for some background, there are hundreds of temples built from the 9th to the 12th centuries. the older temples are hindu while the later temples are buddhist. many of the temples have been damaged or had statues and engravings pilfered over the ages. some have been restored (to prevent them from collapsing) and some have been left to the jungle. some are built of brick, others of sandstone, and some from a combination of both. many had stucco finishes which have since disappeared.
walking around the temples today the sheer number and size of them is mind boggling and awe inspiring, not to mention the amazing number of detailed carvings and statues adorning the temples that have managed to survive for hundreds of years. all the signs of a prolific and powerfull civilization that has disappeared from the face of the earth.
pretty dramatic introduction, eh? so we decided to spend three days exploring these monuments (you can get a one day, three day, or six day pass) that took centuries to build.
you can check out some maps of the central temple areas here and here.
there is also an interactive map of some of the central temples here.
the first day we were very ambitious. we got up at 4:30am and headed out to see the sunrise at the Bayon (the central temple in Angkor Thom.) it was gorgeous. we were the only ones there (since most people/tours go to angkor wat for sunrise.) the bayon has 54 towers each with 4 faces, and during sunrise the light plays off of them. when we got there it was still very dark and we used a flashlight to start climbing around. once it started to light up it was really great. you could hear bats calling from the dark corners and you would see human shapes and shadows in hallways from all the buddha statues. (the bayon is a budhist temple.) sunrise here was one of the hilights for me.
after that we had a long long day of exploring. we proceeded to see the Baphuon (which is under extensive restoration), the Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and Angkor Wat... all before lunch.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and it's pretty damn impressive. five central towers that are over 60m high. the entire complex is surrounded by multiple walls and there are extensive carvings covering almost every inch of the complex. we spent a good two hours wandering around here.
actually, this was already our second time at Angkor Wat. we had already gone to Angkor Wat the evening before. after 5pm you don't need a pass to visit the temples, so the day we arrived in siem reap we headed out to Angkor Wat after checking into our hotel. we wanted to see the sunset from the top of Angkor Wat, but it was not to be. by the time we got to the center of the temple they were starting to close it up and kick people out. as it turns out there was a big thunder storm heading in from the east. so we got a chance to sit in Angkor Wat (not at the top though) with the sun setting on one side and a very active lightning storm and lots of thunder comming from the other. the lighting was great and it was an awesome scene. while leaving the temple complex the rain clouds finally reached us and a real downpour started.
after taking a break to relax and get some overpriced lunch and coffee at the angkor cafe (the only air conditioned resturant near Angkor Wat) we took off again to see: Ta Promh (a temple that has been overgrown by the jungle) Sra Srang, Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, and Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is on a hill near Angkor Wat and is pretty much the sunset spot. there was a huge crowd there but that didn't make the sunset any less attractive.
so after exploring temples for 14 hours (5am till 7pm) we were dead tired and headed home. our tuk-tuk ride back was hell. we got stuck in traffic (ie, we were sucking on vehicle exhaust) and the dust level seemed unusually high. by the time we got back to our hotel our throats were killing. i got a slight fever that night and felt really crappy the next couple days. (coughing up happy green things, etc.) unfortunatly the three day pass is only good for three *consecutive* days, so i felt compelled to go out and see more temples. but we took it much easier for the second two days (which were really just half days.) we also took taxis instead of tuk-tuks to try and avoid the dust and exhaust.
the second day we went to temples that were outside the central area. Banteay Seri and Banteay Samre to the north, and Bakong and Preah Ko (both part of the Roluos group) to the south east. Banteay Seri was pretty impressive. it's a really small temple made of pink sandstone that looks like a miniature Angkor Wat and the quality of the carvings is really great.
our last day was spent finishing up the temples around Angkor Thom. we saw the Eastern Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan, and Ta Keo.
while touring the temples we had one really bad experience. on the first day there we had one teenager come up to us while walking around and start following us and telling us about the temples and the history of cambodia (all stuff i had read from my guide books and history books.) after a while of this i told him we weren't interested in a tour guide. at this point he started asking for money, saying he had shown us around and told us about some history. i told him that he had just followed us to places we were already planning on going to and he hadn't told me anything that was not mentioned in my book. at this point he started demanding some money and calling me lots of foul names. (his engish was surprisingly good in this regard.) eventually we started waking near some security guards and he left, but i remainded a little worried for the rest of our time touring the temples since sling shots are popular around here and i thought he might come back after us. (since he had been talking about how i would have "bad luck" because of this.)
our real guide to the temples was the book Angkor (Fourth Edition), by Dawn Rooney. the first half of the book talks about the history, religion, and other background for seeing the temples. ronda read some of the first half of the book (which i still plan to read) so she was explaining some of the religious history and significance of different carvings that we saw. the second half is information about each of the temples (including maps for many of the temples) and hints about what to look for and how to see each of the temples. the book was informative but a bit out of date. the book was last updated in 2005 but it was probably only to fix typos since it still talks about walking through areas in temples that are now roped off and other things inside the temples that don't match up to reality. that said, it was still much better than having no guide.
well, after three days of wandering around wats there wasn't much left to impress us since we were pretty templed out and ready to move on.