May 2, 2014

Siem Reap, Cambodia: 6 Must-Visit Temples

Cambodia isn't Cambodia without it's temples. To give you a brief, 'Angkor' means city, Wat means temples. Siem Reap is known for its temples, built by Ancient kings, located in the heart of the city.

After a night of partying at the popular Angkor What? Bar, we were forced to wake up at 5am to see the majestic sunrise at the Angkor Wat. My friends and I had breakfast at the side cafe and had their 'tapsilog' (or the Angus beef) version called 'Loklak' until our bellies were full. 

1. Angkor Wat

As I run to the halls of Angkor Wat, I am guided by its history, carved in details on these bas reliefs. Our guide, Vanh, told us that this temple was built by the late king Suyavarman II in the late 12th century.

Vishnu at Heaven's Gate
This used to be the capital of the Khmer empire and what made it my favorite was that this temple was dedicated to my favorite Hindu God, Vishnu the Protector. After the king's death, this temple was sacked until it was restored by another great King, Jayavarman VII, and established other temples dedicated to the important people in his life. The Angkor Wat became the symbol of Cambodia.

You can see the facade in their flag, notes, buildings, beers, and other products you can think of. During the siege of the Khmer Rouge, this temple, along with others, became their headquarters and had planted mines to fend off their enemies.

That is why most of the relics have either been destroyed, sacked, or have been missing for thousands of years. But even in the face of destruction, these walls have withstood and continues to shine, symbolizing hope for the kingdom, and the people. 

2. Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple

This temple is popular because of this famous face. Built by Jayavarman VII, he dedicated this temple to his 

Serious talks with Vanh

Kiss me

3. Ta Prohm

This temple is popularly known as the "Tomb Raider temple". But in history, this was built for Jayavarman VII's mother. When we went here, i've noticed that most parts were blocked. I found out later on that the World Monument Fund has started its conservation along with the Preah Khan temple.

Personally, this was the bottom of my favorite temples because there were a lot of stanchions and platforms placed on where the Tomb Raider scenes were shot. There was a big disconnect from commercialism against the authenticity of its rich history. Which is why I want to show you...

4. Banteay Kdei

According to Wikipedia, this means "The Citadel of Chambers". Again this was built by the same king (he's starting to be my favorite) in which the architectural style was based from Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, only smaller. When I requested the tour guide to include this in the itinerary (instead of Banteay Srei, where another scene from Tomb Raider was shot), he dissuaded me by convincing me to choose the latter. So what's in this temple that caught my attention? 

For me, this was the underdog. The least visited and the least rehabilitated. Vanh told us that there was nothing else to fix because most parts were irreparable. I beg to disagree.

The poor quality of sandstone used in these buildings smelled like fresh air seeping away from the cold stone. The grey colors blended with the terra-cotta hue of the soil, and the different shades of green from the unexploited trees.

But if you look closely, you can still see the fine carvings of Apsaras on the pillars. There were few tourists which meant that we had the place to ourselves.

The whole area is so small and less complex that you can easily navigate through the rooms. In short, the flaws from this temple showed what one must see through the looking glass: inner beauty.

5. Bakong Temple

Also known as the temple mountain. Huge elephant statues welcomed us as we climbed the footsteps of this temple. It was built by King Indravarman I and dedicated it to the deity, Shiva.

During the reign of Jayavarman VII, he installed towers from different sides in symmetrical form, built with bas reliefs and stuccos dedicated to his family. Once you climb to the top, a central tower protects this sacred statue called the "lingam", a symbol of energy or an image of an idol in traditional Indian society. (source: Wikipedia)

6. Preah Khan

The last temple we explored before leaving Siem Reap was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII's father. 

It's name was derived from the word "Holy Sword" and was used as the king's headquarters during the ancient wars. I consider this my second favorite because it was left largely unrestored. Though conservators have attempted to restore this temple, as much as possible, they did not want to falsify history and preferred to respect the ruined nature of the temple. (Source: Wikipedia)

As I reach the end of my whole temple run, I savored this moment by living out my childhood dream. When I was a kid, I looked up to Indiana Jones. Walking to this empty room filled with uneven steps reminded me of my favorite scene from "The Last Crusade" where Indy had to pass this obstacle by solving the clues behind the old name of God. I hopscotched and channeled my inner geek until we reached the exit. I told Vanh about this and gave him the idea to see this film that somehow (aside from Tomb Raider) resembled to the ruins of Angkor. 

When we said our goodbyes to Kriss (our cool driver) and Vanh, I felt a pang of sadness for concluding this amazing trip. I will always remember my adventure at Siem Reap: The youthful nights at Pub Street, the friendly people we met, and the breathtaking temples that will always remain fresh in my mind. If you're looking a trip, worthy enough to tell your kids/grandkids, book that ticket and see Cambodia. You won't regret it. :)

To know more about Siem Reap, check out my other posts here.