Exploring Ankor

I have wanted to see the temples of Ankor for a long time.  Magazine articles celebrating the sheer volume of temples in the complex and the smallest of details in individual temples captured my imagination, and I hoped that someday I might be able to witness their magic in person.  If you had told my younger self that I would be merely twenty-five when I would have the opportunity to do so, I wouldn’t have believed you, but as the fates would have it, I was blessed to be able to travel for two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia after my most recent grant in Indonesia, and my sole stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, with the intention of finally seeing the temples and other structures of Ankor up close and personal.

My exploration of the temples actually began the days before I visited the complex, when I went to the Ankor Museum in Siem Reap.  I opted for the audio tour, and spent hours exploring the artifacts in the museum and listening to details of Ankor’s history.  The audio tour also drew my attention to details in the artifacts: markings that meant the statue had once been adorned with jewelry, and subtle differences in the forms of certain carvings that might give some idea as to when exactly the carving was made.  Armed with this information, I felt much more prepared to take in the wonders of Ankor.

So I bought a three-day pass[1], and began my journey.

Day One

My first day was my quietest day at the temple.  I rented a bike from my hostel, and headed around the edge of the main complex (a route known as the grand tour) to see some of the smaller temples.  I ended up biking almost thirty miles that day, so I must say that biking around this portion of Ankor is not for the faint of heart.  But though I definitely needed to stretch my muscles the next day, I wouldn’t have chosen another mode of transportation for this part of the trip.  Taking the bike slowed me down, and I was able to appreciate not only the temples, but also the long stretches of jungle, with monkeys resting on the side of the road and birdsong echoing through the trees.   On a remorque (the Cambodian word for tuk-tuk), much of this is missed.  And while by midday it was quite hot, in the early morning the air is cool and fresh, and after living in the polluted city of Jakarta for a year, I so appreciated this immensely.

I was able to visit four temples on my first day.  The first was Pre Rup, which was completely deserted when I arrived (most tourists start at the larger temples and only reach the smaller temples by midday).  Climbing up a temple in the early morning, with not another soul in sight, is truly a magical experience.  I also visited Neak Pean, a tiny temple floating in the middle of four pools, and Ta Som, a small temple tucked into the jungle, its entrance so easy to miss if you are not moving slowly.

1

Pre Rup, Neak Pean, and Ta Som.  

My favorite temple on my first day, and possible my favorite temple overall (it is so hard to choose), was Preah Khan.  The temple has seemingly endless corridors, parts of which are in excellent condition due to reconstruction, and parts of which are crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.  I spent hours wandering around the ruins, trying to take it all in, finding surprises around every corner.

2

Preah Khan. 

Day Two

I decided to hire a remorque (or more specifically, a moto-remorque) for my second day at the temples, because I wanted to visit one of the temples that was farther out, and I knew I wouldn’t quite have the energy to go by bike.  This was my first remorque ride since coming to Cambodia, which was exciting, but what really made the ride special was the driver, who spoke English well enough that we were able to strike up a conversation about the changes Ankor had undergone since tourism started taking off, the recent elections around Cambodia, and the art of growing up on farms on opposite sides of the world.

I started by day at Banteay Srei, a smaller monastery farther out from the main complex.  The temple itself is unassuming, but Banteay Srei is famous for its extraordinarily detailed carvings, which truly are a sight to see.

3

Banteay Srei.

My driver next took me to Ta Phrom, one of the more famous temples of Ankor, for the way the jungle is slowly overtaking the structure.  It truly was a beautiful place, and a reminder that nature does not care for even the most impressive of mankind’s creations, and will always take back what it hers.  It was also the busiest temple I visited that day, because it is one of the more popular sites to visit.  The contrast was palatable between Ta Phrom, covered in tourists, and the other smaller, quieter temples I had seen.  But it was still wonderful to visit.

4

Ta Phrom.

Next we stopped at a few other smaller temples.  Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda sit right across from one another, and are surprisingly still relatively intact.  Ta Keo towers towards the sky in a pyramid-like shape, but its walls are surprisingly bare.  According to my driver, its carvings were apparently taken by various countries to be placed in museums: because it is a smaller temple, it was not seen as being as important to preserve as some of the larger temples in the complex.  Ta Keo is what is left over after displays of beautiful carvings are put together at museums.

5

Ta Keo, Thommanom, and Chau Say Thevoda.  

I ended my second day at Ankor Wat, probably the main attraction at the Ankor complex.  Ankor Wat is incredible, and has everything someone interested in ancient temples could dream of: the temple itself is massive, and almost completely restored to its former glory through reconstruction.  The carvings within the temple are beautifully detailed: the Churning of the Sea of Milk is simply amazing, and I spent quite a bit of time walking up and down its lengths.  I went during midday, which meant the site was relatively quiet, as most tourists were eating lunch, and I was thankful to feel as though I could explore this temple at the pace I chose, rather than being pushed forward by large tours.  Because the temple was relatively deserted, my quiet footsteps echoed down the corridors of the temple, and it was easy to feel as though I had been transported back in time, and that I might meet King Suryavarman II and his train around any corner.  A storm approached as I was ending my visit to Ankor Wat, which only made the temple all the more majestic.

6

Ankor Wat.

Day Three

My final day at Ankor began with sunrise at Ankor Wat.  The temple was packed with other tourists, but that didn’t stop the sunrise from being absolutely incredible.

7

Ankor Wat at sunrise.  

I then spent the better part of the morning exploring the Ankor Thom complex, including the famous Bayon, with its many smiling enigmatic faces, Baphuon, Phimeankas, Terrace of the Leper Kings, Terrace of the Elephants, and Prasats Suor Prat, which most tourists just passed on by, but which were actually quite lovely to walk among.  Even hundreds of years after it’s fall, Ankor Thom remains an impressive city, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like in its prime.

8

A few of the sites within Ankor Thom: Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeankas, and the Terrace of the Elephants.

I ended my time at Ankor with a brief visit to Banteay Kdei, another monastery, and with a refreshing coconut by Sras Srang, an incredible reflecting pool.

9

Two views of Banteay Kdei (left and right) and Sras Srang (center).

The sky was blue and the clouds a perfect work of art (the weather had been blessedly clear during my visit to Ankor), and I enjoyed just sitting by the water, reflecting on all I had seen during my three days at Ankor.  It’s still a little unbelievable that I had the privilege to see such a place, and I am incredibly thankful that I could do so.

 

[1] A lot of people planning to visit the region have asked me which ticket they should get, and while everyone has different goals for their travel, I can say that I was really happy with my choice.  I would spend my mornings at the temples, returning to Siem Reap around one or two o’clock, and then exploring the city.  This allowed me to more fully take in the sites, and not feel overwhelmed by temples.  And throughout the three days I explore Ankor, I was able to visit seventeen separate sites (if you count the structures within Ankor Thom separately), which, for the price of 62 U.S. dollars, seems to be a fair deal to me.

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