Sunrise is an hour away as I make my way along the wide pathway to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world located just north of Siem Reap. I am joined by 15 other Exodus Travels tourists and our guide Vanney. On the edge of a reflecting pool hundreds of other visitors jockey for position to get the best photo of the sun rising over the temple.
Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century. Estimated construction time is 30 years. Built by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu god, it later became a Buddhist temple.
Time passes quickly as I chat with other tour members, all from America and the United Kingdom and all friendly, funny and curious about the past and this spectacular 900-year-old, religious destination.
Although it is cloudy, the sun offers a few streaks of tangerine, gold and crimson. As soon as the light transforms into bright yellow sunshine, we all follow our guide to the temple.
Monkeys dart everywhere stealing whatever food they can snatch from unsuspecting visitors. The beauty of the temple, its unbelievable intricacy and preservation are awe inspiring. Through the first temple, we come out again to yet another. The final temple is the most elaborate with swimming pools on two floors. Buddhist monks bless visitors, tourists click off thousands of pictures and everyone wonders at its very existence.
Our bus drops us off so we can walk along a causeway leading to an entry tower. On the right are 54 frowning demons and on the left 54 smiling gods guarding the city of Angkor Thom. Many of the heads stolen over time, have been replaced with contemporary sculpture offering the illusion of another time although motorcycles, tuk tuks, cars and buses slowly cross the bridge.
Each of the temple’s five entry towers is equally impressive. Each tower stands 75-feet-high and is adorned with four heads representing the rulers of the four cardinal points at the summit of Mount Meru in Hindu mythology.
Back on the bus with the others, we head deeper into the complex.
The last capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom was a fortified city of priests, officials of the palace and the military as well as buildings for administering the kingdom. As amazing as the gates are, imagine several towers, each with four faces looking down from their lofty perch. For sure-footed visitors, there are stairs enabling them to climb to an equally high perch.
Another feature is the vast walls of intricate carvings; so deep they have stood the test of time. Scenes portrayed offer a glimpse into everyday life as well as religious symbols and mythology.
The jungle has encroached on Ta Prohm creating a beauty all its own. I arrived explorers mid-day, although inside the temple, because of the massive trees shadowing it, it seems much later; almost dusk-like. Used in the filming of both “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Indiana Jones,” the temple is almost Disney-like in its reflection of what I always imagined the Cambodian temples would be like.
Tree roots snake along and into the Buddhist temple walls. Many artifacts were stolen, but a keen eye reveals the most intricate of carvings, doorways and passageways. The temple is simply remarkable.
Weaving along narrow corridors and into nearly hidden courtyards, I find visitors less gregarious; more concentrated on the surrounding beauty of a temple slowly being overtaken by the jungle. This is a destination of contemplation and awe-inspiring beauty.
The 39 towers are connected by numerous galleries. Exploring the labyrinth is like entering another world; another dimension. Its intimacy is like no other Cambodian temple.
From Angkor Wat, it is about 45 minutes by bus to Banteay Srei, a beautiful 10th century Hindu temple complex. Banteay Srei — Citadel of Women — is made of deep red sandstone and takes on a deep pink glow in the afternoon sunlight. Low walls, its relatively small size and the intricately carved scenes of Hindu tales are welcoming.
Completed in 967, Banteay Srei remained in use until at least the 14th century. It is the only major temple at Angkor not built for the king. It was actually constructed by one of king Rajendravarman’s counsellors, Yajnyavahara and dedicated to Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. The temple was rediscovered in 1914.
Vanney explained the center doorway was reserved for the king and the two much smaller ones for everyone else. Because of its small size, we all walked, more or less, in a square around the many peaked structures in the center of the square, photographing buildings, doorway arches and carved reliefs. Decoration covers almost every available surface.
Every temple has its own personality, built to honor different factions of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Each is a three-dimensional window into the rich history of Cambodia.
Check out this article on Vietnam and Cambodia.