You may have heard about the stunning temple complex of Ankor Wat, a must-visit if you’re visiting Cambodia. I was so excited to explore the complex with a great guide and see beyond just the first temple – it was one of the few things I knew I had to see in Cambodia.
From Siem Reap we made an early start to reach Ankor Wat for sunrise. A note about that, by the way – it is damn crowded at the main Ankor Wat temple at sunrise, it’s packed with people with cameras and iPads, people smoking, chatting, it’s not quite as magical as a tour guide might lead you to believe. However, it is still worth the trip. I’d buy a ticket for two days to fit everything in without fully exhausting yourself; we had to do everything we could in one, but that’s fine too, it’s just a long day. So, if you can find that space where no one else is or just a bit of inner peace then the sunrise is delightful and it’s an experience I’m pretty sure I won’t get twice in a lifetime. The change in light isn’t as dramatic as I had imagined but it’s still lovely to watch the orange and pale pink of the sky stretch slowly, almost with a yawn, over the bizarre lotus silhouette; a shape so unfamiliar compared to the architecture I’m normally faced with.
My favourite bit at the main temple was just after sunrise though. Lots of tourists just seem to leave, at about 7 am we were nearly the only people on this particular part of the temple complex and it was reasonably cool. I could have sat down and meditated it was that blissful.
Now, that really is worth going for. Right after sunrise, stay up, push through, and head straight into the temple for a look before the midday heat takes hold. In the cool shadows of the temple you might find a monk, sitting peacefully, clad in orange and giving out blessings; they are supposed to live their lives by 127 principles, I’m not sure I can even live mine by three or four. You will definitely find some interesting architecture. Carvings along entire sides of the temple, depicting the life and battles of a king, everywhere carvings pop up of a girl, with various different hair cuts, always dancing, and there is a room full of headless Budhas – a bit macabre really – which were decapitated when the Budhists were at some point in the past forced out of the temple and it was taken over. Temples are built, apparently, according to multiples of three, so every length of every wall and every size of every courtyard fits numerically into the pattern. One of the best things about this place is how tangible it is; you’re allowed to touch, to climb (within reason), to sit and to really experience the history – try touching a stone and thinking about how long that has been there, and who dragged it there for their king and then carved it so beautifully by hand. It’s surreal.
The second temple we visited was the Jungle Temple, of Indianna Jones fame.
This was busy, so busy, and the amount of tour groups pushing and shoving for photos almost spoilt the experience for me. There was lots of preservation work and scaffolding while I visited but much of the temple is still piles of rubble, left there for so long vegetation has begun to take hold. Roots of trees stretch over walls and yearn down towards the soil, majestic smooth roots stretch up like giant legs before the trunk has even begun. The trees are weirdly suspended, like they just landed as they are on top of the wall and the roots fell down from there. Here you can find a lot of butterflies and dragonflies in the shade, the butterflies in this part of Asia are gorgeous with generous wings and a graceful, slow gait through the air, much richer and more exotic colours than at home. We clambered through this temple, over piles of ancient stone, and out the other side at a fairly brisk pace to save us from boiling.
Then we drove on through the complex, which is home to literally hundreds of temples and holy sites, although most people only know the one ‘Ankor Wat’ temple which you find on the silhouette post cards. The roads are dusty but large, low rivers intersect the land, buffalo mooching around in the shallows and on the banks, monkeys peering at you from the tree line; you can stop anywhere here and it will be beautiful. We take a few minutes to walk across an intricate bridge, just more rocks with faces carved, surveying all angles, faces which have been watching the world for longer than we can imagine. The contrast as you look around is amazing – the water and the deep forest looks like it must be so cool, but the rocks look so hot and bare, and you can’t imagine what cool must feel like.
Ankor Thom is our final temple of the day. It’s built more in the style of the first temple rather than the jungle temple, which was hidden in the depths of the forest and had become a part of the landscape. This is in a clearing, the a kind of mountain of temple in the middle and a gallery-like portion stretching either side (there must be a technical term for this kind of temple but …).
The mound in the middle is made of vary heights of column and tower, each with a myriad of faces carved on almost every available rock face. You are constantly watched here; sometimes but a smiling or peaceful Budha, and sometimes but a less benign looking stare. Again the intricacy of the carvings, the amount of doorways and archways and the steep design make me wonder, who had the task of making this masterpiece of architecture? In which king’s name were so many thousands of tonnes of stone lovingly arrange to create something that would see him remember well into the centuries to come?