Exploring the temples of Angkor with kids
The dragonflies danced gracefully above us, shimmering jewel bright as they weaved in intricate patterns which the original dancing girls of Angkor would have envied.
Back at ground level, the dancers – or apsara – are remembered still in carvings on the temples, as decorative as their beautiful inspirations, showing off 36 separate hairstyles and carved costumes as ornate as any in real life.
Nine centuries on from the glory days of the Khmer empire, even its ruins still have the power to awe; I could only marvel at how impressive it must have been at its height. Long on my bucket list, the temples – Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Beng Melea – were everything I’d hoped.
And even better, my five-year-old seemed almost as fascinated – there’s no doubt you approach a visit differently but seeing the temples of Angkor with kids is definitely possible.
It’s easy to understand why they have a seven-day pass (as well as a three-day option, to be used over the course of a week, and single day ticket). The sheer level of detail is absorbing, some reliefs showing distinctly different faces to represent different cultures, others recounting legends in the stone, with finely worked columns, multiheaded Nagas and decoration at every turn.
The battles of gods and demons from Hindu mythology are no less enthralling than the tales of the Khmer kings, switching the country from Hinduism to Buddhism, fighting off war-like neighbours and erecting ever more lavish monuments to their glory.
A stop to rest weary small legs at Angkor Wat coincided with a group dressed as characters from the Ramayana, posing for photos with tourists; telling my daughter a concise version of the Hindu epic as we waited (thanks to my invaluable Leap Hop Cambodia book) helped bring the stones to life.
In another corner, a monk paused in his blessing to smile and shower water over an intrigued Minnie, who dodged the drops in tiny outrage.
We may have skipped the sun rising over Angkor Wat – visiting in the green season isn’t the best time for a good temple sunrise even had I felt like waking my jetlagged five-year-old before dawn – but the famous reflection of the 12th century temple in the pool, the five towers of the world’s largest religious building shimmering in the water, loses none of its impact in daylight.
And while the views from the tallest tower are off-limits to those under 12 (and effectively to me, as I decided against the hour-long queue and climb while she stayed below), getting up close is half the fun; spotting Vishnu above a carved turtle or later spying an etched crocodile eating a fish.
Combining the scale of the complex with my own less than encyclopaedic knowledge of Hindu mythology and Khmer history, and I doubt we’d have found – much less appreciated – half of it without our guide, arranged as part of our trip with Stubborn Mule. Even for shorter visits, going at the kind of short-attention span pace of younger kids, a good guide unlocks the secrets of the ancient stones.
But Angkor Wat, deservedly top of any visitor’s list, is only one of the temples of Angkor we saw in our two days exploring near Siem Reap.
The ancient city once housed a million people, at a time when London’s population was around 50,000 – along the grassy banks of the moat, monkeys lounge nonchalantly. Meanwhile, serene stone statues line one of the approaches to Angkor Thom, a cavalcade of tuk tuks puttering through the narrow South gate.
If my five-year-old refused to shift from the seat of our own tuk tuk to get a closer view, snatching an impromptu nap instead, no-one could fail to be impressed by the immense carving at Bayon, 216 smiling heads gazing down wisely, as if they had unlocked the secrets of the universe – and found them faintly amusing. Around every corner another face, stretching into the distance, some close enough to peer into the blank eyes; Minnie counted 100 before abandoning the attempt.
Then a reminder that all empires must fall. And as time ticks inexorably on, nature reclaims the most grandiose creations of man. At least partly.
Forget the Tomb Raider connotations, it’s the trees twined around the temple which is the iconic image of Ta Prohm, the roots of the spung tree tentacling towards the earth as it clings to the stone, the leaves spiralling high towards the sky.
Under its shaded canopy, it’s easy to get a sense of how it must have felt to be the first to rediscover this site, Indiana Jones style. Almost as satisfying was our discovery of the odd carved animal which looks exactly like a stegosaurus on one of the walls. A mystery which kept us pondering until the next day.
Because if Ta Prohm brings out the explorer in you, Beng Melea is even more raw. More overgrown, less visited, the trees here are literally holding the temple up – in some cases at least, in others the huge stone blocks have collapsed into a giant size puzzle waiting to be reassembled. Clambering over uneven rocks and along narrow wooden walkways, the thick peace of the jungle was broken only by the click of Minnie’s camera and a Chinese tour group.
Built to the same floorplan as Angkor Wat and to the command of the same Khmer god-king, it’s the encroaching vines and greenery which wow rather than stoneworkers’ art, its crumbling facades a more intimate counterbalance to its towering sister.
And as the sun shines through the trees, overhead the dragonflies weave their endless dance.
Disclosure: My trip to Cambodia was courtesy of family adventure specialists Stubborn Mule. All opinions and strong-minded five-year-olds are my own.
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