Thursday, July 19, 2018


I have wanted to see Angkor Wat for as long as I've known about it. The story is so intriguing -- a medieval lost temple, or really collection of temples, abandoned in the jungle and overgrown by gigantic trees and vines. Evidence of an earlier civilization, but unknown to the wider world until "discovered" by French colonizers of Indochina in the 1860s. It's all very "Indiana Jones."

Of course, I'm sure at least some Cambodians knew it was there all along, but the massive effort to reclaim the temples from the jungle and make them available to visitors who want to appreciate the relics of the Khmers is relatively recent.

It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since the 1990s it has drawn so many visitors that my guidebook calls it "the Disneyland of Buddhist temples in Asia." There were certainly plenty of people out and about when Dave and I visited, despite overcast skies and humidity hovering around 100 percent.

Some of the visitors were pretty interesting! (At first I thought that right-hand monk was flashing a gang sign -- but actually I think he was just adjusting his robes.)

The temples -- both Buddhist and Hindu, depending on who was in power -- mostly date from the period that Angkor served as the Khmer capital between the years 802 and 1295. This one, The Bayon, is known for its many carved faces. The large temple complex in the top photo is the main Angkor Wat, with its famous reflecting pools.

Some of the carvings around the base of the temples are very ornate. And the height of the temples varies, depending on who they're for -- temples for royalty tend to have several levels, according to our guide.

Near the ancient temples are a few more modern ones, like this one featuring a gigantic Buddha statue. Angkor is still an active Buddhist site where people go to pray and light incense. (For a sense of scale, you can see a few people crouched at its base.)

The area around the temples is preserved as a forest, and there's plenty of wildlife. We saw monkeys, lizards and loads of different butterflies, and we heard some very exotic-sounding birds.

Apparently one of Angkor's most globally famous moments came in the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," with Angelina Jolie, from 2001. I'd never seen this film, so when our guide kept talking about the "Tomb Raider" temple, Ta Prohm, his references were lost on me. But indeed, the movie was filmed at the temple in the photo above. (By the time we got there it was pouring rain.)

Here's a still from the movie, which we rented and watched last night. It's silly but mildly diverting. (Dave fell asleep.)

And here's the same location as we saw it, featuring about 100 tourists! Everyone wants a picture in front of that big tree with the tangled roots.

I've got to hand it to our guide, whose name I think was Gou. (I never saw it written down!) He knew all the best photo spots and showed us tiny, subtle elements of the temples that would otherwise be easily missed, like a carving that appears to show a stegosaurus:

By the time Dave and I got back to our hotel, we were sweaty and exhausted, but it was a great day. We immediately took showers and ordered room service for dinner. I had something called "Bra Hook," because HOW COULD I NOT with a name like that?! It turned out to be a pork-and-vegetable dish with rice and tiny aubergines the size of large peas. Supposedly it contained salty fish, but I didn't detect any. It was possibly obscured by the radioactively hot pepper that I failed to pick out of one mouthful of food -- I ate it and was literally left gasping. My eyes watered for half an hour!

Oh, and speaking of food, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant where I got "banana bud salad," and I'm pretty sure those red pod-like vegetables in yesterday's post are indeed banana buds.


  1. Oh my gosh, these photos are fabulous and your stories even better. What a great experience you are having. I don't envy you the hot pepper in your dinner. I'm quite sure it would have done me in. For some reason, can't handle that kind of heat any longer. It sounds like you had a good guide. What a benefit when you are in such a distant and strange place.

  2. A memorable day. Most of the stones that were used in the building of those temples were dragged by elephants from quarries that were located several miles away. And isn't the sheer amount of skilful stone carving just fantastic? Did you hear any traditional Cambodian music played by the victims of landmines?

  3. Loved the photos and narrative. I can't stomach spicy hot any longer either but would enjoy the banana buds and vegetables.

  4. what an experience! Such an amazing place to see in person, I feel a bit sad that this place is most memorable for the movie and not on its attributes of its own, it truly is amazing, sounds like some spicy dishes!!

  5. These are great. I especially like the bas relief carving with the elephant.

  6. All right- WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT STEGOSAURUS DOING ON THAT TEMPLE? Come on. That's so weird and amazing and cool. As are all of these pictures. Did it remind you in the least little bit of going to see the ruins of San Gervasio in Cozumel? The forest around it, or the jungle, anyway. And certainly the heat and the humidity. So beautiful, Steve. I'm loving these daily doses we're getting from you. Thank you.

  7. what a great trip! It's definitely on my list of places to go. I feel your pain about the hot pepper. jalapenos do that to me so I studiously avoid anything hotter. and that's what I thought those pod like things were, banana flower buds.

  8. Your very adventurous to try the local food. You will come away from this trip with a much greater understanding of culture and religion.

  9. Oh wow, what a spectacular place to explore. I love that you went to Ankgor Wat and saw such sights and shared them with us. I also so appreciate seeing those butterflies. I love a glimpse of the world's critters in the most beautiful places. And you saw monkeys!! Enjoy this ever unfolding journey.

  10. FANTASTIC! I must admit that I have no interest in Angor Wat, but your stegosaurus photo got me intrigued. I looked it up. The Smithsonian magazine ran a short article about it in 2009, after certain Creationist groups used the carving as evidence that dinosaurs and humans once occupied the planet together (Creationists also claim dinos were on Noah's Ark).

    One hypothesis is that the creature is a boar against a back ground of leaves. Another is that the carving is recent, put there as a joke, or by a film crew -- as you noted, the place has been sed frequently as a movie set.

    Also, paleontologists have weighed in and critiqued the animal, and it is not a stegosaurus. the end is too small, and the plates are too big.

    I love the butterfly photo the best. That, to me, is really your eye taking it all in. It's been a terrible week here in Trumps' America -- what else is new? -- and I need to stare at butterflies, more than you know.

    Thank you.

  11. I could ask "Wat's new?", but of course I'd never do that. Great pictures, Steve, and great courage to eat that pepper, even by mistake. I'm enjoying the tour.

  12. Absolutely fabulous! I'd love to go visit somewhere like that, but it's not likely for us. So glad to see it through your eyes.

  13. I enjoy vicarious travel, and this place is one I especially enjoy! It's amazing that such structures were built before the days of machinery. And in that heat and humidity! (I'm a wuss, yes)

  14. Really wonderful photos and commentary. Thank you for taking the time to show this to us.

  15. I love traveling with you two! I see things I wouldn't see in this life otherwise. Thank you!

  16. I just took another look at your top photo of the crowds at Angkor Wat and noticed the little kid, climbing the steps, front and center. How could I have missed him before? He is the reason it's a Steve Reed photo!

    Nice catch.

  17. I love these photos. I have a photo question: what did you use for these photos? I'm going next year and am contemplating just taking photos with my iPhone. I usually shoot with a Fujifilm XT1 or a couple of different Leicas, BUT, the cameras are heavier than I like and a bit more than I like to carry. And frankly, I get super photos with the phone camera. I do a little post processing in Lightroom. I'm going in March, and I hope to avoid the hot and humid as much as possible, as I am a complete wipe out in those conditions.

    I'll be viewing your other posts from your Asian travels. Great stuff.