Temples, temples, temples
The temples of Angkor—the last remnants of the ancient Khmer capital— draw millions of visitors per year, and we felt we couldn’t complete a circuit through Southeast Asia without joining them. After realizing that the overland journey down from northern Laos would mean more than 40 hours of bus time, we purchased two plane tickets and showed up at the airport on March 29th eager to participate in the wonders of air travel.
Two hours, a visa stamp, and laughably relaxed customs check (there was none) later, we arrived in Cambodia, pleased to discover ATMs dispensing notes bearing the familiar faces of our dead presidents.
Despite being warned by desperate tuk-tuk drivers that the bike ride from Siem Reap was “very far, very hot,” we rented two single speed bikes for $1.50 and peddled the 7km to Angkor and back on our first day. Yes, it was hot and tiring, but the terrain was Kansas flat and we enjoyed the freedom that your own set of wheels provides. We peddled around the crumbling city of Angkor Thom, through ancient gates, and down dirt paths lining old moats.
Our favorite temples were the ones with criss-crossing corridors and countless stone doorways, sunlight streaming into open rooms and others cast into stony darkness. Hallways often ended in empty courtyards or small chambers full of carvings of dancing apsaras, where it was easy to imagine being there 1,000 years ago.
Aloof stone faces stare down from many corners of Angkor, but no more so than at Bayon, where King Jayavarman VII erected a temple bearing more than 200 massive stone faces in his likeness. They pop out from behind every corner, and encircle the upper platform.
Trees have reclaimed Ta Prohm. Gnarled roots crumble the walls and engulf towers that the creators must have thought indestructible. Though the jumbled piles of stone blocks beg to be clambered over, ropes (yes, perhaps for the best) thwarted us at every turn.
We did opt for a tuk-tuk ride out to Banteay Srei, a small temple well north of the main complex known for the intricate carvings in its pink sandstone facade.
Massive Angkor Wat is the centerpiece, worn proudly on the Cambodian flag and likely responsible for most of Siem Reap’s tourist mob. However, with such a reputation to live up to, we suspected that it wouldn’t be the highlight of our time here.
Mangy scaffolding hung to sections undergoing restoration, and graffiti— quite a bit of it, shockingly— exposed the inane side of mass tourism.
No doubt the health of our high school history teacher’s heart would have tested by the supreme joy of traversing the hundreds of yards of bas relief inside Angkor Wat. We moved through rather quickly.
Angkor Wat is incredibly impressive in terms of how much time and effort went into its creation, but the smaller more intimate temples are the ones we’ll remember most.