A trip to the Preah Khan Temple is one of those I will never forget. This is where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle and had it not been for an intervention by the divine providence, they would have succeeded. Not only would I end up without something that was rightfully mine, I would also end up stuck without transportation at the part of the Grand Circuit that just happens to be the furthest from Siem Reap. And that is not a very positive outlook in a country like Cambodia. I would have to rent services of a tuk tuk driver who, seeing that I was just a subject to crime, would take advantage of the situation for his own personal enrichment. For Cambodians, a person in need is not a person to whom to assist. For Cambodians, a person in need is a person easier to exploit because they are out of the options and cannot be choosers.
Luckily for me, in the nick of time I got that funny feeling that I should repark my bike somewhere where it would be more difficult to steal so I interrupted my visit to Preah Khan only to catch the fake orphanage kids to whom I previously donated money thinking that they would gratefully watch over my bike in return, dashing off carrying my bicycle with them. My untimely show-up with a follow up yell from hell made them drop the bike on the spot and run for their lives. It was hot and I was tired from whole day exposure to that devastating Cambodian sun, but when the feeling of uneasiness about the insecurely parked bike came upon me, I interrupted my visit to the temple thinking that I would return to finish the exploration after I had my bike reparked and locked against something unmovable.
Needless to say, the distress the discovery of the theft attempt caused made the return to Preah Khan a no option. I counted my blessings and feeling happy I still had my bicycle, I rode off, away from this God-forbidden place where some of the most horrible inhabitants of the Earth operate as the lowest form of scum imaginable. However, because I was only partially done exploring Preah Khan when I left to repark my bicycle, I don’t have pictures of all of it. The gallery below contains the images I did take, however I left some for after the repark, which I ultimately ended up not having a chance to capture. Those include a picture of that unique two storey stand alone building with circular columns – something very unique for Angkor Archaeological Park as nothing of sorts can be seen anywhere else within the area. And it also includes the missing picture of the central sanctuary itself.
Now to the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple:
The entrance causeway is lined on both sides with the same row of Asuras carrying a body of a huge naga serpent that can be found at the South Gate to Angkor Thom, however all Asuras at the Preah Khan Temple are headless. Locals stole the heads during their looting raids and sold them to rich foreigners who yearned to have a historically significant rock in their possession. Some speculate that presence of these Asuras at the entrance to the temple makes Preah Khan more significant than Banteai Kdei or Ta Prohm, both of which receive incomparably more visitor traffic (mostly because they are on the Small Tour).
As for the pictures with those giant trees growing over the structures – because the passages immediately below the trees are crumbling and no way has been found to secure them yet, the access to these parts is restricted by the warning signs (as you can see from one of the photo in the gallery). However there is no one enforcing the no access requirement so a visitor to Angkor with a death wish can freely proceed and stand right below the crumbling rocks on top of which a monster tree is growing ever so tall. I had to be one of the crazy ones. I just could not pass up on this opportunity to stand right below those enormous trees knowing that the piles of huge rocks that support them could come crushing down at any given time. Utmost stupidity and I was fully aware of it at the time, yet still I wanted to stick my head where the danger was. It was my time at Angkor, afterall. For me it was a one in a lifetime opportunity to stand below those famous silk trees that brace the stones of Angkor in substitute for pillars in a frisk of nature that is as astounding as it is precarious. It was this close knit of nature with ancient architecture that drove me to Angkor in the first place.
Anyway, without further ado, below is the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple I took before the attempt to steal my bicycle by the fake orphanage kids took place. The few spots I left for after the bicycle repark I never eventually got a chance to photograph as I could not comfortably walk inside the temple outside of which an organized group of large caliber crooks operated without backbone of any form:
Known as Yashodharapura, the South Gate of Angkor Thom is the nearest point of entry to the royal city of Angkor Thom from Angkor Wat (and Siem Reap). There are five entrance gates to Angkor Thom – one at each cardinal point and a Victory Gate, which is on the eastern wall and affords access to the royal palace area, but South Gate is hands down the most popular and the most congested. All of the Angkor Thom gates look virtually the same, but because South Gate is the point of entry for vast majority of visitors to Angkor Thom, this gate is the most complete thanks to extensive restoration works. Just as most tourists do, I started my Angkor adventure with Angkor Wat too (not realizing at the time that it was not a good idea), which had me enter Angkor Thom through South Gate.
The laterite causeway that crosses over the surrounding moat to approach the Angkor Thom South Gate is lined on both sides with a naga (multi-headed serpent) balustrade held in place by statues of Apsaras (gods) on the left, and statues of Asuras (demons) on the right striking a pose resembling the tug of war. These figures previously existed at each of the causeways leading to Angkor Thom but most have been stolen. South Gate is the only one that’s vastly complete. North Gate still has several full figures but other gates were stripped of most of them with only a few remaining. Many of the missing heads along the causeway approaching South Gate have been restored with new ones, while a couple were still missing, waiting to be restored (at the time of my visit). There are 54 figures on each side of the causeway.
The gates themselves, which reach as high as 23 meters (75 feet) are surmounted by a structure with four faces each facing its own cardinal point. This symbolism is seen on many temples built by Jayavarman VII, including Angkor Thom’s state temple Bayon and Banteay Kdei which is on the eastern side of the small circuit. The faces represent the likeness of bodhisattva Lokeshvara, the deity with whom god-king Jayavarman VII identified.
Base of the South Gate tower is decorated on both sides by a three-headed elephant plucking lotus flowers. The trunks of an elephant form three pillars and are believed to represent Airavata, the mount of Indra. God Indra is the god of the sky and the king of the gods. His presence at each of the gates leading to Angkor Thom reinforces the idea that naga balustrades lining the approach to each of the gates were built to represent a rainbow – in Khmer mythology, rainbows are believed to link the world of men with the world of the gods.
If Angkor Thom was built as a representation of Mount Meru with the moat serving as the sea of milk that surrounds it, then naga balustrades would represent rainbows connecting the world inside of the temple (world of the gods) with the world outside of it (world of men). I was coming from the outside, entering Angkor Thom, world of the gods through the South Gate. I was drenched in sweat, worn out by the heat, but excited to explore the largest Angkor compound still standing.
After much hustle and bustle, with nothing else getting in the way, I was finally laying my first steps across the sandstone causeway that bridges the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Vastly unhindered, I wiped the sweat off my face into a t-shirt and headed straight against the sun. The wait was over, I am here, exploring Angkor Wat.
Based on Hindu mythology, Angkor Wat represents the center of the universe with five peaks of Mount Maru in its center. Being world’s largest religious monument, the name of Angkor Wat justifies its meaning in Khmer language – city which became a temple. When you go exploring Angkor Wat, you will find yourself within the walls of what was once a magnificent city. Today, Angkor Wat remains an architectural masterpiece of Khmer construction graced by almost 2,000 carvings of Apsaras and 600 meters of narrative bas reliefs.
The sandstone bridge across the moat is said to have replaced the wooden bridge that once existed to connect the outside world with the temple but has decayed overtime. The bridge as it is right now doesn’t have any railings or other barrier to protect people from falling into the moat. The balustrade is a body of a seven-headed serpent but only exists at expanded areas of the bridge. Yet because this is Cambodia and not North America, there were no signs warning people of not coming too close to the edge or risking the danger of falling into the moat. However there was a sign protecting the balustrade from damage that sitting on it could cause. Good call.
Several young boys spent the morning jumping off the bridge and into the moat to cool their bodies off and protect themselves from scorching heat. Others sat on the edge with hand-made fishing rods looking to catch the fish to eat for supper. Even though Angkor Wat is a popular tourist destination, the life for villagers doesn’t stop so they continue doing what they used to prior to the temples of Angkor becoming as popular as they are now. The presence of thousands of tourists doesn’t seem to bother them at all (or maybe it serves as a way to show off).
Few steps lead to the west gopura – an entrance pavilion that serves as a main gateway to the hallways and passages within the exterior wall. Bunch of locals were sitting at the doorway steps making me the only who could not wait to get inside to hide from the sun that was frying me alive.
To the left and to the right of this central gopura there are additional entrances with doorways large enough to allow an elephant through. This gave them the name of “Elephant Gates”. It is quite likely that when Angkor Wat was constructed, there were bridges across the moat each leading to either of the Elephant Gates.
To the right of main gopura there is small shrine still within the outer enclosure which contains a statue of Vishnu. This statue with eight arms is believed to have once been located in Angkor Wat’s central sanctuary (while the temple was still dedicated to Hinduism).
As I continued exploring the insides of the exterior wall, I noticed that there were many, randomly placed statues of both Buddha and Vishnu (mostly Buddha) there. You could tell one was nearby by smelling the essence of burning sticks. There would usually be some locals knelt before the statue, praying to the deity it represents holding their own incense stick firmly clasped between their palms. On top of people praying though, there would also be scam artists, often involving old women with shaved heads (female version of a monk) who would hand you a burning stick and prompt you to put it with all others in a holder at the statue’s feet for good luck and fortune, but the catch is that they would insist on a donation which as they claim would go to the monks and to upkeep the temple. This is obviously a scam. None of the money will be used any way other than personally by the person who gets it from you. These people hang around the spots where tourists go and abuse the holy place and the divinity portrayed for their own enrichment. They work with the moment of surprise, appearing next to you out of nowhere, handing you the incense stick. Unaware what to do, it is a natural instinct of a foreigner to take what is offered to the, so as not to offend anyone and show respect for a deity that may be anticipating this action. Unfortunately, once you take hold of an incense stick, it will be difficult to talk your way out of handing the money over. If anything is handed to you, don’t ever take it or it instantly means that you have to pay for it.
Even though passages inside the walls provide shelter from the devastating rays of Cambodian sun, they won’t offer many opportunities to cool off. It’s as hot or hotter within those stone walls as it is outside on direct sun. The sun roasts the stones every day and that heat radiates back keeping the corridors at the boiling point. You basically have nowhere to hide from noncompromising heat and unless you keep well hydrated, Angkor Wat is gonna burn you out sooner than you’d care to admit.
There is no electricity in any of the temples hence no chance of stepping in an air-conditioned room or at least as little as a fan to wash the sweat off your brow. Exploring Angkor Wat is an extremely hot and sweaty effort. I’ve met several people who underestimated Cambodian heat, purchased three day passes to Angkor but only used their first day. They could not handle any more of that heat and let the rest of their entrance pass go to waste.
Since there is no electricity within Angkor Wat, the only source of light is through the windows which are evenly distributed throughout the walls. Windows are nicely decorated with lathe-turned balusters keeping the awe ongoing no matter which part of Angkor Wat you are exploring at any given moment.
As the name of the temple suggests, Angkor Wat was once a city. The scale of the city became evident after I exited the passages inside the exterior wall and stepped back down onto a causeway that follows through until it reaches the cruciform terrace staircase of the central temple 350 meters further. Only houses of Gods were built of stone, human dwellings were built of wood and have long since been claimed by the decay of time. Vast, open areas on both sides of the causeway once housed dwellings for people who resided in Angkor Wat. Even king Suryavarman II’s castle was made of wood and is believed to have been located just north of the central temple. People did not live within the structures we see at Angkor today. Human dwellings are all gone. What is left are mountain-temples built for the gods, such as Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated.
Causeway is decorated on both sides with balustrades in the form of seven-headed serpents locally known as “nagas”. There are seven nagas on each side of the causeway. After about 50 meters, each of the nagas turns and that’s where an access point to the original city from the causeway is created. You can take the steps down to walk on the grass or to get to the libraries which are each on one side of the causeway further ahead.
Since it was an early morning and the temple ahead of me was not very photogenic due to strong backlight created by the rising sun, turning around to take pictures of the gapura behind me was awesome. There are some apsara carvings on the insides of the exterior wall which look great in the morning light and the whole wall also makes for some decent photos on its own.
Libraries are stand alone buildings with doorways on each cardinal point and are believed to have been shrines, rather than manuscript repositories. They are not that big on the inside, but the space gains on volume thanks to their height. They are otherwise empty and don’t attract that many people. Just as the rest of Angkor Wat, you will find temporary refuge from devastating sun rays, but no feeling of cooler air whatsoever. It’s as hot or hotter within the libraries as ancient stones bombarded by unceasing sunrays radiate heat of their own turning each of the libraries into a sauna.
Further ahead of the libraries are two ponds. The one on the left is where best pictures of Angkor Wat can be taken from. You can get the shape of the temple reflected by the waters of the pond and that simply can not be beat. There is no better spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat anywhere within the enclosure. Perhaps from the air, if you took a helicopter tour, then you could match the awesomeness of the pond picture, but unless you shell out for an option to get aerial shots, this is your best spot. Again though, it’s gonna look like crap in the morning because of strong backlight, however you do have to come back in the afternoon anyway so when you do, that’s where you’re gonna go to get your best shots of Angkor Wat.
It is said that the ponds have not been the part of the original design of Angkor Wat. The space they occupy was originally dedicated to the dwellings of city’s residents but after the city was abandoned and houses fell apart (16th century?), ponds were created in their place. The cruciform terrace that’s at the top of the staircase starting at the end of the causeway bears architectural elements that differ from the rest of the city making scholars believe that it was also added later.
Cruciform terrace contains a gopura that leads inside the central temple. Since the terrace is elevated, turning back and facing the sun illuminated area which was once a powerful and prosperous Khmer city offers yet better impression of its scale. Hidden under the line of trees along the northern exterior wall are stalls with beverages, snacks and souvenirs. You need to allow about (understand “at least”) two hours to properly explore Angkor Wat and take my word for it – 15 minutes under Cambodian sun is more than enough to handle at one time. By the time you have gotten to the cruciform terrace, it’s actually time to walk back down to hide under the trees and recharge bodily fluids with cold water or, better yet – fresh coconut. You’ll need more energy for the next step – exploring the Angkor Wat central temple.
Wat Kesararam is the most confusing pagoda in all of Siem Reap. The inconsistencies in name were driving me insane and the more I was trying to find out which name was correct, the more confusing it was getting. Basically, aside from Wat Kesararam, this pagoda is often referred to as Wat Keseram. Not even Cambodians themselves know which name is right and which is wrong as each you ask them about it, they will give you different answer. Hence it is best to refer to it by its English name – Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals.
Wat Kesararam is located at the north west side of Siem Reap, right on National Road #6, en route to Siem Reap airport. It is a very colorful pagoda the beginnings of which date somewhere to the 1970’s. The paintings on the outer walls are very bright and so are the lions and nagas – seven headed serpents the body of which serves as a balustrade around the temple. The balustrade is held up by statues of divinities that are repeated all around the structure.
I have not walked inside of actual temple, but it’s said to house extensive collection of Buddha relics. Since it was the second day of Pchum Ben festival, the pagoda of the cornflower petals was very much alive. Traditional Khmer music was being played back out of bad quality, old loudspeakers and dozens of people knelt inside the prayer hall chanting their prayers. More people were coming in and out, all bearing bowls with food which is what the festival of the dead is all about. This food is offered to their deceased ancestors to ease their way in the underworld.
I noticed many kids running around and hanging off the barred windows of main vihara – prayer hall. There was some commotion coming from the inside and the presence of countless shoes before the entrance to it suggested that something must be going on in there (Buddhists always take their shoes off before entering pagodas or basically any other dwelling or sacred place). This is what attracted me to the vihara as it was also what detracted me from going to the actual temple to see what they say is a vast collection of Buddha relics. On the other hand, I’m glad I went in the vihara because this was my unique opportunity to witness real amateur Apsara dancing.
Wat Keseram pagoda got me confused right from the start. Half of native Cambodians as well as half of guides refer to it as Wat Keseram while other half calls it Wat Kesararam. Which one is correct is hard to tell. There seems to be no conclusive settlement and nobody but me seemed bothered by inconsistencies in the name. It’s still one and the same pagoda it’s only known under two different, albeit similar names. The only common name for it is English translation of it: “Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals”. I leave it up to you to choose which name you want to call it – Wat Keseram or Wat Kesararam. Either way, below is the gallery of photos of this majestic pagoda.