Explore the temple ruins of Siem Reap, a gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia. Be awed by the big three temples that include the famous Angkor Wat but do not forget to check out the less touristy structures for an adventure Tomb Raider style.
Spread over four hundred square kilometres, the Khmer ancient ruins are the primary reason why tourists flock to Siem Reap, gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia. Siem Reap is the base from which tourists plan their explorations of grand and magnificent ruins of the Khmer kingdom, some of which are dated back as far as the 9th century.
Angkor Wat is the main highlight of every tour itinerary; nearly 6,000 tourists visit the temple daily. However, there is so much more in the vast Archaeological Park than just Angkor Wat. There are temples in other parts of Siem Reap that are hidden, unrestored and devoid of crowds which add a mystifying “Lost World” aura surrounding these ruins.
PETIT (SHORT) CIRCUIT
The Petit or Short Circuit is essentially a loop visiting the Big Three temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom/Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and was built during the reign of Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Angkor Wat means “City of Temples” and is a classic temple-mountain replica of the Hindu universe. The five towers in the centre represent the different peaks of the cosmic Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, surrounding the towers are walls which stand for mountain ranges, and the moat signifies the ocean surrounding Mount Meru. It was the moat that preserved Angkor Wat for many centuries after the fall of the Khmer empire; the water protected the ancient site from the dense jungle.
Visitors who are running short on time may spend a full 12-hour exploration of the major temples but that would only lead to “temple fatigue”. The best way is to spend at least two days exploring the ruins of Angkor at a relaxed pace: one day for the Petit (Short) Circuit and another for the Grand Circuit.
One of the attractions of Angkor Wat is the galleries of bas reliefs narrating stories from the greatest Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost every stone and gallery were carved with scenes
of kings and battles, gods and demons, heaven and hell. There are also bas reliefs of 1,500 apsaras of which every shape, form, curve, figure, line and pattern was beautifully carved with meticulous detail.
Angkor Thom / Bayon
Angkor Thom is said to be the ultimate achievement of Jayavarman VII, the greatest of all Khmer kings. Just like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was built as a Hindu temple-mountain with high walls and a moat. Many visitors associate Bayon with the mystery faces carved on the towers of Angkor Thom. There are more two hundred faces following every visitor around the temples within this ancient city. Some call these faces the “Smile of Khmer”.
Ta Prohm was also constructed during the reign of Jayavarman II to serve as a monastery and university. After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 17th century, Ta Prohm was neglected and abandoned for hundreds of years, overgrown by brush and the jungle. French explorers stumbled upon it at the turn of 20th century and subsequently fifty years later, they decided to leave this place in the same condition in which it was found for aesthetic reasons.
Much restoration has been done but what was maintained was trees with enormous roots growing out of the ruins and sprouting across the temple, giving Ta Prohm a Lost World feel. This is the site where scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed.
The Grand Circuit is just an extension of the Petit Circuit loop, taking in a few more sites that have fewer tourists but just as impressive as Angkor Wat.
Banteay Srei was constructed in the late 10th century, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Unlike Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom structures which are made of laterite stone, Banteay Srei is made of red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. As a result, the site features one of the finest carvings in the world with unbelievable detail and texture.
Kbal Spean (River of Thousand Lingas)
About 12 kilometres from Banteay Srei is the riverbed of Kbal Spean also known as the “River of Thousand Lingas”. The rocky riverbed is noted for 1,000 carvings of lingas. The linga or lingam came to be seen as the phallus of Shiva in Hinduism and lingas are found everywhere particularly in Angkor temple sanctuaries where worshippers have been pouring water over them for centuries. In the riverbed of Kbal Spean, the water rushes across the carved lingas and feeds the rice fields situated below the riverbed, symbolising fertility.
Beng Melea & Preah Khan
Beng Melea and Preah Khan are stunning temples, both are located off the beaten track, mostly unrestored and tangled with tree roots and brush. The temple compounds and galleries are reduced to piles of rubbles, stones, broken doors and corridors due to abandonment and neglect over the centuries.
TIPS TO AVOID CROWDS IN THE ANGKOR ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
The best time to visit Angkor Thom/Bayon is in the morning when there are lesser crowds as most tourists rush to Angkor Wat first. You can visit Angkor Wat in the late afternoon for there will be sections of the temple free from tourists.
You will hardly find any tourists in Preah Khan particularly in the late afternoon. The atmosphere will be quiet and the experience will be truly incredible as if you are Indiana Jones exploring these ruins.
Words by Kathleen Poon