Stone sentinels stood on guard, their watch lasting nearly a thousand years. They growled with fierce monkey heads, armed with swords, helmeted and armoured in stone scales. Apsara, Angkor dancers, added their watch over the temples.
These inanimate guardians watched civilizations rise and fall, but never expected an army like this one. Cameras, the weapon of choice. Telescopic lenses, tour guides, tripods, guidebooks; their field equipment. Sightseers arrived mid-morning to commence battle at Angkor Wat. And I suppose I’m one of the combatants, too!
First things first; Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the most well-known of the temples here, in what is an absolutely sprawling complex of temples. Its silhouette is unmistakable, the shape of the pointed towers and surrounding walls such a national icon, that it appears on the country flag. Angkor Wat’s grounds were huge. A sandstone bridge crossed Angkor’s square moat, almost four Olympic swimming pools in width. Across the moat, a high outer wall guarded the temple itself, and housed a myriad of smaller temples and grassy fields.
From the gate to the temple, it’s still nearly half a kilometer to walk, but the reward is worth it. The outer corridor of Angkor Wat is an endless, intricate carving of great battles, detailed, dusty and earthen, but polished smooth and black in places by curious human hands who have touched it. Then there was a stone mountain to climb as the tiers rose and rose, culminating in the highest section where Angkor Wat’s four famous peaks stand. The climb was harder than I expected, and my legs were shaking at the top.
Bayon (of many faces)
Bayon was my favourite. At a distance, this big one looked like an ugly heap of bricks, but once we climbed the cramped staircases to the third level, the puzzle solved itself as if they had somehow rearranged themselves while I wasn’t looking.
216 cheekily smiling stone faces of Avalokiteshvara, each face as tall as a man, kept a close watch over every corner of Bayon. Sometimes their challenging stare met me directly, sometimes they watched the tourist to my left take their photo, others stared listfully into the distance.
There’s always company at the top of Bayon, always a parliament of faces within view.
Baphuon, under construction
Nearby, the fortress. Baphuon, ‘the world’s biggest puzzle’ with it’s curious modern history. Interrupted midway through a careful restoration effort, the building plans were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge’s psychotic rule. As a result, many of the temple’s 300,000 oven-sized stone building blocks reside homeless, around the temple instead of where they belong in the puzzle. The temple itself is a steep climb up sun-baked stones, the sandy, ruined penthouse plateau offering fantastic views of the long-abandoned grounds.
Ta Prohm (battling the trees)
I was speechless when we entered Ta Prohm temple. The jungle was swallowing this one whole.
Like something alien, the fig trees stood tall, pale and straight, but their thick roots ran over temple walls and doorways like curious octopus tentacles, gripping and squeezing the rock, reclaiming the earth. The roots seemed to pour down like oozing honey.
The magic was marred somewhat but the relentless Chinese tourist reinforcements. When the first wave passed, and we raised our cameras to take that perfect photo, the next wave would stream into view. (Luckily, when I sketch them, I can erase the tourists!)
Kbal Spean, the riverbed carvings
Kbal Spean wasn’t a temple, as we discovered, after the sweaty 1500 metre hike up the jungle path. Instead, we found a riverbed of stone, carved intricately with Hindu motifs. The air was cooler here, the sun kept at bay by the canopy. A refreshing change from temples crowded with tourists.
…And so much more to see
We visited many more temples in Angkor. Some required a 14km bike ride to access, where we didn’t see a soul. Others were perfectly carved red-rock masterpieces. Others were overrun with selfie-takers. Angkor Wat receives a lot of visitors, and at times it can be frustrating as you wait for the crowds to leave to take that perfect photo. Luckily, Angkor (as a widely dispersed network of many different temples, in many different locations) is huge, and it’s not uncommon that a serene moment of peace sighs through a temple when all the other tour buses seem to leave all at once, and you find yourself alone, lost in time and surrounded by nothing but stone.
My advice: spend as much time as possible in the region, pay mind to the big ones, but take lots of time to explore the smaller, less visited ones.