Seim Reap airport looks like a temple, a temple to the iron bird maybe. We were probably the only flight for a while so it was very serene and peaceful, a far cry from the Saigon circus we left behind. A Cambodian visa is required on entry to the country, a long queue of officials sit behind an equally long curved desk waiting for a game of pass the passport ensues. For $US20 you watch your documents shuffle alone one by one; first name, check; surname, check; middle name, check; other middle name, check; cats name, check. All passed without incident and we were free to roam this country.
After a quick lunch, hotel check in and quick freshen up we were off to explore the Angkor region. According the Lonely Planet there is no greater concentration of architectural riches anywhere on earth. Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building; the Bayon is one of the weirdest; Ta Prohm still has a jungle growing from it. All are global icons that have put Cambodia on the map as the temple capital of the world. Still used for religious purposes by the Khmer (people of Cambodia or Kampuchea) and a must see for all travellers in South East Asia.
First stop was Ta Prohm, built over 850 years ago, it is a real Indiana Jones set and used in Tomb Raider allowing Lara Croft to kick some butt in this unique part in the jungle. There was a wonderful light filtering through the elegantly tall trees spotlighting the coloured lichen that covers the temple. Roots push through the structure and threaten to pull it apart while equally keeping it from further decay by binding itself to the stonework. Amid all this impressive beauty, was a tune going on inside my head, “I’m the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP, I’ve reached the top, and had to stop, and that’s what bothering me.”
What did bother me was the hoards to souvenir sellers, mainly young children who swarm around tourists like locusts hawking their bangles, postcards and books. Their persistent patter and reliance on persistence over salesmanship to secure a dollar was commendable. From temple to coach must have been a whole kilometer and Chris had been targeted by an eight year old girl who mono-toned him relentlessly for the whole journey. Sadly she failed after a sterling effort only to hitch a lift back at the expense of another tourist going the other way.
We watched the sun set from the top of another temple, that to my shame I can remember the name of (possibly Phnom Bakheng). It was a great vista looking over the top of the jungle for miles around while crazy noises emanating from the trees below by the beasts that lived within. Unfortunately the sun had other ideas and had set behind some clouds half an hour earlier.
The jewel in Angkor’s crown is undoubtedly Angkor Wat, this colossal temple surrounded by a tranquil rectangular moat was built by Suryavarman II for his devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu. Such is the importance of this landmark to the Cambodians, it occupies pride of place on their national flag. It took close to forty years to build and was constructed from gigantic stones quarried 50km away and transported down river.
The impressive stone carved friezes around the main level represent the Churning of the Ocean of Milk by 54 demons and 54 gods engaged in an epic tug of war of good against evil.
The upper level of the temple is still used for pilgrims and worth the steep climb to explore the myriad of rooms and views over the rest of the temple. Bright orange robed monks would randomly appear to offer a contrast to the neutral colours of the temple walls enhancing an already spiritual setting.
The gates of Angkor Thom are flanked by a monumental sculptural representation of the tug of war with demons and gods straining back on a large snake.Built to be bigger and more impenetrable after a surprise invasion of Angkor by the Chams in the twelfth century. The centrepiece is the Bayon that is decorated with 54 towers decorated by 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, apparently they are the spitting image of King Jayavarman VII, so possibly a bit of a vanity project.
There are hundreds of temples in Angkor, something to see every day for months and all with their own stories to tell.