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Cambodia: A Visit to the Angkor Temples

By January 22, 2015 , , , , , , ,

Last December, I finally made a trip to a destination that had long been on my bucket list – Cambodia. More specifically, I had always wanted to visit the city of Siem Reap where lie the remains of the largest Hindu temples in the world. The Angkor temples are a world heritage site and date back to a time when the Khmer Empire flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries (“Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit term “nagor” meaning city). As someone who enjoys history, a visit to the Angkor temples was of immense interest to me. It just so happened that a half-marathon/10K race was planned around the Angkor Wat (one of the main temple complexes) in December. What better way to explore a region steeped in history by literally running through it? My husband and I eagerly signed up for the race, and tickets to Siem Reap were booked.

Siem Reap is a small city-town so 3 to 4 days is sufficient time to explore the place at a leisurely pace. We planned for a 2.5 day visit jam-packed with a race to run, temples to explore, and other local attractions to take in. The trip didn’t disappoint – I was charmed by the motorcycle-led buggy rides, the delicious food, and the sweet and friendly manner of the local people. Oh and did I mention how cheap everything is? My highlight of the trip, besides visiting the Angkor temples, was getting the best $1 foot massage I ever had!

Shopping for trinkets at the street market at Pub Street
Delicious Khmer noodle soup at The Haven
So did my visit to the Angkor temples live up to the hype? A resounding yes! The Angkor temples are indeed an archeological sight to behold. While exploring the temples, I was struck by the enormity of the structures and the dedication of the ancient Khmer rulers to building these shrines for the gods. The famous apsaras of the Angkor temples coyly danced along stone walls, resplendent with the detailed carvings of their ornaments and flowers in their hair. Massive stone faces stared serenely at me, holding secrets of how an ancient city could be wiped out without a trace. Needless to say, I was mesmerized.

For those planning a trip to the Angkor temples, it’s worth researching which temples to visit. The largest and most renowned temple complexes are Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. What was utterly fascinating was the artful depiction of epic Sanskrit stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharat inside these structures. Bas-reliefs of Lord Krishna holding up Mount Govardhan on his finger, the epic battle between the Pandavs and Kauravs, Prince Arjun riding his golden chariot with Lord Krishna as his charioteer, Sita being stole away to Lanka by the demon-king Ravan, and many other vivid scenes filled the walls of these temples. It was amazing to me how well our Sanskrit texts and stories have endured through centuries, dating back to before the existence of Angkor.

While many temples like the above are well-preserved thanks to restoration projects, others are overtaken by the dense jungle nearby or in a state of utter disarray due to theft and destruction of relics in the recent past. Even then, there is a raw beauty to them. For example, Ta Phrom (also known as the “Tomb Raider Temple” where Angelina Jolie filmed her movie by the same name years ago) is overtaken by gigantic roots snaking through the walls of the temple.
Bayon Temple inside Angkor Thom
Imposing structures that make you feel so tiny in comparison (Bayon Temple)
Serene faces like these are found all over Bayon Temple
A shivling (representation of Lord Shiva)
Ta Phrom: Where temple and tree merge into one
Thousands of apsaras (celestial dancers) like these cover the walls of the Angkor temples
Play a game of spot the apsara! Can you see her face?
Banteay Srei temple
Cutest group of local children who were only too happy to stop and smile for the camera
A lazy boat ride along a lily pond (near Banteay Srei Temple)
For those planning a trip to Siem Reap, here’s a rundown of temples worth visiting:
  • Angkor Wat: As one of the main temple complexes, it’s also among the best preserved and has detailed carvings and bas-reliefs
  • Angkor Thom: Another temple complex that shouldn't be missed. Bayon Temple is awe-inspiring despite its dilapidated state. Terrace of the Leper King and Terrance of the Elephants can be seen as a drive-by
  • Ta Phrom (aka "Tomb Raider" Temple): Absolutely worth seeing 
  • Banteay Srei : It is a further distance away from the cluster of other temples (20-25 min drive) but is considered one of the more beautiful temples and is miniature in height compared to others. I recommend taking the leisurely boat ride along the lily pond nearby
  • Preah Khan: It’s in various states of disrepair but despite this, it is a beautiful and mysterious temple 
Additional Local Attractions
  • Pub Street is the place to return to present day times after feeling “templed out”. It comes alive in the evening with pubs, restaurants, food carts, and a night bazaar selling souvenirs and local artwork
  • River of a Thousand Lingas is a 40 minute drive outside the city where you get to see a thousand shivlings carved into a river bed. Quite a sight to behold! 
Restaurant Suggestions
  • I loved The Haven for its flavorful Khmer food served in a cozy little setting. Extremely affordable (as most places in Siem Reap) and what’s more, it’s all for a good cause. The restaurant trains disadvantaged youths to become self-sufficient and financially independent
Tour Agency
  • Based on positive TripAdvisor reviews, we went with David Angkor Tours (davidangkorguide.blogspot.com). I would highly recommend them for their professionalism, ability to work around what you are interested in seeing, good English speaking skills and friendliness (we loved our tour guide Mr. Sophat)

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