First full day in Siem Reap - time to hit the temples! Angkor Archaeological Park is huge, encompassing around 400 sq kms (~150 sq miles) and hundreds of temples, most dating from between the 9th and 12th centuries, when Angkor was the capital of the vast Khmer Empire. There are both Hindu and Buddhist temples, and many have existed as both at one time or another.
Of the many temples within the park, there is a clear hierarchy of interest and prioritization on any visit to the park is important. We were getting three-day passes, so we had plenty of time. Instead of hiring a tuk-tuk (a small motorbike powered rickshaw) for our first day, we decided to rent bicycles and pedal the few kilometers of flat road from town to the park. With no guide and no tuk-tuk driver, we could move about the park at our own pace, exploring where and when we wanted to. We decided to save the main temple, Angkor Wat, for later in our visit and instead struck out for Angkor Thom - the huge moat-ringed royal city that stood as the last capital of the Angkorian empire. It was hard biking right past the entrance to Angkor Wat, but we stuck to our plan, and were exited when we reached the massive stone South Gate of Angkor Thom.
We climbed around on the old walls, staring up at the giant carved faces which stare off in the four cardinal directions.
Here we had our first encounter with a wild troupe of long-tailed macaque monkeys, many of whom live in the park. Heeding the warnings regarding these frisky monkeys, we kept our distance while watching them, and they, clearly bored by people, basically ignored us.
On our bikes, we made our way to the center of Angkor Thom, to the state-temple of Bayon - one of the few originally Buddhist temples in the park. With it’s many towers with the four stone faces and ringed by exterior walls coverd in base-relief murals, this is one of the most popular areas in the park and is an iconic symbol of Khmer art.
Bayon is in various stages of restoration, and the intricate carvings can be seen both pre- and post-restoration.
Once we got a sense of the massive restoration projects ongoing, it didn’t feel so bad to fork over $40 each for our 3-day passes. This was an unfathomable amount of work. Can you imagine digging through a pile of rubble trying to put this puzzle back together?
And this is one small section of one small mural on one wall of one temple. The scale of Angkor Archaeological Park is hard to wrap your head around. We had spent the first half of the morning exploring Bayon, only to realize that was one small part of Angkor Thom, which was one tiny part of the park!! We had to keep moving. (Seriously, I took hundreds of photos in these three days. Narrowing them down to just a handful for the blog was very challenging!)
After Bayon we explored the rest of the Angkor Thom royal city as the sun climbed higher in the sky, slowly turning the day into a scorcher. We climbed Baphuon, looking back down on the long causeway leading up to it, and the ponds and grounds surrounding this Hindu mountain-temple.
We climbed the crumbling sandstone pyramid, Phimeanakas, the king’s temple.
Here our Red Sox hats caught someone’s attention, and in no time we made new friends with some fellow fans…from Taiwan! (It’s hard to see from this angle, but he’s wearing a Red Sox T-shirt!) We shared a few “Go Sox!” cheers and went on our way.
We explored the 300-meter long, intricately carved, Terrace of the Elephants,
and the endless carvings of nagas, demons, and mythical creatures along the Terrace of the Leper King.
We found our way to a short rock wall shaded by some trees to sit and relax before finding lunch, and we had a surprise visitor. One very friendly female macaque came running over and quickly climbed up onto Doug’s back! What to do? We knew the warnings not to approach, provoke, or feed the monkeys, but this particular scenario was not in the manual! Was it more dangerous to let her sit there or to try to shoo her away? She did not appear agitated, and none of the other monkeys around seemed willing to join her, so we decided to let it play out. My favorite part was when she started trying to groom Doug’s hair, but clearly had never encountered a baseball hat. She kept trying to eat the button on top. :-) After several minutes, when she wasn’t going anywhere, we had to do something. Doug reached into his backpack and got one of the small local bananas we had. She eagerly grabbed it, devoured it, and then ran off back into the trees. While it is technically ill-advised to feel them, we decided this was a win-win!!
After surviving the very aggressive marketing of the small restaurant salesmen and picking a place for a quick lunch, we plunged back into the heat and biked along the road leading out of Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate to the east. Here we explored the smaller Hindu temples of Chau Say Thevoda
Biking around the park had pluses and minuses. On the plus side, we had total freedom to go where we wanted and take our time. Instead of motoring through the areas without temples, we casually biked down these quiet forested lanes, enjoying the peace and tranquility of the park, away from the knots of tourists.
But the negative side was the heat and exhaustion! It was VERY warm, peaking at about 100F (38C) with very high humidity, we were getting pretty exhausted biking the many kilometers we had covered. So we picked one last temple to visit for the afternoon, and the clear winner was Ta Prohm. This sprawling Buddhist monastery is most known for its jungle atmosphere, with many of the invading fig and silk-cotton trees left uncleared. These trees have done massive damage to the original structure, and you can practically see the powerful limbs and roots tearing at the stone.
But the end result is a beautiful interplay between stone temple construction and jungle infiltration.
By late afternoon, our tanks were empty, and we still had to return the 10-15km back to our hotel. So we downed another bottle of water, put our heads down, and pedaled. We arrived at the hotel, crashed into the pool, finished the day with a wonderful meal at the hotel restaurant and fell asleep very early. Good thing we had two more days to continue exploring!
Trabzon is not a huge tourist destination, but if you come to visit the city, the number one thing to see is the Sümela Monastery. Originally built in the fourth century, this Greek Orthodox monastery, built of stone, is perched on a ledge beneath a sheer cliff on Melá mountain. When my father visited this monastery in the late 50’s, a 4x4 military vehicle was needed to navigate the narrow, unfinished logging roads leading up to the site.
Access has significantly improved over the last 50 years to accommodate the flow of tourists to this ancient site.
The monastery itself has undergone significant restoration lately as well. This is not the first time either. Over the centuries, the stone building has fallen into disrepair and subsequently restored and even expanded several times, cycling with the attention of the various emperors and sultans ruling the area. In the 50’s, the building, while still an impressive sight clinging to the mountainside, was in pretty bad shape, seen here by the crumbling roof line.
Recent repair efforts have had a dramatic effect, funded by the Turkish government.
Upon entering the interior “backyard” of the complex, what used to be piles of rubble and crumbling walls
has largely been restored to it’s previous layout, using as much original stone as possible.
You can see the restoration is not complete, with doors floating over empty space and floor supports leading to nothing, but the work accomplished so far is striking. Much of the monastery is off limits, cordoned off for current restoration work. But the entire back courtyard is open for exploration - once again significantly evolved from its state over 50 years ago.
The changes have made this site much more accessible to tourists.
A small Rock Church, covered in religious frescoes, is the centerpiece of the back courtyard. These frescoes are significantly damaged, and there are no current efforts to restore them. Comparing my father’s fresco photos from the 50’s:
with current shots like the one below, it is clear this damage occurred long ago - with no significant changes over the last several decades.
The worst of the damage is limited to the lower levels of the church walls, within easy reach of the vandals. Higher up the walls, and on the ceilings, the frescoes are in much better shape.
Even in their damaged state, the frescoes covering the church inside and out are impressive, in scope, detail, and age.
Our afternoon at the monastery was a great experience for many reasons. The ancient stone complex is fascinating, even if you don’t have childhood stories and old photos to compare. The way it clings to the side of the mountain, with gorgeous and peaceful views out every window - you can imagine the solitude of the monks who once lived here. But beyond that, I did have those stories and photos, and the monastery, before this visit, occupied a mythical space in my head. Seeing it in person, and seeing the restoration that had returned these stones to their original glory, was an emotional experience.
We also met some wonderful and interesting people during our visit. Like Sibel, the young woman who just graduated from the university in Trabzon with a degree in civil engineering (a profession for which we have an increased appreciation as we travel on our journey!)
Sibel, standing next to me, was visiting the monastery with her sister, Fatima, and we chatted with them for a while.
We also met Ayse, who has lived in Holland for the last couple of decades, but grew up in a village outside of Trabzon.
Ayse was back visiting her ailing father, and took the day to come tour the monastery. Ayse - I hope you are reading this, and our other posts on Trabzon, and sharing the photos, both old and and new, with your dad.