Fresh out of the airport, the first impression of Siem Reap – the jewel of South East Asia – isn’t far from how one would picture a place rich with ancient history. The nondescript road, leading to the city centre about 8 km away, gives the traveller a view of open fields and neat little cottages with thatched roof, a typical rural setup.
However, as I approach the city, the scene changes dramatically. Busy wide roads and traffic jams welcome me. Crime is rampant in the city these days, I am told by my Tuk Tuk driver who asks me to make sure that I hold onto my belongings tightly and keep my purse and mobile phone out of sight so that bike gangs don’t snatch them away. This piece of information baffles me as I expected Cambodia to be safe for tourism (and so it is!).
I reach my hotel without incident and begin to plan my exploration of Angkor Wat temple complex – the largest religious monument in the world owing to its land area – the next day. This 12th century temple complex, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the main attraction of Siem Reap. Spread over 163 hectares (403 acres) of land, Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe. Hinduism in Cambodia can be traced back to the Funan kingdom that reigned the lower Mekong between 100BC and 500AD. Funan was a product of prolonged socio-economic interaction with maritime trading partners of the Indosphere (a wide geographical area subject to political or cultural influence from India). Hinduism remained as the dominating religion in the region until the 13th century when Buddhism became popular owing to the influx of Buddhist missionaries from Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), and Sri Lanka.
After enquiring in one of the currency exchange shops in town, I get in touch with an English-speaking taxi driver cum local guide who promises me an experience of a lifetime.
If you wish to cover the entire temple circuit over a weekend like me, taxi would be a logical and affordable option in Cambodia where public transport is not so developed. Some places are not even accessible by bus and you may end up spending more time and money hailing a tuk tuk or taxi on the go.
Epic sunrise photo op
Early next morning before daybreak, my driver picks me up from the hotel and speeds away to the temple. Crossing the wide moat using a sandstone causeway located in the west side of the temple, I walk on the temple grounds towards the central enclosure. The complex is teeming with tourists from across the world jostling for the best vantage point to capture Angkor Wat against the backdrop of the rising sun. The cool morning breeze stirs up an anticipation difficult to describe in words. The silhouette of the huge stone structure across a lily pond looks quite formidable in the dark. King Suryavarman II, who ruled the vast Khmer kingdom – stretching to modern day Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam from 1113 AD to 1150 AD – was renowned as a religious reformer and temple builder. He began the construction of Angkor as a state temple and capital city in the early years of his reign. The temple’s construction continued even after his death in 1150 AD. The king also sponsored the construction of several other temples in the style of Angkor Wat in the region.
Soon the first rays of the rising sun light up the towering roofs of the temple structures leading to a collective intake of breath by all of us. The sight that unfolds before us is simply magnificent! Slowly, as darkness gives way to light, I am finally able to see the temple in all its past glory.
After a frenzied photoshoot, I walk towards the central structure, passing the lovely lily pond. The temple architecture is a representation of Mount Meru – the mythical home of the gods. It is enclosed by a concentric series of walls and moat symbolizing the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean, with the towers arranged in the central sanctuary to represent the five peaks of the mountain.
The walls of the inner sanctum adorn the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two ancient Hindu epics – alongside sculptures portraying Suryavarman II as Lord Vishnu performing his sovereign duties. In front of the central structure lies an elevated causeway with a cruciform terrace. I wander from room to room, marvelling at the bas-relief sculptures on the walls and ceilings. My guide keeps me busy with his interpretations of these murals. A Buddhist by religion, he tries to impress me with his knowledge of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Out in the terrace area, the vast expanse of the temple surroundings leaves me in awe as I picture a bygone era when the king and his subjects walked on this very ground and performed elaborate rituals inside the inner sanctum. Angkor Wat is also considered as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II although his body was never actually buried there. My guide informs that by the 15th century, Angkor was converted into a Buddhist site and continues to be an important place for Theravada Buddhists.
Looking up at the clear morning sky, I spot a hot air balloon floating by carrying eager tourists trying to catch an aerial view of the entire temple complex. Well, that is yet another way of looking at it, a whole new perspective!
I bid adieu to Angkor and head to Angkor Thom, the last capital of Khmer empire spread over 9 square kilometres (3.5 square miles).
Smiling stone faces and evocative city gates
Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khmer empire from 1181 AD to 1218 AD, established Angkor Thom as its capital city in the late 12th century. Its original name late 12th century. Its original name Nokor Thom translates to Great City in Khmer language. The walls of the ancient city are flanked by a moat and face-tower gates at each of the cardinal points (two in the eastern wall) with naga-carrying giant figures accompanying each of the towers. Of these gates, the South gate, almost restored to its former glory, acts as the main entrance to Angkor Thom. It is also the most popular among visitors and I can see why. Both sides of the bridge leading to this gate is lined up with impressive statues of demons and gods seemingly engaged in a perpetual tug-of-war. From one side of the bridge, the gods invite us with their serene smiles while on the other side the demons frighten us with their ferocious grimaces.
Apart from the cardinal points, another significant gate at the Eastern wall – the Victory Gate – in line with the Victory Square, Elephant Terrace and the Royal Palace, forms the secular axis of Angkor Thom. It is said that Victory Gate got its name from the historical event when Jayavarman’s troops paraded out of the city through the gate to wage a battle against the invading army from the kingdom of Champa (former Vietnam).
The centrally located state temple, Bayon (originally named Jaygiri meaning victory mountain), is the main attraction of Angkor Thom due to multitudes of gigantic smiling stone faces adorning the towers clustered around the central peak of the temple. The faces have a pious, compassionate look typical of any Buddha statue. Yet again I am amazed to see myriad mythological and historical scenes sculpted on the walls of the temple. Jayavarman’s naval battle against the forces of Champa king Jaya Indravarman IV on the Tonle Sap river (connects to Mekong river in South East Asia) is vividly depicted on the walls of Bayon.
The temple’s baroque-style Khmer architecture is very different from the classical Khmer architecture of Angkor Wat. Being a Buddhist temple, the main shrine is dedicated to Lord Buddha. However, local Hindu deities, representatives of the various districts and cities of the realm, can also be spotted within the temple premises. Bayon has witnessed several alterations with the passage of time as the region reverted back to Hinduism in the mid 13th century and then to Theravada Buddhism in the later centuries. The fascinating ruins of Bayon is quite an eye-opener for a history buff. Visitors simply can’t get enough of the smiling heads of the temple. I decide to move on to check out the other wonders of Angkor Thom.
View from an ancient temple terrace
Just north-east of Bayon lies a beautiful 11th century three-tiered ‘temple mountain’ called Baphoun that was built as the state temple by Udayadityavarman II (successor of Suryavarman I) a century before the construction of Angkor Wat. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Later, when Angkor Thom came into existence under a Buddhist king, Baphuon lost its importance although it was located within the city of Angkor Thom. Walking on an elevated sandstone walkway, I can’t help imagining how impressive the pyramid-shaped (representing Mount Meru) temple might have been in its heyday. Unfortunately, since Baphuon was built on an unstable sandy soil, its structure collapsed with the passage of time. The restoration that began in 1996 and completed 16 years later has been truly remarkable. Interestingly, this temple, though spectacular, is much quieter than Bayon.
I begin climbing the steep staircase to reach the upper levels. Heaving and puffing, when I finally manage to climb to the summit, I am awestruck by the view. Large open grounds unfold below me with several noteworthy ruins scattered everywhere.
As I stroll on the terrace, I come across intricate carvings with references to the Ramayana. Similar to most of the significant temples in the Khmer empire, in the late 15th century, the Baphuon was also converted to a Buddhist temple with a huge reclining Buddha statue added to the west side of the temple’s second level. The stones used in the creation of this statue were procured by demolishing the tower above which now lies vacant. However, the unmistakable traces of Hindu origin makes this temple a significant part of Angkor Archaeological Park and a must-see attraction in the temple circuit.
Deciphering the mystery of ‘Tomb Raider’ temple
It wouldn’t be wrong to surmise that despite being a treasure trove of spellbinding temples that transport us back to an age of flourishing cities rooted in finest craftsmanship, Siem Reap didn’t quite feature as a prominent tourist destination until Hollywood put the ruins of Ta Prohm temple on centre stage with the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie. The temple definitely lives up to its reputation in terms of mystical charm and classic photogenic atmosphere. Large banyan trees have literally devoured the entire temple with bits and pieces of the structure still visible through giant roots and stems. Moss covered loose stones with intricate carvings can be seen strewn on the ground. There is something irresistible and poetic about nature’s reclamation of its once lost territory.
Built in the late 12th and early 13th century, Ta Prohm was originally named Rajavihara which means ‘royal monastery’. Jayavarman VII, who built the city of Angkor Thom, constructed the temple structure in honour of his family. The complex functioned as a monastery and university to promulgate the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Later it was given the name of Ta Prohm – Ta means Ancestor and Prohm means Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
After the fall of Khmer empire, the temple fell into neglect until its rediscovery in the 21st century. Today, thanks to the restoration efforts carried out by local and international conservationists, including the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), visitors can explore the ancient courtyards and maze-like corridors safely and marvel at the bas-reliefs on the decaying walls of the temple.
I spend some time in front of the east entrance of the central enclosure – engulfed by root formations nicknamed ‘Crocodile Tree’ – immersing in the unique harmonious coexistence of the tree and the man-made legacy.
Gem of a place
A visit to Siem Reap is incomplete without exploring the jewel of Khmer art, Banteay Srei. Located around 40 km north of Siem Reap city centre, this 10th century red sandstone temple complex is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Elaborate, intricately sculpted bas reliefs portray scenes from the Mahabharata. One particular wall carving stands out from the rest with its vivid depiction of Hindu god Indra, the king of all gods, riding his three-headed elephant, Airavat, and summoning the rain clouds to protect the burning Khandava forest.
Surprisingly, Banteay Srei is the only major temple that was built by a nobleman who didn’t belong to the royal family. Yajnavaraha, the founder of the temple, was the royal physician of Khmer king Rajendravarman II who ruled from 944 AD to 968 AD. Originally named Tribhuvanamahesvara, meaning great lord of the threefold world, the temple was later renamed Banteay Srei – citadel of the women, or citadel of beauty – owing to the beautiful carvings. Although Lord Shiva is the main deity of the temple cluster, a closer look also reveals the presence of Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver. In fact, the northern buildings in the temple complex are dedicated to Vishnu while those in the south are devoted to Shiva, creating a cosmic balance; while Shiva is instrumental in destroying a cosmic cycle to make way for a new one, Vishnu nurtures and preserves each cycle.
Looking beyond the Lara Croft hype, my tour of Siem Reap reveals the deep presence of an ancient Hindu empire. Although Buddhism prevails in modern Cambodia, the temples of Siem Reap – built by the early rulers of Khmer empire – bear testimony to the strong Hindu roots of the land.
Undoubtedly, most tourists’ dream destination includes old ruins and rich cultural history. It comes as no surprise that there are tourists galore in the entire temple circuit of Siem Reap. However, it’s only a small price to pay compared to the everlasting memories you make of the treasures you find there.