26.07.2013 36 °C
Now in Cambodia I’ve decided to stay in the charming town of Siem Reap for a spell. From here I can explore the vast Angkor temple complexes nearby.
This town famous in the 1960’s as the place to be in Southeast Asia and frequented by the rich and famous. Now after a quiet 4 decades it’s on the up again and becoming a huge tourist attraction, mainly for the nearby temples. Tourist numbers are exploding here and doubling every couple of years, last year saw over 2 million visitors. There are now more hotels than temples and when I arrived was surprised at the amount of very high end 5 & 6 star hotels I passed.
Cambodia is an ex French Colony (protectorate to be precise) and their influence is noticeable in Seam Reap from the architecture of the buildings to the naming of the boulevards. This laid back charming town also has a slow running river winding its way through the centre, making it feel like you could be in French Provence. I’ve had the best coffee so far here, from one of the many cafés sprawling onto the streets, I feel this must be a French legacy also.
I’m slowly getting my head around the currency. US dollars and Riel are used openly together here but there are no US coins so when you break a dollar you get Riel notes in change. This seems to be general practice but Riel of any amount is also happily accepted, working out the exchange rates can be a bit of a headache but you get used to it pretty quickly. Also the ATM’s all spit out dollars. The mind boggles how they keep both these currencies in open circulation together.
I have to tell you a little bit about the history of this Kingdom, as I find it extraordinary. Cambodia is the land of the Khmer and has a very long and grand history. Way back in the 9th century the Khmer people built the most impressive empire the region has ever seen, which at its zenith dominated Southeast Asia and encompassed modern day Thailand, South Vietnam and Laos. It was comparable to Rome at its height. They built the massive temple complex around their huge capital city of Angkor which at its height had a population of over 1 million, this when London was just a small backwater town. Similar to the Roman Empire they build a massive road system radiating out from Angkor, some stretching a thousand miles. The massive population was sustained by a huge complex irrigation system which can still be seen today. This splendour lasted for 4 centuries before starting decline after the 13th century, neighbouring empires then started chipping away at their land.
More recently the Khmer people have been through hell and back witnessing some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. After the French left and after a series of revolutions saw the communist Khmer Rouge come into power, allied to the Vietcong in North Vietnam they performed genocide on the population and left the country in famine, and during the Vietnam war the secret bombing of the East by the US saw more bombs dropped in during their 14 month campaign than all the bombs dropped by allied forces during World War II, unexploded ordinance still litters the country here and you should be very careful wondering off designated paths.
But now the Khmer people are rising again and prosperity is returning to this lovely country. It’s still a 1 party communist kingdom but now part of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and open to investment and foreign trade. Cambodia, along with Vietnam, is one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
As for religion, Theravada Buddhism has been dominant since the 13th century. Before this however, Hinduism was the main religion and you can see this transformation clearly in the temples of Angkor. Some have a fusion of Hindu and Buddhism styles which is quite interesting, whilst other early Hindu temples have been rebuilt into Buddhist temples.
The temple complexes here are truly vast, I’ve given myself 3 days to try and explore as much as possible but it would take weeks to see everything. Today I will start with Angkor Wat, the 8th wonder of the world and the most impressive temple of them all being the largest religious building in the world.
A short 7km tuk tuk ride north from Siem Reap brings you to Angkor Wat, the nearest temple. As I approached this massive mote came into view. The temple is surrounding by a large rectangular mote 3.6km long by 190m wide that would put any medieval European castle builder to shame.
The temple itself was built in the 12th century and contains two basic Khmer temple building plans, which I’ve noticed are common throughout the temples here, the temple mountain and the galleried temple. The mountain represented at Angkor Wat is Mount Meru, home of devas in Hindu mythology. The galleried temple usually has a passageway running along the wall of an enclosure or along the axis of a temple, often open to one or both sides. With Angkor Wat half galleries were used to buttresses the structure.
As I walked over the mote pathway to the entrance the place was crawling with tourists and the temperature was getting pretty hot. The temples are surrounded by jungle and in the humidity it gets very sticky, add to that the walking and clambering up and down stairs and I was soon soaked in sweat.
There are significant walls running along the inside of the vast mote creating this large courtyard or grounds and the temple itself is one of many structures within this enclosure. Entrances come in from the east and west over the mote, this is unique as all other Khmer temples have north-south entrances, no one knows why. The temple outer enclosure wall is impressive at 1024 by 802 m and 4.5 m high wall and is made from huge carved stone blocks.
Inside the main enclosure you’re presented with the central structure which stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last, walls are adorned with bas-relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu epics.
The sheer size of this monument takes your breath away. They used enormous amounts of sandstone, as much as a pyramid in Egypt and over 5 million tons all transported from Mount Kulen 25 miles away. In modern times it’s estimated it would take 300 years effort to construct this temple but originally in the 12th century it took a mere 40 years!
After spending several hours exploring Angkor Wat I headed off to a nearby by hill about 2km away to experience the sunset on the Phnom Bakheng, a temple on the only real hill in the area giving views over the surrounding jungle and temples. Phnom Bakheng is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and was built in the 9th century.
At sunset it attracts crazy amounts of tourists and they limit numbers to 300 so I headed up early around 4:30pm. It’s well elevated but I was a little disappointed I couldn’t see more through the surrounding trees and they didn’t allow me to put up my tripod. However you can get a peek of Angkor Wat through a gap in the trees and it’s worth the climb just for the temple.