Angkor Aweigh!

Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 25, 2008

Angkor means city. In fact, Angkor is the largest ancient city with an urban sprawl of 3,000 square kilometers, almost half the size of New York City! Come to think of it, a thousand years ago, Angkor must have been the NYC of that era, what with its kingdom’s power and influence on Southeast Asia and its massive monuments and temple-mountains forming that uniquely jagged Khmer skyline.

A Passage to the Past: Angkor Archaeological Park

Just as NYC is not just the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty – it has its streets and shops and people – so is Angkor Archaeological Park not just the iconic structures of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. There are other surprises awaiting your discovery aboard your $14/day tuktuk transport. As most major temples are spaced with considerable distances from one another, those between-temple rides are sightseeing sojourns in themselves. Here are some of those sights from the back of a trusty tuktuk.

Monks in Deep Saffron

Angkorian Monk, After Morning Meditation

Angkor Wat has been converted from a Hindu temple into a Buddhist one for centuries now. It is not a merely a monument for tourists; it is a functional temple. Emerging from their morning prayers, monks in deep saffron robes huddled beside the pool to chat and gawk back at the tourists ogling them. I hastily did a pap-shot of one before he looked at my direction. They were friendly though and would usually allow their photos taken – without any fee.

Flora and Fauna

Lush Life at Angkor Archaeological Park

Towering trees spread-eagle to form a cool canopy, giving respite from that severe Cambodian sun. Like the ancient temples, they hearken back to ancient times, before much of the country’s rainforest has been subjected to the Khmer Rouge’s unbridled deforestation.

Perched on the Past: Bird-Watching at Angkor Wat

Cambodia is not just a haven for archaeological types, but also those of ornithological persuasion. Aside from temple-hopping, bird-watching is another worthwhile activity you can do in Cambodia. The country is home to a variety of birds, both passerines and waterbirds. A flock of them would hover around the towers of Angkor Wat. Monkeys likewise emerge from the woods, expecting treats from promenading tourists. They reminded me of panhandling primates by the roadside in Subic in the Philippines.

Pretty Prasat

Prasat Suor Prat

Traversing Angkor Thom in search of a restroom, I noticed a line of separate towers, a dozen of them, sticking out on a meadow. Called Prasat Suor Prat, or Towers of the Rope Dancers, these curious structures are as conspicuous as they are mysterious. My tuktuk driver could not explain what they were built for. I imagined the towers were strung together by ropes and agile apsaras (nymphs) gracefully balancing on them, prancing from one prasat to another.

Market! Market!

Art in Angkor
Bai for Lunch

Rows of stalls selling everything from purses to paintings are strategically located in the middle of Angkor Thom. After taking in the sublime Angkor Wat and Bayon, we needed to get our feet on the ground and focus on some mundane concerns like shopping  and eating. We had a mountain of bland yellow rice (bai, in Khmer) sprinkled with pieces of carrots and slivers of meat. Later I learned that food was seen by the average impoverished Khmer merely as tummy-fillers, not pleasurable treats. Ambiance-wise, there seemed to be a beach vibe going – colorful rows of restaurants and souvenir shops, sandy soil, thatched roof, punishing heat, and white tourists in tank tops. Sadly, no body of water in sight other than…

Ay! Baray!

…a baray, a man-made reservoir, such as Srah Srang, believed to be the king’s bathroom. The name means “royal bath.” I was incredulous at first. The baray is a tad too big for one person to bathe in, royal or otherwise. I could believe the irrigation theory more, but we’re talking about ancient god-kings, so who knows? It still holds water to this day. On a multi-tiered landing, I saw a dog, a live one, standing beside sculptures of mythical beasts and naga balustrades that flanked the landing.

Srah Srang with Dog and Mythical Beasts

Ruins by the Roadside

Pockets of tiny ruins can be seen by the roadside, vestiges of a bustling ancient city. This is Angkor, after all. We stopped by a picturesque one that had a tree straddling a cyclopean opening of stone slabs. Was this part of a house? Perhaps a grave? What archaeological treasures it must have contained that will forever be a mystery? Alas, surely they have been stripped bare, pillaged by foreign invaders and pilfered for generations, but the facades still stand as they have for a millennium.

Angkor Thom: Ruins by the Roadside

The Khmer People

Of course, there are the Khmer people, young and old. They are mostly vendors and peddlers. I could only imagine their ineffable pride for their heritage and history. After all, they are the descendants of the great Khmer people that built these wonderful temples still extant today.

Postcard Girl in Banteay Srei
Old Khmer Woman and her Dog

I wonder if they are as awed as the foreigners who come from far and wide to behold Angkor. I wonder if they see Angkor beyond the tourist dollars it brings, if Angkor has any bearing in their lives, not just in their livelihood. I wonder if the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their present poverty have cut them off from their glorious past, or if they see Angkor as their glorious hope.

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20 thoughts on “Angkor Aweigh!

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  1. Hi AJ, thank you for this very interesting article! I did not know about this and have learned something new today. I love the first photo it is breathtaking!

    1. Totoy talaga…you mean I’ve aged considerably in 3 years?! Haha vain!

      Yup Angkor was a city, but all the wooden and thatched structures have long rotted away. Only structures made of stone remain, and these are the temples.

  2. I was also able to visit Angkor Wat twice and the infrastructure was incredible. Imagine that this structures were constructed in the 12th-13th century and they were able to come up with a timeless attraction. Cambodia is a fast growing nation as they are becoming a manufacturing hub but at the moment they are still among the least developed countries.

    1. The temples were not attractions when they built them. They served as functional structures in their daily lives, much like buildings in modern cities. It may not be very obvious now cuz only the stone temples remain (Khmer houses were made of thatched materials that all disintegrated in time), but Angkor was a probably a bustling metropolis. The temples we see now are just parts of the skeleton of that ancient city

  3. omg. eto pangarap kooo! nakakainis. haha. char. ang ganda ng place! pero tama si ate gael, di ko din alam na city pala itech. haha. natuwa ako sa pic mo. :p

    1. CebuPac can make your dream come true. Mag-book na ng flight to Siem Reap! At ano naman ang nakakatawa sa pic ko, a ver? 😀

  4. Wow, Angkor looks like a really nice place to visit! I’d to see the Archaeological Park and the Prasar Suor Prat. Honestly, Cambodia isn’t really in my bucket list, but after reading your post, I should definitely visit it in the future.. 🙂

    1. Oh, if you see photos of the temples, Angkor will definitely be in your bucket list. It was a magical experience when I first laid eyes on the silhouette of the temple at dawn. Actually, the entire experience was wonderful. This post is just about the sights between temples.

  5. AJ!!! This post of yours got me more excited for my trip there this November! I’m looking forward to seeing some of the sites that you’ve mentioned, especially the Prasat Suor Prat.. 🙂 Hopefully I get to visit a few more after seeing the famous Angkor Wat temples. 🙂

    1. These aren’t the main events. more like the intermission. Angkorian temples are scattered throughout a large swathe of area.

      I’m excited for you, Mai. Angkor is one of my favorite places on earth! Prepare to be awed. A trip back is definitely in the cards for me.

  6. very informative! learned a lot today, i may not have the opportunity to go there but just reading your post made my mind travel 🙂 the picture of the old woman is somewhat similar to our suburban sight here hehe

    1. Actually not really. It was summer then (peak season); the place was teeming with tourists. But they say photographers prefer the rainy season because, aside from less crowds, rainwater brings out the luster in the colors of the temples.

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