Angkor, part 3: Large Circuit

Our final day at Angkor started early.  So early that we didn’t even get the chance to make it three days in a row wolfing down a feast of bacon and eggs and fruit and yoghurt.  (The breakfasts at our accommodation – Siem Reap Rooms – were spectacular, so the early start was not without its sacrifices, in addition to simply dragging oneself out of bed.)

Pre-dawn at Angkor Wat

Pre-dawn at Angkor Wat

But we soon reaped the benefits:  of the literally two hundred or so massing on the shores of the lake in Angkor Wat, we were up front, in prime spot for the three hundred photos I took over the course of about forty-five spectacular minutes of watching the sun rise behind the temple.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

After which we returned to our tuk-tuk to embark on our biggest day yet:  the ‘Large Circuit’ (aka ‘Big Circuit’ or ‘Grand Circuit’), a collection of sites a little farther out from the central area of Angkor which we’d covered on the first day.  The sunrise at Angkor Wat was the day’s highlight, but there were still plenty to see for the rest of the day, even if it couldn’t live up to that early morning spectacle.  Although of course first there was the fact that we hadn’t had our usual ridiculous breakfast.  So we may have waited until a café opened its doors just opposite Angkor Wat, and gorged ourselves before setting off again.

Our first stop was Banteay Srei, a red sandstone temple around thirty or so kilometres from central Angkor.

Banteay Srei, seen from across the moat

Banteay Srei, seen from across the moat

After the largely-grey weathered remains throughout most of Angkor, the ornate carvings and the radiant red of this temple was a vivid and enjoyable contrast.

The ornate red stonework of Banteay Srei, complete with moss and grasses growing on the roof on the right

The ornate red stonework of Banteay Srei, complete with moss and grasses growing on the roof on the right

From Banteay Srei, we moved farther away, to Kbal Spean.  This, I’ll admit, was probably the one disappointment of our Angkor adventures:  after quite a nice hike up a hill through jungle to get to the site, there’s just really not much there.  Basically, it’s a few engraved stones in a riverbed.  The waterfall cascades were nice, but probably we needn’t have bothered making the tuk-tuk trip out there.

Kbal Spean – not a whole lot going on

Kbal Spean – not a whole lot going on

On the way back from Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei, though, we went to the Cambodia Land Mine Museum.  This is a facility started by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, Aki Ra, who has dedicated his adult life to clearing landmines – including ones he likely laid himself as a child.

A collection of deactivated landmines at the Cambodia Land Mine Museum

A collection of deactivated landmines at the Cambodia Land Mine Museum

The story the Museum tells is predictably heartbreaking, albeit that it probably won’t come as a surprise to most people with a passing knowledge of the violent history of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the use of child soldiers in South-East Asia.  Still, the Museum is a potent reminder of just how long the effects of terrible past mistakes last, and our time there was a sobering experience.

Once we’d visited the Museum, we were done with far-flung excursions, and we returned to the vicinity of Angkor Thom to visit Preah Khan.  Preah Khan is another of the temples which has been left somewhat under the influence of vegetation – although not to such an extent as Ta Prohm or Beng Mealea.  It’s a large temple complex – city-like in size – and affords plenty of opportunities to explore interesting little corners away from the crowds.

Inside Preah Khan

Inside Preah Khan

A huge strangler fig dominates a section of Preah Khan

A huge strangler fig dominates a section of Preah Khan

Like many of the temples in Angkor, it shows evidence of the regime’s changes between Hinduism and Buddhism over time.  In particular, in Preah Khan the optional tourist sport is playing “spot the Buddhas with beards”:  many of the devotional Buddha figures carved into the walls have been “converted” into icons of Hindu ascetics via the imposition of some particularly amateur attempts at added facial hair.

“Buddha + beard = Hindu ascetic.”  If only all religious conflict was this simple.

“Buddha + beard = Hindu ascetic.” If only all religious conflict was this simple.

After Preah Khan, we were finally running out of both time and things to see.  We quickly toured through Neak Pean (an artificial island with a temple in the middle), Ta Som (a perhaps more minor temple, albeit one with a particularly classic scene of a strangler fig above the main entrance) and East Mebon (another lesser temple, though this one with some cool elephant statues guarding the corners of its raised platform), before heading to Prae Rup, our tuk-tuk driver’s suggestion for the prettiest sunset spot.

Neak Pean

Neak Pean

The iconic entrance to Ta Som, encased in strangler fig

The iconic entrance to Ta Som, encased in strangler fig

East Mebon

East Mebon

One of the elephant statues guarding East Mebon

One of the elephant statues guarding East Mebon

Prae Rup, looking vaguely hairy and prettily red at sunset

Prae Rup, looking vaguely hairy and prettily red at sunset

We appreciated the slow progress of the sunset – time to sit and reflect on the day as we watched the sky and stone turn ever more orange.

And suddenly we were done with both Angkor and our lightning trip to Cambodia.  Our South-East Asia trip was halfway complete.

Angkor, part 2: Beng Mealea

Ruins at Beng Mealea

Ruins at Beng Mealea

We spent the entirety of our second day at Angkor on a single site:  Beng Mealea.  It’s actually 70km away from Siem Reap (the modern-day Cambodian city next to Angkor) – for what it’s worth, despite my lying title, it’s not actually a part of Angkor at all – so it takes a good hour and a half to get there on a tuk-tuk.  There’s a floating village (on Tonlé Sap Lake) nearby-ish, and often people combine them into a one-day trip.  But we spent so long at Beng Mealea that we didn’t even really have time for that.  Just the one stop for us that day.

But it’s worth it.  Man, is it worth it.  Beng Mealea is like Ta Prohm turned up a notch.  (Ta Prohm, you may remember from last time, is the one they’ve allowed the jungle to keep.)

Trees and rubble at Beng Mealea

Trees and rubble at Beng Mealea

In Beng Mealea, you can’t escape the feeling that the jungle and the stonework have been engaged in mortal struggle for centuries.  Slowly, unrelentingly, as time plods on, the jungle wins.  But never totally.

Trees growing on top of walls

Trees growing on top of walls

Scouting through the remains of the site, you feel like you yourself are discovering ruins which have remained untouched for eons.  Of course you’re not – and the handful of other tourists and their guides will attest to that, as will the tasteful wooden walkways guiding your path through the site.

A quiet, lightly-vegetated corner

A quiet, lightly-vegetated corner

A beautifully dilapidated building in the middle of the compound

A beautifully dilapidated building in the middle of the compound

But adding to that sense of discovery, you don’t have to follow those wooden walkways.  You can climb all over the ruins.  (I will admit that I genuinely don’t know whether you’re technically supposed to – but I do know that it’s the accepted thing to do, that the guides will take their groups up onto the ruins too, and that no one will bat an eyelid as you scramble up on top of the walls and ceilings for a better view or to explore what’s round the corner.)

I’m not sure if this is more temple or tree …

I’m not sure if this is more temple or tree …

… but I’m pretty sure that this one has tipped the balance into mostly-vegetable-land.

… but I’m pretty sure that this one has tipped the balance into mostly-vegetable-land.

You can understand, I hope, why we spent hours here.  It’s excruciatingly scenic, and at the same time it’s essentially an adult jungle playground, with elements of history thrown in for free.  And because it’s so far away, it’s a pleasantly untouristed one as well.

And this passageway just feels like it belongs in The Secret Garden

And this passageway just feels like it belongs in The Secret Garden

Beng Melea is more derelict than the rest of Angkor, but this is its charm.  With such a variety of old Khmer monuments to see, it’s fascinating to see one in such disrepair, with the agent of its demise still growing inexorably throughout the buildings and rubble.

Whether you’re the horn-rimmed glasses type, prone to sitting and thinking deep thoughts about the tension between manmade ephemera and the ever-striving response of man’s environment, whether you’re an enthusiastic seeker for some less processed sights than ones seen elsewhere, or whether you just like running around in the jungle playing treehouse on some old, pretty structures, Beng Mealea is an extra day most definitely worth adding to your time near Angkor.

The remains of a once-proud entranceway, now collapsed and blocking the path

The remains of a once-proud entranceway, now collapsed and blocking the path

At least, that was our conclusion, as we took in the local scenery on our tuk-tuk ride back to Siem Reap after a hard day’s running around.  And we decided, further, that our running around had earned us a good filling dinner, so we found the local Austrian restaurant and tucked into a nice big totally-Cambodian-or-something Wiener schnitzel.  As you do.  Fuel for tomorrow’s final day of Khmer adventures.

Visions of rural Cambodian life on the journey back from Beng Mealea

Visions of rural Cambodian life on the journey back from Beng Mealea

Angkor, part 1: Little Circuit

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.

The western entrance to Angkor Wat

The western entrance to Angkor Wat, stretching away into the distance

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

From the wall beside the southern entrance to Angkor Thom, looking west across the moat

At the walls of Angkor Thom. You can see tourists in tuk-tuks entering the city at the bottom left of the photo. More interesting, though, is the giant face on the wall in the top right of the picture. The Khmer sure did love their giant stone faces.

The Bayon, inside Angkor Thom

The Bayon, inside Angkor Thom

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.

Me exploring the Bayon

Me exploring the Bayon

Faces on the Bayon

Faces on the Bayon

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.

The faces of Bayon look out over the jungle that now inhabits Angkor Thom

The faces of Bayon look out over the jungle that now inhabits Angkor Thom

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?)

Inside the Bayon, looking up to faces unperturbed by the passage of time and glory

Inside the Bayon, looking up to faces unperturbed by the passage of time and glory

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the headline attraction of Angkor, I suppose.  It’s a city to itself, surrounded by a giant moat.

At the western entrance to Angkor Wat, looking across the moat

At the western entrance to Angkor Wat, looking across the 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.

Approaching the central temple within Angkor Wat

Approaching the central temple within Angkor Wat

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.

A small side temple within Angkor Wat

A small side temple within Angkor Wat

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.

Looking back out towards the western entrance from within the main temple of Angkor Wat

Looking back out towards the western entrance from within the main temple of Angkor Wat

A well-weathered stone pillar in Angkor Wat

A well-weathered stone pillar in Angkor Wat

Posing in front of the main temple

Posing in front of the main temple

Buddhist monks (young boys, in this case, effectively partaking in the Buddhist equivalent of military service) sitting at the western entrance to Angkor Wat

Buddhist monks (young boys, in this case, effectively partaking in the Buddhist equivalent of military service) sitting at the western entrance to Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm

The beautiful colours of the trees and stone at Ta Prohm

The beautiful colours of the trees and stone at Ta Prohm

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.

Mid-afternoon sunlight streaming through the invading jungle onto the moss-covered stones of Ta Prohm

Mid-afternoon sunlight streaming through the invading jungle onto the moss-covered stones of Ta Prohm

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.

Jungle and history coexisting as a strangler fig spreads its roots across a temple building in Ta Prohm

Jungle and history coexisting as a strangler fig spreads its roots across a temple building in Ta Prohm

… 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.

One of our many paths through the jungle as we cycled our way around the Little Circuit

One of our many paths through the jungle as we cycled our way around the Little Circuit