ancient khmer temple cities

(We’re home, finally posting again with just a few of hundreds of photos from our visit to Angkor Wat – enjoy!)

The Khmer kingdom expanded and contracted several times over the centuries from about 700 to 1400 AD. It also moved back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism depending on the beliefs of the king at the time. But through it all, the wide flat valley north of the west end of Tonle Sap Lake remained the centre of Khmer political and religious power until the capital was moved to Phnom Penh in 1432 and the temples and cities now known collectively as Angkor Wat were all but abandoned.

But now, not only is Angkor Wat a world heritage site, it is also described as the largest religious monument in the world, and just missed making it onto the “Seven new wonders of the world” list. Wat means “temple” and Angkor means “city” – so what we have is a “temple city”. And while the walled Angkor Wat city-of-temples itself is perhaps the most famous, it is just one of dozens of significant and diversely-designed and constructed temples and former capital cities scattered across 400 square kilometres.

We arrived in Siem Reap by air, and by the time our taxi driver got us to our hotel, we had hired him to be our driver for the next three days, complete with an itinerary that would not only get us back and forth across the valley to explore some of the major outlying temples, a butterfly garden and a landmine museum, but timing for each that would minimize our exposure to the pushy and rushed crowds moving around by big tour bus.

Sunscreen, bug repellent and water was all we needed, and we were off! A three-day pass cost us $40 each, US cash only (a Vietnamese company actually runs and profits from visits to Angkor Wat, a sore point with locals).

On the first day we wandered around Pre Rup, a Hindu temple that was built around 960 AD. Then it was north to Banteay Srei, constructed just a few years later quite a few kilometres north of the Angkor Wat site, sometimes known as the Citadel of the Women, and certainly known for the numerous and intricately carved bas relief illustrations found here. Everywhere we turned, there were carved panels depicting religious stories and deities – some weather worn and crumbling, some holding up well, and some restored.

Nearby Banteay Samri was next on our list of temples to visit. This temple was dismantled and reassembled by the French in the 1930s using original materials and techniques, although it is interesting to see piles of leftover blocks and building fronts assembled and stacked along the walkway to the main entrance.

On the way in, a dozen girls approached us with items for sale. They asked us our names and where we were from, and when we told them Canada, they declared that the capital of Canada was Ottawa, and made Deborah promise to buy something on the way out. And even though we emerged an hour later, they remembered our names and country of origin – a future in sales for each and every one of them!

Our second day on site was our most ambitious: Ta Prohm, the Terrace of the Elephants, Victory Gate, Bayon (the main temple at Angkor Thom), and finally Angkor Wat. Our driver did well – we mostly avoided the big bus tours and had some sites almost to ourselves for casual exploration.

These are amazing ruins. Everywhere there were walls, towers, statues, and bas-relief carvings. Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, nagas, guardian lions and monkey-headed men, devatas, apsaras, battle scenes, creation stories, inscriptions, and worshippers and wise-men.

Our final day in the area was a chance to get out to Beng Malea – a temple site mostly left as it was found, and the temples that make up the Roluos group, an early Khmer capital. Beng Malea brought our inner mountain goats. While most of the package-tour people are rushed along the boardwalk on their way in and out, we joined a small number of other visitors who climbed up and over, around and under the crumbling ruins – Indiana Jones would be proud! It was here that a scene in Tomb Raider was filmed (apparently several other movies have used this site as well for “ancient ruins” scenes).

Did we say these are amazing ruins? Machu Picchu remains our favourite, but these are solidly in second place!

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