At first when we talked to the boys about going to Cambodia to see ancient temples they weren’t too excited. After all the temples in India, Thailand, and Vietnam, they were getting kind of burnt out on visiting them. We promised them that these weren’t like any temples they had seen before and prepped them with scenes from Indiana Jones and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to get them excited. It didn’t take them long to realize this was going to be a great adventure!
While the temples of Cambodia are magnificent, their recent political history is a tragedy. Under the regime of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot, a genocide was orchestrated on the people of Cambodia and in less than 4 years almost half their population had been murdered by the hands or policies of the Khmer Rouge. While Pol Pot was defeated in 1979 guerilla warfare continued in the country until 1994. Due to the gruesome nature of some of the sights, we did not feel comfortable bring the boys to them, but there was still evidence of the destruction around including signs like the one below identifying areas that had been cleared of land mines. It is estimated that there are as many as 4-6 million active land mines in Cambodia still today. In the most recent statistics I could find (2013), it stated that there were 111 casualties, 22 dead and 89 injured, because of land mines just in that year. While this is terrible, organizations like the one shown below have really been saving lives. In 1999 there were over 1200 casualties, so that number has gone down significantly. The current organizations working to clear the landmines function on about $30 Million a year and experts estimate that if they are able to continue at that rate, it will take another 10-20 years to clear all the mines.
Despite all this tragedy, we were surprised to find Siem Reap a bustling town full of restaurants, shops, and all kinds of activities to keep us busy and well fed when we grew tired of exploring temples. It was amazing to see the resilience of the people living there and their hopes for the future as tourism helps to shore up their economy.
We spent the next few days exploring through a variety of temples each less restored than the previous one. This was a great way to go through because at Angkor Wat we were able to see what the temple was supposed to look like and in the others we could see the varying stages of destruction as over hundreds of years nature did it’s best to swallow them up.
We started with Angkor Wat which was built as part of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century. It was originally built as a Hindu Temple but transitioned over to Buddhism which is how it still functions today. It is the most famous of the temples and considered one of the New 7 Man Made Wonders of the World. Not only is it beautiful, but it is also the largest religious monument in the world.
This complex is the most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was built in the late 12th century is spread over 9 square kilometers. My favorite part and one of the most famous sections is Bayon Temple shown below. There are 216 giant faces made of stone that gaze out with a knowing smile. It is fascinating.
This temple is also known as “The Tomb Raider Temple” because this is where part of the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was filmed. While the movie is one of the worst I have ever seen, the temple is magnificent! We loved exploring through and pretending like we were on our own adventure of discovery.
Beng Melea was probably the favorite temple we visited. It was further away and not part of the usual tours but it came highly recommended by our driver. I’m so glad we took the extra time to go out there. It was much less restored than any of the other temples we had visited so you could really see nature’s destruction. Also, because the crowds were much less, they rules weren’t as limiting regarding where you could go, so the boys were able to really feel like they were really explorers as they climbed up, over, around, and through.
In our three days there we saw a lot of temples and as I went through the pictures, I couldn’t remember what they all were, but here are a few more of our favorite pictures from our temple visits.
We all really enjoyed exploring the variety of temples, but all of our favorites were the ones that had the least amount of restoration done. Those temples left plenty of rocks to climb on and vines to swing from. It was so fun to imagine ourselves as adventurers exploring the ruins for the first time.
New structures are still being discovered that have been covered with layers of dirt over the centuries. I look forward to going back and visiting in the years to come to see what other treasures still lay underground.
It was all truly magnificent. That a civilization could be so powerful and advanced to create such amazing structures and then fade into obscurity and destruction gives anyone pause to consider what our world will look like in another 1000 years.