Magnificent Temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia

By Stella Nathania Wibowo

Soo-s’day, bong! Tomorrow, four thirty morning, to Angkor Wat?” Staring into the emptiness of the busy Siem Reap road at night, the tuk-tuk driver was startled out of his cozy motorbike seat by two tourists who seemed to be too friendly.

“Eight dollar,” he offered. Soon enough, we agreed on the rate and meeting time. We exchanged numbers between our 21st century smartphone and his 20th century handphone that some of us middle-class city dwellers would be embarrassed to own, even a little over 10 years ago. A necessary verification routine of calling the newly-exchanged numbers just proved to me that these two phones could interact.

At 4:30am the next day, there he was at the entrance of our hotel. He had a warm smile that suggested a slight relief; these over-friendly tourists actually managed to show up at the agreed time instead of oversleeping in the hotel. Soon we were riding in the pitch-dark, chilly “nowhere” on the way to Angkor Wat.

We reached the ticket counters at 4:45am, and there were only 2 other visitors, from France. Much to our despair, of course, the ticket counters only opened at 5:00am. Think about the precious extra sleep we could have gotten in those 15 minutes! A little trick of friendliness to the staff member got us the first tickets, on which were printed our faces, a few minutes before 5:00am.

So off we went with our tuk-tuk again, whose driver would go on to be our loyal companion for the rest of the day, to the entrance of Angkor Wat – the first temple we visited that day. With swelling enthusiasm in the cold dawn, we breezed through the path leading to our researched spot for taking the perfect sunrise pictures.

When we arrived at the spot, about twenty people were already there waiting for the impending beauty that was about to greet them. And true enough, over the course of the next hour, while we remained at the same spot fiddling with our cameras and taking pictures, the slow morning sunrise colourfully lit up the background of the largest temple in the world. It made for a stunningly beautiful scenery you could need to see, and enjoy, through your own eyes.

(Photo: Stella NW)
(Photo: Stella NW)

Unbeknownst to me, other visitors continued streaming in. When I turned to look behind me sometime after, there were hundreds of other people holding up cameras quietly, facing the magnificence in front of them, all of us collectively acknowledging the fact that it would be disrespectful to destroy the perfect morning ambience with loud voices. Probably what we had in mind was a mutual “shut up and take pictures” attitude. Tourists are awesome.

(Photo: Stella NW)
(Photo: Stella NW)

A little historical lesson never hurts. Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple between A.D. 1113 and 1150 by a Khmer king, Suryavarman II, dedicated to the god Vishnu. It later became a Buddhist temple. It faces the west, which is associated with Vishnu himself, and to understand the story, one needs to follow the carvings on the walls of the sandstone temple in a counter-clockwise direction from the entrance. The most remarkable relief was a story of the “churning of the ocean milk” located in the southeast section of the temple. It told of a great tug-of-war that gave birth to apsaras, between the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons), with the god Vishnu in the centre.

My travel companion, probably staring at the half-naked apsara relief. (Photo: Stella NW)
My travel companion, probably staring at the half-naked apsara relief. (Photo: Stella NW)

It was 9:00am and we already grew tired of exploring the stories embedded in the walls of the quiet corners and corridors of this enormous temple. Angkor Wat is only one of the many glorious temple monuments built in the area. There are others, some of the more popular ones include Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. (Photo: Stella NW)
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom complex. (Photo: Stella NW)

Bayon is a temple in the middle of the Angkor Thom temple complex, located 4 km north of Angkor Wat. It is largely popular for its decorative walls and monuments showing face reliefs in multi-directions that some regard as the face of Bodhisattvas.

Ta Prohm, on the other hand, felt less like a temple, but more like a maze of ruins that seemed to be eaten alive by overgrown trees and vegetation. Although restoration efforts have taken place in this area, there were still plenty of rubble-covered corridors and unsafe territories in the temple. More unsafe was the fact that after entering one of the open corridors, and going through a maze of rubble-filled uncertainty, we came out of the temple building through an entrance, minimally supported by a slanted metal plank support that bore a display “Unsafe. Do Not Enter” that we passed by earlier. I was certain we were not the only ones going through the same risky path.

Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the temple with the big trees. (Photo: Stella NW)
Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the temple with the big trees. (Photo: Stella NW)

The visit to these three most popular temples in the Angkor area made up our entire journey to the temples that day. By the time we finished at Ta Prohm, the sun was glaring at us at 36 degrees Celsius, and that alone had drained our energies doubly fast.

We got on the back seat of our tuk-tuk like exhausted jellyfish and rode back to the city centre of Siem Reap. The Angkor temples shrunk behind us at the horizon, as we rode further and further away. But no goodbye was necessary, because as Arnold Schwarzenegger puts it, I’ll be back.


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