Return to the temples of Angkor Thom

Being surrounded by mysterious carved serene faces, scrambling through temple ruins held together by massive old tree roots, these are my favourite memories of my previous visit to Cambodian temples.

Sure, Angkor Wat is deservedly the star attraction, but it is the charm of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom that I am looking forward to experiencing again five years later.

The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads, all smiling mysteriously, each one subtly different – that is the charm of the Bayon.

Depending on who you ask, the heads are images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, or maybe they are King Jayavarman VII., the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur. Either way, they have a killer smile.

the Bayan 2005
the Bayan 2005

This is how I saw them the first time. The Bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three tiers of big blocks of stone. And suddenly, when I’m in amongst it, I see the bas relief carvings depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus, on the first tier.  I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the third tier, and find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile –  they face north, south, east and west, from 54 stone towers. The light catches different faces at different times of the day, I recommend going at sunrise, in the early morning light, while the crowds are still at Angkor Wat.

Ta Prohm – held together by the tree roots.

My other favourite temple is Ta Prohm, a photographers dream.  It’s not exactly off the beaten track, but the sight of crumbling walls intertwined with massive curling tree roots is spectacular. It’s also very accessible, with walkways to guide the visitors around, and to give everyone a turn to see the best corners. It can be a challenge of patience to frame up a camera shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot through, but it’s surely worth the effort.

Five years ago I remember there being one pathway through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds but now I notice a marked difference. There is an extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, this takes away any pretence that we are hard core explorers, but it also handles the volume of visitors better. I see one wall which has completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree looking ready to topple over itself, which reinforces just how hard it is to balance 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.
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?