Our travels in Cambodia cover Ancient Angkor and Phnom Penh, starting here with Angkor.
Siem Reap is the home of the famous Angkor Temples that date back to the 9th century. Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South East Asia, extending for over 400 sq.km. The Angkor Archaeological Park contains remains of the different Khmer Empire capitals, from 9th – 15th century. UNESCO has set up a programme to safeguard the site and its surroundings. Many of the temples were Hindu, and reminded us of Prambanan in Indonesia, but interestingly, most of them are now Buddhist.
Rediscovered by a Frenchman in the 1860s, hundreds of temples in various states of ruin survive, and our itinerary covered three temples in a day, Ta Prohm, Bayon within the Angkor Thom complex and Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. At its height as the capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor’s population was one million, the walled city being South East Asia’s first metropolis.
Ta Prohm, the 12th Century Buddhist Temple is famous for the tree roots enveloping its crumbling, moldering towers.
Angkor Thom was the last and most stable capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom’s South Gate, with the approach of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk is magnificent.
Bayon was the state temple of Jayavarman VII where more than 50 towers are decorated with over 200 smiling faces. Scenes of everyday life in 12thC are depicted on beautifully carved friezes.
And finally to the three tiered pyramid of Angkor Wat itself, 65 metres high and crowned by five lotus towers. Originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, it is surrounded by a wide moat that forms a rectangle of 1.5 km x 1.3 km.
‘Jungle Atlantis’ a fascinating two part BBC documentary was broadcast in Autumn 2014 about the rise and fall of Angkor as a ‘megacity’ and about ‘lidar’, new radar technology being used to try to discover its true extent and reasons for its demise.
On our last day we were taken to the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. The Tonlé Sap Lake is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year and the area that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh and the lake is about a metre deep, covering an area of 2,700 sq.km. However, when the year’s heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to increase the lake’s area to about 16,000 sq.km. with a depth of nine meters. Nearby fields and forests flood, providing a great breeding ground for fish.
The water is muddy brown, and our boat took us to the floating village of Chong Kneas, where crocodiles are bred for export, but the main object is to sell souvenirs to hundreds of expectant tourists some of whom are taken to have lunch there. This floating community is desperately poor, and in our view rather squalid, though the village is reported to be a cash cow for tourism. From our point of view, we were disappointed.
Next: Cambodian Capital