Capital of the Khmer civilization
My first visit to Angkor was in 1995. At the time it wasn't possible to bicycle in Cambodia. Even around the ruins of the ancient city around Siem Reap it was not safe as the Khmer Rouge still had hold on some temple complexes as close by as 15 km. It meant then I could not visit some of the further away temples.
Some years later I came back.
This time I was on bicycle. I had crossed the Thai border at Aranyaphratet Thailand. The situation was completely different. Siem Reap was still the gateway to the Angkor temples but the town had developed into a tourist town. Many guest houses were available, many still cheap. The fear I had sensed in 1995 had disappeared in 2002.
People were looking at a more prosperous future. But the way into Cambodia was basically still the same: motorbike or bicycle. In that year I saw the first busses coming in. The sunset view from Bakheng Hill was in 1995 only for a happy few, but in 2002 it was packed. It was almost impossible (I was there in February) to climb up!
And the sunset was really not that impressive. I have visited Angkor three times and whenever I went to Angkor, I was never bored. The whole area where the Khmers build their capital is big, and incredibly beautiful. A three day pass cost you $40 and it's worth.
The outer wall of Cambodia's' National Symbol
As I had my own bicycle, I didn't want to hire a guide. I just got a map of the complex and went in. On the way, the pass was checked and the first temple to visit was Angkor Wat.
The Royal Bath
Staying in Siem Reap
Siem Reap has plenty of good hotels in all prices and qualities. With such a selexction of cheap and cheaper guesthouses there's little need to make a booking in advance. However, should you insist, take a look:
Angkor Photo Gallery, a random set of photos of the Angkor Complex
With Angkor Wat, build between 1112 and 1150 the world the Khmer's portrays the Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond.
This temple is said to be the largest religious monument in the world and it's visited by millions today. The empire was originally Hindu but changed later into Buddhism.
The city of Angkor Thom, which was the capital of the Khmer empire in the height days was build some years after Angkor Wat after an attack by the Cham empire in Vietnam.
In the 15th century most of the old capital was abandoned after a series of Siamese attacks. The site remained a shrine for Buddhist though. many of the temples were covered by the tropical jungle until in the 19th century French archaeologist started excavations.
The restoration process continues until today. Some temples are completely rebuild with their old stones on concrete foundations.
Which temple to visit?
An obvious choice is Angkor Wat. One can wander around in Angkor Wat for days. There's so much to see, the sculpturing so vivid and the atmosphere so intense.
If you come on one of the more quiet days, outside the tourist season, Angkor Wat is even more magic. Not for nothing the Cambodian choose the temple as their National Symbol and it's placed on the country flag.
The second time I visited Siem Reap, I spend most of the day in Angkor Wat, sometimes sitting in one of the towers, other moments wandering through the corridors watching the fantastic sculpturing.
Another magic temple, and maybe my favorite, is the Bayon temple. 108 4 sides Buddha heads mysteriously smile to you (or not?) I left my bicycle outside the temple and walked in to be soaked back in the ages of time. Maybe I was lucky, I was all alone in this magic temple.
It was quite easy to forget time in such a place but this time I wanted to visit a few other temples I had to skip during my first two visits.
After an hour or so I picked up my bike to visit Ta Phrom. This temple is also incredibly big. The government has tried to leave Ta Phrom in the state as it was found by Mahout in the mid 1800's. Inside the complex you can see the how the trees grow into the ruins. Some of the trees have been cut, but many still grow.
Ta Phrom is probably the largest temple inside the old Khmer capital city (as Angkor Wat is located outside the city walls).
There are countless temples, one can only wonder how many people much have lived here in their wooden houses, which are all now destroyed. It all starts with the magic entrance: a bridge with demon heads protecting the city. On all 4 wind directions there is a bridge but most of the heads are stolen.
There are many smaller temples in the ruined city, like Neak Pean. This is a relatively small complex, an artificial island with a Buddhist temple at the center. The name is derived from the sculptures of snakes (Naga) running around the base of the temple structure.
The Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King are nearby the heart of Angkor Thom and contain beautiful sculpturing of elephants and the Hindu God Yama, the god of death after which the Terrace of the Leper King is named.
There are two circle roads: the outer and the inner road. Get your bike and go around, follow some of the signs and visit the smaller and lesser visited sites. You can go easily back in time at those places.
Temples away from the old capital: Beng Melea
If you want to see what the jungle really can do in this part of the world with buildings, it's better to visit the temple Beng Melea which is hardly renovated. When I visited the temple in 2002 it was not possible to visit much of the inside of the temple.
Much of the temple was in rubble. From reports I have some of the rubble is a bit cleaned up and it seems to be safe to go inside. At the time I could balance over some rubble in the temple, following a kid who showed me the way.
Beng Melea is roughly 40 km away from the old Khmer capital. The road was then rough, no more then a sand path.
Another group of lesser importance is to be found a few kilometers east out of Siem Reap. They commonly known as the Rolous group. They are only of interest if you have some extra time or if you intend to cycle to Phnom Penh
The power of imagination
One can only have a glimpse of the magnificence of the old Khmer civilization. I have visited the area now three times and without a problem I can go back.
I remember I was walking in one of the temples, sat down for a while and watched the little dancers in stone.
The sculpturing is so vivid you would not be surprised the dancer would jump of the wall and continues dancing in front of you.
Few places in my journeys I have visited where that suggestion was so powerful. I can only recommend the old Khmer capital, but going there will show you more then I can tell.
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More photos of Angkor and Angkor Wat
Click on the link below for an extensive photo report of my three visits to the ancient capital and its temples.
The Khmer empire stretch out to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. In South Laos an outpost of the Khmer empire is still to be visited: Wat Phu