Ever since I visited the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2007, I’ve been itching to go back. Back then, I was on a six-month around-the-world journey and I had allocated only three days in Siem Reap. I was under the mistaken impression that the ancient Khmer site that most refer to as Angkor Wat was a single temple and I assumed three days would be more than sufficient. How wrong I was!
Angkor is the umbrella name for an archeological site that encompasses the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat, though an admittedly important religious structure, was a single temple in the Angkor kingdom. Ruins of the Khmer kingdom dot the countryside for more than 400 square kilometers around Angkor Wat. In three days, I barely scraped the surface, visiting Bayon, Ta Prohm, and a number of the more well-known sites. This time, I was determined to see the many of the smaller, lesser-known ruins.
Having previously roamed Angkor Wat in the gray dead of winter, this time I opted to visit in the middle of summer, not only to escape the crowds in order to capture better photographs, but also to see the site in the lushness of the monsoon season. Though battling the oppressive heat and humidity was a chore, especially at temples that required long climbs on steep stairs to reach the upper levels, I was rewarded with stunning panoramas of red dirt roads cutting like blood vessels through a vermillion jungle throbbing with life. Within the ruins, unstoppable vines clutched carvings and draped down the facades of enormous statuary. I arrived at dawn each day with a few other intrepid visitors, toured until late morning, then retreated to the hotel pool for the worst of the midday heat, returning to the ruins in late afternoon to watch sunset color the rocks and throw mirror images of temples in reflecting ponds.
Words cannot adequately describe the exquisite carvings that cover these temples, including galleries at Angkor Wat that stretch hundreds of feet in length and hold bas-relief carvings of Hindu legends such as the Ramayana and the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Even more remarkable, visitors are still allowed to touch these carvings. By the time Bayon was constructed, the kingdom had converted to Buddhism. King Jayavarman VII ordered giant Buddha heads (which are said to have borne a striking resemblance to the king) carved on all four sides of every tower at Bayon; today more than 200 sets of enigmatic Buddha eyes gaze out in the four cardinal directions. Perhaps even more well-known than Angkor Wat is Ta Prohm, as this ruin was the backdrop for films such as Laura Croft Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones.
Though I love Bayon, perhaps as much for the difficulty of photographing it as anything else, my favorite temple was Pre Rup, a smaller ruin that was the second capital of the Angkor empire built by Rajendravarman in the 960′s. It shines pink in the setting sun and from the top, I was able to survey the surrounding landscape for miles in every direction.
Still, even with a week at my disposal, I did not see everything on my list. It would take months to visit all the ruins, and undoubtedly hundreds more unexcavated sites lay just beneath the red surface soil, waiting to be discovered. I will just have to go back again. And again.