In Siem Reap we have two days to explore the 294 temples scattered around the city’s boundaries, including the jewel in the crown of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, visited by over 3 million tourists every year. As it turns out we only have time to visit 5, but what a memorable tour it is!
Many of the temples in this area were originally Hindu and were built over 600 years ago, but abandoned in the twelfth century due to a severe drought. Lost to the jungle for hundreds of years, they were rediscovered by a Buddhist king in the 1600’s and then Hindu gods sat side by side new statues of Buddha. Angkor Wat, the biggest of the temple complex in Siem Reap, is one of the largest religious monuments in the world originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It took 40,000 elephants and 400,000 people, many of them slaves who were later granted their freedom, 37 years to build, finally being completed in 1113.
In contrast with the many of the Hindu temples we visited in Southern India, the intricate carvings have lost their detail, ravaged by the jungle and by war, but It’s the scale and setting of Angkor Wat that’s impressive. Despite the thousands of tourists here, the buildings radiate an uplifting spiritual serenity. Several Monk’s sit in the inner sanctum, offering a blessing for a small donation. There is a majestic quality and the structures blend seamlessly with the surrounding woodland and lakes. We visit twice and the second time is to see the sunrise over its towers. It was worth every minute of our early rise a truly unforgettable experience.
Whilst in Siem Reap we visit other temples; Baneteay Srei (also know as the Lady Temple), Angkor Thom (the great wall), the Mayon temple and Ta Prohm, the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Ta Prohm, originally a tomb for one of the great Khmer King’s mother, lay undiscovered for many years and the jungle has taken over. Huge banyan trees have cracked the immense sandstone blocks of the temple, which formed the spectacular backdrop for the film, Tomb Raider. Restoration continues and Angelina Joli, the sweetheart of the film and mother to an adopted Cambodian orphan, has donate $1 million to this project. The trees are very slowly destroying the foundations of this temple, but felling these imposing trees would result in the ancient temple crumbling. It is a race against time, history versus nature….but the effects are sight to behold.
On our final morning in Siem Reap we visit the final temple of this trip, the Mayon Temple, with its 4-sided Buddha statues. We arrive just before throngs of Chinese tourists pour in to take their thousands of selfies. It’s a hot morning and we have only visited 5 temples over the past two days. For now, we are ‘templed out’ and an afternoon by the hotel pool calls. We will just have to come back again …… there’s only another 199 left to visit!