Return to the temples of Angkor Thom – part 2

Surrounded by hundreds of mysterious serene faces carved on massive stone towers, scrambling through the rubble of a temple whose walls look like they would have fallen over if they were not intertwined with the massive root systems of ancient trees, these are the memories of the Cambodian temples that I loved the most on my first visit. Sure, Angkor Wat is the star attraction, and it is breathtaking and impressive and unmissable, but it is a couple of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom and nearby that worked their charm on me the most, and I am looking forward to seeing them again five years later.


Bayon, Cambodia
The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads all smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa -I am told they are all images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, although some claim the faces also have a passing resemblence to the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur including the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII. To me however, each head, each smile, seems subtly different. I find it easy to start attributing each of them a personality, a story to fit their expression. They adorn the four sides of all fifty four towers on the third and top tier of the pyramid, facing due north, south, east and west.

The bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three layers of big blocks of stone, with quite a few fallen to the ground around it. Its only on close inspection that the walls on the outside and on the first level reveal a series of bas relief carvings to rival those of Angkor,depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus. Its easy to miss these in the rush to the top to see the heads, but it is well worth stopping and circling these picture stories for a while. Even for these levels, if I look up I find it very hard to spot the carved heads just above. I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the top level, and finally find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile. Some are in good condition, some very worn, some have parts missing, so every direction I look is a different vista, and I find it almost meditiative to circle around and around the top tier, watching different faces spring in and out of view while I circle. The effect of the light at different times of the day here is quite compelling, as different faces and profiles are highlighted as the sun moves through the day. My favourite is first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, when the early morning light throws some carvings into bright light and some into dark contract.
Bayon, Cambodia

This is how I saw them the first time. On this trip I will visit them twice. First I see them about 9am, after seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This seems early but already the sun is higher and harder, reducing the early morning contrast. Its also a lot more crowded, as many people come here after their Angkor Wat sunrise, whereas the previous couple of hours are much less crowded, more tranquil. Two days later I return at 7am, just after dawn, but the clouds roll in for the first day of the rainy season, so there is no soft dawn light picking out faces, its a much darker and sterner picture today.

Ta Prohm – The myth of the overgrown temple held together by the roots of the trees growing over it.

Maybe not completely a myth, but also not completely true. My other favourite temple is a photographers dream (except for the crowds), and any quick google search will reveal thousands of atmospheric black and white photos of old trees towering over a tumble of old stone blocks on weird angles, tied together by hundreds of exposed tree roots. But if you arrive thinking it will look like you have just stumbled upon a long lost temple hidden in the bush, you will be disappointed. It has been cleared of much of the growth, leaving in place just the biggest and most spectacular mergers of trees and ruins, making it more accessible, and no doubt easier to photograph (except for the crowds). In spite of that, it is still fantastic to wander through, finding odd corners with no apparent restoration work or clearing out at all, and yes, fantastic to photograph. I may have mentioned the crowds – its not only my favourite, it is a fav of just about every visitor to the area, and its quite a small temple compared to its neighbours, so I just have to grin and bear it, its popular for a reason. Its a great challenge of both my photography and patience to frame up my shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot, looking as though the place is actually deserted – its not unusual for it to take me ten minutes or more to grab one shot.

Ta Phrom, Cambodia
Five years ago I remember there being a boardwalk path through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds (but when scrambling around it was easy to miss the sign), where we could feel a real sense of possible risk and danger as we crawled over and under precariously leaning structures. I notice a marked difference this time. There is now a very extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, taking away the risk of twisting your ankle or having stones fall on your head, but also handling the volume of visitors better. As part of this, viewing platforms have been built for most of the iconic ruins/trees vistas, some even have roped off queueing areas to ensure everyone gets to the front of the line and gets a clear view. Remaining dangerous areas are completely roped and chained off, no chance to claim “I didn’t see the sign”! This is both fantastic progress and completely ruining my ability to put my superior ‘photo-grabbing” skills to the test. Using the walkways to navigate the site, I also notice that many of the walls and trees have substantial support structures built behind them, to shore them up without having to go to a full renovation. I also see one wall which had completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree above it looking very unstable and ready to topple over itself, which reinforces to me just how hard it is to walk the fine line of keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was. It looks like they are doing a fine job of balancing all those concerns, I hope I get to go and visit again in the next five years and see what else has changed.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?

Return to the Temples of Angkor Wat part 1

I get off the plane at Siem Reap at 7am into a wall of heat, and a wall of paper-pushers (literally). In a charming homage to colonial bureaucrats everywhere, the process to get a visa on arrival in Cambodia goes like this:  I hand over my visa form and cash, walk twenty metres to the other end of the long desk, and watch a row of nine uniformed officials – the first one stamps my passport and then tosses it nonchalantly to the person to his left, and so it continues, from hand to hand, person to person, flying freely through the air, via all nine people, and then passed back to me.

I am impressed by such a successful job creation scheme, and the great hand-eye co-ordination they have all achieved. It’s good to see they are taking me seriously now. When I visited five years ago,  I was greeted by a mere one immigration official.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Siem Reap – has it changed in five years?

Fast forward 4 hours and I am feeling the heat. Five years ago I was here in January, the coolest month, which I thought was very pleasant at up to 30 degrees during the day and cooler overnight. Now its 35 degrees during the day with about 98% humidity, and virtually the same at night,  except I can at least avoid the intense burning of direct sunlight then.

After exploring the town on foot I am melting with every step, so I retire to the pool and order an iced lime tea and settle in the shade. I have an added excuse, my friends aren’t arriving til early afternoon so I may as well hang around the pool and wait. Initially I thought that Siem Reap hadn’t really changed in the last five years,  in many ways it looks exactly the same, but the more I wander around the more I notice the differences. It’s like all the original bars, shops and hotels are still here, but then has been a lot of new ones added and they are all much more upmarket. There are also dozens of ATM’s, last time there was one, which generally didn’t work.

And perhaps the most noticeable change is the one I feel most conflicted about. Last time I was here, there were a huge number of beggars, mainly limbless people or really young child beggars who would grab onto your leg and hang on desperately as you walked by. On our arrival that time, we decided we would give money to every limbless beggar we saw, as their need seems so obvious and genuine. After giving to about ten in the first block from our room, we realised how unrealistic our plan was, and how overwhelming the need here really was.  Now, there are very few beggars on the street. I would like to think that the general increase in wealth and well being here has led to more orphanages and help for the needy in general, but I have a horrible feeling that it just means the government have moved them on to somewhere else, so that they don’t upset the tourists.

When Travellers J & K arrive we choose to take to the pool for the afternoon to plan the next few days. We head out late afternoon to go and catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. The passes for the temples are sold by no. of days, and the neat trick is that if you arrive at the office to buy your pass after 5pm, you get that evening for free and then get the next full three days as well.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2005

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat is not going to be a bright red sky, as the sun is actually behind you, but it means the temples glow softly in the lovely evening light, so much better than the harsh light in the middle of the day. There are two large pools, man made ponds, in front of Angkor Wat, and the classic photo to get is a picture with the temple reflected in the pool.

The better photo is the one from the right hand pool. Unfortunately it has no water in it this time, so the left hand side it is, although somehow the angles just aren’t as good here. It’s also a great time to walk through the levels of the temple as most people have left already. We do a random wander until the guards chase us out. The only level not open at this time of the day is the very top (third) level.

Last time I was here I did the sunset from Phnom Bakheng but its definitely something I would only do once. It was so crowded, everyone elbowing for room, and the only nice part of the view was seeing a tiny looking Angkor Wat surrounded by jungle, in a pinkish evening glow. Its something you need to experience for yourself, but I doubt it is anyone’s highlight of their visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

We return to Angkor Wat again before sunrise the next morning, travelling by tuk tuk (a 5am start). I find an unexpected advantage of the tuk tuk is that as it moves it creates a breeze through the open sides, which helps to slightly cut through the clingy heat – it can be more effective than the air con in a car, although rather less comfortable for a long trip. It’s another pretty but pale pastel sunrise.

Dawn is a great time to visit Angkor Wat. Although a lot of people arrive for sunrise, most head back to their hotels for breakfast without venturing into the temples themselves, and then come back later in the day, so this is relatively uncrowded in between. Instead of stopping for breakfast we grabbed pastries from one of the bakeries in town the night before, and of course plenty of water.

The temple is a huge pyramid structure, the largest religious structure in the world, if you measure it from the large moat surrounding it, which is full of water and is 1.5km by 1.3km in size. When I walked through the first gate on my first visit, I thought I was entering straight into temple buildings but I quickly realised that I was in a vast walled field surrounding the temple, with a long causeway  to the temple structure and the two large ponds on either side. The temple is a complex of terraces rising in three stories, topped by five domed towers.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2010


Most of the structure is covered with bands of finely carved stone sculptures and bas relief carvings of exceptional detail. We explore the lower tier, following the bas relief that circumnavigates the walls of the corridor that encloses this whole level, telling Hindu fables of Vishnu is amazing detail and beauty. Once the 2nd tier opens at 7am we progress around that level, and rest in a shaded corner until tier 3 opens at 8am (we have already drunk and sweated out at least a litre of water by then).

Tier 3 is still an active temple, which is why it has more restricted hours, and has a dress code, one that in my heat exhaustion I almost mess up. I remember to bring trousers to put over my shorts, but forget that I am wearing a sleeveless top, however a bit of stretching quickly turns it into a wide necked, cap sleeved top and I pass the inspection.

The stairs up to the top level are the steepest in the complex. I remember five years ago climbing up the old narrow stone steps almost like a ladder, and feeling extreme vertigo when having to climb back down them in a large crowd of people all moving at different speeds. Now all the sets of original stairs are locked off, and a new set of robust wooden stairs has been built in one corner, floating over and protecting the original staircase, while actually accommodating feet longer than 4 inches in length. I feel both relieved and disappointed that I don’t get to experience the fear and excitement of the more dangerous originals this time. Its now 8.30 am and we are ready to move around the inner circuit of other temples.