Angkor What?

Written by Guia Sciortino, who is part of indigoeight’s network of pr consultants, and has a passion for Asia. Currently living and studying in China, Guia shares her Far Eastern experiences on our blog. Here she writes about her recent trip to Cambodia.

“There are few places in the world where one feels proud to be a member of the human race, and one of these is certainly Angkor,” wrote my favourite Italian writer and journalist, the late Tiziano Terzani.

These words kept ringing in my head from the moment my plane landed in Siem Reap until I climbed the first steps to reach the top of Angkor Wat – the iconic five corn-cob tower temple. And very proud I was.

Like Chichén Itzà, Machu Picchu, Rome, Giza or Petra, Angkor deservedly claims its place among the world’s wonders. Its history steeped in mystery, today we know that the Khmer kings set up court in this 400 sq. km section of the jungle, between the VIII and XIV centuries. Each ‘god king’ created his own state-temple to serve the Hindu cult and then one day, all of a sudden, this vast complex of palaces and temples was deserted.

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The unforgettable Angkor Wat
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Hindu bas-reliefs engraved on Angkor Wat walls

From the sleepy village of Siem Reap, I decided to cycle through these impressive stone monuments scattered across the jungle in northern Cambodia. Despite the scorching sun of November, it was an easy feat. The ground is flat and a good bicycle tour guide will lead you through idyllic jungle shortcuts from temple to temple, usually crowd-less paths where the only thing you’ll hear is bird’s song. You might also encounter the odd snake or tarantula but it’s all part of the fun!

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A lovely surprise out of a jungle path in Angkor

Most travellers don’t sway from the picture-perfect temples located along the Petit Circuit (short circuit) which include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (also known locally as “Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider” temple). Being the most famous sights, these are also the most crowded and difficult to navigate in high season. Nevertheless I was particularly fascinated by Angkor Thom’s Bayon enigmatic stone faces pointing at each cardinal direction.

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Angkor Thom’s Bayon
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Detail: Angkor Thom’s Bayon stone face

If you are not too templed out, push yourself further to the Grand Circuit as well as the remote temple groups called Banteay Samre, Banteay Srei and Roluos which are located in different areas around Siem Reap.

Drop your bike in a safe place and start your climb to the multi-level pyramids at the heart of every construction. The views from the top are simply glorious and give you a sense of how majestic the architecture is here.  In a moment of peace and quiet, usually around noon when the heat is at its peak and tourists depart, you’ll feel like a witness to an incredible secret that, for a few moments, is only yours to enjoy. Allow yourself the gift of time, breathe in, breathe out and soak in the beauty that surrounds you.

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Baphuon

I walked the temples’ dark enclosures featuring engraved legends of Hindu and Buddhist mythology, gazed for hours at bas-reliefs of regal Apsara dancers, climbed steep pyramid-shaped building and sunbathed on large terraces surrounded by towers and statues, trying to imagine life under the ‘god-kings’.

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One of the temples on the Grand Circuit

Although Angkor was abandoned at some point in its history, it was never really forgotten. Nature reclaimed its territory and took over in the most astonishing way – multiple temples present trees that grew out of emerald green algae-encrusted roofs, like Ta Prohm, where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed.

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Ta Prohm

During my visit, I also managed to squeeze in a day of two-wheel countryside exploration. The country’s lush, abundant vegetation attempts to disguise what a poor country Cambodia still is, yet the dignity and pride of her folk are positively overwhelming. Their bloody past is very much present – every person I met had had a number of acquaintances killed in the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. But this is another reason to visit this country – it’s a lesson in humility and resilience. Cambodians show how one can face unimaginable hardships yet maintain a sense of hope for a brighter future.

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The countryside outside Siem Reap

I loved the simplicity of this small market I visited, 30 km outside of Siem Reap. I saw locals going about their daily errands, shopping twice daily (yes, apparently Cambodians only like fresh food and avoid using the fridge), chatting and having a laugh with their neighbours; I heard stories of small entrepreneurs trying to save money to buy land, build a place to call home and send their children to school. Simple, fair ambitions that these people now deserve to pursue more than ever.

Visiting this country has touched me in ways no other destination ever has. It’s testament to the tenacity of the human race – no matter how hard circumstances hit mankind, it always finds the strength to bounce back.

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A market outside Siem Reap
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