Temples of Angkor

by Johnny

When I was in 8th grade I bought a special photography issue of Life magazine titled, “100 Places to See in Your Lifetime” which showcased some of the most historic, beautiful and unique places on earth. I remember being blown away at how many treasures there were out in the world…and they all seemed to be begging me to visit. I must’ve thumbed through it a million times, and it’s still tucked safely away somewhere in our storage unit. It’s almost as if buying that magazine all those years ago planted the idea of our current round-the-world trip somewhere deep in my brain (sorry, I just watched Inception on the flight over). Out of all the places highlighted, however, two in particular captured my imagination: Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. I guess I’m just a sucker for ancient ruins from lost civilizations hidden deep in the jungle. While we’re determined to make it to Machu Picchu one day, we were lucky enough to spend the past few days exploring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

A Cliffs Notes history lesson:  Angkor was the capital of the once-powerful Khmer Empire, which ruled the majority of Southeast Asia from AD 802 to 1431.  During this period, various Khmer rulers built hundreds of elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples and monuments stretching across 400 square kilometers.  After the Khmer Empire was defeated by the Thais in 1431, the temples were left largely unoccupied at the mercy of the jungle until they were “discovered” by the French in 19th century (although many Buddhist monks had continued to us Angkor Wat as a pilgrimage site during this period).  After capturing the world’s imagination and becoming a popular tourist destination in the early 1900s, Angkor suffered a setback in the 1960s and 1970s due to the Vietnam war and Cambodia’s own tragic civil war.  However, Angkor is once again the pride and joy of Cambodia, if not all of Southeast Asia, having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.  Anna and I armed ourselves with a couple three-day passes and headed out with our trusty tuk-tuk driver, Sol, to see as much of this amazing area as we could.

On our first day, we explored the temples in and around Angkor Thom, a fortified city built in the 1100s and considered the largest pre-industrial city in the world. At its peak, Angkor Thom boasted a population of nearly one million (at a time when London had a mere population of around 50,000).  As soon as Anna and I approached the south gate of Angkor Thom and got our first glimpse of the temples, I swear we simultaneously started humming the Indiana Jones theme song.  Seeing these ruins in the middle of the jungle made us feel like were were in some sort of dream world.  We half expected to be greeted by Mowgli from The Jungle Book.  It was just incredible.  The highlights from our first day were Bayon (with its towers of stone faces), Thommanom (where we had the entire temple to ourselves) and Ta Prohm (where the ruins have been overtaken by the jungle).  OK, enough jibber-jabber…here are some pics:

Our tuk-tuk driver Sol approaching the south gate of Angkor Thom
The towers of stone faces at Bayon
The bas-reliefs at Bayon Carvings at the Terrace of the Leper King
The three-tiered temple mountain of Baphuon
Chau Say Thevoda Thommanom
My buns were a little sore after climbing the steps at Ta Keo
The jungle overgrowth at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm Ta Prohm

On our second day we headed out with Sol to see some of Angkor’s more remote temples.  Again we felt like treasure hunters as we explored the ins and outs of each temple.  Our favorites from day two were Pre Rup (surrounded by jungle as far as the eye can see), Banteay Srei (with its intricate carvings) and East Mebon (with its stone elephants).  It was also super cool riding our tuk-tuk through the Cambodian countryside and waving at the smiling villagers as we passed by.

At the top of Pre Rup
Pre Rup Pre Rup
Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei Carvings at Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei
Anna making friends at East Mebon
Approaching Preah Khan
More jungle overgrowth at Preah Khan

We saved the grandaddy of them all for our final day.  Angkor Wat is the heart and soul of Cambodia.  It’s the country’s source of national pride.  It’s on its flag and on its beer.  It’s the largest religious structure in the world.  And it’s amazing.  We got to Angkor Wat around 5:00am to get a good spot for its famous sun rise.  Good thing, too, because before we knew it we turned around and there was a sea of people flooding in.  Despite the crowd, it was so worth it to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, as these pictures can attest:

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat
Novice monks at Angkor Wat
Sun’s out at Angkor Wat
The humungous moat at Angkor Wat
Heading back for a nap in the tuk-tuk

I had been building up a visit to the temples of Angkor in my mind ever since I bought that Life magazine many years ago, but seeing them in person blew away whatever lofty expectations I may have had. It’s an inspiring place where your imagination truly runs wild.


5 Responses to “Temples of Angkor”

  1. thanks for the history lesson and the beautiful pictures!! unreal!! xo


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