2011-2012 Backpacking in Asia travel blog

Approaching Bakong (pre-Angkorian)

Outer courtyard of Bakong

Trail to remote Prasat Prei Monti temple

Prasat Prei Monti temple (pre-Angkor)

Preah Ko (9th Century)

Prasat Kravan (921 AD)

Entry gate to Banteay Kdei (12th Century)

Moat around Beng Mealea (12th Century)

Inside Beng Mealea

Another shot inside Beng Mealea

A stone door complete with stair (for symmetry)

Sanscript inscription

Crossing the "moat" to Ta Prohm (built in 1186)

Inside Ta Prohm

Still inside Ta Prohm

Another tree at Ta Prohm

Ongoing restoration at Ta Prohm

Entrance to Pre Rup

Pre Rup

I spent two weeks visiting temples near Siem Reap. There are a lot of them here!

For those who know very little of the Ankor temples, think “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie playing the role of Lara Croft. Many of the scenes from the movies were shot here.

I've seen many more Americans here than earlier in my trip. Backpackers go to Hanoi, Sa Pa and other places that I've visited for the cheap beer and hotels. But, here, there are families traveling together and 5-star hotels. One guy was wearing a “Brown U” t-shirt. I asked if that was the Brown in Providence, RI. He said that his sons went there. He's the first I've met that actually knew where Rhode Island is. In fact, he even knew where Lincoln, RI, is!

If any of one of these temples was in the United States, it would be a huge tourist attraction. Ranging in age from 1,200 to 600 years old, they predate almost every structure that still standing in North America. They were already abandoned to the jungle when Columbus set sail.

But, here in Cambodia, there are so many Angkor-era temples that I often was able to visit the smaller ones in complete solitude. It's awe inspiring to look at these temples and imagine what they must have been like when they were new.

Because the Sanskrit writing on these ancient walls is reasonably close to the current Khmer language, scholars have extensive information about these temples.

What we don't have is authentic details. While any structure around 1,000 years old is going to have sustained damage, Angkor era temples had their own challenges. Elsewhere in Asia, they have earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes; but, there are none here. In the USA, ice is another of the most damaging forces in nature. But, they have no ice here; it rarely goes below 70 on a cool winter's night.

So, what did cause the damages? The strongest force is trees! Over the centuries, tree roots slowly pushed and separated the rocks. In many cases, the trees are so intertwined with the structures that each supports the other. (See photos.) Another force of nature is lichen. During the monsoon season it rains almost every day. All the stones get covered in lichen, moss and other organisms. Over centuries, this results in scarring of the sandstone and the slow erasure of carved images. Of course, the wooden portions of the temples have long ago disappeared even though the red mahogany used lasts a long time.

However, it is deliberate actions by humans that have caused the most irreversible damage. Successive Cambodian kings had different variations of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. When a Buddhist king came to power, they would destroy many of the Vishnu and Shiva sculptures and symbols. Conversely, when a Hindu king came to power, they would destroy the Buddha images. Many of the beautiful relief carvings have flat sections where the previous carvings were chiseled off centuries ago.

During the Khmer Rouge years (1975-1992), most of the modern temples were destroyed (and the monks murdered). Many of the ancient temples were vandalized. Since it's much easier to steal the head of a large statue than to carry away a ton of rocks, almost all of the remaining sculptures are headless. Many of the temples have bullet holes from when the Khmer Rouge used the temples for protection.

Some of the damage was the result of good intentions. When archeologists attempted to repair the temples, they sometimes used acids or other techniques that actually caused more damage.

Nonetheless, there is much to see here in Cambodia. For 150 years (except during the Khmer Rouge era), there have been archeological teams restoring these temples from France, US, Vietnam, China, Korea, India and other countries.

There's a lot to see here.

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