My journey through Cambodia were coming to an end, and exploring the undergrowth and ruins of the city of Angkor would be my final activity. Angkor Wat, centrepiece and capital city of the Ancient Khmer empire is on every traveller’s bucket list. The mesmeric skyline imprinted against the sunrise is printed on every guide book and poster. I would be lying to say I hadn’t been looking forward to seeing it for a long time.
Although many people associate the city with the main attraction of Angkor Wat, Angkor is a vast collection of over 1000 temples, large and small, built across a huge swathe of land. The temples are nestled into the wild forests, near to the modern city of Siem Reap. Roads thread through the area, so Tuk Tuks can guide you around.
After a long ride from the southern coast, I arrived in Siem Reap to the warm welcome of good company and breakfast. It was recommended to visit the Angkor Museum before heading to the temples so that I would have a greater appreciation of the sites. Indeed, I was glad to have made the visit, as there was plenty of insight into the history of construction and religious background behind the empire.
On the first evening I received a quick taste of Ankor, and travelled to Phnom Bakheng, a temple that sits high up on a hill overlooking the city. Unfortunately a sky full of clouds prevented the promised sunset, although the view stretched for miles around. It was a good start.
The following morning, I arose for the famous Angkor Wat sunrise and joined with three Dutch and a British girl to travel enjoy the sights together. Although tourists arrived in droves for the sunrise, it was a spectacular sight, and we sat next to the nearby lake to watch the sky brighten over the majestic temple.
Wondering through the main door of Angkor Wat really felt like entering the ancient kingdom. Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Hindu temple during the beginning of the 12th century, before gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the century. Rooms and walkways stretch along the walls, with intricate carvings on every surface. Years of Cambodian weather had darkened the stone, but much of the detail is still visible.
A steep stairway rose to the main towers, which gave a 360 degree view over the site and the surrounding forests. We absorbed the sights and wandered through the temple, before finally returning over the moat to head to the next location, Angkor Thom.
The Angkor Thom site is in fact larger than Angkor Wat, with the walls stretching for several kilometres, and housing many temples within. The central temple (Prasat Bayon) includes 54 towers of varying sizes, which you can clamber between. Heads protrude from the main towers (representing the Hindu gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and bumpy corridors wind through the structure.
Beyond the river of tourists that run throughout the sites also exists a local community who live and work within Angkor. Restaurants and shops are dotted throughout, all jostling for the attention of passers by. After rising at 4am, it felt like lunch was appropriate by just 10:30. The heat of the day combined with the humidity made even the simplest of dishes feel like an absolute feast.
Whereas Ankor Wat and Angkor Thom had moats to naturally protect themselves from the encroaching jungle, other nearby temples were not so lucky. Sprawling trees are to be found everywhere across the city, with many erupting through temple walls. Our final temple that day was Ta Prohm, where huge trees were as much part of the temples as the stones which they lay upon. It was an stunning sight to end the day.
Once the exploring was over, the rest of my time would be spent at Siem Reap, where a pool and a local bar provided sufficient recovery after long days at Angkor. Siem Reap itself is a friendly and green city, with a large market for street food and the aptly named “Pub Street” continued late into the night.
The following day, I returned to explore some of the temples slightly further from the tourists trail. I was intrigued by the ruins of Ta Prohm, so I set off to find similar sights. I headed to Preah Khan and Ta Som, both of which were wrapped in the forest and slowly eroding away. The walls are slowly crumbling, and the stonework is propped up against each other to prevent further collapse. Trees grow against the walls, and occasionally somehow on top of the structures too. The roots flow down like waterfalls searching for the ground beneath.
The final stop would be East Mebon, which was an island on the surrounding reservoir. Now the reservoir has dried, you can easily access, climb to the top layers and appreciate the 2 metre high elephant statues that stand proudly on all the corners. Gentle rain came and went throughout the day, and after another hour I decided to head back. Overall, it was an unforgettable experience. It would take weeks to explore all the grounds and appreciate the hundreds of hidden temples in the depths of the forest. It was a nice thought that I had missed so much, as it would be a good excuse to return one day.