When Angelina Jolie was in Siem Reap filming her first Tomb Raider movie, she supposedly hung out at the local bar, which was the only one in town. Nowadays, the city is a little less country. There is a street appropriately called Pub Street with a vast array of restaurants and bars for tourists to choose from. The Old Market is chock full of cuisines from all over the world. Korean businesses are investing en masse in Siem Reap, and some streets are so full of signs in Hangul that it looks like rural South Korea. All of this was unexpected for me, but I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the temples.
On a hot sunny morning, we met our tuk-tuk driver Kauwee and told him we wanted to avoid as many tour groups as possible. He nodded knowingly. “You want to do the reverse order for the temples, okay.” He had an intense itinerary for us with something like six temples in five hours so we got him down to three so we could take our time. We sat back and felt like royalty on the back of the tuk-tuk before I got sand in my eye and mouth and had to stop doing the royal wave. Don’t ask me why but Siem Reap is really dusty and everything is covered in a fine red layer of it.
In total, we saw about ten temples, big and small. A good friend of ours had reminded us to spend some time at the lesser known temples besides the obvious Angkor Wat, and I’m glad she did because the temples we preferred ended up being these less popular guys. Each of them are unique, but our favorites were Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Angkor Thom is an expansive complex for temples and buildings which was the last seat of the Khmer Empire. We were dropped off at a bridge lined with stone statues, and then made our way through the main gate, a four-faced Buddha. It was my first taste of the Khmer temples and I was hooked. At this point I thought about how we considered skipping Siem Reap. We were so close to making one of the biggest mistakes of our Southeast Asia trip.
We ogled some monkeys before heading to the gaudy Bayon temple and making our way through the complex in the blistering heat. The restoration of each building was sponsored by a foreign country, because Cambodia is so corrupt that its “prime minister” uses its money on more important things, like himself. David W. Roberts put it quite eloquently when he stated that Cambodia is a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia the second most corrupt nation in Asia after North Korea. That is pretty damn corrupt if you ask me.
We somehow missed the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, but by the time we realized this we were too hot to go back looking for it. Lame, I know. But at least we climbed up Baphuon for a great view from above.
Kauwee deposited us in front of Ta Prohm with the briefest of explanations. “This one many trees.” We knew what he was saying. Ta Prohm is known for the trees weaving themselves in and out of the ruins. He added that this used to be a Buddhist temple but the next king was Hindu and defaced all of the Buddhist statues in there. I guess he felt really strongly about it. We thoroughly enjoyed walking through this beautiful temple, where we encountered colorful Korean tour groups that stood out against the brown tones of the stones and trees.
Banteay Srei is about an hour away from Siem Reap but it is so, so worth the detour. In our case, the wheel of our tuk-tuk almost fell off on our way there but thankfully, there were a couple of guys passing by on a moped who helpfully pointed it out before we died in a horrible accident. Kauwee went to the nearest auto shop to get his tire screwed back on while we waited in front of the Landmine Museum which is on the way to the temple. We didn’t know how much time we had so we didn’t go inside, but it looks like a great stop en route to Banteay Srei.
Anyway, Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple, known (and for good reason) for its stunning, intricate carvings of Hindu stories. The temple itself isn’t very big, but it’s very different from the other temples in the area.
In one scene in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft (Angelina’s character) happens upon her rivals prying open a secret passageway to a Cambodian temple in order to steal a hidden treasure. They manage to get the stones cleared and step into a hidden underworld of statues surrounding a giant four-faced Buddha which eventually comes to life to attack them. I remembered this scene when I learned that virtually no work has been done below ground, and researchers believe there are a lot of things waiting to be discovered.
Of course, we can’t leave out Angkor Wat from this post. It’s massive and the most famous of the bunch. Of all of the temples, this one is the only one that has been used continuously as a religious place since it was built. Angkor Wat was our last stop of the day, and the late afternoon heat was intense as we walked the long stone walkway to the main complex.
We looked at the detailed carvings of battles on the walls, and made our way to the center of the building, where pious people were offering incense to a Buddhist statue. Next to this was an old man who chanted a good luck prayer while tying on a string bracelet in exchange for a small donation. A group of young Cambodians watched as I got one done, the old man reciting a prayer as he deftly tied the string again and again. The red bracelet is still tied tightly on my wrist along with my two Sapa bracelets from the Hmong.
There were a surprising number of interactions with the Cambodians as we toured the temples. In most of the temples we visited, we would be approached by an impromptu guide who would lead us from one vantage point to another in the temples for the purpose of getting a dollar from us at the end. They all spoke impressive English, and some of them had great photo ops for tourists who wandered into their area of expertise. There were also little girls who would beg you to buy something from them, and I was reminded of our time in Sapa with the Hmong.
In the movie, the beginning of a beautiful William Blake poem sets Lara Croft off on her journey to thwart evil from obtaining infinite power.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
“Auguries of Innocence” juxtaposes innocence with evil and corruption, and is so appropriate for our setting (read the full poem here). It is so easy to forget where you are when wandering among the ruins because they are so enchanting. But once you leave the temples, you are reminded that this is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world. For now and at the very least, it’s reassuring that other countries are pitching in to help restore and preserve the temples. Who knows? Maybe the prime minister will be as moved as I was by this poem and consider changing his ways. Then, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back to this beautiful place.
For more photos, check out our Flickr album.