Built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, it has the state temple of Bayon at its centre. Bayon was my favourite of the temples we saw. Built around 100 years after Angkor wat, it was the last of the state temples to be built and the only one to be dedicated initially to Buddhism. Consisting of 54 towers, over 2000 Bodhisattva faces are engraved into the stone walls and it is truly an amazing place to visit. The lower levels also showcase more of the dancing lady “Asparas” we saw at Angkor wat, some of which have been brushed over by so many visiting hands that the stones seem to gleam and shine in the sunlight as they would have first done when they were built all those years ago.
Ta Prohm (or the Jungle temple) is one of the most picturesque of the temples, and has remained largely untouched since its discovery with huge trees seemingly growing into the rocks. Walking around you truly feel as if you are the first person to have stumbled across its grounds in centuries and our guide took us on such a route it felt as if we were the only people there for much of our trip. These days it is probably most well known for its starring role in the Tomb Raider film.
The best time to visit the temple complex is early morning and in an attempt to beat the crowds our guide picked us up from the hotel at 8am and we made the 5km trip to the temple site in good time (The temples are open earlier than this and if you were to go at 6am or so I am sure you could see most of the main sites before most other people start arriving). Once there you pay a small fee ($20 per person, per day or $40 for 2-3 days) and have an electronic photo taken which is then printed onto your personal ticket that you must keep with you for the duration of your visit to the temples and present where requested, to the guards around the site. As it is a religious monument, it is best to dress modestly, shoulders and upper arms should be covered and shorts/trousers should come down to at least your knees. The steps leading to the top of the main tower in Angkor wat itself are very steep so I would advise against wearing skirts/dresses unless you want top give the person behind you an eyeful! Comfortable shoes are also a must as you can walk for miles around the complex and the stones and stairs can be slippery for those without good grips. There are plenty of people selling drinks around the sites so it is important to remain hydrated although you should think twice about purchasing anything from the numerous children proffering gifts there, as our guide put it so succinctly “they should be a school, buying from them gives them no incentive to get a much needed education” Mosquito repellent and sunblock are another two essentials you shouldn’t go without, and of course your camera! Whilst you can arrange to see the temples on your own, the size of the complex and the rich history means that you are far better off to use the services of a tour guide which you can arrange through most hotels for around $40 for a day.