Why the Temples of Angkor were my highlight of backpacking Southeast Asia

Why the Temples of Angkor were my favourite sight in all Southeast Asia

I stand, thighs aching, and catch my breath after a scarily steep climb, experiencing vertigo standing on top of an impossibly high, pyramid mountain of temples.

I feel the wind in my hair as I survey the crumbling, yet still impressive ruins below me, alongside a weathered statue of a loin who has been doing the same for nearly 1000 years. I imagine the huge Khmer Angkor Empire, the lives of the ancient kings, monks and people who had gone to such lengths to build these epic monuments to their faith.

Angkor Wat

Blown away by the Temples of Angkor

The sheer size of these temples blow me away, the enormous, imposing mountain like temple structure, surrounded by dried up moats, with walls twice the height of me. The massive bases are still standing solid with incredibly steep steps leading up to where crumbled towers exposed to the elements hide shrines of Hindu lingas or saffron and gold coloured broken Buddha statues and give views across the temple strewn jungle.

The magnificent, ancient temples of Angkor are the source of Khmer national pride, the remnants of a once large and powerful empire that covered most of modern day Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and parts of Burma and Vietnam. Angkor Wat is the iconic symbol of Cambodia, a country that has been through so much, and even features on the national flag

sunrise at Angkor Wat

Iconic Angkor Wat

The lotus bud domes of Angkor Wat are the most famous and iconic sight, a symbol of Cambodia and even appearing on the national flag and Angkor Wat – the mother of all temples did not disappoint. Often refereed to as the 8th wonder of the world, It is the world’s largest religious building and the best preserved of the Angkor temples as, unlike the others, it has been in continuous use and not abandoned.

Construction on Angkor Wat started in 1125, initially it was built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu and later changed to a Buddhist temple. Angkor Wat was designed to be heaven on earth, the different levels and stages representing and leading the devotee up to Mt Meru – the abode of the Hindu gods.

I spent hours exploring the huge, other worldly complex ( that was blissfully crowd free on a dry and sunny morning during the rainy season) taking in all the details, the sculptures  and trying to decipher the meaning behind the freezes that run along the walls as I climbed higher throughout the many layers until finally reaching the top.

There’s so much more to Angkor than just Angkor Wat

But Angkor is far, far more than just Angkor Wat, that’s just for starters. I didn’t realise just how big the Angkor complex is and how many simply enormous  temples of varying styles, ages and degrees of ruin there are. 3 days of exploration is still not enough to see them all. 

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

The ruins of Angkor Thom – once the largest city in the world

After Angkor Wat the tuk tuk clattered across a bridge flanked with statues of demons and gods who appear to be engaged in a epic tug of war pulling a naga snake. This is one of the many depictions of scenes from the Khmer creation myth of The churning of the ocean of milk. Smiling, enigmatic, yet imposing faces glare down over me as I pass through the gateway and enter into Angkor Thom.

Angkor Thom is a long abandoned, enormous walled city that housed a population of over 1 million, at a time when London was just a small town of 50,000. Angkor Thom is believed to be the largest city in the pre industrial world. All that is left of this advanced civilisation is some walls, irrigation channels, monuments and temples as the right to dwell in brick or stone was solely for gods and kings and each ruler built ever bigger and grander temples to reinforce his stature and links to the gods.

Anna at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Anna at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Why the Temples of Angkor were my favourite sight in all of Southeast Asia

So while Angkor Wat is a truly magnificent creation, for me, what really exceeded my expectations of Angkor was the unexpected sheer scale, size, diversity and multitude of temples. The variety in styles and degrees of disrepair and discovering unexpected treasures and delights.

From huge pyramid temples, to jungle engulfed gopuras to fine delicate sculptures. Each and every temple did not fail to surprise and delight me with the glimpse they offer into this fascinating ancient culture and every now and then I caught a flash of bright orange from monks robes as they visit this sacred site.

The delights came thick and fast as we turned another corner and out of the jungle rose another mammoth structure as the Cambodian kings each tried to upstage their predecessors in size, scale and symmetry and establish themselves as ‘god kings.’ It is astounding at the rate these temples were constructed and it’s not surprising that some temples that were never even completed. It really was a massive building spree.

bayonfaces

Another highlight was the slightly strange Bayon temple which, on approach, just looks like a pile of rubble but is actually made from numerous huge, stone faces that stare down in every direction. The face was modeled on half the king, half Buddha. It’s half smiling, half imposing and reinforces the god king overseeing the kingdom.

Impossibly elaborate reliefs and murals tell in artistic detail of epic Hindu and Khmer myths and legends that influence the design of the temples and everyday life. Scenes of delicate carving, apsaras, Buddhas and other mythical and spiritual creatures stare at us, following as we explore the ruined galleries of the temples.

From Hinduism to Buddhism

There is evidence of where Buddha images have been scratched out and replaced with Hindu images as the kingdom’s state religion fluctuated back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism.

Many of the elaborate temples are now crumbling into the jungle, the grounds strewn with rocks and the walls turned a bluish or amber haze or blackened and white spotted, eroded or strewn with luminous green moss as nature reclaims temples as trees wrap their way around gopuras, over walls, through windows and door frames.

Arguably the finest example of Khmer art is a temple further away from the main group of monuments; the exquisitely intricate and delicate carvings on the lintels and pediments in the pinky red sandstone of Banteay Srei, other wise known as the ladies temple as the carvings are believed to be too beautiful to be created by a man.

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But the Temples of Angkor are no secret. This UNESCO heritage site is visited by over 2 million tourists per year meaning that, especially in peak season around the most famous temples, it’s almost impossible to find some solitude in which to appreciate these ruins. But I wasn’t going to let this deter me and visiting the temples of Angkor were still a realisation of a long awaited dream, a highlight of my time in Southeast Asia and one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen.

And it is still possible to explore the temples of Angkor without the crowds, all it takes is a little planning and you can escape the worst – see my tips on How to avoid the crowds and other tips for visiting Angkor Wat.

Finding peace among the temple ruins

The best decision I made was deciding to walk to opposite direction from everyone else. I picked a muddy path through the foliage, along the crumbling temple walls, stepping over fallen stones. As I walk I escape the shrieks and sounds of Chinese tour groups until I feel a silence come over me amongst the jungly foliage and the thousand year old stones.

The ancient walls of the temple stand miraculously but precariously upright while the long thin strangler fig tree wraps its roots over the walls from above gripping them like bony fingers.

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I startle a wandering cows who clambers up and over the old stone causeway to the temple entrance while the emerald green moss covers the arched roof of the temple entrance and shines so bright it almost looks unreal.

In the gloom of the foliage two, now headless, guardians still stand diligently, menacing yet reassuring. I pick my way softly across the uneven, slippery, mossy stone causeway and manage to slip, unharmed, past the headless guardians and into the temple.

Ducking and diving exploring the old temple, climbing over fallen stones and pausing to admire remnants of fine sculptures and carvings.

I relish in the silence, finally able to take in these wondrous temples, to be able to let my imagination wander to envisage the temples in their heyday in the center of the powerful Angkor Empire and to feel the spirit, eeriness and atmosphere that these ruins deserve.

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