Temple Tour Two: “Small circuit” of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Cycling around the town:

The really rough road from the hotel to the downtown area is being repaired by road crews dressed in cotton balaclavas with added neck pieces to protect against the sun. It’s hot and dusty and the street is covered with gravel and  full of huge potholes, a menace at night but relatively easy to avoid during the day. Ty and I grabbed the hotel’s two rickety old upright bicycles to explore the town of Siem Reap. Because it’s flat here, the ride is easy as far as exertion goes, but the traffic takes a bit of getting used to. No-one obeys the rules of the road so we just had to go with the flow, never stopping at stop signs or red lights, just weaving through the traffic, accelerating when necessary to get out of a bigger vehicle’s way. We pedalled past the Old Market and along the riverside to Wat Preah Ang, a five hundred year old temple complex in the middle of town where an even bigger, newer temple is in the process of being constructed.

The temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have made Siem Reap a very wealthy town, wealth which is very much in evidence at this temple where the ancient and modern coexist harmoniously. Extensive topiary gardens with sculptures, gold-covered chedis, several temple buildings with glittering decoration, and the seemingly obligatory kitchy statues of little deer, birds, and women adorning the gardens testify to the general well-being of the community. We watched for a bit as several men tiled the steeply-pitched roof of the new building in the blazing 35 degree heat.

We then crossed over the river and visited Wat Bo, also an old complex but not as richly appointed. The orange-robed monks looked at us with expressionless faces and the temple dogs came out barking and bristling as we were getting our bikes so we beat a hasty retreat – easy to tell when we’re not welcome!

From Wat Bo, we cycled along the river past the Royal Residence, then back again, stopping to look at the beautiful infrared photographs of temples by John McDermott installed at a gallery in the FCC riverside complex.


We arranged for a two tuk-tuk convoy and a guide for the “small circuit”, beginning with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Up at 4:30 am for a 5 am departure, we, along with lots of other people in tuk-tuks, cars, vans, buses, and bikes, made the pilgrimage out to Angkor Wat in the dark. We stood on one of the gate’s ledges for a bit as the sky began to lighten and headed down to the reflecting pool for the actual sunrise, a non-event with a fart of yellow and red sky between darkish clouds. Our guide told us that the sunrise had not been good the whole month … oh well, at least it got us up and out the door early for what proved to be a long day of temple-trekking. Our itinerary covered, as well as Angkor Wat itself, the main temples in Angkor Thom, the “king’s city”. (The source for much of the information below on the historical and cultural context of Angkorian temples is the Lonely Planet – our guide, while knowledgeable, spoke an English that was sometimes difficult to understand).

Angkor Wat (early-mid 12th c ce Hindu/Buddhist), the temple of the King, is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level, representing Mount Mera in the Himalayas, the abode of the gods in Hinduism.

At the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the region, Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the form of a massive ‘temple-mountain’ dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It served as his state temple, though the temple’s uncommon westward orientation has led some to suggest that it was constructed as Suryavarman II’s funerary temple.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters. The temple itself is 1 km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings, including most memorably nearly 2000 distinctively rendered apsara (dancing women) carvings.

On the lower level the exterior walls display enormous bas-reliefs depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and the historical wars of Suryavarman II. Highlights include the mythological Battle of Kuru on the west wall; the historical march of the army of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, against the Cham, followed by scenes from Heaven and Hell on the south wall, and the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ on the east wall. Some of the carvings were quite hard to make out, while others were dark and shiny as a result of being rubbed over the years by hordes of tourists (it’s quite easy to tell which images interest people from their relative darkness; for example, the breasts of the dancing women). Some are also stained red with rouge, used as a protective covering.

At the upper-most level of the temple, accessed by a staircase guarded by employees who check for offensive clothing (shoulders and knees must be covered and sarongs or scarves are not acceptable, to Christine’s dismay), the central tower houses four Buddha images, each facing a different cardinal point. Although Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple, it has served as a Buddhist temple since Buddhism became Cambodia’s dominant religion in the 14th century.

After wandering around the vastness of Angkor Wat, we had a somewhat mediocre breakfast in one of the many temple restaurants, and then rolled onward to Angkor Thom through a huge parkland area of grass and trees.

Angkor Thom (Big Angkor 12th – 13th c ce Buddhist) is a three kilometer square walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor’s greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon, set at the center of the city.

There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with four giant faces and the one through which we entered had a bridge decorated with demi-god and demon figures playing tug-of-war with a giant naga serpent, representing the struggle between the forces of good and evil in Hindu mythology.

Within Angkor Thom we saw the following:

Baphuon (mid 11th c Hindu) a huge temple-mountain in the heart of Angkor Thom, currently being restored, which has a rear brick wall in the form of a gigantic reclining Buddha.

Bayon (late 12th c ce Buddhist), a temple with thirty-seven standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

Bayon was the Jayavarman VII’s state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham, as well as scenes from everyday life.

Phimeanakas (late 10th-early 11th c Hindu), a sandstone pyramid located inside the ancient Royal Palace compound, serving as the king’s temple. According to legend the golden tower crowning the temple was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman.

The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.

Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King (late 12th c). The former is a two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area.

Nearby is the Terrace of the Leper King, named for the statue of the ‘Leper King’ that sits on top. Why the statue is known as the ‘leper king’ is a matter of debate. Some argue that when the statue was found, its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of leprosy.

Others have suggested that it is a statue of the leper king of Khmer legend, or that the condition of the statue inspired its connection to the legend.

Ta Prohm (12th – 13th c Buddhist), a temple in the jungle intentionally left partially unrestored; within the walls massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors.

Dedicated to the king’s mother, Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting of control over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff, and vast stores of jewels and gold. It is now most well-known as one of the sites in the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider.

After an epic nine hour day, we were driven back to the hotel and deposited in an almost senseless heap by the pool to recover.

See more pics here.