Special Six: Temples at Angkor

The Angkor archaeological park, considered one of the most important archaeological sites of South-east Asia by UNESCO, can be quite overwhelming. The 400 square kilometres of the park area is filled with ancient temple ruins of the Khmer Kingdoms from the 9th to 15th centuries. After seeing one temple after another, it can be easy to stop appreciating the differences and nuances in the temple styles and the history behind them. Aware of this, my friends and I chose a few temples we wished to see, both within and outside the Angkor park area, during our three days in Siem Reap. Even though our guide tried to persuade us to fit in more, we stuck to our choice which I believe enhanced our appreciation of the temples we did see at Angkor.

We started our temple visits at Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, established by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.

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The south gate with its 54 asuras (demons) and devas (gods) lining each side of the path to the gate, pulling on the snake’s tail and head respectively, was depictive of a Hindu mythological story regarding the creation of the earth.

The south gate had three faces facing each direction, with the central facing both in and out.

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The Bayon, the state temple during Jayavarman VII’s reign, is at the centre of Angkor Thom. With over 200 gigantic smiling faces carved on the towers of the temple, it is certainly a fascinating piece of architecture. My impression when seeing the smiling faces was that it was representative of Buddha, as there is a serene expression on each face, even though it might have been images of King Jayavarman VII.

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The bas-reliefs at the temple were also very interesting. I was wondering if it was illustrating the work that went into building the temple or whether it was depicting the King’s journey to the celestial Kingdom, as it was then believed that the King was a representative of the Gods.

Leaving the north gate of the Bayon, the guide took us to the Baphuon, which had been the state temple of Yasodharapura, the capital city of the Khmer empire during the early 11th century reign of Udayadityavarman II.  In the 16th century, the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple and several parts were demolished to reconstruct a reclining Buddha statue. It is difficult to see the Buddha statue clearly but when I looked closely, I could distinguish the face lying on a hand.

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Next to the Baphuon is the Terrace of the Elephants, which was used by King Jayavarman VII, the one who built Bayon temple, as an audience hall as well as a platform to view his victorious returning army entering through the victory gate.

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Exiting Angkor Thom through the victory gate, we made our way to Ta Prohm, a monastic complex built by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. The guide preferred referring to it as the Angelina Jolie temple though.

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It was an amazing sight to see the ruins with massive trees, fig and silk-cotton, that had taken over the complex.

Ta Prohm
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It was the massive trees that commanded one’s attention here. Ta ProhmAfter lunch, we made our way over to Angkor Wat. I feel we should have started our day at Angkor Wat and ended it at Ta Prohm, simply because the afternoon heat in Siem Reap can be quite draining and the gigantic trees at Ta Prohm does offer a lot of shade.

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Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century, as the capital city and state temple dedicated to Vishnu. It was subsequently converted to a Buddhist temple.

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Angkor Wat, the best preserved within the Angkor archaeological park, has the special distinction of being the only religious monument that appears in a national flag. Several countries, including Sri Lanka, have religious symbols in their flag but not a historic religious monument.

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On the second day, we had insisted upon visiting Kbal Sbean. Our guide had been less enthusiastic about it as it was about 40 kms away from town and he kept insisting there were many more important temple complexes closer. We were insistent however, as I personally believed, that the Kbal Sbean was the hidden gem or rather less visited gem of the ancient temples around Siem Reap. I strongly felt it would turn out to be best of the Siem Reap experience.

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Photo credit: Danny Yee @Wandering Danny

Kbal Sbean, located in Phnom Kulen, is a river bed carved with Hindu and Buddhist religious images between the 11th and 13th century. To reach the riverbed, one needs to climb a little hill. For anyone without mobility issues, it is an easy climb. For me though, it gradually became tougher as the incline increased and the path was not clear. The ankle, that I had twisted in Ho Chi Minh city, also started hurting. I reached a point when I realized that I could not climb further without assistance.

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Especially given that were I to slip and injure my leg further on those rocks, it would be difficult to access help. I did not want to detract from my friends’experience of the place so decided to stop where I was and asked them to proceed. Initially reluctant, the two of them finally left after I reassured them I was completely fine with it.

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I sat down on a little rock to rest my feet and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. I tried to regain my equilibrium after the upset I had felt at not being able to see what I had wanted to see the most during my visit to Siem Reap. The silence around me and the calming trees helped. Occasionally, there were groups that passed me by. After seeing the different responses of the first few groups that had passed by, I became interested in trying to predict how a group would respond to seeing me sitting along the path. There were many who simply averted their eyes, after the initial glimpse of me, and moved on quickly as if I were invisible or someone to be avoided. There were several who politely nodded their heads or murmured a good morning, without a single expression of surprise on their face and without a break in their walking stride, as if they came across someone sitting alone on a jungle hill path every day. A few though did stop to ask if I was alright. And then, a very few even offered to help me climb the last 100 metres of the hill, when they heard that I had stopped as it was too difficult for me to climb. Unfortunately, those that offered to help were in their 70s or 80s and I was not going to risk injuring them as well in case I fell.

So, while I did not make it to the riverbed to see the Kbal Sbean carvings, I did have an interesting experience sitting on a rock on the path and observing human behavioural responses to an unanticipated situation on their hike. The reason why this photo means a lot to me.

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After lunch, we made our way back stopping at Banteay Sreay. This temple complex, built in the early 10th century is the only one in Angkor, not built by a King, though he was part of the royal family and a counselor of the King.

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A Hindu temple, this little architectural gem came to be known as the Citadel of Women with many stories as to how it got its modern name. Most references to the origins of the name assume it is because of the numerous carvings of females at the temple, though there is a story that a female carver was responsible for the more delicate carvings at the temple.

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In Hindu images, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty is often drawn or carved with two elephants on either side as in the carving above. The temple also has intricately decorated libraries. Again, knowledge and books is represented in Hindu imagery by Saraswathi, the goddess of wisdom. So perhaps the temple came to be known as the citadel of women because it was dedicated to women goddesses?

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Irrespective of the origins of its name, Banteay Srei is a little gem worth travelling to the outskirts of the Angkor park area for.

Each of the six temples visited was unique and amazing in its own way and if you have only three days in Siem Reap, I would certainly recommend visiting these special six.

Which of the special six intrigues you most? Is there another temple at Angkor that you would include in this list?

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14 thoughts on “Special Six: Temples at Angkor

  1. Sorry to hear that you couldn’t visit Kbal Sbean! What did your friend think of it? You did manage to make some lemonade out of lemons, though. People-watching is one of my favourite activities.

    Totally agree that you shouldn’t try to cram too many temples into too short a period of time. One can get sick of anything, even the most beautiful and ancient temples. I’ve heard people talk about how they got so sick of temples they didn’t want to see any more for the rest of their trip. You definitely made the right choice there, I think!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Both my friends loved the riverbed carving they saw. So, at least they got to experience it 🙂 Yes, Michelle, Angkor is filled with so many temples and unless one takes them in smaller doses or stays for a longer period, it is difficult to appreciate everything there.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was an amazingly special trip indeed, Isabel. And yes, I enjoyed trying to imagine how the different temples would have been in their heydays.

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    • Yes, the Angkor park and its outskirts is the cumulative Khmer empire capitals across centuries. Apparently, the Kings were so vain that each one felt the need to establish a new capital and a distinctive state temple as his legacy 🙂 Hope you visit Angkor one day, Van. Despite its hordes of visitors, the amazing place is truly worth visiting!

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