Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor

After a short flight from HCM City on Cambodia Angkor Air, I arrived in Siem Reap – land of the tuk-tuk.  Cambodia now receives about 2.5 million visitors a year and the vast majority of them are here to see the Temples of Angkor.

While Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples, dozens of them in this region alone.  Built from the late 10th century up until 15th century, they represent a time when the Khmer Empire was the dominating force in Indochina.  In fact, Siem Reap means “Siam Defeated” in commeration of their victory over the Thais to their west.

Udom - Tuk-tuk Specialist

Udom – Tuk-tuk Specialist

For the first day, I hired a tuk-tuk with driver – $16 for the day – and an English speaking guide – Silong.  Silong is a former teacher but being an officially licensed guide is more lucrative than almost any other job in the area.  At fifty five years of age, he was a teen during the civil war and the regime of Pol Pot.  His father was in the army and captured but the Khmer Rouge but was able to escape and Silong, his father, and his brother ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand.

On the first day, we visited Ta Keo, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm.  These are some of the largest and most impressive of the temples.  Historically, the temples were dedicated to Hinduism, but elements of Buddhism were introduced over time.

Buddhist Monks in Prayer

Buddhist Monks in Prayer

Many of the carvings are illustrations of stories from historic Hindu texts such as the Ramayana and feature Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Rama.

After the fall from dominance of the Khmer Empire, these temples were basically “lost” in the jungle and only rediscovered in the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s.  Ta Prohm was apparently made famous in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie with its walls overgrown by jungle.

Much restoration work has been done here in recent years and the surrounding town of Siem Reap has exploded with tourists and hotels since Cambodia opened back up to the world.  This is one of the reasons I wanted to get here sooner than later as the nature of these temples will change – some for the good and some for the bad.

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