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.
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.
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.
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.
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.