Having spent a few days wandering around Siem Reap and dodging the traffic, I have to admit I was a bit wary about the idea of jumping on a bicycle to head around the Angkor temple complex. In the end it was the best way of travelling; weaving through the traffic, learning to adopt a ‘blinker approach’ and just riding and letting the traffic go around me. Its loads of fun when you get over the initial fear of being run over by a tuk tuk or a huge truck.
The UNESCO protected Angkor site stretches over 400 km2 in total and reflect the different capitals of the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th Century and is one of the finest archaeological sites in South East Asia. However the chances are you’re probably going to head for the main temples of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its fantastic sculptural decorations.
The traffic significantly reduced as we passed through the checkpoint and onwards around the outside of Angkor Wat. We purchased a 3-day temple pass for $40 allowing us time to properly visit the temples and not rush around too much. I highly recommend this as the temples are too extensive, varied and vast to be able to see the best in one day.
We started our tour of the temples for the day at Angkor Wat’s west entrance. Created in the 12th Century by Suryavarman II it is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Heading across the causeway over the moat we passed the huge ‘Nagas’, or guardian snakes on the end of the balustrades on the causeway. Wherever you see nagas in Cambodia they will always face east-west representing the passage of day into night and life into death.
Crossing the causeway it was already busy with other tourists, but thankfully not too crowded and once inside the main complex we finally got a sense of the vastness of the site. Inside the entrance to the temple is a statue of Vishnu.
As we continued through the west entrance the path continued to the inner temple which is guarded by huge lions.
The temple is still a religious site, now used for Buddhism since it became the main religion in the 14th Century, but you will find it happily co-exists with Hinduism in many of the historic temples. So if you with to ascend the steep staircase to very highest of the three upper levels in the centre of the temple, consider that you will have to be respectfully dressed.
We left the temple by the East entrance which is considerably quieter and gives a sense of how the temple might have been prior to extensive archaeological work and tourism developed.
From here we headed to Kabal Spean, which is on the Kulen hills just outside of the main Angkor site. It was a 20 minute walk through the woodland to the hill top river site where we could see the site of the 1000 carvings of lingas, or phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva, in the river and the square female symbols which all point north in order to provide luck.
Last stop of the day was possibly the best temple in my opinion and one I definitely recommend you make time to visit; Banteay Srei. Its not a sprawling temple as it wasn’t built by a monarch and as it is a bit off the beaten track it is also much quieter. However, it is the most outstanding for its Hindu carvings, which are extensive, deep and intricate.
It was fantastic to stop at Bayon temple on the way back to town and see it at sunset, particularly as Japanese archaeologists had lit part of the temple to work, which created an amazing atmosphere. However, it was also disappointing to have to rush and not see this majestic temple in the day time, knowing we wouldn’t have time to return again. Bayon temple, in the centre of Angkor Thom, is the only temple to be primarily constructed for Buddhism and its 216 carved faces represent Jayavarman VII who constructed the temple but also representing the Buddhist bodhisattva or enlightened one.