Our main goal in visiting Cambodia was to experience the Angkor temples, and they did not dissapoint. We booked a one day tour which included three major sites: Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Bayon Temple located within the walls of Angkor Thom. It also included a one day pass to see all the Angkor temples. They have 1, 3, and 7 day pass options, and had we known we might have asked to buy the 3 day pass if for nothing else than to save us some time another day. After all, it cost the same amount as two 1 day passes. These passes have your photo on them and could only be bought at the main ticket gate. There were guards checking tickets for validity date and your photo at various checkpoints near temples in the Angkor region to ensure Cambodia gets some revenue from your visit! Fun fact, just a few days after our visit the one day entry price increased from $20 to $37 since it has not increased in almost 20 years or so. Good timing for us!
Ta Prohm is perhaps most famously known for the role it played in the movie Tomb Raider, and has an interesting aspect of nature reclaiming some of the temples over the last several hundred years. Originally commissioned by Kind Jayavarman VII it was intended to be a Buddhist temple and school. It was eventually abandoned with the fall of the Khmer Empire and today you can easily get a feel for what was abandoned “as is” versus some of the restored sections…the old sections literally have trees growing up through them. The jungle had several hundred years (around 600 I believe) to invade parts of this structure which I think adds to its charm.
The photo below illustrates Buddha images having been removed from the temple. While it was not uncommon for many temples to be converted from Buddhist to Hindu or vice versa throughout the history of the Khmer kings, I cannot recall if that was the case here for sure. It is also possible they were victims of theft as so many of the Angkor sites were during their discovery in the early 20th century. Due to the consistency and volume of the missing Buddha images though, I am inclined to think the cause was the former.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the Angkor region is the famous Angkor Wat. Built as a Hindu temple originally, it was dedicated to Vishnu (the protector) which was unusual as many temples in the region were dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer). It is the only temple that was never formally abandoned and as such is one of the best preserved. Angkor Wat currently holds the title of largest religious monument in the world and curiously faces West as opposed to East. This has lead some to believe it was intended to be a mausoleum as well as a temple. It did change hands from Hindu to Buddhist during the reign of King Jayavarman the VII, but he had great respect for all religions and as such many of the Hindu elements were left in peace.
One of the most famous gallery carvings here is a Hindu myth of “churning the sea of milk.” The story itself is quite complex, so I will endeavor to highlight the parts I remember. Churning the ocean of milk involved Devas (Gods) and Demons playing tug of war with the body of a snake to see who would be the rightful owner of an immortality potion. The pulling back and forth caused a mountain to rotate and start sinking into the sea, so Vishnu transformed into a turtle and supported the mountain on his back to keep it afloat. The snake emitted some toxic gasses which Shiva tried to swallow, effectively saving the world and turning his throat blue. In the end I believe the Devas (gods) prevailed, but perhaps even more important than who won was what came out of this primordial soup. This act created many things, one of which holds a lot of significance for Cambodia: Apsaras. Known for their dancing and singing talents, Apsaras are other worldly beings who were intended to perform for kings or gods. Many Cambodian religious complexes are adorned with countless numbers of these ethereal beings in various clothing and hair styles.
Our guide thought we should try a common Cambodian dish: beef and red ants. Ellen was not feeling adventurous this time around, but David, Larry, and I all gave it a try. This was my second experience eating ants and I definitely tasted the ants more this time around (mostly the texture really). It was still pretty good actually, but I would not have ordered it for myself.
Bayon Temple (Inside Angkor Thom)
Built by King Jayavarman the VII, Angkor Thom was one of the last major religious complexes built during the Khmer Empire. Being Buddhist himself he focused on building the temple of Bayon for Buddhist worship and study. From what we learned of him in the museum and from our guide it seemed he truly cared about his people and wanted them to have a good life. He was accepting of all religions in the area and focused on ways to improve his peoples lives and strengthen his empire. The temple of Bayon itself has many smiling faces which our guide told us many people believe were made in the likeness of Jayavarman VII because he was known as a happy king who wanted the best for his people. Other sources suggest it could be a smiling Buddha image as well.
Currently known as the citadel of women or beauty, Benteay Srei is particularly unique as it is made of pink/red sandstone which lends itself well to intricate carvings. As a result all the carvings are exquisitely detailed and unique among the Angkor buildings. We ended up visiting this temple because I asked our guide which of all the Angkor temples was his favorite, and I am very glad we had a chance to visit. I can see why he liked it so much.
Upon entering the park we learned that the whole Angkor complex considers itself a sister park to Mt. Huangshan in China, and there happened to be a photo exhibit of the mountain during our visit to promote tourism there as well. We thought it was pretty interesting to see some of China follow us abroad. The temple and surrounding area is significantly smaller than most others in the region, but the detailed carvings really are extraordinary. Due to previous theft and likely the amount of detailed carvings that have been meticulously restored you are only allowed to observe the temple from a distance. You cannot walk through many of the sections like you can in other temples. Getting to this temple took us about 45 minutes by car, so we opted to combine it with a few other stops along the way on our last day in Cambodia.