You may have heard of Angkor Wat, but it’s far from the only temple in Cambodia. Located in Siem Reap, the famous monument shares the city with at least 1000 other ancient temples that also attract curious visitors from all over the world. I had the opportunity to explore four of these incredible feats of architecture on my recent trip to Southeast Asia and each is magnificent in its own way.
Ta Prohm, constructed in the late 12th century, provided the backdrop for a scene in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and it’s easy to see why. Towering trees border a wide dusty path and form a leafy canopy, providing sweet relief from the blistering heat. Once inside the complex, you’re surrounded by flourishing vegetation, piles of stone blocks, and more massive trees, some with roots so mighty they’ve scaled their way on and through the abandoned structures that still stand.
Ta Prohm was once a Buddhist monastery and university. It took 80,000 workers to build it – according to a Sanskrit inscription found in the temple. There are 39 towers and over 500 former residences where 12,500 people lived across the nearly 650,000-ft2 property.
An example of the many reliefs carved into the stone buildings
An example of the many reliefs carved into the stone buildings
Ta Prohm has 39 towers and over 500 former residences.
I bet Ta Prohm would be so much fun to see as a kid.
Banteay Srei is one of the smaller temple compounds, but it’s still quite impressive. It stands out among the other temples due to the pink sandstone used to build it, waaaay back in the mid-10th century.
The carvings are especially impressive when you consider the rudimentary tools the Khmers (Cambodians) had access to.
Each set of carvings tell a story
If the temples in Cambodia were a singing ensemble, Angkor Wat would be the Michael Jackson/Beyoncé/Tina Turner/Justin Timberlake/Sting of the group. It truly is stunning. Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) – which dates back to the mid-12th century – rests atop about 500 acres of land, making it the world’s largest religious structure ever built. As with Banteay Srei, the fine detail of the elaborate carvings and motifs etched into the stone walls of the galleries are awe-inspiring. Imagine how much labor went into constructing such an incredible structure.
Our group visited the temples twice, once in the afternoon, where so much sweat streamed down my face it led one of my tourmates to chuckle and ask: “Did you pour water over your head?” The second time, we got up earlier than anyone should ever have to, so that we could watch the sun rise over the towers. It was all totally worth it.
A view from above
Back entrance of Angkor Wat
One of three galleries (monks in saffron-colored robes are what you see at the end of the hall)
This relief depicts a tug-o-war between gods and demons, part of a larger story: The Churning of the Ocean Milk,
Offerings at the altar
Carving of Aspara dancers
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is clearly a popular activity.
On the way back to the van, after enjoying a pre-packed breakfast, a monkey accosted me.
Bayon holds the title of most “theatrical,” or perhaps, the most “quirky” of the temples I toured. Even the entrance to the complex makes a statement. As you approach the south gate, to the left sit 54 gigantic heads of gods and to the right, a line of 54 demons. Not to be outdone, crowning the towers of the iconic, 75-ft tall, arched entryway are four faces of the bodhisattva, each looking out in all four cardinal directions. Beyond the gates lies the “city” of Angkor Thom (“Big Temple”) – once the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s empire – fortified by a massive 328-ft wide moat which surrounds a 26-ft high laterite wall that protects 360 acres, including Bayon temple. Neighborhood watch on 100.
Devas (guardian gods) in a tug-of-war with the demons on the other side of the causeway, as depicted in the tale “Churning of the Ocean Milk” of Hindu mythology
One of the gigantic devas (god) figures
Everywhere you turn in the Bayon complex, there are eyes watching. Over 200 faces etched into stone cap the 54 towers at the site. While the identity of the figures decorating the temple is unknown, some speculate they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII and a reflection of his inflated ego. The mysterious expressions on the stone faces has led some to dub them the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia”.
Beautiful, intricate motifs cover the walls of two galleries that surround Bayon’s main temple. The bas-relief carvings reflect the daily lives of the Khmers in the 12th century, as well as tales based in Hindu mythology.
Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature
I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.
Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”
Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.
It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.
Classrooms were turned into interrogation rooms.
Electrified barbed wire placed outside prison chambers to prevent escapes
Prison cells barely large enough to move around in, which prisoners weren’t allowed to do anyhow. They relieved themselves in boxes and had to lick up any spills or leaks.
Rooms like these were used for interrogation and torture. The ammunition box served as a toilet. Sometimes guards shackled prisoners to the wire cots.
Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.
Some of S21’s female victims
Some of S21’s male victims
Some of S21’s child victims
Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.
Painting in background depicts a prisoner being waterboarded using the equipment shown
Sampling of instruments used to torture S21 prisoners. So incredibly barbaric.
Painting depicting one method used to bathe prisoners, which wasn’t a regular occurrence. Many of the victims bones’ are protruding due to starvation. Though they are shackled to the same bench, they were not allowed to speak to one another.
Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.
Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.
We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.
In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.
It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.
Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.
It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.
There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.
– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide
A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View
With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.
Beautifully lit portrait of current King of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni
You can see the back of the Royal Palace behind the women in the background
Flags from countries with embassies in Cambodia wave above the promenade
Chanchhaya Pavilion is the riverside entrance to the Royal Palace. A portrait of the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, hangs in the center.
Magnificently door on the grounds of The Royal Palace
Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.
I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.
Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia?
Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.