When I was in middle school, my parents bought me a PlayStation. No, not a PS2, 3, or 4. The original. One of the games that I had was Tomb Raider, and I loved it. I think I played the game all the way through to the end. It was uncharacteristic for me to sit in front of the TV for that many hours. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the female protagonist is, um, voluptuous, and I was 12 years old.) In the game, you run around old temples searching for treasure, battling stone statues come to life, and running from imminent danger. The temples were always dark, atmospheric places with the jungle encroaching on the ancient, crumbling stone. In 2001, Angelina Jolie starred in the movie version of that game, which featured much of the same kind of action.
Guess where the Angelina Jolie version was filmed?
Our first stop on this trip was my favorite tween videogame come to life. Siem Reap, Cambodia, is located near the jewels of the Angkor empire: a series of temples built from the 7th century to the 12th century, spread over a 390-square-mile area. For reference, the Angkor empire rose and fell just before the Incas (c. 13th-15th century), who built Machu Picchu, and at approximately the same time as the Maya, who built Chichen Itza. The city that the Angkorian temples were a part of is likely the largest pre-industrial city the world has ever known. The other remains of the city have disappeared as they were wood construction, but the temples remain as a monument to its greatness. The temples range from nothing more than a few rock carvings by a river to the sprawling Ankor Wat complex.
We took June 20th and 21st to see some of the temples. From the outset, I knew we’d probably get burned out: as awe-inspiring as they are, they start to look the same eventually without an academic interest. (Quote from my journal on June 19th: “Seeing a few temples tomorrow. Not sure how quickly we’ll get sick of them. I know European churches/mosques/castles/etc. get old quickly.”) The first day, we set out to Banteay Srei, which is the furthest from Siem Reap and a unique temple. It’s quite small compared to some of the others, but the intricate pink sandstone carving is a sight to behold. The Angkorian carvers were able to put a level of detail that doesn’t seem possible in stone.
The next day we stayed closer to home to see Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. All the guidebooks, tour desk operators, and anyone who’s heard of Angkor Wat says to go for sunrise. The temple is aligned directly east-west, as they all are, leading to spectacular views at sunrise. We woke up at 4:30, grabbed our tuk tuk, and headed out there only to find thick clouds obscuring the sunrise. That’s what we get for being here in the rainy season. Nevertheless, it was breathtaking to watch the temple slowly gain detail as the sun came up, starting as a silhouette rising out of the jungle. (Bonus: we got to watch with a few hundred new friends! I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in the high season.)
One of my favorite moments came within Angkor Thom, which is a sprawling complex of several temples and other structures. The vast majority of the temples have modern wooden stairs built over the ancient stone ones – safer for the public – and the very top of the temples are closed off. However, at Bayon, there are wooden stairs next to the original stairs, and both go all the way to the top. I was giddy as a schoolgirl that we could climb the temple. The British women at the top were duly impressed that I climbed the old stairs, but only until they saw Jacque do the same easily, at which point I became chopped liver. (She is pretty incredible, right?)
At the end of our tour the last day, we went to Ta Prohm. Unlike all the other temples and ruins we visited, Ta Prohm has been left mostly undisturbed since it was found: several walls have crumbled and trees have overtaken the building in places, giving the feeling that we just discovered a temple on our trek through the jungle. Of all the temples, this was our favorite. The temples that have been restored and rebuilt using anastylosis, though nice to look at, lose some of the mystery that makes them so appealing in the first place. On top of the feeling of mystery at Ta Prohm, it’s also big enough that we almost got lost inside. Luckily, as those of you that read my packing post know, my watch has a handy compass for just this sort of situation.
Below are a bunch more pictures, in random order:
Click on a photo to open larger slideshow.