At the beginning of last February (and when the coronavirus was just starting to make headlines) just starting to make the news) we were making our way east to Vietnam. The Angkor complex was our most important stop in Cambodia so we took a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. We stayed for four nights before taking a bus onward to Phenom Penh. This gave us three full days exploring the many temple complexes around Angkor.
Until we started doing the tour, it was difficult to get a sense of how spread out the various temples were. An international team of researchers used satellite photographs and other techniques to conclude that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world. They believe it had an elaborate infrastructure that connected an urban area of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core.
We booked a guide through our hotel for the first two days and then paid our guide directly for the third day so we could reach some of the temples further afield from the main sights. Each morning our driver would be waiting outside out hotel in his tuk-tuk, and he did an excellent job taking us from place to place at our own pace.
After stopping at the ticket counter to purchase our 3-day park passes, our driver took us to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples.
Built by the Khmer King Suryavarman, it was unusual because it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu rather than Shiva. By the 12th century it had been converted into a Buddhist temple which continued until the present. The temple is so central to Cambodia it is a prominent part of the country’s national flag.
As the tuk-tuk approached the complex, we saw the huge moat that surrounded the main part of Angkor Wat. We walked across the causeway to enter.
There were a few small buildings in the huge open spaces in front of the main temple complex.
Whenever we left a building we were met by open spaces and other structures beyond. It was like an endless maze with new discoveries around every corner.
After visiting Angkor Wat we were driven to nearby Ta Prohm temple. Dating from the late 12th century, it was originally called Rajavihara (royal monastery). Founded by King Jayavaram VII, it functioned as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. It has been more or less left in the same condition in which it was found.
One of the most striking things about Ta Prohm is the way the huge Banyan trees have grown out of the ruins. Some might recognize it as a filming location for the original Tomb Raider film.
From Ta Prohm we went to Banteay Kdei through the eastern gate. This temple has only partially been restored and was built from a poorer quality of sandstone. It was, however, occupied by monks all the way up to the 1960s!
Having no tall structures and with many missing roofs, it gave this site a different feel. It was quiet with few tourists around as we passed through.
Next we went to Ta Keo, a short distance from Ta Prohm. Possibly the first Khmer structure built entirely out of sandstone, Ta Keo was the state temple of Jayavarman V. Built upon massive terraces, this structure, like many of the others at Angkor, is huge with five sanctuary towers overlooking the complex.
One common feature we noticed throughout the Angkor complex was the presence of small altars being used by the local people. Most of the time they were quiet, but on more than one occasion there was a ceremony being done as we passed by.
Just a short walk from Ta Keo was the small temple Spean Thma, one of the few Khmer Empire era bridges to have survived up to now.
From there we visited a smaller temple called Thommanon. It is comprised of a pair of Hindu temples built during the reign of Suryavarman II (1113–1150).
One of the nice things about the entire Angkor Wat complex is that you can pretty much walk anywhere. Very few areas are blocked or roped off, and you can go inside most of the buildings and ascend most of the towers. It’s a nice bit of freedom when there’s so much to explore.
Our final stop for the day was Bayon Temple, a place that was notable for the faces on the sides of the towers.
Build around the late 12th century, Bayon was the state temple of the Mahayana Hindu King Jayavarman VII. It is considered to be the capital and centre of Angkor Thom.
It was a busy and exhausting introduction to Angkor Wat. but we enjoyed every minute of it. By evening we were back to Siem Reap where we had some dinner and prepared for day two.