I adored the Indiana Jones films as a child and always harboured a (still unrealised) desire to be an archaeologist when I grew up – even after I found out that it isn’t all priceless relics and dodging rolling boulder booby traps. I think that’s why I love Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much, because it is one of those places that, if you let it, will do all that it can to bring out your inner Indiana Jones. The jungle that swallowed this once great city conspires to draw you in, offering tantalising glimpses of grey stone through thick green foliage. The light, dappled and hazy, creates intriguing silhouettes, luring you for a closer look, the oppressive heat pushing you into the shady interior – there really isn’t any choice but to succumb and embrace the adventure wholeheartedly.
My first glimpse of the most significant and magnificent of the temples, Angkor Wat. Though it happened 15 years ago it still plays in my head like a film, it was that memorable for me.
A long, hot ride on a rickety and seriously uncomfortable bike lead to a rather tempting looking moat. The ride continues, a little faster now as anticipation takes over, my eye finally coming to rest on a stone walkway bridging the water. My eyes travel along it and there, rearing up out of the jungle, is Angkor Wat, stark and magnificent against the blue sky.
It took my breath away. Every inch of the old grey stone screamed ‘explore me’, and so I did, extensively. And a few more times since.
No matter how many people you share the Angkor Wat experience with the sense of tranquillity it still manages to exude is quite extraordinary. This could be people respecting the fact that it’s of huge religious significance, the facts it’s so large, or the fact that visitors are awed into speechlessness. A hush descends as you wander the cool stone corridors and admire the intricately carved bas reliefs, the surrounding jungle blocking out the outside world. Here day to day troubles melt away leaving you to admire the heart and soul that went into creating such a masterpiece and all you have to worry about is dodging that pack of book-selling kids who you stupidly said ‘”I’ll think about it” to.
But Angkor isn’t just about Angkor Wat. There are a great many buildings, temples and constructions on the complex to discover (we are talking thousands), some in reasonable nick, some merely piles of rock and others spectacularly reclaimed by nature, riddled with roots, trees thrusting out of roofs, walls and windows. One of these is Ta Prohm, which you may recognise if you’ve watched Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It would take a lifetime to fully appreciate what a great city Angkor must have been and to see all that this place has to offer. That is where the bike comes in. The beauty of exploring this way is being able to come, go and discover as you please. That’s how you can truly get into explorer mode and to the few still off-the-beaten-track places.
There are huge gateways marking the four ‘compass point’ entrances to Angkor’s main walled city ‘Angkor Thom’. Each entrance is flanked by guards, wonderfully intricate in their creation right down to their toes. Passing through them, the exhilaration mounts and a sense of adventure begins to buzz (or could have been the mosquitos) right through your body. Gentling cycling these old thoroughfares, silent, admiring, maybe dodging the occasional monkey, the occasional cry may go up as someone, glancing into the foliage, catches a flash of a hidden temple held hostage by the jungle. On closer inspection, you might find that you have this particular temple completely to yourself, whilst you can hear buses and tuk tuks of tourists humming in the distance. That is the ultimate beauty of Angkor. It is a place that is timeless; it is so easy to believe that you are the first person to have set foot there for hundreds of years, to run your hands over the warm grey stone, to shelter from the sun in a shady corridor.
While you won’t have such moments in the most popular temples, they are so eerily beautiful, so shrouded in mystery, that you can’t really blame the masses for flocking to them.
The Temples of Angkor are located close to the town of Siem Reap in central Cambodia. The area was once a grand city of the Khmer Empire, the complex of temples boasting thousands of ruins and relics from between the 9th to 15th centuries.
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