The Angkor Archaeological Park is a 400 square kilometers area in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which holds many of the majestic temples (many of which functioned as capital cities at that time) during the era of the powerful Khmer Empire. Angkor means ‘capital’ in Khmer. A common misconception among people who has never been to Angkor would think that Angkor Wat is the name used to refer to the whole area, which is far from the truth. Many other temples, each with its own uniqueness in terms of architecture and beauty.
Don’t miss the last section of this post as I will share about our strategies for temple visits in order to avoid the menacing tourist crowd and the hot sun! Please remember that this article only mentions the temples that my friends and I visited. Don’t forget there are actually many many many many many more temples there, which might or might not appeal to you. The temples that we visited was chosen based on prior researching which we felt we would like to see. It is quite impossible to cover so many temples in a day, unless you’re just walking into one then walking straight back out. It’s quite pointless to do so, there’s so many things you might miss!
Also, if you missed my first part of this 3-part article which tells covers The Scenes of Siem Reap, you can read it here.
Or if you prefer to read about the Food of Siem Reap, the restaurants and cafes, you can read it here.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
First things first, in order to be able to visit the temples, you will need to get an ‘Angkor Pass’. This pass can be purchased from the Ticketing Office which is located along the main road to Angkor Wat, you will not miss it. This pass is available in several durations: 1 day (USD20), 3 days (USD40) and 7 days (USD60). TIP: If you purchase this ticket after 5pm, you are allowed to enter the temples for free (without taking a day away from your pass)!
Thanis showing off our Angkor Pass after a very quick and efficient process of getting it; wait for your turn in the queue, state the pass you require (how many days pass), stand and smile for the camera, then FLASH! You will get your pass almost instantly!
A TASTE OF WHAT IS TO COME: PRE RUP
Right after getting our Angkor Pass, we asked Shafie our ever-so-enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver (his website here) to recommend to us the best spot for a nice sunset. He said he knew just the place and into the Angkor Archaeological Park we went. After riding the straight road, we turned right riding east along a long river (unbeknown by us at that time, that was the moat of Angkor Wat stretching more than 5 km!).
Thanis and Jess sitting in the carriage while Shafie our fearless tuk-tuk driver sits on his black stallion, riding against the silhouette of Pre-Rup temple, photo bombed by a tourist (Yes, the photo bombing started even at our first temple!)
The formal name of this temple is Prasat Pre Rup. Prasat means palace or temple in Khmer. This map shows where Pre Rup is situated compared to all the other temples. (Map taken from ChoiTravels)
Okay, this is a better angle, no photo bombing tourist here! Maybe luck was with us after all, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here. No herds of tourist to photo bomb my pictures!
Think again! The moment we stepped into the compound of Pre Rup temple, we realized just how busy the place is.
The flight of stairs up was a good evening exercise getting everyone’s heart pumping while huffing and puffing to catch their breath. It’s hard to tell how high the middle section is but I estimate we were around 3 storey high, judging from the number of section of stairs. In the distance, the tour busses and vans awaits their clients.
Some of the already collapsed ruin in the compound of the temple.
The lintel (the horizontal support across the top of the doorway) has carvings of elephants and what seems like a man (not really obvious) sitting on them.
Picture: (left) The figures carved on the walls of the west towers are feminine like, it’s not really clear anymore due to the wear but I suspect it might be the Apsara, the female spirit of cloud and water in the Hindu Buddhist mythology. (right) The doors on the upper most level are made of sandstone and has plant motifs inscribed on it.
Jess trying to squeeze through the window with balusters in the west courtyard. I think you can guess how that went.
Indeed Shafie our tuk-tuk driver was not wrong. The uppermost level of Pre Rup temple provides a magnificent view to enjoy the sunset. Please be extremely careful walking around the upper levels as there are no safety barriers or handles.
The best seats in the house were already taken when we reached there. People of all ages and skin colour all sitting by the edge of the temple’s upper floor, just basking in the orange glow of the sun setting.
Two seated lions standing guard on the pedestals flanking the stairways down. I can’t help but imagine the number of beautiful sunsets these two lions has seen over the centuries.
It was just pure coincidence that when I was climbing down the staircase and as I looked back, these two gentleman was giving such an elegant pose that I just had to capture it!
I hold Yukiko solely responsible for me not having more shots like this; a beautiful fashionable girl among the mystical ruins of Angkor! You see, Yukiko is our fantastic fashion blogger friend who was suppose to be part of our group but she withdrew from the trip on the 11th hour! (Find out more about Yukiko here)
Since there were so many people on the upper terrace of the temple, I decided to wander elsewhere in search of a different perspective. This is the western doorway that leads out into the forest.
Another different perspective. “Into the heavens I shall seek”. According to the historians, Pre Rup temple was more of a ‘funeral’ temple where they would cremate the dead. This was probably one of the towers used for the cremation process long time ago as it looks like it has a chimney.
Looking at the overall structure of Pre Rup temple, it seems that most of the surfaces has already worn out and a lot of the stones which it was built with has already collapsed.
One last look at Pre Rup temple from below. This first experience at one of the temples of Angkor has definitely kept our excitement going for what is to come the next day.
DAY 1 : ANGKOR WAT
The most famous temple among them is none other than Angkor Wat, which is unofficially the 8th Wonder of the World and is the largest religious monument in the world. Wat means ‘temple’ in Khmer.
The normal practice to visit Angkor Wat would be to arrive there in time for the sunrise. Angkor Wat is the only temple in Angkor that is built oriented to the west. That is why the sunrise of Angkor Wat appears behind the complex hence the many postcards of Angkor Wat’s silhouette against the sunrise.
Shafie suggested to us that we should leave our hotel by 5.30 am in the morning which we did. It takes around 30 minutes tuk-tuk drive from the town center to Angkor Wat. Driving through the Angkor Archeological grounds that early in the morning was really freezing. I was glad that I brought my arm sleeves which I originally meant to use against the sun.
This is the main reason why everyone gets up before the break of dawn to rush to Angkor Wat; to get there in time to capture Angkor Wat with its five majestic towers against the canvas of dawn with its symmetrical image reflecting from the basin.
Behind that mysterious scene of Angkor Wat is thousands of tourist gathered at 6 am in the morning just to catch that same scene. Arriving as early as you can is a must if you want to have a good vantage point for your shot.
Behind all that crowd stands the north library which is almost in ruins. Tourist with all kinds of photography equipment ranging from the smallest GoPro to the professional DSLRs. One problem here is that even those tourists that are not trying to capture a shot who are just there to watch the sunrise, they are also standing there occupying many good vantage point that a photographer would need, when they could just as easily stand somewhere.
In fact, even for amateur photographers who just wants to capture the shot can do so even without getting front row seats. Photographers who know what they are doing (i.e. shooting at slow-shutter speed for a very smooth reflection in the basin) that they would need to get to the front to place their cameras on their tripod.
Meanwhile, many other activities are on-going around the basin. From people just sitting down on the grass just indulging in the moment, to people just walking along the causeway, to people taking out their brushes to sketch the view into their canvas.
Children from the nearby stalls would sell their souvenirs to the tourist, all of which are very soft spoken and polite unlike child touts of other countries who can get quite persistent. They are such good charmers that most tourist would not mind to get something from them.
As the sun begins to reveal itself from under the horizon shining its rays into the land, the birds of the valley begin singing their songs celebrating another beautiful day.
The towering structure of Angkor Wat reaching out majestically into the sky. The sugar palm tree which is the national tree of Cambodia are also very common throughout the whole temple. (I explained about the sugar palm tree in my previous article here).
The main causeway that leads to the main entrance stretches a far distance framed by the balustrade of the serpent. It was interesting to note that the slabs on the floor are of irregular shapes, which means that each slab has to be chiseled to fit the adjoining one.
Another plant motif can be found carved onto the pillars of the entrance.
These curved sloping roof which are made with gracefully arched stone rectangles and are prominent along all the chambers and aisles are all hallmark of Angkor Wat.
The statue of Buddha can be found hidden amongst the labyrinth of walls and pillars in the central area. Please remember to take of your footwear and any hat that you might be wearing prior to entering the praying area.
Thanis takes a moment to meditate and pray. Initially he forgot to take of his hat, which he did after this shot was taken. The monk is the caretaker of this area and he would give you his blessings if you would ask.
Visitors can also get their charm bracelets from the monk. The guy on the right is an official guide of Angkor who was accompany these group of tourist. The official guides are easily recognizable with their cream-coloured uniform with the emblem of Angkor Wat on the long sleeve. They also wear an ID tag with them the whole time.
The monk helps to put on the charm bracelet on his visitor and also gives her his blessing before she leaves.
Every corner of Angkor Wat’s old structure is good for a nice selfie against the background of worn out stone slabs.
This shot was taken from the central square. 12 sets of stairs with 40 steps each leads to the center tower which can be visited only on certain days. If you want to attempt to go up to the upper most level, you should ascent and descent sideways as the steps are exceptionally narrow! The corners of the upper level are dominated by the four towers. All these towers make up the 5 towers which can be seen from the outline of Angkor Wat in the Cambodian flag. Even this central area itself is huge! If you study the picture above carefully, you can see the tiny tourist against the majestic center tower!
Frieze of Apsaras in great detail, each Apsara with her own unique identity (not repetition of a pattern) can be found carved onto many of the walls surrounding the central section.
A lintel carving depicting the monkey army battling demons defending the souls of humanity.
One of the four porches which opens up to the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west).
Many of the rubbles lay untouched on the floor of the central sanctuary.
This is the eastern entrance of Angkor Wat. Proceeding down the path by exiting the eastern entrance will bring you to the east gate which is known as the Ta Kou entrance.
The unbroken stretch of repeated pillars leading from the far end of Angkor Wat all the way to the central opening. On all the inner walls walls are galleries of bas reliefs, each depicting a specific story in Hindu mythology.
This is the bas relief found on the eastern wall which depicts the story ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ (I wonder who comes up with these sexy sounding titles). It tells of the story where the ocean of milk is churned by the Gods and demons to bring out the Amrta, the elixir of life, which brings immortality.
This is the bas relief found on the western wall which depicts ‘The Battle of Kurukshetra’. I find this relief particular interesting because it stretches from opposite ends towards the center where you can see the two armies meet in combat and the scene gradually builds and climaxes from end to center.
The collapsed roof of the north entrance makes for a good photo opportunity with a stunning courtyard view with the continuous stretch of pillars.
These balusters which are used in many of the windows are placed together on the grounds of the courtyard. I find them to be very impressive seeing that in those ancient times, the people were already capable of carving out decorative balusters as if they were made of wood!
The courtyard is all brown in this dry season, making it blend well with the old and dull walls of Angkor Wat. At the center of the wall is the eastern exit.
Taking the eastern exit, you will find yourself on a sandy path surrounded by trees on both side. A few monkeys went about their everyday routine and didn’t even bother about me. I had to call out to the monkey for him (or her?) to look over for me to be able to capture this!
The Ta Kou entrance has a different ‘feel’ to it. Maybe because it is located in the middle of the forest and most of its walls are covered with moss and algae making it seem totally abandoned and untouched. The shadows of the trees that falls upon it casts a deep sense of eeriness as I approached.
The dense foliage makes for a nice mystical scene, even the two tourist there thinks so!
From inside Ta Kou looking out through its windows, I managed to capture this lovely framed picture of Angkot Wat in the distance.
Workers of the Archaeological Park identifiable with their dark green uniform makes their way to start their day at work.
From the eastern entrance, the height and grandeur of the central tower of Angkor Wat is clearly visible towering above the foliage of trees, unlike from the west entrance where it was not visible from the causeway.
The Naga (the Sanskrit word for a deity or god) is in the form of a snake with seven heads which guards the entrance of Angkor Wat.
These giant stone lions stands guards at the western entrance of Angkor Wat. This picture was taken just before we left Angkor Wat around 10 am. In the background, you can see the throngs of tourist still pouring in at that hour.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Shafie is so thoughtful that he even prepared cold wet towers waiting for us as we exited Angkor Wat. It felt like such a luxury to be able to wipe our sticky sweaty face and arms coming out from the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat!
Upon closer inspection, apparently, Shafie has a mini cool box to carry these ‘essentials’ for us for the end of every temple. And I do literally mean every temple!
It’s 10 am and the sun is now scorching high above the sky. Seeing as there are no more tourist hogging the basin, I made my way to it one last time to catch this shot of Angkor Wat against the morning sun.
NOTE: A few things advice from me after having been in Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat can be walked through within an hour if you are one to just walk from one end to the other end. However, if you want to appreciate the beauty, charm and complexity of Angkor Wat, I suggest you bring along a guidebook on Angkor Wat which details out all the galleries of bas-relied, carvings, architecture and layout of the whole place. It would be IMPOSSIBLE to read up on all these details before hand and expect to remember them by-heart, there are just too many! And if you should decide to do this, allocate yourself at least one whole day in Angkor Wat to be able to trace and find all the details mentioned in the guidebook. However, if you are just like us who just wants to go in there and see Angkor Wat with our own eyes and capture its splendor with our cameras, then more or less 4 hours should be more than enough to complete this.
DAY 2 : ANGKOR THOM & TA PHROM
On our second day, we got up at 6 am, again because we wanted to be there before all the tourist arrive. Our steadfast tuk-tuk driver Shafie, as usual, was at our hotel to pick us even before we were ready. Every single day!
This map shows where Angkor Thom (the bigger area surrounded by a moat to the north of Angkor Wat) and Ta Phrom is situated compared to all the other temples. (Map taken from ChoiTravels)
We chose to do Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom together since Ta Phrom is very close to where Angkor Thom is. One thing to note is that Angkor Thom is not just a temple, but a collection of many other temple and buildings within one boundary, the most well-known being Bayon, the temple of many faces. Angkor Thom is the last capital of the Khmer Empire, holding the residences of priest, the palace , the military and various structures for the kingdom’s officials. Oh by the way, Thom means ‘large’ in Khmer, so its no surprise that Angkor Thom is also know as ‘The Great City’’.
That’s Shafie our steadfast tuk-tuk driver posing against South Gate where he suggested we stop at for a sunrise photo opportunity. There are altogether 5 gates that lead into Angkor Thom. South Gate is the most well-preserved gate among the other gates so it would make sense to stop here.
I am really thankful to Shafie for suggesting we stop at the South Gate. The sun was just coming up and many locals were riding their bicycles going to work. They all had smiles on their faces! That’s something that would be hard for me to do until I get my coffee fix in the morning!
As the sun rises from the east above the moat of Angkor Thom, the shadows cast by the sun on these asura (demon gods) statues with its intense stare gives out sense of scariness.
Along the causeway of South Gate is the 54 stone figures depicting the story of ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. On the left side are the devas (guardian gods) and the right side the asuras (demon gods), all pulling the naga’s tail (serpent with 7 heads) telling of the eternal flight between good and evil.
Two siblings in their uniforms probably cycling to school on this early morning.
The central structure of the gate is topped with a three face tower that face the four directions. Below that is the base of the gate which has elephant statues that flank the gate at both sides.
Bayon temple is situated in the middle of the Angkor Thom intersected by the roads leading to all four gates. Like a lot of the other mountain temples, it is considered to represent Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain in the mythology of Buddhism.
Bayon temple is also best known for its gigantic face sculptures every four-face of the remaining towers of the temple. According to legends, there was originally 54 towers but now only 37 still remains.
The stones on the towers are so worn out that it is a bit hard to distinguish the faces on them, unless properly looked at. The faces on these towers are thought to represent Avalokitesvara (‘Lokeshvara’ for shorts), a Buddhist deity that projected benevolence outward to the four cardinal directions.
The bas relief at the outer walls are quite unique from all the other temples. Most of the bas relief usually depicts story from the mythology while these just depict scenes of everyday scenes of everyday life.
Picture: (Left) An Apsara themed carving on one of the pillars of the temple. (Right) Another Apsara themed carving, this time with a group of three apsaras dancing on a bed of lotuses.
Picture: (Left) Althought I have no idea what this is, I suspect that once upon a time, a statue of Buddha was placed on this ‘throne’, probably representing the lotus flower where he sat once sat on. (Right) A statue of Buddha clothed in gold sits in the middle of the walkway towards the center tower.
The third level (uppermost level) of the temple is the best place to be. High above ground level, I suddenly feel myself transported into the ancient world. The passageway is narrower than usual making it seem like I’m in an ancient labyrinth with stone faces watching me at every corner.
On the uppermost level, you get to come face-to-face with the tower faces. From here, the faces suddenly become clearer and I couldn’t help but feel tiny amongst the gigantic faces.
Every tower has faces on all four sides. The light from the sun makes the faces it touches seems like it is smiling, while the faces still in the shadows seems serene looking.
I wouldn’t have noticed this corner if I didn’t turn back to look. This fantastic angle where the silhouette of the two faces gazing at the sun.
Picture: (left) The narrow passageway makes it seem as if you’re in a labyrinth. (right) A cat came out of nowhere and rested on the window craving for our attention. How in the world did a cat get all the way into the temple and then up here to the upper most level? God-sent maybe?
In the central shrine lies a Buddha statue looking glittering gold from its gold cloth and flickering candles. Visitors are welcomed to take a moment to pray and meditate here.
Back to the courtyard at the lower level of the temple. Piles and piles of stones can be seen stacked and arranged in a corner.
These piles of stones stacked on each other must have been from the collapsed towers. I took this picture to show the size of the stack of stones against the size of Jess!
As we exited Bayon, I turned back to shoot this picture of the crowds starting to flood the temple. The timestamp of this picture is 7:37 am (local Cambodian time).
NOTE: It was in Bayon that we encountered a tout. We were the first to arrive at Bayon, and there was already a person in plain clothes waiting at the entrance. While we passed the entrance, he followed us and started talking to us and explaining and showing to us some of the interesting things to see in Bayon. Don’t get me wrong, I use the word ‘tout’ but he was extremely friendly and polite. Since he was not dressed in the usual peach-coloured uniform that the official guides usually wear, I knew this was just a guide-wannabe trying to earn a quick buck. If you ever encounter this yourself, just thank him politely and explain to him you would prefer to explore the temple alone.
Not far from Bayon, just a few steps to the north is Baphuon temple. Prior to reaching Baphuon, don’t miss the statue of Buddha located between Bayon and Baphuon. I didn’t capture a picture of it as the statue had scaffoldings around it at that time. I assume they were preparing the statue for the coming Khmer New Year.
One unique feature of Baphuon is the raised causeway to the temple. It is raised as shoulder level. Walking on this long raised causeway gives a hint of how royalty must feel when coming home and paraded through the path cheered on by his people.
Baphuon is another example of a temple mountain representing Mount Meru from Buddhist mythology. The uneven soil on which Baphuon was built has caused the temple to be in a bad condition, but major restoration works has been on-going to restore it back to its original glory.
It is interesting to note that Baphuon temple is actually higher than Bayon. At the time that we were there, access to the uppermost level was not possible, only to the middle-tier. There is a unfinished statue of a reclining Buddha on the left side of the temple that access to the middle tier level.
Walking a few more steps north will bring you to the compound of Phimeanakas, also known as the Royal Palace.
PHIMEANAKAS (THE ROYAL PALACE)
Phimeanakas is located inside the compound of what used to be the Royal Palace during those times. The word Phimeanakas comes from a combination of the Sanskrit word ‘vimana’ and ‘akasha’ which means ‘celestial palace of the gods’. However, even with such a grand name, the temple itself is quite modest; not really big and not really high.
Due to its modest size, the temple probably functioned as a private temple for the kind and a select group of people; after all, it is located in the Royal Palace grounds. It is possible to climb up to the upper level but I didn’t do so seeing that it wouldn’t have given me a good vantage point anyway.
TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS
The Terrace of the Elephants I s part of the walls of the Royal Palace. It is a 360-meter long sandstone wall and runs from north to south.
The terrace served as observation points from which the king and his cohort could observe whatever ceremonies.
The stairways that leads up to the terrace has elephant carvings with fully rounded projecting trunks along the stairs.
The terrace is around 4 meters high and has life-sized elephants carvings along the walls.
A close-up of the elephant reliefs along the walls of the terrace.
TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING
The Terrace of the Leper King is located just north at the end of the Terrace of the Elephants. This terrace is named after a statue of the Leper King that originally stood at the center, which is no more there as the statue has been moved to the National Museum of Phnom Penh.
The terrace is made up of a set of double walls. The outer wall is easily visible with seven tiers of sculptures which are mostly repeating motifs of royalties, priests, nagas and court ladies.
After having completed all that, we exited Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate, one of the 5 gates that leads into and out of Angkor Thom. According to legends, this gate is called ‘Victory Gate’ because the King at that time sent his army into battle against the Khmer’s mighty enemy and is also the game where his victorious warriors returned via when they entered back into the capital. Seen in the picture is our tuk-tuk against the towering size of the gate.
Ta Phrom is located just a short distance on the east of Angkor Thom. It is known as the ‘jungle temple’ and was made famous by the movie ‘The Tomb Raider’. The banyan and kapok trees has spread their gigantic roots over the temples, sliding and pushing the walls apart establishing a firm hold on the roof. One has to appreciate its natural beauty as it is a temple which has been left in the same condition in which it was found!
The west entrance of Ta Phrom is seen after going through a short path in the forest. Like the main gates of Angkor Thom, the upper portion of the gate also has the four faces, although a smaller one.
As soon as you enter the Ta Phrom complex, you will already notice the ruins of the temple with huge trees growing all over the temple.
Many areas of the temple has been structurally reinforced to prevent it from further collapsing. This is the first main building, also known as the Hall of Dancers) which you will encounter coming in from the east entrance.
The southern wall of Ta Phrom’s enclosure seems to have some unique carvings in gold which I really cannot make out.
In the center of the enclosure wall there lies what used to be a gopura (an entrance with a tower or ornament) which has collapsed. Dead leaves around the area seems to have been stacked, ready for disposal.
Not long after, we saw this worker lady coming back to her base continuing her sweeping. It’s good to see that the Angkor authorities takes the cleanliness of the temples seriously. Come to think of it, I did not find a single rubbish in any of the temples!
Some of the towers of the temple have already collapsed, and some seems to be near collapse!
Carvings of dancers that is still well preserved which can be found at the Hall of the Dancers.
This is the dramatic kapok tree growing on the temple roof which we encountered. I began to wonder how did it end up growing on the building. It must have taken it centuries to have gotten so big!
Jess posing against the kapok tree, showing the dramatic difference between her and the tree. The top of the tree is so high that I was not able to include it in the shot!
Navigating the hallways of Ta Phrom can be quite tricky. Hole left my collapsed ceilings provide enough brightness into the hall to light up the way. Seeing so many collapsed stones makes me quite nervous everytime I duck my head into these hallways to get to the other size of the hall.
This is one of the famous scene from the movie ‘Tomb Raider’, with Lara Croft standing in front of this ancient banyan tree.
Centuries old roots of the banyan tree intervined with each other, forming a stranger firm grip on the building that it grows on. The look of these roots gives me the chills, as if it was from some alien world.
The kapok tree is different from the banyan tree where the kapok tree has a distinctive trunk and big roots (shown in the picture), while the banyan tree is actually a vine which grows and engulfs a host tree.
Another kapok tree grows at the edge of the library building of the temple. Some parts of the ceiling has already cracked being pushed apart by the roots of the tree.
A visitor enters the hallway which is overgrown by another kapok tree which seems to be all dried up. Perhaps this tree will start to blossom again when the rainy season starts? If you noticed from my pictures, the moss and algae growing on the stones are not really green, due to it being the dry season when we went.
This is the last and the most dramatic of the kapok tree before exiting the temple complex. A visitor poses the Vriksasana yoga pose (also known as the tree pose) against the monstrous roots of the kapok tree.
I spotted these monks making their way into Ta Phrom. Their bright orange robes is a contrast against the dull walls of the temple. I suspect they were visiting monks as they stopped a few times to take ‘selfies’ with the temple.
NOTE: If you are a keen photographer, Ta Phrom is best visited during midday (or close to midday) when the sun is higher allowing it to shine it rains into the canopy of leaves and branches provided by the banyan and kapok trees which engulfs the temple. Do remember that this is one of the most visited temples so if you want to get a clean shot of the money shots, you need to be very patient! One technique that worked for me; everyone will automatically queue, waiting for their turn to have their pictures taken at the picturesque spot by their companions, so when it comes to your group’s turn, get your friend to pose for you while you take the shot, and then right after, just kindly request the next person in line to give you a few seconds to take the shot without anyone in it! And bingo, you get the clean shot that you want. Do also take note that you need wide angled lens to be able to capture most of the dramatic spots in the temple as it is quite narrow!
DAY 3: BANTEAY SREI, EAST MEBON & TA SOM
The third and final day of our ‘temple run’. The first two day has been very rewarding and eye-opening for me. I couldn’t wait to see more! For this last day, we planned for three other temples that are unique to the others, Banteay Srei, East Mebon and Ta Som. Banteay Srei is one of the furthest temple, needing to travel an extra 23 km from the where the main temples are. That translates to around a 1-hour tuk-tuk drive from Siem Reap town. Please do not confuse this temple with another temple that is named Banteay Samre. Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei are two different temples.
As you can see from the map, Banteay Srei is really out of the way from the other temples. However, East Mebon and Ta Som which we visited after Banteay Srei is back in the Angkor Archeological Park and its along the road leading back to Siem Reap anyway. (Map taken from ChoiTravels)
We got up around 6.30 am knowing we had quite a fair bit of distance to travel to get to Banteay Srei. I specifically wanted to visit this temple, knowing that it is far away because that also means I will get to see the rural villages and see the people in their everyday lives. You can read all about my experience at these rural area in my first article (Scenes of Siem Reap) here.
Banteay means ‘citadel’ and Srei means ‘Woman’ that is why it is also known as ‘The Citadel of Women’. This temple is known for the temple with the finest and most beautiful wall carvings carvings that many believed could only be the mastery of a women. Another very unique identity to this temple is the red sandstone is it built from.
A signage at the side of this outer gopura reminds visitors to refrain from touching the carvings on the walls.
The lintel carvings at the main entrance gopura gives us a feel of what we would expect to see inside the temple itself; so finely carved with delicate details.
Upon entering the first entrance, we are presented with a short causeway. The path of this causeway is also made out of the same red sandstone. It is guaranteed that your shoe will be reddish/pinkish after this!
Some more delicate carvings that has feminine flowery patterns on it.
Another lintel from one of the inner gopura which has collapsed but reassembled and left on the side for visitors to view.
This carving lies on the floor next to the wall enclosure, making it possible for us to see just how intricate and delicate the carvings are. The carvings are so deep I can only imagine the amount of time it would have taken just to create this masterpiece.
Upon entering the third enclosure area, you will come to a moat which is divided in the center by another causeway leading into the second enclosure. The moat was almost empty due to the dry season when we were there. From this spot, we could already see the central sanctuary of the temple.
A carving kala (a monster with a lot of teeth symbolizing time) with flowery patterns on the side of the second enclosure.
A broken statue of Ninda the bull, the mount of Lord Shiva, lies in front of the central sanctuary.
A view of the south towers
Carvings on the main arch depicting the legend of Mahishasura; the battle of Durga and Ashtanayika (her eight eternal compaions) against Mahishasura who took the form of a man, an elephant, a bull and a lion.
Try to avoid visiting Banteay Srei to close to midday or too early before the sun is up. The intricate carvings of Banteay Srei requires the sun not to be too high or too low, just high enough to shine its rays on the the surface of the walls and light up the reddish stones of the temple.
Another beautifully carved relief on another tower, depicting garuda holding the evil serpent.
The towers within the central sanctuary are all of the same delicate and beautiful designs.
A close-up shot of a tower with all its extravagant designs of the sanctuary. Levels after levels of carvings from the base all the way to the tip of the tower.
Kneeling statues of yaksha (male guardian spirits of natural treasures) and devatas (female deities) are placed in front of each of the tower in pairs.
A close-up shot of the carving on the lintel.
Another close-up shot of another carving on the lintel.
Other carvings of Durga and Naga that can be found on the walls of the central sanctuary.
A carving of kala at the edge of a lintel.
Another depiction of the Battle of Mahishasura with Durga and her many hands at the centerpiece of the relief.
One last look of the central sanctuary to appreciate its beauty and elegance, knowing this might be the first and last time I would be able to see it with my own eyes.
NOTE: The Banteay Srei compound is very different from all the other temples. It is quite well organized with many tourist stalls and eating stalls located at the parking area. We tried our first local Cambodian noodles at this eating stall for only USD 1! Other than that, there is also a baray (river) filled with lotus plant and flower where visitors can opt to have a short boat trip.
We headed back to the main Angkor Archaeological site headed to East Mebon temple which is located just north of Pre Rup. East Mebon’s uniqueness is with the statues of elephants which stands guard at the four corners of the temple. It is interesting to note that East Mebon used to be an island around a large body of water (East Baray) which has dried up for centuries.
East Mebon is a very structured temple, like a pyramid of multi-leveled terrace with the last level having five towers symbolizing Mount Meru’s five peaks. The condition of this temple is quite worn out but the giant elephant statues are still intact.
To get to the central tower, there are 3 sections of stairs to climb, each section flanked by lions guarding the entrances.
The lintel on the east tower depicting Indra on a three-headed elephant.
The same carving as the picture before, though the completed carving was implemented a bit differently.
Some of the walls are so worn out that the figurines carved on them cannot be identified anymore. The holes wall are characteristics of sandstones being used which has been worn out over the centuries by decay and weather.
Jess takes a risk posing under the small doorframe, although its size is a window, but why would a window have stairs leading up to them? The walls are clearly leaning and are close to collapsing.
The monolithic (formed of a single block of stone) statue of an elephant stands guard against the blue skies at all four corners and at both tier of the temple.
Lions flanks the stairways leading up to each upper-tier, some in better condition that others.
Visitors having a happy moment taking a picture with the elephant statue, which can only be done at East Mebon temple. No other temple has elephant statues as big as these.
Ta som is located close to East Mebon, towards the north. The easiest way to describe Ta Som is that it is like a mini Ta Phrom (the jungle temple with the banyan and kapok trees growing on them).
This is the east entrance and it is the only entrance into Ta Som. A guard is seated at the entrance to check visitors for their Angkor Pass. Like the entrances of many other temples, it has a tower with a face.
A shot of the tower face up close. It seems that this face (compared to all the other temple faces I’ve seen) is smiling wider than usual. Maybe it’s the sun playing tricks on my eyes? But really, the cheeks seems to be raised higher making it seems like its giving a wider, more genuine smile.
These carvings of the devata is common in many of the temples, although this particular carving is shaped almost like a statue.
Many other fallen carvings and statues lies in the hallway, kept and locked away safe from the harm of humans.
I noticed that more of the other carvings of devatas in the temple are shaped like statues, making me assume that whoever made the carvings, really emphasized on the devatas to the point that they look like statues standing in fake windows.
Picture: (left) A restored carving depicting Lokeshvara. (right) More devata carvings seen on the walls of the gopura (entrances).
This looks like a fallen lintel but has been pieced back together although the carvings on it is still not very visible.
This is a shot of the outer gopura from the west. There are more trees growing in the inner part of the temple, casting a shadow and light play on the floor.
Finally reaching the end of the path, a very rewarding view of a gopura totally covered by banyan trees. The roots of the tree grows downward along the door frame of the gopura towards the ground line alien veins reaching into the earth, creating a very dramatic shot for me to bring back.
As we were exiting the temple, we found this too sweet looking sisters sitting by the entrance putting flowers on each other’s hair. They were so beautiful in their floral dress I just had to share this picture with everyone! Maybe what attracted me to them was their youthful innocence, a reminder of how we all were back in the time when we ourselves were kids, without a care in the world!
Shortly after, they were joined by their little brother who was also in a very colourful dress. As they got up to proceed into the temple, the eldest sister wrapped her arms around her little brother’s shoulder, and I could hear them chatting away happily as they got further and eventually disappeared into the mystical place. I shall call this shot “Happily ever after”. This shot has very sentimental meaning to me. Not only is my shots that I am most satisfied with, this is also the very last shot of our 3-days temple run.
Phew! That must have been a lot of Khmer names and terms to take in! Don’t worry too much about memorizing the all the terms and the mythologies. Just remember to enjoy yourself and stand in awe when in the presence of the mystical Angkor temples.
Let me try to summarize our whole trip so that it may be of help to you:
We did all our temple runs in the morning. We used the afternoon for food hunt and café hopping. The normal tourist will usually start their temple visits after breakfast, so expect bus loads of them to come in around 8 am or so. So if you want to get clean photographs without them, you have to arrive early. There is also of course the lack of sunlight if you shoot that early.
If you get your Angkor Pass after 5 pm on that day, you get a free visit into the temples that evening. They will only start to ‘deduct’ your pass days the next day (by punching a hole on the dates printed on the pass).
We arranged our temple runs in the order that was mentioned mainly because of the location convenience (less travelling time). The exception being Banteay Srei.
If you are the person who would want to know about the stories behind each of the galleries of carvings and reliefs, the design, the architecture and the layout at each temple, bring along a Angkor Temple guidebook which explains all that which should also include on directional tips. And if you are going to do this, you should expect to spend hours in just one temple itself. For example, if you were to follow every single one, then expect to spend a whole day in just Angkor Wat itself.
You can also choose to hire an official temple guide, which you can easily hire at the entrance of Angkor Wat. They are identifiable by their cream-coloured uniforms with the Angkor emblem on their sleeves. The guides are extremely good and can speak chinese, french and malay. I know this for sure because while we were going around the temples, we would meet many of them bringing their group of visitors and admittedly, there were a few occasions I just stood near them to ‘listen in’ on the guide’s explanations.
Ladies, please remember to wear decent clothings. All the temples do not allow entry if you are not ‘covered up’. By covered up, I mean that your knees should not be visible and no sleeveless. Using a shawl, scarf, towel to cover it up does not work. The guards will insist on proper dress code.
Always, always, always remember to bring along your Angkor Pass. No pass, no entry! Shafie our tuk-tuk driver ALWAYS checks to make sure we brought our passes prior to leaving our hotel for the day.
- Don’t miss also, Thanis’ account on our travel. You can read his take of the story here.
However, you do need to remember the temple names! Here are the uniqueness of each temple and why we chose to do these temples within our 3-days pass:
Angkor Wat; the largest single temple compared to all the others and obviously the most famous among all others.
Angkor Thom; it has the most collection of temples within one area. e.g. Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King.
Ta Phrom; the jungle temple overgrown with banyan and kapot trees, also known as the famous Tomb Raider temple.
Banteay Srei; the Citadel of Women with its very intricate and delicate carvings and use of red sandstone.
East Mebon; the temple that has elephant statues!
Ta Som; a mini Ta Phrom with less tourist!
Pre Rup; a small but high temple which is nice to enjoy the sunset
And if you asked me, will I ever go back to Cambodia again. Well a big YES to that! Our 4 days in Siem Reap whooshed by us like a breeze. There are still so many temples left for me to discovered, and when I have the chance, I would like to visit these temples:
; a real jungle temple that is isolated deep faraway and deep in the jungle. The timetravelturtle has more information together with some very nice pictures here
. By the way, it is around 75 km from the city!
; it is by itself a National Park which is located near to the mountain range. The attractions in here includes a river which has sandstone carvings by the riverbed, a colossal reclining Buddha statue and a waterfall! More about Phnom Kulen here
There’s just so much that Angkor has to offer. I’m already missing the mystical atmosphere in the temples and the friendliness atmosphere of the people. Siem Reap has really touched deep into my heart and I can’t wait for my next chance to visit there again. The people that I met, the faces that I saw… I miss them all. Godspeed and take care my friends, until we can meet each other again.
This is the end of the 2nd part of my 3-part article on my visit to Siem Reap. Coming up next is my 3rd and last part which is about The Best Restaurants and Cafes of Siem Reap. Also, if you missed my first part of this 3-part article which tells covers The Scenes of Siem Reap, you can read it here.