Cambodia is the seventh country Jared and I have visited, and you would think that after all these vacations and living in a foreign country the allure of travel might start to fade or the sense of awe in a new environment is lessened. However, Cambodia was so entirely different from anywhere we have visited, that it felt like I was seeing the world with new eyes.
Our itinerary for this trip was very simple: Angkor. We hoped to see Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but we were delighted that we had the time to see even more. “Angkor” refers to an area in northern Cambodia and includes present city of Siem Reap. The kingdom began in 802 AD and was finally abandoned in 1431. I was somewhat surprised by these dates. I had really only seen pictures of Angkor, pointed at them, and said, “let’s go there.” Based on my knowledge of ancient Asian architecture (of which I have none), I assumed that the ruins were significantly older. However, they are basically from the Middle Ages; these ruins are the same age as many cathedrals and castles in Europe. Angkor Wat was the principal temple of the Khmer Empire, but it is just one of over a thousand temples in the area (most of which are smaller). Researchers have found that the Khmer Empire was the largest pre-industrial city in the world and sprawled out almost 400 square miles. Unfortunately, historians know much less about Angkor than other ancient cities like Rome. The exact dates of buildings and aspects of the culture remain a mystery. Even the reason for the empire’s downfall is uncertain, though most believe that the repeated attacks from present day Thailand were the cause.
However, the one thing left behind by this culture, their architecture, is enough to let you know what a powerful and beautiful kingdom once existed. Many of the temples are grand in scale-large towers, thick walls, and dangerously steep staircases. It is all very impressive from a distance; however, I was more captured by the details you can only see once inside the walls. It seemed that every surface was carved: intricate swirls, marching armies, and a mix of Hindu, Buddhist, and local deities. All of these details contribute to the grandeur of the temples.
We spent two full days exploring Angkor. Our first morning we woke up after only 4 hours of sleep to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. (Jared’s awesome sunrise picture is the featured image for this post!) It was absolutely beautiful. As the light slowly lit up the temple, everything seemed to glow a soft orange. I enjoyed the mirror-like reflection of Angkor Wat in the pool almost as much as the temple itself, and I was delighted when I realized that there were waterlilies floating in its still waters. The beauty was somewhat diminished by the hordes of tourists who came out for the sunrise; but with a strong will you can ignore the people around you and be grateful that you woke up before dawn! We explored Angkor for a few hours (30 minutes of which I was mesmerized by a family of wild monkeys), and then went back to our hotel for lunch and a nap. Our hotel manager helped us complete our itinerary, and we spent the afternoon at the Bayon in Angkor Thom before heading to Pre Rup for sunset. The next morning started with a lackluster sunrise at Srah Srang (a large pool of water), and then on to the temples of Banteay Srei, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm. We were exhausted. Not only were we waking up early, but we were constantly on the move. However, that is how we usually travel because we do not want to waste a second of our time. We always want to see as much as possible and will push ourselves to keep going. I was actually surprised we napped both days, usually we won’t allow ourselves that luxury.
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were impressive for their size and the manmade beauty- statues, carvings, never-ending towers. However, I preferred the beauty of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm because of the natural elements. These are the temples that I most wanted to see. The original National Geographic article I read years ago included pictures from these temples, and inspired us to visit the area. Preah Khan and Ta Prohm are both set further into the jungle than some of the other temples. Much of the jungle has been cleared out around Angkor Wat and other places, but it is ever present at Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. Massive trees have taken root among the ruins. They grow over the walls, onto roofs, and emerge out of piles of rubble. These trees are huge, a single root was too thick for me to put my arms around. The mix of the tree roots and the stone work creates a magical atmosphere. It is difficult to tell if the stones are holding up the tree or the trees is holding together the stones. Some of the trees are so powerful that they are destroying the temple, and there is the possibility that some may be removed to save the structure. To me, they are one now and removing one element, tree or stone, takes away from the beauty of these spots. There are a lot of tourists at these spots, Ta Prohm in particular as the movie Tomb Raider was filmed there. However, Jared and I were lucky enough to wander far enough away from the iconic areas to find a quiet area to ourselves. This little nook of the temple (pictured below) was every bit as beautiful as the other areas, but many of the tourists did not make the effort to fully explore the grounds. Therefore, we suddenly found ourselves in a shady corner where the sounds of the jungle were louder than the din of the tourists. If you get the chance to visit, I recommend that you take the time to turn down the avenues that everyone else passes by; you may find the inspiring spot you were looking for!
The temperature was in the 90’s, but the humidity made it feel well over 100 degrees. The air was so thick with moisture, and it left us sticky and sweaty. A few days before we arrived there was a massive storm; several roads were flooded, and there was standing water everywhere. We had rain showers both evenings, but it was actually refreshing after the hot afternoons. We watched the sun rise and both days I was shocked at how high and hot it got so quickly. Though I was tired when I woke up before 5 each day, I was grateful that we got an early start because it was impossible to move in the afternoons. Before we left for Cambodia, I read that there is a dress code for some of the temples which prohibits shorts above the knees and tank tops. Because of this, I wore pants both days. Although I was hot, it was probably the better choice as it kept my legs protected from both the sun and mosquitos, both of which were plentiful!
Even though it was so short, this was a wonderful vacation. Jared and I were both delighted to wander with our cameras and be amazed at the beauty that surrounded us. I’m already hoping to return soon!
PS: Stay tuned for more on Cambodia- from the people to the tuk-tuks!