So we are two engineers…neither of whom is particularly well versed in history, and especially not in Hindu-turned-Buddhist temples from the Khmer Empire. We tried to read our guide books and websites and brochures to understand more about the insane and intense city of temples called Angkor that we went to visit…but every other word in these write-ups was a god or city or king or empire that we didn’t know how to contextualize. I couldn’t even keep the names of the temples straight in my head, save a few of the big ones. So perhaps a true appreciation for the history of what we witnessed was a bit lost on us, but I don’t think the magnitude and beauty and majesty of what we saw was. How could it?
Hitting pretty high on our “wow list” of temples we’ve seen in our lifetime, right up there with Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta, the temples of Angkor are particularly memorable for the sheer scale of how many and how vast the complex of temples reaches. It took us three days to try and tackle as much as we wanted to see, and if we’d had more in the tank there would have been enough temples to last well over a week. But like I said, we’re two engineers and three days was about our max limit.
We took the advice of our friends Uros and Alex who’d just visited last month and we opted for a tuk tuk ride to take us along the “Grand Circuit” on our first day to see some of the temples that are further out in the complex and get a feel for the variety and breadth of architecture in the area, saving the better known temples for the next day. Our driver Vann suggested we make a few additions to regular circuit that day because he said our tour tomorrow would be too packed (and he was right). On this day we saw Bayon (super cool temple covered in faces), Preah Khan (got ripped off by a local who offered to take a picture and then asked for money), Preah Neak Pean (couldn’t see much, but probably had some sweet pools/fountains in its day), Eastern Baray and Mebon (cool elephant structures, but the day was getting reeeeally hot at this point), and Ta Som (had a cool tree at the end), and then drove out to see Banteay Srei (really intricate stone carvings) and Preah Rup (can’t remember much, it was too hot). We also visited the very moving Cambodia Landmine Museum, which gave us our first glimpse into the continued effects of the incomprehensible Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia and the civil wars in following decades. Though a fairly small museum in size, it had a huge impact on us as we read through the impossible stories of the man who founded the museum, Aki Ra. He was orphaned during the Khmer Rouge reign and forced to be a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge army at the age of 10, laying down thousands of landmines in his home country. Now he has dedicated his life to de-mining and defusing landmines in Cambodia (he did this at first with no training or equipment), and has taken in dozens of injured or at-risk youth affected by landmines to help raise and educate in the form of a school associated with the museum. Aki Ra and his group have personally disarmed about 50,000 landmines and unexploded ordinances. We learned that they estimate that there are still over 5 million landmines left in Cambodia (but the exact total isn’t really known), and the efforts required to safely remove them will take decades.
On our next day, we opted to rent mountain bikes (the ones from our hotel just would not do) and bike the “Small Circuit” to hit up the most popular temples at a slower pace. We hit the road at 4:45AM (!!!) with a backpack full of snacks, drinks and an impossibly large styrofoam container in which our hotel gave us our “packed breakfasts” to go in order to watch the famed sunrise over Angkor Wat. Thankfully we brought our headlamps with us, so the ride in the dark was fairly smooth. When we arrived, we followed the massive flow of tourists (most of whom had arrived by tour bus or tuk tuk) to the Lotus Pond in front of Angkor Wat, where we were told was the best place to watch the sunrise because of the reflection of the temple in the pond. And there we waited, shoulder to shoulder with so many tourists, all of us a little bit cranky and definitely still sleepy.
Well we got a bit restless and tired of the hundreds of other tourists around us, so we decide to walk inside the temple instead of waiting for sunrise outside. This might have been our best decision yet as it was probably only us and about a dozen other tourists who were left to explore the huge and elaborate temple of Angkor Wat to ourselves in the early morning light. It was really special, and we were so happy we didn’t wait outside. We were also some of the first in line to be able to walk up to the top of the temple to see the views from one of the highest points, which was really great. Once the sun did make its way up, we walked back outside to the Lotus Pond (the masses had left by then) and still got our obligatory shots with the pond reflection. We spent the rest of the increasingly hot day exploring some of the other temples on the circuit, with one of the highlights definitely being Ta Prohm because of it’s really amazing sights. This temple seems to have been left untouched from restoration and it has become overrun with trees that are literally just exploding right out of the temple walls and ruins. It’s pretty amazing, and definitely felt like we were in some sort of Indiana Jones movie. We had lunch under a tree in front of a massive pool (more like a man-made lake) within the temple city which we’d read from our book that only the royal family was allowed to swim in. As it started to get oppressively hot as the afternoon approached, we decided to finish riding the circuit as quickly as possible without stopping to see any more temples and head back to the hotel to cool off. In the end, we probably biked about 35km total. Though it was hot, we definitely enjoyed the freedom (and self-made breeze) of biking around and definitely would recommend it for others considering it. Maybe not for all 3 days, though… :)
On our last day, we met up with a friendly tuk tuk driver recommended by Uros and Alex named Vichet who took us to the Roluos Group of temples which are a bit further away from the main complex. These temples were some of the oldest ones, though not as exciting as the ones we saw the day before. We then headed back to the main area to see the ones we’d skipped the day before that we wanted to re-visit – mainly Angkor Thom which is a little city unto itself and has some spectacular terraces and long walkways that we imagine made this place quite regal in its time. We had planned to stay to watch the sunset that day, but unfortunately the heat of the day started to get to me, and I started to feel a bit sick so we had to cut the day short. We seemed to be running into a bit of bad luck as well, because somewhere along the way Jesse’s iPhone was stolen as well which just put a general damper on our spirits. Oh well. Maybe our last day wasn’t the best, but overall the temples of Angkor definitely did not disappoint and we were thrilled to be able to cross this big item off our bucket list.