Think of all those historic buildings in the UK: Durham, Norwich and Exeter Cathedrals; Rochester, Windsor and Warwick Castles and even my lovely CMS link church at St. Andrew’s Church, Haughton, Darlington. And what do they all have in common? Well, they were all being built at roughly the same time as the Angkor Wat Temple Complex in Cambodia. Now, how’s that for Interesting Fact Of The Day, eh?
Angkor Wat has become such a symbol of Cambodia, that it appears on its national flag. How about this?
Angkor Wat is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world ~ the ruins cover an area over 400 sq. km. It was originally constructed by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as a temple of the Hindu deity Vishnu, and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
400 sq. km? That’s 248 sq. miles. Imagine that! That’s what I was interested to see – the sheer size and immensity of the whole complex. Buildings stretching for miles into the forests in every direction. Jungle, in fact. Angkor Wat is so immense that you can even buy a 7-day pass to see it all. 7 days! Or a 3-day pass even. But me? I had only one day. One day to see a little bit of the whole, just a glimpse.
The way to do it is by overnight bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, 6 hours and very comfortable. As buses go, that is. That was me this past Sunday night. On Monday morning, there I was, bushy-tailed but very bleary-eyed, with a nice tuk-tuk driver who got me to the ticket office at Angkor Wat by 7:00 am, where I was just awake enough to peer at the camera in time for my photo. It’s US$ 37 for a one-day ticket, with photo attached. Had yet to even brush my hair. Ha ha! Now I have a permanent reminder of what I look like after a night on a Cambodian bus.
October is the rainy season in Cambodia and the night before they’d had a big rainstorm at Angkor Wat. So Monday morning was cool and overcast. Good weather for a day touring round temples. Grey sky and dark buildings are not easy to photograph, but they kind of fit the mood of the place….
Anyway off I set around the temple. There’s a whole lot of walking and a huge number of very steep steps. Loved it! My friends had told me that their one regret was not having a guide, so they had no idea what they were looking at. So for one hour, a guide in a uniform came round with me and explained everything and answered all my questions. He told me how the sandstone and laterite stones were carried from a quarry about 60 km away by elephants and chariots. He told me that most of the Buddha statues were headless because people were so desperate for food during the years before, during and after the genocide that they cut the statues’ heads off to sell them.
He told me what everything was and why it was there. He set me up for the whole day. Because after Angkor Wat main temple, there are lots of other temples to look at. The temples are all under restoration, and it seems that every country is helping out, each one assigned their own temple. I saw signs indicating temples being restored by Japan, France, India and China, plus different universities assigned to take care of the archaeological digs.
That’s one temple down, a zillion more to go. So off by chariot (sorry, tuk-tuk) along a road lined with statues, passing by the elephants….
Bayon Temple comes next ~ “the most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.” And this all leads on to the Elephant Terrace.
On to some more temples – where there were rocks carved as snakes all over. “The snake symbol is depicted as the hooded cobra or naga. Not only is the naga-serpent the most prominent motif found at Angkor, but the word “Angkor” itself is derived from the Sanskrit nagara, meaning “city,” from the root naga. The common etymological derivation of the two words underlines the link that exists between the symbolism of the snake and that of the “holy city.” Today, the stone nagas watch silently over every major edifice in the city.”
But the best temple was yet to come. Known as the Tomb Raider Temple, because that’s where the movie was filmed, Ta Prohm is THE BEST!
“Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.” And lucky India has the job of restoring it.
You MUST MUST MUST go there! It really is amazing. As you can see, there were even wedding couples posing for photos! And outside were people playing music who had been injured in landmines …..
And so to lunch. I chose mine based on colour. After a morning of Tomb Raiders ‘n doom and gloom and the like, I needed some colour. Ha ha. It’s chicken curry in a coconut. And Cambodia beer. Gotta try the local stuff. This is it!
And then the sun came out. Another temple. The last! Oh, and a lake….
Time for something else. The tuk-tuk driver suggested I might like to visit the local Killing Fields Museum at Wat Thmei, located in a monastery and temple. This is not for the faint-hearted. More on this in my next post about the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.
After all those dark and gloomy temples and then the Killing Fields, I thought a church was in order. Going round Phonm Penh, I had only seen one church in all the time I was there, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed them all. I asked if there was any church around Siem Reap. Any church of any kind I said. Yes, said the driver. And off we went. Turned out to be St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, where a dear Japanese sister was sweeping the church floor and a catechist was cleaning downstairs.
If I remember correctly, the catechist said that these days there are about 30,000 Roman Catholics in Cambodia, and 50+ priests, of whom 7 are Cambodians and the rest are foreigners, including their own priest who is from the Philippines. They even had a leaflet there in English, which said that the church was built in 2004 and the parish also serves several churches in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake. They are part of the diocese (apostolic prefecture) of Battambang, which is twinned with the RC Diocese of East Anglia, UK. And St. John’s Church itself is twinned with the deanery of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. Ah, it’s a small world ~ Suffolk, I love you!
And so to Siem Reap, which was bustling with tourists. Lots of places to eat, and lots of choices. Ha ha, my dinner menu was spiders, scorpions or snakes. Take your pick!
Time enough to enjoy the late afternoon and night life of Siem Reap…..
And finally to the bus stop for the overnight bus back to Phnom Penh. Bus departure time 11:00 pm. (If you’re interested in the bus, get all your info here.) No shower for a while yet though!
And finally, guess which delectable dinner option I chose? This one….
Ha ha! The spider! The girl selling it said it was the best choice, as it was crunchy. It’s true. It was crunchy. Very crunchy. And what’s more, I lived the tell the tale, and am still in one piece all these days later! So, be adventurous and daring ~ and GO FOR IT!
(This is Part 2 of 3 about my visit to Cambodia. Part 3 coming soon……)