Whether it’s a historical or a living temple, in Cambodia spirituality seems untethered to time.
Probably like anyone traveling to Siem Reap, and most people traveling to Cambodia in general, my first experience has been a two-day all-temples-tour, a full immersion in the Angkor Wat archaeological park, with Angkor Wat itself left on the second day to be admired from the sunrise.
Being an archaeological park, it goes without saying that the temples are historical monuments, even though many Cambodians organize their lifetime trip here for both a visit and to have the chance to pray, adding to the spiritual atmosphere of the area and showing the great respect the Khmer population has towards their history, somehow still alive and part of their existence.
Journeying along the myriad of temples part of the Angkor Wat complex it’s possible to track the history of the Khmer empire, mainly through its myths, legends and folktales, different for each temple but all of them connected. As history goes, it all started around the IX century, during the reign of a young Jayavarman II who established the first capital of his kingdom near what’s now the town of Roluos, that I visited more to see its local market (photos coming soon!) rather than the first temple of the early Khmer empire. Little by little, conquest after conquest, this became one of the most powerful and greatest empires in all of Southeast Asia.
A captivating interplay of Hinduist and Buddhist features, inscriptions, carvings of tales of battles, princes and princesses, heartbreaking love stories, snakes, oceans and how Kambuja (Cambodia’s ancient name) was created populate the walls of these historical temples, in a sort of chronicle of a great bygone era.
From the dimensions of the temples, the fine carvings, the elaborate details and the elegance of their figures, everything in the Angkor Wat archaeological park reeks of majesty and power.
At Angkor Wat temples many areas are devoted to Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, especially Shiva, the “Universe destroyer”, because he was considered the first protector of the empire. Many are the features that you’ll see recurring in the different temples, with the most common being the stupa, structures containing mainly ashes of Buddhist monks, and linga, or better, where the linga was located before being stolen/removed. The linga is a phallic-shaped stone often representing god Shiva and usually placed in the middle of a square slab called yoni, a sort of womb, to symbolize fertility and prosperity.
All temples are beautiful and worth a visit, but if you don’t have much time, I would suggest you don’t miss Angkor Wat to have a clear idea of the majesty you’re in for, then move to the stunning Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei for the finest and most intricate carvings and decorations depicting the eternal struggle between good and evil and the inevitable victory of the former, and by all means do head to the gorgeous Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Bayon, built in what has gone down in history as Bayon style, the last great construction style, will blow your mind for the huge faces carved on the towers. Considered less elegant and elaborate than Banteay Srei and Angkor Wat styles, Bayon temple is all about dimensions, magnitude and greatness.
Of the same Bayon style, Ta Prohm, also known as Jungle Temple, will bring you back to Tomb Raider. It’s here, in fact, that Lara Croft did her stunts and the movie was shot. Utterly beguiling, this temple struck me for how much it shows that no matter what, Nature always takes over.
Tourism in Cambodia is fast increasing, and while the temples around Siem Reap are bound to be pretty much always popular among travelers, there certainly are other cities worth a stop, such as Battambang, about which I’ll be soon publishing a post, and areas such as Kampong Chhnang to have a taste of more traditional lifestyle where poverty is still the main feature.
Like in many developing countries, when tourism starts developing, there is always the danger of irresponsible behaviors. This, unfortunately, is becoming a problem also in Cambodia. When I was in Siem Reap I’ve had the chance to meet the director of a local Ngo who opened my eyes on this sensitive issue, and this will be the subject of one of my future posts about this beautiful country. For now, enjoy and revel in the images of Angkor Wat stunning sacred places.