Cambodia really touched our hearts when we visited in 2010. So much so that we returned 2 years later for part of our Honeymoon. Claire is always reluctant to return to places we have previously visited, but for Cambodia our return was brilliant and a valuable lesson that covering old ground can be worthwhile.
What really makes Cambodia special are the people. The Khmer people of Cambodia are wonderfully friendly and they have such a gentle welcoming nature. We have travelled extensively and have always found people to be friendly the world over. But, for me, the Khmer people are the best hosts.
They are also immensely proud of their country. During the Khmer Rouge times they endured terrors beyond comprehension and since then much of the country continues to live in poverty. But what they are most proud of is their history further back in time.
For a few hundred years the Khmer people were a powerhouse in this part of the world. At its height, around 1150ad, their empire consisted of modern day Cambodia as well as parts of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. They dominated and assimilated their neighbours. Recent scientific discoveries have revealed that the city around Angkor was, at its height, the largest pre industrial city to have ever existed.
This is an incredible achievement. Cambodia is in many ways a hostile environment. It is ruthlessly hot, it floods for a large part of the year and insects spread diseases easily. So to create such an immense city in these circumstances took some very advanced thinking.
To feed their million or more people they mastered hydraulics. They built an ingenious network of canals, reservoirs and dykes. During the rainy season water was stored, mostly in 2 immense reservoirs. The East and West Barays. Measuring around 7km by 2.5km, these two reservoirs held enough water so that despite the long dry season the empire could have up to 4 rice harvests every year, thus enabling them to feed their huge population.
Very little of the city remains. The day to day buildings were wooden so have long since disappeared. The reservoirs remain though, and the West Baray still functions and is used to this day. But the lasting legacy of this once great empire is their religious buildings. The temples at Angkor, of which there are hundreds, survive in various states of delightful ruin.
It is the temples that draw in the tourists. It is the temples that I come to see. It is the temples that may bore you senseless, but tough. I love them.
My hotel in Siem Reap was as flash as my Virgin flight. A perk of working in the travel industry. But, I declined the offer of an air conditioned car and opted for a tuktuk for my 2 full days at the temples. This is how we explored in 2010 and 2012, and despite the dust and fumes it remains the best way to explore Angkor.
The hotel arranged for me to be driven by one of their tuktuk drivers. He was a lovely guy but his English was very limited. This isn’t a criticism, but as I speak no Khmer at all it did make for confusion.
Must people undertake tours via the official routes around the main temples, which is what we did in 2010. It took quite some time for me to explain that I didn’t want to do this because I had visited before, and that I wanted to see specific temples.
But we got there in the end and I started off with a drive past Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the temples and it is truly awesome. A much overused word, but not in this case.
The size is hard to fathom at first as it is spread over a huge area. The temple itself is the largest religious monument in the world. It was never fully abandoned so unlike most of the other temples it is in relatively good condition.
We then drove into the walled city of Angkor Thom. This was the beating heart of the Khmer Empire for much of its existence. It housed the Royal Palace and a number of important temples. At the very centre of the city lies the The Bayon, a masterpiece. This temple was the greatest to be built during the reign of the most famous king of Angkor, Jayavarman VII. At first glance it looks like a pile of rocks, but gradually the details start to emerge. Huge stone faces on every tower. Galleries and steps. It is incredibly striking and great fun to explore.
When The Bayon was first built its many towers and faces were decorated with gold tiles. It was described by Chinese visitors in the 14th century as a mountain of gold.
When we visited previously our driver got us here early and we enjoyed it in the company of only a handful of other tourists. This time it was busy. So I climbed to the top and then descended to move on.
Most visitors to Angkor Thom will only visit the main temples. But Claire and I previously discovered that the areas between the main temples are awash with smaller temples, ponds and bathing pools and terraces. A stroll around Angkor Thom is brilliant.
I was so excited to be coming back to Cambodia that I spent a lot of time researching. Within Angkor Thom lies a huge bathing pond that once sat within the Royal Palace. It’s not on the way to anywhere else and as a result few people visit and there is very little information online.
This is it on Google maps. It is the blue area shaped like a t-shirt.
Reaching it was pretty easy. A well used but rather rugged pathway led most of the way.
When I arrived, I was amazed at the scale of this pond. Hopefully this video works.
The only residents were a few water buffalo and some birds. No other people, and, a sign of how little it is visited, very little litter.
Quiet moments like this are not easy to find at Angkor. The main temples are now incredibly busy, but a theme of my visit this time was to find the best quiet spots (and then share them on the internet, thus making them less quiet. The irony of travel blogging).
So I repeated a route Claire and I walked in 2012. I first visited Baphoun, the huge temple that was taken apart in the 1960s to prevent its collapse. Careful records were keep so that it could be rebuilt. Then the Khmer Rouge swept to power and destroyed the records. When the Khmer Rouge were driven out one of the greatest jigsaw puzzles of all time began. Here it is now.
Then I moved on to Phimeanakas. This smaller temple is where the king is said to have spent the first part of his nights. Something to do with sleeping with a snake woman. I lose interest when it all gets a bit religious. It is however a lovely pyramid style temple.
The I crossed over to the eastern half of the city to explore the small towers, temples and ponds. This is a really peaceful place to be and even on the busiest days few people come here.
The second photo is the view over towards the quiet area, taken from The Terrace of the Lepper King. The towers are thought to have been some kind of prison.
The city of Angkor Thom has 5 gates allowing entry to and exit from the city. The North, West and South gates. And then on the east side the Victory Gate and the Gate of the Dead. These are the only ways in and out of the city. All but the Gate of the Dead is open to traffic. I went to find this one on foot.
The gates are all a visual treat. Built in the same style as The Bayon, they each have the same faces pointing in the cardinal directions.
This is the Gate of the Dead, with nothing but a dirt track leading through it.
Note the faces and the elephants down low on either side.
It is easily the most picturesque of the five gates, and an easy walk from The Bayon (about 20 minutes) or from the Victory Gate by walking south along the city wall. I saw only a couple of tourists here and a Cambodian family with a crying toddler that made me miss home.
If you look at the second picture, close to the camera you can see some stones on top of each other and leaning together. This is known as corbolling. Despite clearly trading with foreign cultures (pottery and coins from China and Greece have been found) the Khmers never discovered the arch. Corbolling was their solution and it is widespread. Not surprisingly it is not the most stable way of building, and in many cases has collapsed. Though given that the temples are nearly 1000 years old that can be forgiven.
I walked back via the Victory Gate, which looks similar but with a tarmac road and a prossession of tuktuks, cars and tourists. Then I headed back to my tuktuk to go and catch sunset.
Sunrise and sunset are big events at Angkor. The shadows, low light and colourful sky make for an impressive spectacle.
I chose the hilltop temple Phnom Bakheng. Claire and I experienced sunset here in December 2010 on our very first day at the temples. At that time the were no restrictions as to how many people climbed the temple. To make that more fun the original steps had to be used. They were build steeply to make the act of climbing more humbling for the occasional monk. It was a crowded affair and climbing down was terrifying, as these photos from 2010 show.
Those stairs are probably close to 70 degrees in steepness, with very shallow steps and few places to hold on to. Imagine if somebody at the top fell.
Upon arrival I was delighted to see that not only had the authorities built a nice wooden stairway with handrails, but they also limited visitors to only 300 at any one time. I was lucky and got pass number 299 at what is the busiest time of day for this temple.
When I got to the top the views were as impressive as I remembered. The plains of Angkor are mostly flat, so the three hills, of which this is one, were very important.
Great sloping photographs. I’m certainly consistent. In the second shot you can see part of the monstrously huge West Baray reservoir.
After a while I got bored. This wasn’t the sunset experience I wanted and I had experienced it before, so I decided to descend. On reaching the top of the stairs I saw a queue of around 100 people, waiting in the hope that somebody would descend and hand back a pass.
All eyes were on me. I gestured downwards, seeming to question whether I should descend. A chorus of “yes!” rang out. I turned away, pretending to change my mind. An even larger chorus of “Noooo!” was directed toward me. After a brief pause I started to climb down to cheers, and upon reaching the bottom I was greeted with rapturous applause.
Sometimes it isn’t the main event that brings the most joy.