The next afternoon we secured a tuk tuk to Angkor Wat, which lies about 15 minutes from the city center.

You can buy passes for 1 day, 3 days, or 7 days. 7 days seemed excessive, but there’s really just too much cool stuff for 1 day, including temples of all descriptions (those descriptions being square, stone, jungle-y, and headless), hundreds of square miles of jungle, ruins, and tourists. So many tourists! The 3 day pass, sold for 40 USD, was a good fit for our plans.

Tuk tuk tours are generally divided into two main offerings: the large circuit and the small circuit.

The small circuit is what most people start out with. Tuk tuk drivers will know what you mean when you specify large or small, and are happy to wait in the shade while you poke around ruins and get sweaty in exchange for a flat fee for the day and, hopefully, a reservation for the next day. We spent 15 dollars on the tuk tuk for each day we went.

To put it mildly, I was completely floored by our first visit. Just utterly blown away… a fact I’ll probably repeat ad nauseum as I write this post, fair warning!

Here you can see a little bit of native Khmer script. It’s pretty and has the distinction of being a very lettery language – anywhere from 54-108 characters, depending on how you count the modifying elements and extra vowels. No way I’d want to learn that mess, though.

The first place we visited was the massive Angkor Wat site itself. It, like all but one of the temples here, faces west (the picture at the top is of us approaching the OUTER wall – not even the main temple!). Watching the sunrise behind the temple is a great tourist draw, and we committed to doing it the next day.

This temple was initially built as a state capital and center of worship. Off to each side there are massive libraries that have been restored (well, the books didn’t do so well… but the walls are standing!). There are a few people for scale. Honestly, these structures were some of the smaller ones in the complex, too.

The weather (!) was providing a nice crisp blue for the backgrounds!

These are all identical pieces – most windows have some missing, but here there were a few in a row that had most of them. The regularity and uniformity of the pieces is simply astonishing – even patterns no bigger than a centimeter are reproduced with no visible asymmetry, for meters and meters. Even after 1000 years, it’s clear that the stone work here was exacting and precise to begin with.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, people were forcibly evacuated from the cities and relocated to the country. There was a fair amount of sacking going on – this decorative element, sitting in a hallway on the south side of the temple, looked just like the rest: headless. While there are efforts to replicate the missing heads from statues all across the massive temple complex, work is slow and painstaking.

Having our fill of Angkor Wat, we strolled over to the market place – gotta stay hydrated! Things seemed cheaper here than products in the Old Market in Siem Reap.

Our next tuk tuk stop was Bayon, home of the enormous carved Buddha faces. There was an active temple alter at the pinnacle of this structure, and we gave a dollar, laid some incense, and got a little string bracelet in return.

To give you an idea of what these temple in the midst of reconstruction (read: all of them) look like in their to-be-rebuilt stages, here’s a pile of fallen stones. Over the course of several years, each stone will be tagged, scanned, modeled, and eventually reconstructed into (ideally) their original form.

This was the least embellished temple of the day – the heat was getting to us both (perhaps sleeping in on this particular morning was not such a great idea…). This temple was interesting because it served as a beta test for the much larger, grander Angkor Wat. Different building techniques were used, and it’s the only temple that is entered from the East. Up an ENORMOUS, STEEP staircase with stairs at least 18″ tall – getting to the top is no mean feat in 3pm tropical sun!

A Chinese archeological team has partnered with Cambodian nationals to undertake reconstruction of this temple, and several parts were off limits (but no one was here, because of the lunar new year Different countries have assisted in this manner, generally one per temple. Most came in after the Khmer Rouge, but Bantay Srei, for instance, began being upgraded in the 1930’s.

There were several spots in isolated corners of the temples where you would (sometimes literally) stumble across a religious altar. This one had clothes on.

The final temple of the day, and the one that most interested me, was Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the Tree Temple. Many of the other main temples are in areas that, due to barriers or human activity, have not been encroached upon by the jungle. Ta Prohm is a glorious, fascinating exception.

This is the Echo Chamber – featured in Tomb Raider and an episode of Amazing Race. Stand inside to the left or right and thump your chest… it’s pretty cool!

A carving of a traditional Aspara dancer. This temple, having been built in a relatively forested area and lacking any kind of barrier like a moat (such as Angkor Wat), has been taken over by trees and strangler figs (trees that actually eat other trees!). The effect is both completely natural and astonishingly human.

The site is being worked on with an Indian restoration agency in partnership with the Cambodian Aspara Agency, in charge of cultural works. No timeline was given for completion. I assume decades.

This site, in particular, emphasized the balance found in ruins like this. The trees took over the stones, but the stones hold the trees up. The Indian group has stated that their intention is to preserve and reconstruct the temple while also maintaining the delicate ecological balance (sometimes literally) that has been struck over the intervening millennia.

Some of the sites had information boards like this, which showed progress, mission statements, goals, and sometimes information about detailed archeological processes used in preserving the structures and grounds. Above is a before and after picture – people, real honest-to-god people, took the fallen clusterf*uck of a rockslide on the top half, and successfully reconstructed the terrace shown on the bottom!

Here’s a picture of that same terrace in real life! SO CRAZY. People did that!

For a hot second, I was like “I could do that for a living! Totally!!,” and then I remembered this classic Calvin and Hobbes strip and immediately thought that perhaps I was being a bit hasty.

More before and after photos –  there has been a lot work completed in the past 20 years, but so very much remains. Visitor safety items seem to have been tackled first, including walkways, terraces, and a clear path for self-guided tours (like most of them are).

This is a typical floorplan for a medium sized temple. Very square, with long approaching drives from either side. Often there is a moat of some kind, but not always. All are oriented to the compass rose and (except for the third temple) face west. Many, like this, also have a “back door” at the east, providing a way for visitors to leave and catch their tuk tuk once more.

The Small Circuit finished, we trundled back home, to enjoy the evening in Siem Reap and, possibly probably, take a little nappy-poo and a glass of iced pineapple juice. Because vacation, that’s why.

Next up… we own the nightlife, and we travel from sunrise to the crown jewel of Khmer art!