Siem Reap: Exploring the Khmer Empire

From the Foro Romano to Chichen Itza, it thrills me to no end to walk amongst the ruins of the world's great ancient civilizations. Last week, I added another notch to my explorer's belt when we delved into the majestic ruins of the ancient Khmer Empire in modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia. In seeing the remnants of what was once the most dominant empire in Southeast Asia, one gets a sense of the power and sophistication of this ancient civilization that left an indelible mark on the world with astounding architecture built as early as the 9th century.

Angkor Wat
We started our day at the crack of dawn to see the magnificent sunrise at Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century under the rule of King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is Cambodia's most beloved temple and the finest expression of high classical Khmer architecture.

I was initially hesitant to flock to Angkor Wat with the rest of the tourist hordes, but there's a reason why the pond fronting this ancient temple is surrounded by lit up LCD screens as early as 5am. The vivid colors of the sky set against the silhouette of Angkor Wat is truly a sight to behold. Starting a day of touring at this hour also means getting to see most of the temples before the temperature and humidity becomes too punishing.

Our tour guide's game plan was to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat then come back for an in-depth exploration of the temple later in the day, when the thick crowds had dispersed. It was a good plan; when we came back at around 1pm that afternoon, the temple was peaceful, leaving us free to view the towers, bas reliefs, and carvings without having to dodge large tour groups.

The guides at Siem Reap have to be trained and licensed, so they have a lot of knowledge to pass on. Ours did a great job of explaining all the details of each temple to us, particularly the highly detailed bas reliefs. At Angkor Wat, he showed us the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery, a spectacular 49-meter-display of intricately sculpted scenes from the Battle of Kuruksetra, the Ramayana, the 37 Heavens and the 32 Hells, and Angkor Wat’s patron, Suryavarman II. He also pointed out the beautifully carved apsaras and devatas, sharing interesting bits of trivia like how the apsaras are depicted with 36 different elaborate hairstyles throughout the temple.

Before arranging our trip to Siem Reap, I had been under the impression that the Angkor Wat was the only temple in this area. I was sorely misinformed, as our guide told us that there were actually 500 temples (ancient and working temples) in Siem Reap! Apart from Angkor Wat, there's a multitude of archeological gems in the area, and we got to see quite a number of wonders in one day.

Angkor Thom
After seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we headed for the ancient city of Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. We entered through the South Gate, which is quite impressive on its own. The road is bordered by a row of devas on the left (dieties) and asuras on the right (demons). Both hold a naga, the seven-headed serpent that figures prominently in legends pertaining to the origins of the Khmer people. The gate features giant faces, echoing the theme of the beautiful Bayon temple within the city.

Angkor Thom is a massive complex, spanning some 9 square kilometers, and containing several temples and structures. The Terrace of the Elephants is worth seeing, with its own set of bas reliefs and large elephant heads. This structure was used by the king as a viewing platform for public ceremonies.

Prasat Baphuon, an 11th century temple that predates Angkor Thom and is symbolic of Mount Meru, has just undergone painstaking restoration through the efforts of the French and Cambodian governments. It is a lovely sight, too.

Prasat Bayon
The centerpiece of Angkor Thom is undeniably Bayon Temple, with its many towers carved with about 200 serene faces. I found Bayon to be the most impressive temple, as the large stone faces decorating every tower make it a truly astounding structure to see. In constrast to the the classical Angkor Wat, Bayon is considered the best example of baroque-style Khmer architecture.

The identity of the serene face depicted on Bayon's towers is still up for debate. Some say the faces represent a bodhisattva while others claim a striking resemblance to the king himself. Bayon also suffers from an identity crisis of sorts. Originally built as a Buddhist temple then converted to a Hindu temple by a succeeding monarch, throughout the temple, one finds carvings of buddhas that have been altered with beards in order to convert them into Hindu deities. Bayon is also known for its extensive bas reliefs, which depict both important battles as well as the daily life of the Khmer people.

Ta Prohm
I'll come clean: my obsession with getting up-close-and-personal with Angkor Wat was not entirely born out of a fascination with ancient civilizations. It was nudged along by a certain movie involving Angelina Jolie tumbling through a temple overrun with trees. So when the time came to arrange our itinerary through Siem Reap, we included a stop at Ta Prohm, referred to by most tourists as the "Tomb Raider" temple. Just east of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm is marvelous to explore, with its rich Bayon-style architecture engaged in an exquisite struggle with nature.

Built in the late 12th and early 13th century as a temple to Mahayana Buddhism, Ta Prohm is unique because parts of it have been left in the state it was found: beautifully wrestling and coexisting with the gargantuan spung trees that have overrun the temple. Ta Prohm is, however, also being restored with the help of the Indian government in a fine balancing act that rebuilds while allowing this lovely dance with the surrounding jungle to continue.

As Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the area, you would do well to follow our wizened guide's tactics. To avoid the crowds, we took an early lunch and then went to Ta Prohm just as the large groups were leaving. Because of the jungle cover, temperatures at Ta Prohm are cooler than in other temples, even at high noon, and by coming at this time, we got to enjoy this temple in relative peace and quiet.

Banteay Srei
A visit to Banteay Srei entails a 25-kilometer drive from Angkor Thom (and a $15 additional charge for our car rental)—but the trip is worth every meter and penny. This temple is carved out of red sandstone, giving it a wholly unusual look compared to the other temples in this area. The carvings on every surface, from the lintels down to pillars, are visibly more intricate and refined.

Unlike other temples in the area which were built by monarchs, Banteay Srei was built by priests (this is according to our guide; Wikipedia tells a slightly different story) and is a Hindu temple dedicated to Siva and Vishnu. The name Banteay Srei ("Citadel of Women") is a modern-day moniker that may have its origins in the many devatas that adorn the temple.

If you have a few days to spare in Siem Reap, you should work with your tour guide in determining the best time to view this temple. We visited Banteay Srei at around 11am when the heat was starting to become unbearable and the crowds were quite thick. Banteay Srei is miniature in scale compared to other temples and is highly popular, so it can be very crowded. I found myself struggling to concentrate on the beauty of the surroundings while coping with the heat and crowd. It is an exquisite temple and absolutely worth seeing, but also requires prior planning in order to fully enjoy your visit.

Other Practical Matters:
  • On making the most of your time. Since we only had one full day to spend in Siem Reap, we decided to hire a private car and tour guide to make the best use of our time. We booked through Angkor Holidays and were very happy with the service we got. I highly recommend our tour guide, Sin Peng Eng, who was not only highly knowledgable but also adept at steering us away from maddening crowds so that we would reach temples at optimal times. The damage: $20 for a one-day temple pass and $65 for the private car, driver and tour guide (the regular tour is $50; an additional $15 was added for Banteay Srei). With two of us splitting the cost for our private tour, it was well worth the splurge to be able to see the temples at our own pace.
  • On sustenance. Ask your hotel in advance to prepare a packed breakfast for you, if you plan on starting your tour with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Failing that, your tour guide will be happy to bring you to a restaurant for breakfast and lunch. In all honesty, the restaurants your guide will take you to will likely be ones you would regard a tourist trap. But as someone who suffered from food poisoning on this trip at a restaurant of our choosing, I would say it's probably safer to follow your guide's recommendations. If you've arranged for a car or tuk tuk, your driver will likely have a cooler with bottled water for you (and would be happy to buy more bottles for you upon your request). Make sure to always bring water while touring the temples as you will be doing a lot of walking, and the heat and humidity can be extreme. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
  • On dressing appropriately. Some of the temples you will visit are still used as functioning temples today. It is likely that you will run into Buddhist monks in Bayon and in Angkor Wat, as we did. So as tempting as it is to tour in a bikini and hot pants, please don't. I wore a linen t-shirt, lightweight drawstring pants, and Chucks, and I was quite happy. Being covered up kept me from getting dusty, sunburnt, and mosquito-bite riddled. I recommend dressing similarly.