14 June 2009

Angkor Adventures: Completing the Small Circuit

Continuing from our previous post, where we spent the morning admiring sunrise at Angkor Wat, and then dropping our jaws at Angkor Tom. This next part will chronicle the rest of the day.

For the benefit of our friends - the temples of Angkor is spread over a very large area - most of the famous ones just north of the present day town of Siem Reap, but a lot others are all over an area a few hundred kms square.

The essentials of Angkor can be experiencing through a journey on the Small circuit - a clockwise route starting at Angkor Wat, traversing northward to Angkor Thom, then eastward to Ta Phrom, and then completing the circuit looking at smaller temples, gradually turning south and westward and ending the day at Phnom Bakheng, just north west of Angkor Wat, where you can try your luck at a sunset view. This is called the Small circuit loop. There is a Grand circuit, which extends the route further eastward, and covers a different set of temples - we'll cover those the next day instead.

Chau Say Tevoda & Thommanon Moving on from Angkor Thom after lunch, we depart through the Victory Gate (the second Eastern gate at Angkor Thom), and find ourselves at the small temples of Chau Say Tevoda, and Thomannon, just across the road from each other. Both are small temples, built in the 12th century, and of similar styles. Visit the recently restored Chau Say Tevoda first - you can see clearly where they have been restored by the Chinese team. In my opinion, it was quite poorly done, but then, time will tell. Then, walk across the road to admire the better restored Thomannon - check out the lintel carvings there.

Moving on, we passed the stone bridge which used to span the Siem Reap river - today, the river has, over thousands of years, changed its course, making the bridge look strangely out of place - the river is now a few hundred meters further to the east. Not long after, we reached the imposing Ta Keo.

Being told that there are no carvings, and because Tyko was worried of the really imposing looking steps, we decided not to make the climb up Ta Keo, and would instead, just walk around its walls - which wasn't such a bad thing, after all. I would have liked to climb it, but heck, we'll be climbing quite a few temples over the next few days still, one less is ok. It's a temple that was never completed - historical records suggests that construction was stopped when it was struck by lightning - which was then considered an extremely unlucky omen.

ta keo & banteay kdei Next, here's where a driver / guide comes in useful. We wanted to go to Ta Phrom first to see the majestic trees growing over the temple ruins, but Sukkong, our guide, suggested to us to visit the broadly similar Banteay Kdei first - so that we can see how the temple should look like, minus the forest invasion!

Banteay Kdei is often overlooked in favor of the largely similar Ta Phrom, especially short of time. A beautiful temple largely in ruins due to what conservators believe as poor materials and over ambitious expansions - it was renovated many times and extended. And herein lies the beauty of the temple - atmospheric ruins, coupled with the usual great carvings you find elsewhere in the Angkor ruins. And it really gives you a good idea of how the temples will look like minus all the trees growing on top of it over the centuries as the jungle reclaims the temples after they were abandoned.

That whet our appetite for Ta Phrom, and we're quite happy to head there, after a short trip across the street to take a quick look at Srah Srang, the Royal Bath, a small reservoir of water. We just had a quick peek because we knew we'd be back tomorrow for the sunrise view. This is the site of our only encounter with a rude vendor.

When visiting Angkor, you should not be surprised to find young child peddlers trying to sell you everything from bracelets to cold drinks, but what you'll quickly find is that they are all largely very polite, and once you enter temple compounds, they will leave you alone. Here at Srah Srang, we came across a child peddler who actually accused us of lying - she was upset we said we might drink at her stall and ended up not having a drink. We quickly shrugged that incident off, promising ourselves not to even say anything the next time we're approached.

ta phrom Next off, the jungle temple itself, Ta Phrom. Ta Phrom is quite a beauty - similar to Banteay Kdei, but was left on purpose by the Angkor conservators the way the found it. Basically, most Angkor temples were 'discovered' with jungle reclaiming much of it in the late 19th century. For purpose of conservation, most had the jungle removed so that they can be conserved, and what you see today are the temples minus most of the trees and overgrowth. However, Ta Phrom was left mostly alone, so you can get a good sense of how the temples of Angkor would have looked like minus all the clearings.

The temple itself is very beautiful, with beautiful carvings very much intact all over, and with ruins on the outside and inside. I don't know about you, but I seem to think that the disorganized chaos of befallen Ta Phrom beautiful. It's almost like nature has taken over and decided to decorate the temple with trees.

Take your time in this temple, it's quite easy to get lost in the ruins, and I think that's the beauty. We went in without any plans or any knowledge of the layout. All we did was to wander around, and try and cover as much of the ground as possible. There are surprises at every turn, and do take in the sights, and not get caught trying to just take photographs.

While the famous 'Lara Croft' tree takes a lot of attention, and can be a maddening mix of photo snapping tourists and gawking spectators, if you venture a bit , there are plenty of trees and photo opportunities elsewhere in Ta Phrom. While the tour buses do come, it's not hard to avoid them, since they are always in a hurry, and will quite efficiently horde tourists from one sight to another without really doing justice to the place.

I learnt to just avoid them by being totally random, just walking away whenever you encounter a big group, and you'll be rewarded by your own piece of Ta Phrom. We spent a lot of time here, because there are just so many spectacular sights here - gigantic trees supported on crumbling temples - in some cases, the temples themselves are supported by the roots of the very trees which grow on them.

After Ta Phrom, we had a bit of time on our hand, so Sukkung had us visit Preah Khan. Already quite templed out for the day, we just went in to have a cursory look, knowing that we'll be back the next day anyways. So, more on Preah Khan on a future post then.

phnom bakheng After our temple visits, we wind down the day with a visit to Bakheng. Bakheng, or Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng hill), is the site of the first of the Angkor temples near Siem Reap, built on top of a hill. A 20 minute hike took us up to the hill, where more climbing ensued before we reached the top tier of Bakheng. There, you have vantage point - after all, it is the highest point around the whole area - you can see Angkor Wat to the southeast, and you can can see the sun setting over the West Baray, a huge reservoir dating back to Angkorian time.

As luck had it, due to the start of the rainy season, heavy clouds at the horizon made sunset muted. We waited for a while, and despite some promising breaks in the clouds, ultimately, we left without seeing any of the brilliant sunsets we have heard of. Having said that, it was still a great day out in Angkor.

Also, I overheard this classic bimbo line at Bakheng, while a group of American teenagers arrived at the top of the temple, when I was already there, waiting for sunset to arrive. One of the teenagers asked her friend aloud: "Do they have sunsets everyday, or does it only happen on special occasions?"

I don't know about sunsets, but I happen to think of my visit to Angkor so far as a special occasion, something I'll cherish and remember for a long time yet.

06 June 2009

Angkor Adventures: Sunrise over Angkor Wat & Glorious Angkor Thom !


After touching down in Siem Reap, and experiencing a sunset at Angkor Wat, we settled down for the night after dinner at the great Dragon Soup Restaurant at Old Market, followed by some great ice cream at Blue Pumpkin.

Next morning, at around 5am, our driver, Sukkong, was waiting for us at the lobby, ready to take us out for our sunrise experience at Angkor Wat.

DSC_7140 A short 15 minute drive takes us to Angkor Wat. We took our time, and took lots of photos of the temple from the various vantage points. Being the start of the rainy season, the crowd was 'thinner' (looks very crowded to me, but was told it's at least 5-6 times more crowded in the peak seasons), and the sunrise wasn't so good (which I agree, since it was cloudy, making those dramatic colors muted).

Spending the next hour or so there, Tyko and I managed to sneak in plenty of photos - while the sunrise itself wasn't the spectacle I think many would expect, just the experience of starting a new day at this ancient temple did it for me. If you seek, you shall find quiet corners where you can enjoy the experience minus noisy Asian tourists ...

After having our share of photos and having soaked enough of the Angkor atmosphere, we returned to the hotel for breakfast to refuel ourselves for the full day ahead !

After breakfast, we headed past Angkor Wat, to the fabled walled city of Angkor Thom.

If Angkor Wat is majestic due to its soaring towers and symmetrical construction, Angkor Thom is famous for it's many different attractions - the South Gate - the terraces - various temples within, and of course - Bayon, the ultimate expression of egomaniac.

South Gate @ Angkor ThomFirst up, the famous South Gate. Being a walled city, Angkor Thom has 5 gates which were gateways to the city - the South Gate is the best preserved, and invariably, part of every tourist itinerary. Scenes from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk were replayed at the causeway leading to the gate, and the gate soars high into the sky, with faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara facing the four compass points.

After that, we were dropped at the north end of Angkor Thom, where we explored Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of the Elephants, Phimeanakas and Baphuon before we made our way to Bayon.

Terrace of the Leper King @ Angkor Thom Terrace of the Leper King is a beautiful mound with walls filled with sandstone carvings on the outer and hidden inner wall. Walk to the side, and you'll find the hidden wall within - the carvings there are much nicer ! Perhaps because the carvings on the inner was weren't as exposed, they are in better state of preservation - you really need to check this out, best in the late morning when the sun is higher up to give some light ...

Terrace of the Elephants @ Angkor Thom Right next to it, Terrace of the Elephants is a 300m terrace with near life size elephant carvings. The beauty of these carvings is the little surprises - after the initial wow of seeing elephants carved into bricks, you really enjoy finding geese, crocodiles, and other animals. Also notable are the many garudas sculpted onto the walls of the terrace. The two terraces makes up what is know as part of the Victory Square.

Baphuon @ Angkor Thom Baphuon, sometimes called the world's largest puzzle - is a temple under restoration - most parts of it is closed - but do check out the 200m long causeway (restored), which leads to it from the main road. While most of it is under restoration, you should still check it out - the portions that are open have some interesting carvings, and it's quite atmospheric walking around pieces of dismantled temple.

All the dismantled pieces show restoration in progress - the majority of temples are restored using a method called anastylosis, where each piece of the temple is taken apart, analysed, and then put together like a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle - precisely what Baphuon is.

Soaring towers with smiley faces ... Bayon at last ! And finally, we reached Bayon itself - where 54 soaring towers at the central sanctuary, each with 4 faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara gazing upon visitors. The result - the famous Bayon smile - all 216 of them! And it's no coincidence too that the faces look a lot like King Jayavarman VII who built it ...

DSC_7464 I find it hard to imagine what Bayon really might mean - creative genius, inflated ego of a Devaraja? The soaring towers are sometimes said to represent the 54 districts in the ancient Khmer empire, and with an inscription found in one of the bas relief carvings reading "The King will seek out those in hiding", those faces were probably meant to show that the King is omnipresent, there is nowhere anyone can hide from his steely gaze.

Smile ! Big Brother (King Jayavarman VII) is looking at YOU ! Regardless, today, it is a favorite amongst the tourists, and it's hard to find a time when there aren't any tourists posing with the Bayon smile, or trying to walk across your line of sight when you are posing for a photo. Still, visit in the morning or mid afternoon (before the sun disappear behind the tree line) is best, when sunlight is softer and brings into view most of the Bayon smiley faces :)

DSC_7454 While there, check out the carvings along the walls surrounding the temple as well. We missed a bit of this during this trip, which meant we came back on our last day ... more on that later :)

After Bayon, we took lunch nearby (forget about stall No. 19 - food isn't too good, and a bit pricier - although the price is the norm for areas around the temples of Angkor). A short respite later, we went onwards to complete the small circuit in the afternoon ... please join me in the next post as I venture into the famous Ta Phrom (tree temple), and other beautiful temples ...

And you can find more photos here on my Facebook page ...

Next stop - the rest of the small circuit ...

04 June 2009

Angkor Adventures: Angkor Wat at Sunset

Continuing from the previous post, where I talked about arrival in Siem Reap, and a bit on the town, plus the Angkor National Museum. After

The Tara Angkor hotel is around 15 minutes from the Angkor ticket booths. We had the hotel bellboy help us negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to take us to firstly, buy the pass, then go to Angkor Wat for the sunset experience, then take us back to Old Market for dinner. The bellboy helped us negotiate a $7 deal, which we thought was great !

Departing at 4.45 pm, we arrived at Angkor Wat way before sunset, so we had some time to explore.

Angkor glowing in the late afternoon My first view of the beautifully symmetrical towers of Angkor Wat from the tuk tuk as we approached the western gate gave me the chills. I was so touched to finally make a childhood dream come true !

Angkor Wat is a bit of an Angkorian anomaly. Angkor temples, both Hindu or Buddhists, face the East, to catch the morning sun, thus symbolising life. Angkor Wat on the other hand, faces west. Historians believe this is because the temple is built as a funerary temple for Suriavarman II - dedicated to him as a state temple while he was living, and as his mausoleum after his death.

DSC_6897Walking the causeway that takes us across the moat, I nearly burst out in happy tears. You can't see the 5 central towers while on the causeway, blocked by the Western Gopura (entrance gateway), so the sense of anticipation is heightened.

When I finally got a chance to peek through the final sets of doors at the western gopura at the golden peaks of Angkor Wat, I found my moment of peace and serenity. I have made one of my earliest wishes come true :)

Provision at least 1.5 hours for your sunset trip - excluding travel between your hotel. This will give you enough time to walk through the sights, take plenty of photos, and not feel so rushed to not be able to enjoy your Angkor Wat experience.

A time to reflect ? Angkor Wat is one monumental temple best visited multiple times - since like Ayer's Rock in Australia, it has a very different dynamic and feel at different times of the day.

During sunset, the towers will light up, basking in the golden rays of the setting sun on the western horizon. This is when you will be able to see the whole temple and its 5 towers glowing in soft sunlight.

During sunrise, the sun rises behind Angkor Wat in the east. This means you get the dramatic silhouette of the temple instead, with sometimes dramatic red skies in the background. More on Angkor Wat sunrise in my next post.

And you visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, so that you can enjoy the bas-reliefs (carvings) on the walls in the relative cool of the shade, and taking opportunity of late afternoon sun to light up the carvings. You can then stay on to enjoy yet another Angkor Wat sunset :) ... I'll share my experience on this in a later post ;)

Am I happy? Anyways, Angkor Wat during sunset in magical. While walking on the causeway from the western gopura, you will notice two ponds on either side of the causeway - the best photo ops are right there, to take the temple reflecting on either of those pools. Also, by moving away from the causeway, you get to see all 5 Angkor Wat towers. If you approach directly, you will just get to see 3 towers, since the front left and right towers will obscure the rear towers.

Anyways, let's just enjoy photos and let them do the talking :) ... more of them here.

Next Post - Angkor Wat Sunrise & Angkor Thom

01 June 2009

Angkor Adventures: Touching down at Siem Reap


Picking up from my previous post, on 20th May, Tyko and myself found ourselves on a flight to Siem Reap, home to the world famous Angkor monuments.

Quick facts - Siem Reap is a landlocked town located in a province also called Siem Reap in Cambodia. It has an international airport, and is today a town built around the tourists who flock to the Angkor monuments. There are hotels for every budget, transportation options from bicycles to 9 seater vans, food for every tastes, and enough to occupy you for a while. You'll want for nothing ...

DSC_6702 If you're flying in from the south,  check out the large body of water - Tonle Sap lake, which should come in view on your final descent - it swells to a humongous 16,000 km2 size in the rainy season! Photo on the left shows the lake at the start of the rainy season, before it swells to its fullest - but you can already see floating villages and what appears to be fish farms on the lake already - these floating villages would normally be at the edge of the lake during the dry season !

Arrival at the airport was simple and straight forward, without any fuss. Immediately after clearing immigration and customs, we got ourselves a taxi to the hotel.

Tara Angkor Hotel We found ourselves a hotel through TripAdvisor, and booked it via Expedia. The Tara Angkor Hotel is great - 3 star price, 4 star rating, 5 star service. I truly recommend it to anyone wanting a bit of comfort in Angkor, but without paying the big bucks for it.

The rooms are clean, with your towels changed twice daily. It has a swimming pool, small gym, a restaurant, free wifi at the lobby area (it's not free in the rooms though), pleasant staff members - all of whom speak perfect english and a good location just 2km from Old Market, and just 4km or so to the temples of Angkor.

Check in was simple, and although we arrived really early, by 9am, before our check-in time, they had rooms available, so they let us into our room already. Godsent ! We decided some shuteye would be great, considering the early hour of our flight.

Siem Reap Day 1 am1 After that, we decided to venture out to the Old Market area. This is the center of Siem Reap's present day universe - you will find everything you need here - from restaurants, souvenir stalls, pubs, spas to pharmacies. It's not a very big area - the market itself is an interesting walk, but the streets surrounding it - Pub Street, The Alley, and Blue Pumpkin street are the ones where you'll find yourself exploring more.

After a great lunch at the Khmer Kitchen, we ventured to the Angkor National Museum. Angkor National Museum is a private venture, but it has access to some of the best artifacts from the Angkor Conservatory, and if you're trying to make sense of what you're about to see in the following days at the temples of Angkor, then you should plan on spending at least 2-3 hours there. A mix of interactive, multimedia displays coupled with beautiful artifacts will give you a crash course in Angkor appreciation. Cameras not allowed, so no photos from the inside. =( ... Would have loved to take some photos, but then again, if they let us take photos, we would never be out of the museum in time for our next stop ...

Siem Reap Day 1 pm We finished the museum tour in time to catch a tuk tuk to the Angkor ticket booth. Here's the deal - you need to buy a pass to access the temples of Angkor. The pass comes in 1 day ($20), 3 days ($40) and 7 days ($60) validity, and must be used on consecutive days. If you buy the pass after 5pm, the pass will be valid from the following day - and you'll get free entrance for the day.

Our hotel bellboy negotiated a tuk tuk that would take us to the ticket booth, then take us to Angkor Wat to view the sunset, and then take us to the Old Market area after that for dinner - for $7. Good to have the locals bargain for us ...

The pass purchase itself was painless and fast. Pay up, have your digital photo taken, and you're done - in under 3 minutes.

Next stop - Angkor Wat sunset !

More photos can be found here !