From the capital of Phnom Penh, we traveled by bus north to the city of Siem Reap, the gateway to the great Angkor Wat complex. We bought a three-day entrance ticket ($40) to the vast Angkor Wat complex spent every-other day exploring the ruins by bicycle, resting between long days in the sun. We rented bicycles and spent the days riding between the ruins and exploring the various temples and sites that make up the impressive Angkor Wat complex.
The first day we did a long loop, touring many of the smaller temple sites and cruising through the beautiful, bright-green countryside. Some of the smaller, outlying temples are great because they are less crowded and you can explore them in quiet, giving you the feeling that you are a discoverer clambering over the ruins for the first time. Riding our bikes in the warm climate around the sprawling ruins makes us thirsty, and the locals eagerly sell excellent, chilled green coconuts willed with refreshing coconut water. After a long day, we watched the sunset over the main temple before heading back to town.
The next trip to Angkor Wat we targeted the major temples. Angkor Wat is the general name for the whole complex, and also the name of the main temple. We saved this main temple for the last, since it is the biggest. It was very impressive and had some of the most amazing carvings and architectural decorations of the whole complex. The outer wall of the whole (massive) temple has an enormous carved mural depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Khmer civilization built various temples here over time, mixing Hindu and Buddhist elements. While the site has had large trees grow in various portions of the buildings, the ruins were never really lost and Khmer people have come here regularly throughout history to worship at the various temples. We were impressed by the details of the decorations and carving that adorn many of the walls of the various buildings. The buildings themselves are also impressive, many with vaulted stone roofs and massive stone pillars. We also could not help but notice many of the defaced and ruined sculptures due to looting for the thriving international market for stolen art.
We were shocked to read online that it is still common for these stolen artifacts to be legally sold at auctions in the west, even as other agencies try conserve these cultural sites and reduce the theft of art. Here is an account of a recent auction at Sotheby’s and another at Christie’s in which wealthy ”collectors” get to bid on these stolen relics, including Khmer statues from Cambodia (most likely from Angkor Wat). These are statues that the local people and monks still revere and are major components of their religious beliefs. It was shocking to enter into a main chamber and to see a statue of the Buddha adorned with yellow cloth and surrounded by incense and candles, with his head chopped off. Looters and western art “connoisseurs” benefit from the robust trade in Khmer art, but it was sad to see how many headless statues there were at Angkor Wat. Imagine if someone came to the Vatican or other prominent church in the west, walked up to the altar, marveled at a statue of Jesus on the cross, and then climbed up there, hacked off his head and took it home to put on the mantle to show off as a part of his art collection.
From Siem Reap we will take a cheap flight up to Vientiane to begin our travels in Laos.
***click to enlarge photos***