Angkor Wat, Cambodia - Part 1: Angkor Wat and Ruins     Last Updated: 21-Nov-01 


Go to:      Tonle Saap (2)     Secrets of Elephants / Siem Reap (3)     Meals (4)    


As we flew into Siem Reap, we got a great view of Angkor Wat, the moat and the surrounding landscape.

Angkor Wat and surroundings 
Close-up (the tops are 65 m high - that is ~ 20 stories) 
Tonle Sap Lake (South of Angkor Wat)  Houses  Street with more houses 


Visits among the ruins

Much has been written and otherwise documented about the monuments and ruins of Angkor, so we will not presume to provide better descriptions. Instead, we will provide some impressions and vignettes.

That said, a quick background. The first stone monuments built in the area which are open to tourists were built in the early ninth century North of the lake of Tonle Saap, the largest "fresh" water lake in SE Asia. Temples, monuments, tombs, and cities were built until the fifteenth century by the Khmer people, and periodically sacked by the Siamese, mostly. The majority of the sites remaining were stone temples and tombs. Most of the sites have strong Hindu and/or Buddhist themes, with illustrations of key myths and beliefs. Many of them have served purposes for one faith, and then been adapted for the other. Several also reflect ordinary life of the builders, and some are monuments to individuals or key families.

Many of these relics over a 3000 square kilometer area have been somewhat restored; Angkor Wat is the most famous, but not necessarily the most striking. Almost all of the sites have a dominant North/South/East/West orientation because the Khmers were great astronomers as well as architects. Several of the sites are intensely visited, but many only see a few visitors each day. Angkor is a UNESCO Heritage site, and receives support for restoration and preservation, as well as education of the locals into their heritage and the value of the sites, and in support of beneficial tourism. Several sites seem to be restored by French (since the early 1900s) and Japanese (more recently) organizations. The last 10 years also seem to have brought great progress in removal of landmines, shown by the continuous agricultural areas around the temples and the free movement that is now allowed to the tourists.

Tourists buy one pass for all sites; we got the seven-day pass for $60 each. While this seems high, it covers even the far-flung ruins, and contributes to restoration and upkeep.

Angkor Wat itself is huge; its perimeter is 5.5 kilometers, surrounded by a moat which is 200 meters wide. Like many of the sites, it is built in layers or rings. Within each rectangular ring are additional buildings as well as the next ring. At the center one typically finds a temple or tomb and buildings called libraries. Most of the buildings are made of latrite, a type of local sandstone. In some cases, as it is with Angkor Wat, there are inner pools (and, in some cases, moats).

Built on many layers, there are innumerable steps leading up and down. These steps are very narrow, and one can only walk them with feet (and bodies) turned sideways. Maybe this is why the apsaras (celestial nymphs) usually are depicted with sideways feet.

Angkor Wat at sunset 
  Corner in one of the numerous courtyards  Steps to temple  Central tower 
Apsaras on column  Apsara detail  Bas-relief - Churning of the Sea of Milk  Bas-relief gallery 

It is impossible to give an impression of the full site. Look at our aerial photos and those on the ground - one cannot see all of it from any one place except maybe an airplane. The amount of detail is overwhelming, from the apsaras in the center to the bas-relief murals of mythical wars between demons and gods surrounding the inner complex, covering more than 1200 square meters. The higher one climbs in the inner temple, the fewer tourists one encounters. We visited the first time early in the day, when most people start elsewhere, so it was especially quiet. We visited again at sunset, where we could capture the central towers glowing against the darkening sky.

Each temple is surrounded by touts and concession stands. The number of sellers corresponds directly to the number of tourists; the more popular sites have armies, while the remote sites such as Lolei may have one or two who make a half-hearted attempt to sell you something.

Scott under siege 

The moment we arrive, we are surrounded by kids insistently hawking -


"Cold drinks!"


"Buy my book!"
(A number of common guide books have been cheaply reproduced -
Lonely Planet's Cambodia, a $17 book, can be bought for $2.)

The next layer will be the restaurants -

"Come sit down. Cold drink."

Amazingly, the kids slide easily from English to German to Japanese, with surprising depth. The sellers are only allowed to go to a certain point on the temple approach, so there is a clear demilitarized zone. Sometimes, they will say,

"I will remember you - you buy when you come out."

Yeah, right.
The Bayon is one of the more well-known images of Angkor. Its 54 towers are covered with over 200 huge visages of an almost smiling stoic face. It is thought that these are most likely King Jayarvarman VII (builder of many of the monuments), but may also be the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. (Say that 10 times fast.) Because it has been added to over time, this temple is complex and confusing in layout, and almost any position has several of these faces looking at you. They are on towers of varying heights, and surround the central spire, which itself has one face looking in each cardinal direction. Not a place for the paranoid! It is also surrounded, on the outside and inside of the outermost layer, with huge bas-relief murals of common life. The structure is a layered maze, and I got lost several times when we went there for another sunset.
Naga Banister at South Gate of Angkor Thom  Moat at South Gate 
Detail of South Gate Bridge  Top of the South Gate 
The Banyon (the faces only really show up when one goes closer or knows where to look) 
Size Reference for one of the smaller faces  Each of the 54 towers has 4 faces  Apsara detail on ground level 

The kids at most sites are relentless, and it was fun to try to negotiate with them. They would try to sell something, and I'd use the tactic of having seen it at a lower price elsewhere.

"How much?"

"Go buy it there."

"I can't make any profit for that price."

We bought one of the guide books (negotiated down to 50% of the initial price, which was about 10% of the sticker price on the cover) - it provided more detail than the more general Cambodia book we had brought with us. From that point on, when a horde descended, Scott would try to turn the tables and sell them the book. Surprised for only a brief moment, they'd immediately ask,

"How much?"

"Is it color?"

"No? I pay $1!"

Scott'd protest, "I can't make a profit - $5."

They would laugh and argue. Sometimes Scott would try to talk to them in Japanese (hoping they'd give up) but theirs was better than his. The only escape was to run to the sanctuary of the temple or the car.

Ta Prom is the jungle temple, and the other well-known image - it is the one which seems to be in battle with the trees which have grown into its stones over the centuries. Almost no work has been done to restore the temple, some of the jungle has been cleared away, and some of the structure has been stabilized or blocked off for safety. Otherwise, it has been left essentially as it was found. With a layout as complex as the others, but with the additional challenges of caved-in passages and tumbled-down stones, one discovers small surprises at each turn. One view may be of fallen stones frozen in time and covered with velvety deep green moss. Another may be of an Apsara dancing on a stone column. Here is a mighty tree crushing a gateway with a loving embrace. There is an intact window framing a cascade of roof stones. An Italian tour group passes through a courtyard of structure and shambles. A German artist is sketching the famous tree which is digging into the window which it supports. In the jumbled pile of stones one sees many valuable carvings half hidden by stone and moss.
What holds what together?  Detail between roots 
The famous tree!  The architects did not use keystones, but pure mass for roofs ==> lots of stones when a roof collapses 
Based on a suggestion from Lonely Planet's website, we brought post cards of San Francisco and Palo Alto to use as small gifts. When the kids run up to Scott to sell their post cards, he'd whip them out (OK, Roswitha would whip them out, hand them to him, and quickly back off), and say, "Sir, madame, you buy my post cards?"

"How much?"

"$1 each!" Scott says.

They laugh, and say,

"No! Give it to me for free."
"You buy my postcards for $5
(a pack of 10, normal opening price is $1),
and I'll buy yours."

Then someone says,

"let me look,"

and before he knows it, everyone wants to see. Even though the stack disappears from his hands, they are very careful to keep track of them and make sure that they all get back to Scott. Also, unlike one would expect in many other places, while Scott's attention is elsewhere, no hands wander into his pockets or pouch.

"Where is this?"

"Is this water all around?"

"What is this bridge?"

"Why is this street all wiggly?"

"Is this your house?"

"May I have this one - a gift?"

"No, but I will trade you. What will you give me?"

"I give you one post card. You give me two!"

"One dollar for ten cards!" they laugh.

Then they start offering cards, starting with the less popular or poorly printed ones.

"I already have that one. I don't like that one." Eventually, they earnestly offer Scott a card, and he lets them take their pick in return. And then they try to sell him a book or a scarf…

Over a drink  Scott gathering interested Traders  ... and more 
Bantey Srei is located far away from the other popular sites. One must drive 25 km over bumpy roads, through villages and farms to get there. The rice fields are about 2 feet high and make the surroundings very green (which in a few months will turn to yellow and brown). Along the way are frog-gigging kids, water buffalo, schools, and naked kids waving by the side of the road. People are bathing in ponds, streams, and muddy pools. The rainy season just ended, so there is still much water in the fields, on the roads, and forming great mud bogs on dirt roads.
Houses are built on stilts, not, as we thought, for the water, but from time past when tigers roamed the countryside. Some houses are bamboo and thatch, while others are blue siding with metal or even shingled roofs. A stairway to the living platform may be a bamboo ladder, or it may be wood with an intricately carved banister. The ground level may be an open bamboo lattice with cows and chickens, or it may be enclosed with a motorcycle sticking out.
The roads are crowded with people on foot, on bicycles (maybe two or three riders, some sidesaddle), on motor scooters (with up to five riders, some infants, or standing toddlers, or a towering pile of firewood, or a dead pig destined for tonight's BBQ), cars of Cambodians or with a Cambodian driver and two tourists in the back seat, and trucks with no windshield but with very high clearance for the muddy pits. Our driver honks as he passes a scooter in the middle of the road which is overtaking a bicyclist carrying his whole family.

Bantey Srei is a small temple, but has an exquisite riot of detail. Carved mostly from pink sandstone, it exudes Indian style and feelings of sandalwood. Hindu myths are played out on a background of carved leaves and flowers. This is a temple of fine details. And one of crowds - while far away, it is very popular. While wandering the site, one hears guides pointing out (in German) Vishnu on a lintel, a bejeweled female on a central tower (in French), a scene from the Ramayana on the South library (in English), or Shiva on his throne (in Japanese). A group of French argue over the meaning of the carving over a gateway. A Khmer band is playing in the trees off to the North of the temple site.

Bantey Srei  Staggered Rooflines 
Missing Ceilings  Detail 

At one point, I watched a small green snake chasing a lizard across the stones of the retaining wall; it actually jumped several feet to the right and then followed the lizard back up the wall, both of them disappearing into a hole. Our driver later said that the snake was poisonous, but not very - just enough to kill me.

Leaving Bantey Srei, Scott starts his exchange for postcards again (yielding 4 cards exchanged) while Roswitha watches from afar. Scott visibly amused an older uniformed woman (sitting under an umbrella) with his standard opening of "want to buy my book" and she watches him and his following of kids closely, while smiling or laughing out loud, depending on what is going on.
Roswitha is joined by a woman selling scarves.

"Do you want to buy a scarf?"

"Do you need a souvenir?"

"You need need to take home souvenirs!"

After clearly indicating that no souvenirs are needed, they start a conversation primarily about age (the women is 17), school (it is finished - probably meaning she is no longer going to school), languages (she learned it from tourists and spoke Spanish, German, Japanese, English, French, Thai, and Cambodian), marriage (she is not yet married), and children (the non-existence of mine). Roswitha and she are joined by 2 other young women and an older man, who helps with translations of some of the more complex answers with regards to the location and language of Austria. The conversation was friendly and flowing easily, if a little slow.
After Scott decides that it is time to move on, the women seamlessly and suddenly change gear to another hard selling spree. It was truly amazing, how quick the transition was. We escaped to the cool, air-conditioned car.
Just East of the village on the way to Bantey Srei lie the temple ruins of Bantey Samre. Our driver Sowbood said that, because of the recent rains, the car cannot make it there. He thinks that it lies about 500 meters away, so we consider walking. A gang of motorcycles arrives, and asks if we want a ride there - they say that it is 2 kilometers. A discussion, a negotiation, and we decide to go.

Roswitha's driver speaks English, and mine does not. My driver is named Suatey, but sitting behind him, I decide that it was more like Sweaty. As we discover, Sowbood was correct about the road condition; we would have had to push the car out of at least three mud bogs and a river. Even with the motorcycles, it is pretty dicey, but the drivers are pretty good and never dump us. After driving at least 2 kilometers, Sweaty suddenly drives off to the South onto a narrow trail. "Oh, great," I think. "This is where the mugging that we heard about happens." We pass through close palm trees, turn a corner, and there, past the herd of cows, is the West gate of Bantey Samre. We drive around to the East gate, where the two concessions stand. When we tell the sellers that we are not interested, they say that we will buy when we come out. "We will remember you. Then you buy."

Walking on the Western terrace, a man is playing "rock, paper, scissors" with a kid. He asks to see our tickets, and then inspects them with abnormal interest. Concerned that he is not really a guard, we move on, and enter the temple as another tourist leaves, tailed by two kids, selling.

Bantey Samre is similar in layout to many of the smaller temples, but like each, has important differences. The inner courtyard is paved with sandstone, and once was filled with water. This inner moat was likely calm, and would have provided a striking reflecting pool for the inner towers. Today, two young papaya trees are planted in the Western corners. A uniformed man with one leg and crutches approaches us, the only visitors now there. He might be the guard for the temple; he might not. He follows us around, periodically pointing out detail (by naming the gods - it is likely he spoke no English) on the remaining bas-reliefs: Vishnu over the North library, Shiva above a gateway. The temple has many narrow steps up and down, and he seems more nimble than us as he follows our wandering. There are five central towers and an inner sanctuary. Columns and windows line the inner walls of the outer ring, and we walk around and see apsaras and various Hindu gods carved into many of them. Oddly, the guard prompts me to climb a crumbled wall for a good view and a better shot. At no point did he ask for money, but we gave him a small tip as we left, and the next tourist entered.

Just the first serious pot-hole, worse to come  We made it! 
From the top of the wall -- an overview  The entry way  Papaya Tree where the reflection pool used to be 

After re-visiting The Bayon, we decided to also briefly visit the Thommanon, which was a delightful small temple with wonderful proportions build for the Mother of the builder of The Bayon.

Thomannon  Center Tower (1 of 3)  Detail of man AND woman (this is rare!) 

However, our driver said, that after seeing Thommanon, we also had to see Preah Kahn, which was build for the Father. This temple was rather large, and posted an enormous number of doorways (some not even 5" tall), some two story buildings, a lake, and numerous trees in/over/around buildings and providing a very jungle-like, explorer feeling. The temple is under restoration; parts of it are in fair shape, while other sections have vines and growth. Preah Kahn has another unique characteristic - the doorways into its various layers get smaller at each step. Looking straight through the central corridor to see the aligned doorways of decreasing size, one gets the impression of looking through a great distance.

Reclaimed by nature  Two stories!  Detail of left carvings 
Roswitha went into Angkor Wat for a final sunset, and Scott hung out with the kids just outside to see if he could unload some postcards. As normal, the kids clustered around. Once Scott started his trading banter and flashing his cards, other kids smelled action and came running. Demands of free cards and outrageous deals eventually settled down, and the kids got the idea. A card for a card. Some kids had no cards, so Scott established a price of two woven bracelets (opening price 10/$, but can probably be haggled to 20/$) for an SF postcard. He soon had about twenty bracelets and three woven rings. One kid offered a coconut pin of Angkor Wat (accepted), a little drawing she had done (accepted), and a pebble (also accepted, but Scott then refused other pebbles and leaves). It started escalating, and actually got out of hand, with some older bullies demanding cards and stealing the cards from other kids. One 5-year-old offered something from Afghanistan, and when asked what, he went, "Bang-bang-bang." Scott was soon out of inventory, but was unable to escape; the kids followed him and demanded more, and that he buy. He eventually escaped into a shop, and finally into Ankgor Wat.
Scott's final booty 

Other than the final case (where there were too many kids), this was a pretty cool activity. The kids wanted to know about the place. Hopefully, at least one will be inspired by the card pinned to his/her wall, and set a goal to see this far-off San Francisco, and eventually be able to do it.


Go to:      Tonle Saap (2)     Secrets of Elephants / Siem Reap (3)     Meals (4)    


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