When we got off the bus in Siem Riep we were mobbed by a mob of tuk-tuk drivers shouting for us to go with them to the centre of town. We chose a quiet guy who was sitting in his tuk-tuk and not shouting in our faces. His name was Banlong. We liked him and so for the next couple of days we got him to take us around the temples of Angkor Wat.
I had a few favourites from all the places we visited in Angkor. The riverbed carvings at Kbal Spean were stunning. They’re about 35km from the main temple of Angkor Wat – that gives you an idea of how big the place is. Kbal Spean is called ‘the river of a thousand lingas’. Lingas are phallic symbols of the god Siva and were considered sacred during the Khmer Empire. They also related to the power of the king because the kings at that time were considered god-kings, human manifestations of Siva. There are also carvings of Vishnu and other Hindu gods. All of the carvings along the riverbed were made around the 11th or 12th centuries. I’d never seen anything like them before. We had to walk and climb for about a half-hour through the jungle to get to them.
Another favourite was the walled city of Angkor Thom. It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries and was the capital of the Khmer Empire. The gates and some of the buildings have faces built into the stone. Some people say that the faces are of King Jayavarman VII who started the building of the city. Others say they represent Buddha. Yet others say the faces are both – that god-king thing again.
Outside every temple there are hordes of people selling things. You certainly wouldn’t starve or die of thirst at Angkor. As well as food and drink there are children selling everything from books and bracelets to postcards and wooden flutes. We tend to not buy things from the children though because we don’t want to encourage them to miss school in order to make money. It can be really difficult deciding who to give money to – the poverty and desperation that you see around the temples is terrible. As tourists we don’t know anything about the people or their lives and giving some money to some people in a random sort of way seems very inadequate really. Pete is great at chatting and joking around with the kids – they often have really good English and they generally know how to play rocks paper scissors. One group of children could count to 10 in loads of different languages, including Irish! Just amazing.
I have problems comprehending things that are really old.
The temples of Angkor were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. That means that even when the newest parts of the complex were built, the oldest ones were already around 400 years old. That’s already old in my books. But even the very newest building was built over 700 years ago!
So anyway… The temples of Angkor are very very old.
My poor age comprehension skills were helped by all of the trees growing over some of the ruins. I don’t know all that much about trees either (it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I don’t know much about anything at all) but I do know that they take a while to grow. And generally speaking, the bigger the tree the older it is. There were some great big old trees growing right on top of the ruins around Angkor. They didn’t look out of place there – in fact they were often my favourite thing about the temples – but they definitely weren’t there by design. The trees have probably only been there for a fraction of the time that the temples have existed. Amazing.
The trees, roots and undergrowth provided another benefit to exploring the temples of Angkor. But the Indiana Jones aspect probably goes without saying…