There is not as much to say about the Temples of Angkor as there is to see. Nevertheless a little background couldn't hurt. Angkor Wat is the source of all Cambodian pride, and rightly so. But Angkor Wat is only one temple within a whole city of temples. Granted, Angkor Wat is the most spectacular of them all and for that reason we will dedicate a whole entry just to that one temple. (Next to come.)
But for now, we will showcase the other lesser known but almost equally impressive temples that surround Angkor Wat. Sorry for the overload of photos. There truly are many, and believe me, we edited out a bunch! We spent two whole days exploring the area and we could have spent more time easily. Every angle, every stone, every tree seemed to whisper its own story and so we were eager to capture them all. Then the sun would shift revealing a whole new face.
The temples themselves are spread throughout the forest and you definitely get the sense that this was a great kingdom in the jungle. Some of the temples are close to one another while others are quite remote. For the whole journey we had our own tuk-tuk speed us around between the various sites. But exploring was very much done on foot.
The history of Angkor spans from AD 802 to 1432 during the time when the Khmer empire grew to its glory. More than ten kings ruled over the empire during that time span, each adding his own flair by constructing his own temples. The temples began as Hindu temples until one of the kings converted to Buddhism so you see influences from both. Today many Buddhist statues dot the various temples and you can often find nuns inside lighting incense and saying prayers.
Angkor was at various times the capital of the Khmer empire. But as Cambodia has so often seen its lands usurped by enemies, Angkor was sacked by both the Chams and the Thai. Finally after a devastating defeat the Khmer capital moved to its current capital, Phnom Penh where it has remained since.
Angkor was left to the mercy of the jungle. The sandstone foundations crumbled due to the jungle's dampness and the unrelenting trees began to take control. It wasn't until the 1860s when the French "discovered" Angkor consumed by the jungle. While archaeologists have done tremendous work trying to replace fallen stones and rebuild temples, they have left the trees in place letting the roots become the wall's very foundation. The trees often times look like centurions guarding the entrances, adding their very own mystique.
Two of the most popular temples are Bayon and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is probably the best example of this vegetation overgrowth. The Bayon complex is so different from any other temple. Enigmatic beyond compare. Its architecture consists of 54 gothic towers adorned with 216 enormous heads. Supposedly the heads resemble the reigning king who designed the temple, Jayavarman VII. Anywhere you stand in the temple you are never far from the gaze of that Khmer king.
Mostly though Angkor is not the beacon of tranquility it may have once been. It is definitely crowded with tourists. At sunset the temples seem like stadiums, each spectator with his or her camera at the ready. Still we were very excited to run into our German friends Kevin and Tilo at the top of Phnom Bakheng. There was no sun to be photographed so we took another shot of the four of us.
The child vendors are a bit tiring and certainly overwhelming. They are everywhere eager to sell postcards, books, bracelets, fruit, flutes or just beg. We were torn with whether or not we should support the child labor. At one point Brad went to buy some postcards from a girl and no sooner than he had them in his hand there were at least 15 other kids surrounding him saying "buy mine, one dollar, buy mine!" There was even a three year old girl just standing there pushing hers at him. It was such chaos as so many kids were surrounding us that we had to just walk away.
This is one of the great problems that faces a struggling economy confronted with burgeoning tourism. At what point do the tourists control the economy to the detriment of the community? Yes, these are incredibly poor families and so they face the choice of sending their children to work or to school. More times than not, its to work. Should our tourism dollars go towards purchasing from the kids, thus encouraging this choice of labor over school, or should we buy from the established stores where the vendors are more well off and not entirely dependent on each sale of the day? We were however happy to contribute to the landmine victims band who performed typical Cambodian music in order to support their families. No doubt their prosthetic legs and arms were placed strategically to encourage a donation.
This was one of our longest and hottest days. For the first time ever in my life I got heat rash. Even under the sweltering tin roof of my house in Nicaragua I never had heat rash. But its hard to escape the humidity and the sun that beat down on these temples. Back in Siem Reap we were surprised and intrigued to find a Mexican restaurant. And to boot, our Cambodian waiter spoke a little Spanish! We decided to go there every night for mango margaritas and chips and salsa. Every night our waiter was excited to practice his Spanish with me. I gave him a Spanish name, Jose, and he loved it! It was really quite something to be sitting in Cambodia and speaking Spanish with a young Cambodian who responded to being called Jose.
Stay tuned, the next entry to come is the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat!