Home Other Countries Cambodia Siem Reap: Day 02 part 03 – The Grand Circuit Temples

Siem Reap: Day 02 part 03 – The Grand Circuit Temples

After seeing the Roluos group of temples, we proceeded to tour the Grand Circuit of the Angkor Archaeological Park. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, the park is more than 400 square meters and is jam-packed with amazing ruins that will make any fan of ancient structures happy. All the temple ruins and structures are covered with intricate carvings and detailed symbols honoring Hindu and/or Buddhist deities and beliefs.

Pre Rup

Quick Background: Built under the reign of King Rajendravarman, it was constructed by mixing brick, sandstone and laterite (rusty red stone). This is actually a temple mountain, meaning it was constructed with Mt. Meru, said to be home of the gods in Hindu mythology, as inspiration. Often such construction took on a pyramid style with a sanctuary at the center of the temple. It was also surrounded by a moat, which represented the ocean.

Impressions: This is the first temple we visited in the Grand Circuit and it was way bigger than any we’ve seen so far. It had these really scary steep stairs, which people actually climbed on long ago. I remember thinking to myself that praying at this temple must have been a test of courage. Fortunately, tourists didn’t have to go through those stairs anymore to reach the top as they were actually closed off for protection and restoration. Wooden stairs were built for visitors, but even if these were more accessible and had railings, they were still steep and require your full attention when climbing up. As for the temple itself, it was impressive and the view from the top is worth it.

Pre Rup - Grand Circuit - Angkor Park - Cambodia
Pre Rup, one of the temples on the Grand Circuit. Original stone stairs closed off.
Stairs you need to climb to get to the top of Pre Rup
Steep stairs! Strong knees and a courageous heart are needed.

East Mebon

Quick Background: Apparently ancient Khmers were super concerned about cardinal directions and proper orientation. They are also up for a challenge. They had this artificial body of water called East Baray reservoir (has long since dried up) and they thought, hey why don’t we build a temple at the center of that? And that’s exactly what they did – construct an artificial island in the middle of the reservoir and made sure this temple was exactly north of Pre Rup and exactly east of Phimeanakas (another temple that King Rajendravarman had ordered to be built). East Mebon has three stories and is built in the temple mountain style, and crowned with five towers. It is famous for its giant elephant statues.

Impressions: What stood out to me was the hundreds of holes on the walls of the topmost tower. The guide said there used to be copper embedded into these holes so that from afar and when sunlight touches the walls, the temple will have this deep red glow. That must have been a breathtaking sight to behold and will surely stir the hearts of the faithful at that time. Note: I researched about these holes online when I was writing this post and I cannot find solid info about the copper embedded into the holes. Most articles suggest instead that these holes used to anchor stucco.

my friends and I at the top of East Mebon
Relaxing at the top of East Mebon. We had to climb steep stairs again and the sun was at its zenith beating down on us mercilessly.
Apsara carvings on East Mebon walls
Beautiful carvings of Apsara dancers (celestial nymphs) and a blind window (ancient temples in Cambodia usually open in one direction only so blind windows and doors were created to maintain symmetry). I’m so glad I took this picture!
holes on the East Mebon walls
The intriguing holes on the walls.

Ta Som

Quick Background: Built toward the close of the 12th century, this temple just has a single shrine surrounded by rust coloured laterite walls. Constructed under the instructions of then King Jayavarman VII. Apparently he loved or respected his father so much he had this temple built and dedicated to his sire King Dharanindravarman II. Whew these names…

Impressions: Fun fact – the guest house where we stayed was named after this temple and apparently that can cause direction confusion. I can just imagine someone getting off at the airport and hailing a remorque telling the driver to take him to Ta Som yet forgetting to mention he meant the guest house, only to be taken to the temple ruins overrun by giant trees! 😀 And speaking of giant trees, they are what reminds me most of Ta Som because it is at this temple that we were first treated  to a less maintained temple ruin. Those giant roots pushing down on the remains of the temple, patiently waiting until everything tumbles down and become no more, are a sight to behold. I hear though that more effort is put into the conservation of the area so the trees may have to wait longer. I just hope they don’t get cut down like at other temples.

entrance to Ta Som temple framed by giant tree roots
eerie, amazing, wonderful, curious. so much feels entering this temple
Ta Som temple four faces
faces painstakingly carved on stone facing the four cardinal points – one of the memorable features of Ta Som temple

Lunch

The rumblings of our stomach finally cannot be ignored, so we asked our guide to take us to the nearest place serving delicious meals pronto! He did not disappoint. Although he took us to a more touristy area and prices were more expensive compared to what you’ll find at Siem Reap’s Pub Street, we tasted there for the first time Cambodia’s signature dish – amok. Little did I know that was the start of my hopeless love affair with Cambodian food and that I was to pine for it weeks after I got home. Because of that, Cambodian food certainly deserves a post all on its own, but will get to it another day!

Neak Pean

Back to the wonders of the Angkor Grand Circuit shall we?

Quick Background: It is a testament to King Jayavarman VII’s faith, or perhaps love for architecture, or his wealth that so many temples were built during his reign, one of which is Neak Pean or Neak Poan. Jayavarman followed King Rajendravarman’s East Mebon example and had this temple built on an artificial island as well, surrounded by the waters of the Preah Khan Baray, which has not dried up! Our guide said that the temple also functioned as a healing place, sort of a hospital, and that people from all over came to benefit from the perceived curative powers of the water.

Impressions: My first thought was the place was so watery! But despite the heat, I really didn’t think it’d be nice to jump in and cool myself. The water beneath the walkway you get to traverse to get inside the temple is filled with suspicious plant life; that area actually reminds me of the Dead Marshes of Lord of the Rings. My next thought was mosquitoes! The water, especially in the temple grounds, looked stagnant and a great breeding ground for the suckers. I’m not really sure if this is the case though. In any case, Neak Pean is a great place to visit because it just stands out being a water-surrounded temple. Just slather on the insect repellent for precaution.

Neak Pean in Siem Reap
loving the reflection on the water!
walkway to Neak Pean
Interesting walk leading to the temple. Be careful not to fall off!
Neak Pean temple covered in water
parts of the temple submerged in water. I wonder what lies beneath…

Preah Khan

Quick Background: This is the last temple we visited on the Angkor Park Grand Circuit (not sure if there were others we missed). Preah Khan or the Royal Sword temple was constructed in 12th century under the reign of King Jayavarman VII still. Apparently, it used to house close to 100,000 officers and servants, making it one of the most important places in the kingdom at the time. According to history books, the temple was built on the spot where Jayavarman defeated invaders from the enemy kingdom called Champa. Yup, this temple was highly important.

Impressions: It was here we saw more giant fig tree roots finding purchase on the stone bricks as the temple ruins is left largely unrestored. While going around this ruin, I couldn’t help but marvel at the power of nature and at the same time feel melancholic at the fact that a kingdom once flourished in these parts but now only tumbled stones remain, soon to be recovered by nature and forgotten if not for curious tourists. Cue that Bisaya praise song: dinhi sa kalibutan lumalabay ka lang, paninguha sa imong kaluwasan! (you are merely passing on this earth, work on your salvation!)

giant fig tree roots at Preah Khan
One of the giant fig trees was cut down. I’m not sure if it was because it was struck down by lightning or removed due to conservation and safety efforts.
giant fig tree growing over Preah Khan temple
Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. – Blaise Pascal

Other Interesting Stuff

There was so much to see and absorb with just the Grand Circuit temples alone that I can’t fault people who complain about getting templed out. Thankfully this isn’t an issue for me since I LOVE RUINS! I’m not sure with my companions Kristal and Jonathan though, maybe they did get templed out but were just too nice to tell me lol.

I enjoyed every carving-filled wall, I marveled at the work required to build everything and I fantasized at how all these places might have looked in their heyday. I longed to travel centuries in the past just to experience the sights, smells and sounds of these places at that time. I enjoyed scrambling over fallen walls and I gazed in awe at what time can do to trees if you just leave them alone. And even if I’m not a religious person, it was very interesting to learn about Hinduism and Buddhism and how they affected people in this part of the world then and now. All those deities and mythologies are certainly worth delving into if I have the time.

more temple stuff I found interesting
More interesting stuff we happened upon while temple hopping. LEFT is a Buddha carving replaced by an Apsara carving, testimony to the religious struggles in the area. TOP RIGHT is a well preserved ancient structure which the guide said used to be a firehouse. BOTTOM RIGHT are headless statues carrying the long body of the often 5 or 7-headed snake deity Naga.

All in all, our second day in Siem Reap was a blast for me despite the scorching heat. That night we spent a few hours at Pub Street and the Old Market, subjecting ourselves to a whole new set of sights and sounds!

This article is part of a series. You might want to read the other parts too 🙂

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