The guide picked me up at 5 in the morning which was an ungodly hour. As I suspected, it was cloudy so there was no sunrise over Angkor Wat. I felt kind of dumb waiting around with the rest of the tourists waiting for the sun to rise for the perfect shot. It was worth the wait though.
Shortly after 6 we headed over to the glorious temple itself but first had to wait in line for about a half hour. The climb was steep but my legs were still fresh and the temperature was quite cool. Later on, was another story. My guide did not enter with me. None of the guides did. I believe it was not allowed.
It was good that visitors were limited to 100 at a time which allowed for a slow and steady examination of the halls, niches, statuary and squares within. Dedicated to the god, Vishnu, this majestic temple was said to involve 300,000 workers (or slaves) and 6000 elephants (definitely slaves). The central tower represents a phallus, Vishnu’s symbol and the outer walls represent the mountains around Mount Meru which was the centre of the universe for the Hindus. The construction began in the 12th century and lasted 37 years. It was directed by King Suryarvarman II. Later on, it was “Buddha-ized” and statues of Buddha replaced those of Vishnu.
Buddha seated on a Naga
One of the galleries contains friezes depicting the mythical Ramayana battle.It was the first of several portrayals of this legend which reminded me of the Trojan Wars. Both involved the abduction of a beautiful woman.
From the “Bakan” or interior sanctuary, it was possible to appreciate the intricate and harmonious design of the temple as well as its grandeur.
The temple is still a place of worship and even pilgrimage.Although I did not know that Vishnu enjoyed Coca-Cola. I thought he was a Pepsi man myself.
After rejoining my guide we headed to Angkor Thom, the royal city, exactly 1700m from Angkor Wat. Those entering the city must have been wowed and intimidated by the lineup of big heads. On the left side were the nice-looking Gods; on the right side the ugly Giants (bad guys).
From Angkor Thom, we proceeded to the Bayon, built by Jayavarman VII after the Khmer victory over their arch-enemy, the Chams. Here the giant heads adorn 37 towers (originally 54, representing the provinces of the Khmer empire). There are four on each tower, perhaps representing the Buddhist virtues of sympathy, compassion, equanimity, benevolence.
I wonder if living in a city with hundreds of calm, benevolent faces looming over you would make you feel calm and benevolent. Or, would it make you want to take a chisel and hack off a nose?
Even with tourists swirling around each tower, the eerie magnificence of the site shines through.
Then, there are the incredible friezes on the exterior galleries that recount the victory over the Chams, showing the preparations for battle as well as the fighting itself. The friezes are detailed portraits of the warriors, their wives, animals, clothes, hairstyles and habits. For some reason, it reminded me of the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy.
This was the temple that did me in. My guide declined to climb up all of the steps and he did warn me that there was not too much sculpture to see on the inside. I wasn’t going to climb up but then I thought what the hell. By this time it was sunny and quite hot and humid. The stairs were steep. So steep. The temple is notable for its unusual pyramid shape and the “reclining Buddha” on the western side. The structure was complex with a number of terraces and other, modern steps leading down from the eastern side.
View from Baphuon
Built in the 10th century, this Hindu temple makes an interesting stylistic contrast to the later, more elaborate temples.
This impressive terrace is still used for festivals and when the ruling party wants to show off their power.
Terrace of the Leper King
The moss and mold splotches on this statue reminded people of leprosy. The terrace was a cremation site and its walls are adorned with an astonishing parade of carvings that represent the finest expression of Khmer artistry.
Our last temple was particularly evocative. The magical and mysterious Ta Phrom, nearly strangled by banyan and kapok trees, served as a backdrop for the Angelina Jolie movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.The vegetation seems like a malign force reaching out from the earth to eradicate these prideful monuments.
Speaking of Angelina Jolie, the actress is somewhat of a local heroine here. In fact, the country would certainly be a lot better off if she simply came in and ran the place. She has done a lot of good works here and not simply standard superficial movie star stuff. She’s saved forests, created jobs, housed the handicapped and more.
I was totally charmed by my guide, Wan, who was clearly an exceedingly bright young man.Over the course of the day, I learned his story. He was recipient of charitable aid from an international organization that helped send him through University for training in the technology sector but he didn’t like it so we decided to become a tour guide. Not only was he highly knowledgeable about Angkor Wat but I enjoyed hearing about his life as well.
What they don’t tell you about Angkor wat is that it is really a physically demanding experience. This was not even a particularly hot day with temperatures hovering around 28C but I still found it exhausting even with many regular rest and rehydration stops. I don’t know what I would have done if it is actually been a few degrees hotter as is normally the case. The swarms of tourists everywhere did detract from the experience somewhat particularly the incessant selfies. There were endless opportunities to take dumb photos and half of China seemed to be there to take advantage of every single one.
Of course the quality of the sculpture was astonishing. I particularly liked the friezes at Bayon which in chronicling preparations for war actually gave a detailed description of everyday life. But all of it was outstanding. From the Elephant Terrace which is still used by Cambodia’s current Kings to the Leper Terrace, it was fascinating to see how Hinduism and Buddhism inter mixed and how one would supplant the other at times. So the day lasted until about 3:30 and believe me I was pooped at the end of it. I even wound up with some ugly condition called “golfers vasculitis” which comes on from exercising too much in heat and humidity.