One of the most common questions I get on my travels, once I explain I’m on a relatively sizeable round-the-world trip, is “so what are your favourite x places so far?”. A fairly predictable query, I suppose (with no offence intended to any of the many questioners). It’s hard to leave our trek to Everest Base Camp off the list, of course. And Petra was stunning, as were the pyramids and Abu Simbel. But invariably, Angkor bubbles up towards the top of the list in my mind.
Angkor is not the most well-known attraction in the world, I suppose. It doesn’t make it onto the list of ancient wonders of the world because hailing as it does from only a little over a thousand years ago, well, it’s not that ancient. It’s not on the ‘new seven wonders of the world’ list because, well, that list is complete and utter bullshit.
But Angkor is one of the most impressive, one of the most memorable, and one of the most satisfying places I’ve ever been.
It’s the old seat of the Khmer Empire, not to be confused with the perhaps equally ambitious but stunningly less successful Khmer Rouge, which I’ll readily admit is probably the only other context in which I’ve heard the word ‘Khmer’ in my life. And it turns out the Khmer Empire was kind of a big deal back in its day, extending over most of what we know as South-East Asia today. Its capital was therefore big: some estimates put its population at up to one million. It was the largest city the world had ever seen until the industrial age urbanised the world: not far off the geographical size of Greater London today, with a population that dwarfed contemporary London’s piddling ten thousand or so.
And the major buildings – the temples, the administrative centres, the features – were built largely of solid stone. So as any three little pigs aficionado could have predicted for you, a lot of it remains – even despite its location out in the jungle off in an otherwise fairly lonely corner of Cambodia.
The jungle setting is a definite advantage for the attraction. After the fall of the Khmer Empire, the city was basically abandoned, and left for nature to reclaim. That reclamation was achieved largely by strangler figs, weaving their complex root systems through the masonry, as the jungle felt its way back in, on and through the city.
Although Angkor has undergone a reasonable amount of restoration, the jungle still surrounds it, and in many of the buildings, the strangler figs remain: either because restoration hasn’t been completed yet, or because of a deliberate decision that, basically, it just looks cooler that way. (And it does. Most definitely it does.)
We had three days to explore, and the agenda for day one was a bicycle-based exploration of what’s known variously as the ‘Little Circuit’, ‘Small Circuit’ or ‘Mini Circuit’ (amusingly as a former student of electrical engineering, I even found a few references calling it the ‘Short Circuit’): Angkor Thom, the central walled capital city, including the stunning many-faced temple of Bayon; Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple and the largest religious monument in the world; and a variety of smaller buildings (mostly temples) close by to the east of Angkor Thom, most notably Ta Prohm.
We hired our bikes in town early-ish in the morning, and set off for the day’s ride. We’d picked bicycles as our means of transportation instead of the more traditional tuk-tuk tour (or, god forbid, a full-on tour group) so that we could enjoy a properly self-directed expedition through the site. There’d be plenty of time for tuk-tuks later. (Also, y’know, exercise, the quietness of non-motorised transport, all that jazz.) We most certainly didn’t regret our choice.
I won’t bore you with a detailed description of our route, since basically that’s an uninteresting organisational detail. Nor is there much point in this set of posts turning into a lecture series on the intricacies of Khmer society and architecture – especially since I don’t know anything about either.
Angkor is an amazing site and full of historical significance for a variety of reasons – religious, technological, socio-economic, etc. But when it comes down to it, for me, I loved it because Angkor just looks cool. Really, startlingly, historically, massively cool.
So we’ll go with a simplified highlights package and a lot of photos. Realistically, I could easily fill post after post with more and more pictures – I still have over 500 photos from Angkor, and that’s after I deleted the vast majority of happy snaps I took over our three days there. But if you want to see it that badly, well, you’ll have to go visit yourself. In the meantime, that highlights package…
Angkor Thom and the Bayon
The Bayon is a fascinating building. It’s wonderfully ornate, but what’s slightly difficult to appreciate from large-scale photos of it is that its stonework columns are covered in giant faces: each of 54 columns with one on each of its four sides, for a total of 216 faces.
We spent fully an hour wandering around just this one building, before realising that this was just the start, and we’d better get moving since we had plenty more to explore for the day.
There’s a wonderful serenity to the faces, too. Something about the way they smile that gives the building a reflective, soulful feel. (It’s suggested that they may well be the face of the King who ordered the Bayon’s construction, King Jayavarman VII – a particularly prodigious orderer of construction, given that he was responsible for the rest of the city of Angkor Thom as well, plus Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Neak Pean. If it is supposed to be his face, then that’s definitely a slightly creepy feel, too – although I suppose this was before the widespread availability of the mirror?)
Angkor Wat is the headline attraction of Angkor, I suppose. It’s a city to itself, surrounded by a giant moat.
It’s difficult to get a sense of scale from the pictures. In person, you have to keep reminding yourself that this is a single temple complex, when it feels instead like it could easily have been a lavish metropolis in its own right.
Some of the grandeur is admittedly slightly lessened by the unfortunate green tarpaulin that currently covers some of the otherwise relatively unobtrusive scaffolding being used to aid the ongoing restoration work. But even so, it’s hard not to be impressed by the surpassing beauty of the place.
Anywhere else, I suppose the grey stone could look drab and boring. But with this much vivid green around it, it takes on a somehow vital yet timeless feel.
Ta Prohm is Angkor’s poster child for the jungle. A temple a little to the east of the walled city of Angkor Thom, it’s a site where archaeologists have decided the jungle will be allowed to remain. Prior to relatively recent restoration work, much of Angkor looked like Ta Prohm still does: strangler figs have grown up on and around the stonework, and the whole site is covered in a lush green tinge.
In Ta Prohm, as with a few other temples, they’re keeping it that way, so that the rest of us can appreciate the beauty of the site in its post-original jungle setting. Good: it made for the most beautiful scenery of the day.
… and that was day one. We finally returned our bicycles, found ourselves some food, and sat ourselves in front of laptops to have a look at the stupid numbers of photos we’d taken in the course of a single day.