Visit: 4th-5th April 2018
This year was my dad’s 60th birthday, and to celebrate this milestone he had the idea of getting the whole family together in Thailand, choosing a tiny resort on the island of Ko Jum, near Krabi and Phuket in the country’s south.
Six of us (Mum & Dad, Joe & Shaz, Natalie & I) spent five days together, travelling around the small island of maybe 1,500 people on rented scooters. Highlights included a cookery class, a fishing trip and of course Dad’s birthday party thrown by our generous host Kitima.
There are no World Heritage Sites on the island of Ko Jum, however, and as you can imagine I could not travel all the way to Asia without shoehorning some WHS-visiting into the trip. The most exciting one in Southeast Asia to my mind was always going to be Angkor, in Cambodia, consistently rated a top 10 WHS for those in the know. Natalie and I bade farewell to the others and caught a flight on local budget carrier Air Asia from Krabi via Bangkok Don Mueang to Siam Reap.
We arrived by night into a surprisingly modern but unsurprisingly bureaucratic airport at which we were required to pay US$30 each for visas on arrival before sharing a car with an Australian couple to our hotel in the city. Through the hotel I arranged a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us sightseeing, which is really the only way to see this enormous temple complex of some 400 square kilometres.
The next morning we hit the road and, after buying a 3-day pass at US$62 each, headed first for the most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat.
To give a sense of perspective, click on the map below. Below and left of centre you can see the airport with its 2.5km runway for scale. The square in the centre and that one beneath that are the moated land sites of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The rectangular reservoirs of West Mebon, Preah Khan (both still water-filled) and East Mebon (now dry) are enormous. They are called barays and nobody really knows how the 12th century Khmer people managed to dig them. Their purpose was probably part practical, in order to store water for the many people who lived here, but it is likely there was also a spiritual element.
The many dozens of different temples located at Angkor are the product of the ancient Khmer civilisation and were built mostly in the 12th century. Angkor Wat is 2 square kilometres and is more of a city itself than a mere temple.
The central temple comprises a pyramid of three levels, surrounded by two concentric galleries that contain statues and wall carvings known as bas-reliefs.
Although there were probably several thousand tourists at this single temple, its sheer size meant it did not feel very crowded. Most of our fellow visitors seemed not to notice what to me were the highlights of the visit: the bas-reliefs.
Maintained in remarkably good condition, these 50 metre-long carvings depict epic scenes from Hindu and Khmer mythology and history, such as the Procession of Suryavarman II (above). This procession takes place across three different levels, and depicts the very king who oversaw the building of Angkor Wat with his thousands of men and beasts.
My favourite bas-relief was the Churning of the Sea of Milk (below). In this tale 92 asura gods pull alternately at either end of the giant snake Vasuki, which is coiled around Mount Mandara. This causes the hill to rotate, churning up the sea of milk for 1,000 years to produce the elixir of immortality. I especially liked the small details, like the fish in the bottom right of the picture below that have been chopped to bits by the ferocity of the churning!
Angkor Thom, South Gate
The second place our driver took us was the enormous ancient city of Angkor Thom. Today much of its area is wooded, but in the 12th century it was a bustling metropolis. A square with edges of 3km in length, it is surrounded by a wall and a moat. The best-restored gate is the south entrance, where the bridge across the moat is flanked by statues of gods and demons churning the sea of milk – just as depicted in the bas-relief back at Angkor Wat.
At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which was the State Temple of King Jayavarman VII. Because it is located right in the middle of the city – which is the most auspicious place – later kings, instead of building their own state temples, added to the Bayon. For this reason it is a highly complex hodgepodge of a building of great interest to historians.
The most striking features of the Bayon are its many ‘face towers’, smiling serenely at all angles.
Leaving Bayon, we continued to Ta Prohm, stopping off on the way at the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace in the north of Angkor Thom.
These once formed the bases of two ‘royal pavilions’. These were apparently the only structures we saw at Angkor that were not religious in purpose.
Ta Prohm – our final temple for day 1 – has been left in the state of decay in which it was originally discovered. This was the idea of Cambodia’s former French colonial administrators and I think it was a stroke of brilliance. Not only is it picturesque to see the crumbling walls dominated by great trees, but it also reminds us that most of these temples have undergone a great deal of renovation since their ‘rediscovery’ in modern times.
The strangler figs and silk-cotton trees that have grown so large were probably dropped as seeds by birds. The roots then worked their way through the masonry to the ground and as they grew they split and crumbled the temple’s walls to their present state.
Back in Siam Reap that evening we went out for dinner on ‘Pub Street’ where the beer was cheap and Natalie managed to find a dish containing potato and cheese (not ingredients you come across often in Southeast Asia!).
Having taken the ‘Small Circuit’ tour the previous day, this morning we hired the same driver and set off on the ‘Grand Circuit’, which takes in different temples but didn’t seem noticeably grander (how could it be?). We zipped past Angkor Wat, in through Angkor Thom’s south gate and out again through its north before arriving at the temple of Preah Khan.
Thought to have been a Buddhist university employing 1,000 teachers, it held special significance because it is thought to be built on the site of a major battle won by the Khmer when they recaptured Angkor from their arch-rivals the Cham (a people whose heartland at the time was in modern-day Vietnam).
Buddhism and Hinduism have much in common, which is why we see so many Hindu references at the site of a Buddhist civilisation. One of the most interesting things about Angkor is that when much of it was built, under Jayavarman VII, the Khmer civilisation was in a period of transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.
The next site was unique in being a water shrine, consisting of a cruciform pond arrangement with a central tower, itself situated in the middle of a great baray that has been recently refilled with water.
It was inspired by the mythical Himalayan lake Anavatapta, which is known for its healing powers and is the source of four great rivers.
Neak Pean is accessible via a long boardwalk to the centre of the baray with no fencing to keep you from falling in!
Another temple that has been left in the state in which it was discovered, Ta Som was referred to by the 12th century Khmer by the poetic name ‘Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant’.
This temple has little in the way of surrounding buildings because it was originally located in the middle of a huge 7.5 x 1.8 km baray some 5 metres deep. The baray is now dry and it is impossible on the ground to get a sense of what it used to be like, but if you look on satellite imagery you can still make out its outline.
The final temple of our visit, Pre Rup was the State Temple of King Rajendravarman, who came a little later than Jayavarman VII.
By this point we had seen quite enough temples for our short time in Cambodia and it was time to start making our way back to the airport.
Visiting Angkor can be a slightly overwhelming experience on account of its sheer scale. But it must be one of the most awe-inspiring World Heritage Sites and one that could occupy a great deal of time if you had the luxury of several weeks there.
Although a more recent civilisation than the Egyptians and the Romans, it is still incredible to consider what these people built with the basic tools that would have been available during what we would call in Europe the Dark Ages. In fact what impressed me the most, on reflection, is not the temples themselves but the sheer scale of civil engineering required to dig out millions of cubic metres of reservoir for the grand, mysterious barays.