When your home is backyard to heritage listed monuments, you’d be forgiven for allowing a nonchalant sort of familiarity to creep in. Remember as kids being persuaded to go along to yet another famous landmark when a visiting Aunt or family friends were in town. I asked the “other gal” how many times she’d seen the Taj Mahal and she replied wearily “too many times to count.” Every time family came from overseas, back to the Taj they’d go. But over time we find ourselves adding these places to our travel bucket list and getting excited like school kids at the chance to visit them. On the day we first went to see Angkor Wat we were up early, jumped into our tuk tuk where our wide grinning driver promised us an unforgettable day and wove through the busy market streets out into the humid jungle. He didn’t disappoint. With the tall dense tree-line and monsoon clouds emerging you could feel the heat edging in. First stop, find two local hand-woven wicker hats to abate the searing sun and breathe in the moment.
At the approach to Angkor Wat like most tourist sites in Cambodia, rows of wide-legged pants and sundresses make their way towards you, attached to coat-hangers being pushed along by an eager salesperson literally peddling their wares. There are circles of beautiful smiling children trying to sell temple postcards, tourist books and trinkets. It’s the same through most of Asia, though there’s an obvious lack of free-roaming animals that you’ll find in just about all Indian sightseeing spots. Cambodia really has got tourism right. At a very central tourist centre with plenty of help on hand, you can purchase a 3 day temple pass to use over the course of a week. It means that when you arrive at a temple you can go straight in, no maddening crowds or long queues, so we eagerly jumped from our tuk tuk and started the scenic walk to the entrance of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is the reason most people visit Cambodia, it’s a sprawling network of temples (its name simply means temple city) that remained long-undiscovered in the dense jungle for hundreds of years. When the ambitious young nephew of Dharanindravarman I ambushed his great uncle killing him and pronouncing himself king in the mid 12th century, he set about to do what many usurpers have done, cement their place in history by creating an empire dedicated to their Gods. The young King venerated the God Vishnu and built the temple in his honour through it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple after his passing. Covering over 400 acres, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious site, it’s world heritage listed and if the ambitious Kings’ intent was to put the Khmer empire and Cambodia on the map, he absolutely nailed it.
What hits you first is the scale, it is literally sprawling; just when you think you’ve reached the end of one corridor, you peer out through stone archways across the lawn and see that there’s another carved entrance that takes you to a labyrinth of walkways with original 14th century Buddha statues and carvings, draped in gold cloth and standing as serenely as they did all those years ago. We saw many Monks, some sitting in solitude chanting, others industriously running from one wing of the temple to another and yet other’s giving blessings. We waited our turn and sat quietly in front of a Monk sitting cross-legged on a woven mat, his smile wide, his deep voice chanting in song as he splashed water on us from a decorative silver bowl and tied red and yellow string bracelets on our wrists. We figured that if you were ever going to seek such blessings and have them willingly bestowed, then there are few places better than a 900 year old temple. Towards the back of the complex stand the three temple towers, each one lovingly carved with reliefs spiralling all the way to the top. To look up to their summits against the sun with a crisp blue sky as the backdrop, you know you’re somewhere special.
Back in our tuk tuk with our delightfully happy driver, enjoying the cool wind from the breezy ride we circled around the moat through the jungle and found ourselves on a bridge where he promptly stopped and gestured to meet us through the archway. To our absolute surprise we turned around to see statue after statue of larger than life Buddha faces, each a slightly different face; the stone mottled and mossy, worn through time but alive just the same. This line of statues stand along the causeway crossing the Southgate to Angkor Thom and lead you to the archway where Buddha’s smiling face peers down on you. This is just the beginning; as you walk through the temple ruins you see smiling faces everywhere, four faces facing north, south, east and west are carved on the sides of 54 standing towers. What remains today are 200 of them, peering down at curious travellers with our selfie sticks and guidebooks. As an experience for us as tourists it was one of our most treasured afternoons, walking through narrow stairwells, a soft breeze whispering through the trees and the smiles of the Gods etched into eternity.
Though it’s easy to get temple fatigue when you’re travelling, the temples of Angkor and Siem Reap are all so distinctive you can feel their individual characters and energy and with that we had one more temple we couldn’t wait to see. It’s easily recognisable in snapshots and postcards and is one of the most well preserved temples in Angkor. When you walk through Ta Prohm, pale green leafy trees stand on either side of the dusty walkway and you are in the heart of the jungle where a civilisation once boomed. The connection between the two is evident everywhere you look. There are root systems pulsating through the ground, banyan trees alive and growing through the temple walls and it’s as though the stone and jungle are one, forever intertwined where one would die without the other. That’s the beauty of a living jungle with doorways leading to undiscovered passages and stories carved into the walls still waiting to be told, some so well hidden you have to wonder what else is waiting within the lush jungle walls of the temple city.