It was our first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and we chose to hire a van (through our hotel’s front desk) to take us through a Short Circuit tour. No, there was no electrical faulty wiring around Siem Reap. Short Circuit is what tour operators call the inner ring of temples of the ancient city of Angkor, the capital of the once powerful Khmer Empire. Cambodia is a hot and humid place, and couple that with the absence of public transport within Angkor itself (which I agree with), then it’s best to contract a ride for the tour, unless you like to take a bicycle to the woods (fun), or walk for miles (not fun). You can take a ubiquitous tuk-tuk for an al-fresco, wind-in-your-face feel, or ask for a car or van and driver from the hotel if you’d like the luxury of air conditioning.
Our first stop was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the walled city. Being the link between the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, it is the gate most used by tourists, and is therefore the subject of most restoration efforts. The ancient Khmer experienced back and forth shifts between Buddhism and Hinduism, and this is immediately noticeable at the gate. At the top are the four faces of the Buddha facing in each direction, and at the bridge you see a line of Hindu Devas.
Going past the gate and further along is the Bayon (photos below). Being the main temple of Ankor Thom, it sits right smack at the center of the ancient city. Though nowhere as large as the Angkor Wat, or even the other ancient South-East Asian temples like Indonesia’s Borobudur, it looks rather unique compared to them. Bayon’s silhouette is what I would call an “organized chaos”. It is the youngest of the three temples mentioned here, and it departs from the smooth lines of the other two, and is instead composed of a series of towers of varying heights, giving an impression of a sort of “man-made canyon”, rather than a mountain which other large temples would suggest. Still, similar to the other grand temples of this corner of the world, the interior contains intricate details, from the stories carved in stone to the decors in its passageways.
Be warned that the Bayon is one of the most heavily visited temples in Angkor, perhaps next only to the Angkor Wat, so taking a photo with not too many people around takes some patience and foresight, but it’s not a hopeless endeavor (at least while we were there – it was a Wednesday). I would also suggest being ever mindful of the people taking pictures around, so as not to invade their frames. We only earn the respect that we give.
Not too far to the north of the Bayon is another temple, the Baphoun (photos below). A little bit larger, and older than the Bayon, the Baphoun looks a lot more conventional. It comes in the form of a wide, low pyramid, a shape commonly found among old civilizations, from Asia to Egypt to South America, though this one is pretty well decorated and detailed for a pyramid. I read somewhere that the Baphoun was the inspiration for the game “Temple Run”, though I don’t have proof so I would treat it as hearsay, but it wouldn’t seem too far off if it were true. Being less structurally stable than the others though, access is restricted to anyone under the age of twelve.
Next door to the Baphoun, again to the north, is the Royal Palace complex. Most of the palace was allegedly made in wood, so there’s virtually nothing left of it except the entrance gates and the temple in the middle called the Phimeanakas. Again the temple is shaped like a pyramid, but much smaller as I believe it was only used by the royalty.
Right outside the Royal Palace complex are a couple of terraces lined with intricate stone carvings, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King (photos below). The former was named, contemporarily, after the elephants carved in it (elephant cavalry were the “armored divisions” of ancient Asian armies), and the latter was named after a Hindu god whose statue stood here before, and who looked liked a leper to western explorers (the Khmers did not actually have a monarch afflicted with leprosy, as far as historians are concerned). It is said that it is from these terraces (which face an open field) where the Khmer king stood to view his army on parade.
Just outside Angkor Thom, to the East, is a small temple called Chau Say Thevoda (photo below). It’s the first of many “lesser temples” in our tour. Now I’m no expert in archeology, and I call them “lesser” simply because they are single level structures, with little vertical prominence, and in no way denotes their religious or cultural significance.
After a brief stop for lunch we came upon Ta Prohm (below). If you’ve seen photos of temples being embraced by tree roots, most likely it was taken from somewhere in Ta Prohm. Though a single level temple like the one above, and therefore not really visually prominent, it is nonetheless one of Angkor’s most photographed temples, its main allure being the way nature has sort of partially reclaimed it. It was also popularized by the movie Tomb Raider.
On the road back to central Siem Reap, our last stop was the grandest of the temples of Angkor, the Angkor Wat (photos below). Surrounded by a wide moat and an enclosure as big as a small town, the towers of the Angkor Wat dominate over the neighboring woods like medieval sky scrapers. Holding the record as the world’s largest religious monument, the temple projects a strong sense of majesty and power, which I have to admit my photography could not convey enough. It must have looked jaw dropping to any visitor of the Khmer Empire back then.
Be warned that the walkway from the road to the temple is long, open and unshaded, so it is best to visit early in the morning, or late in the afternoon.
* Photos taken March 2016