I’m blown away.  I’ve seen pictures, documentaries and read descriptions about the Angkor temples – Angkor Wat, in particular – but none of these prepared me for the incredible reality.

 

[An aside:  I’m currently uploading this from Nha Trang in Vietnam.  It’s a hell of a struggle to upload these posts – internet speeds are s…l….o….w.   I’m watching a baby gecko on the wall beside me as I wait for this post to upload, from one of the very places there are here with internet.  It’s pretty basic, a hole in the wall!  As each photo takes fifteen minutes to upload, and one post can take well over an hour, I can only upload every once in a while, and with fewer pictures.  Thanks for your patience!  I’ll upload all photos to Flickr once I have better internet access.  Now, back to Cambodia…]

 

On our first day, as with each of the four days we were in Siem Reap, Vong, our guide, collected us from our hotel.  On the edge of town we drove through a checkpoint where we bought our three day passes for visiting the Angkor heritage sites.  Then on we continued, down a single paved road lined with rows of wooden and bamboo huts on stilts, dogs, bare-footed children and chickens running about.  Eventually the huts gave way to thick forest and suddenly we reached a towering gate topped by vast bas-relief sculptures of four gently smiling faces.  This was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the great ancient city of Angkor, and these faces, Vong told us, were the different faces of the Buddha, representing his four aspects of loving kindness, compassion, charity and sympathy.

 

Before the gate lay a long bridge flanked on either side by enormous sculptures.  This was the first of many naga sculptures we would see during out visits to various Angkor temples.  The seven heads of the naga, or serpent, reared up as balustrade ends, while on the right side, demons pulled at the snake’s body and on the opposite side, gods pulled back in an eternal tug-of-war.

 

 

Here was an illustration of the story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk – from the Ramayana, an epic of Hindu mythology.  Here was our first glimpse of the Hindu and Buddhist mix that would characterise some of the temples here.  In this particular scenario, recreated in a number of different sites, Vishnu umpires the tug of war, standing on a turtle’s back, as the demons and gods pull alternately at the naga, wrapped around a mountain which is twisted back and forth in the sea of milk, in order to create the elixir of life.  This took place during the creation of the universe.

 

I saw this as the circle of life, bad and good, bad and good, cycling back and forth in eternity. 

 

This was to be the first of many stories that Vong would tell us – complex myths involving the main characters – the Hindu gods and their consorts – Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Uma, Brahma, all of whom created many long stories involving jealousy, anger, love, forgiveness, a veritable Holy Soap Opera.  The temples of the Angkor period reflect Khmer beliefs, a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the stories are told in the bas-reliefs, the sculptures and architecture of each of the temples.  Most feature the three gods, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma – though most are dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu. It would take a lifetime to learn and discover all there is to the Angkor temples, I would imagine; a rich source of study.  There are countless books on the subject and there is, no doubt, still much that is mysterious about the place.  We found Michael D Coe’s book, Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation (Thames & Hudson), to be fascinating and informative, though it was Vong who brought everything to life for us.

 

We drove on under the bridge and further into the forest.  Coming upon a clearing, suddenly, there appeared a vast stretch of water – the Angkor Wat moat – then, the ancient towers of Angkor Wat itself.  As the first proper glimpse of these ancient temples it was breathtaking.  We continued to drive past, Vong teling us that we would be back later.  There was another temple he wanted to show us first.

 

We drove deeper into the monsoon forest until we reached another clearing.  This was to be the first and, I think, one of the most beautiful temples we saw – Bayon.

  

This was built in the twelfth century by Jayavarman VII, whose name cropped up again and again in our tour.  It seems he was considered the greatest of all the Khmer kings, a Mayahanist Buddhist, builder of hospitals and temples and extender of Khmer territory.  He built Angkor Thom, a city within a city, covering three square kilometres.  Many of the temples and hospitals he built, along with those built by other kings – including Angkor Wat – lie within it.

 

The kindly, smiling, beautiful faces of the Buddha that we saw on the South Gate of Angkor Thom and which characterise other temples built by Jayavarman VII were everywhere we turned in Bayon (there are fifty-four in total).  Like many of the other Angkor Temples, it was built on five levels, the layout reminding me of Inca ruins.  Well-preserved and graceful bas-relief sculptures were carved everywhere – graceful apsaras – dancing celestial nymphs – on many of the pillars, and representations of daily Khmer life.

 

 

 

Vong, who had studied for years before becoming an official guide, clearly knew his stuff – including where to get the perfect “Kodak moment”, nose to nose with one of the faces of the Buddha.

 

Following Bayon, we visited Baphuon,  built by the King Udayadityavarman II in the eleventh century, which had suffered great damage from collapse during monsoon season in the 1940s, then had its restoration, led by the French, severely disrupted by the Khmer Rouge.  Now, it seems, the painstaking task of putting the temple back together, piece by piece, was fully underway. 

 

Next, Phimeanakas, Suryavarman I’s state temple; it was said that in its top tower there lived a nine-headed naga snake woman, and that the king went there every night to sleep with her.  A more probable story about Suryavarman was his building of the impressive West baray, a reservoir 8 kilometres long and 1.4 kilometres wide, holding about 48 million cubic metres of water. It is so big it can be seen from outer space.  It had symbolic, as well as practical purpose – representing the Primordial Ocean.

 

We made a brief stop for lunch, Vong taking us to a local place where we sat at tables shaded by a woven rush mat roof, hammocks slung beside some of the tables where locals took refuge from the intense humidity and heat outside.  Paul and I ordered each ordered typical Cambodian dishes – Amok, a soupy coconut milk based stew served in a coconut, and Sour Soup – a… sour soup.  I asked Vong what the Khmer name for Sour Soup was.  “Sour Soup”, he told me.  Both were served with a plate of rice (chicken Amok for Paul, fish Sour Soup for me) and were herby, tangy, spicy with chilli and delicious.

 

Vong then took us to see the Elephant Terrace – a vast parade ground built by Jayavarman VII – the terrace adorned, as the name suggests, by enormous bas-relief carvings of an elephant procession – and opposite, a vast open area where it was said elaborate processions and displays took place, including large towers strung with rope for tight-rope walking acrobats to walk across to entertain the king and his guests.

 

We saw out our first day with the most famous and well-known of all the temples, Angkor Wat.  Built in the early twelfth century by Suryavarman II, this place was huge and impressive.  The entrance to the temple was along the Rainbow Bridge, straddling the vast 200 metre wide, 1.5 kilometre square moat.  All around, sugar palms, the national tree of  Cambodia, rose up, the damp lushness of the dense foliage everywhere lending to the exotic atmosphere.  Half way along the bridge, we watched a group of giggling boys take turns to leap from a great height into the moat and clamber up ancient stairs back up to the bridge again.  I imagined countless generations of young boys doing the same thing throughout the centuries that had passed since the buillding of the temple.

 

Inside, we climbed up increasingly steep stairs from one level of the temple to another – the outer, lower level comprising vast long corridors decorated with extraordinary bas-relief carvings illustrating Hindu mythologies.  At each higher level, narrower corridors and steeper stairs, with more and more carvings depicting Vishnu, to whom the temple was dedicated.  Four massive pools, representing the four oceans, are positioned at each corner, filling up during each wet season and reflecting back the strange shadows of the temple.  The extraordinary layout of the temple, aligned symbolically in a way that can only have been designed by builders using sophisticated measuring tools, can also be seen from outer space.

 

 

 

Breathless from the impressive array of temples we had seen, as well as from the humidity and heat, we were dropped off back at our hotel for a freshen up before Vong picked us up again to take us to a “dinner dance show”.  We are not big fans of such performances laid on for tourists but went along anyway.  A large all-you-can-eat buffet was on offer, with a wide range of Cambodian and Chinese food – and later in the evening a dance troupe performed various traditional Cambodian dances accompanied by live music which sounded to my ears like a mixture of Thai (finger cymbals), Indonesian (gamelan type instrument) and Chinese (string instrument) music, with drums.  The women danced with graceful, curved fingers familiar to me from Thai dance perfomances, flexing their feet and slowly stepping forward, heads bent.  We ended up enjoying it far more than we’d expected – and more than the food.  We knew we’d find better where the locals liked to eat.

 

After the heat, we were tempted when we got back to our hotel, to have a swim in its lovely looking pool.  But we were too tired.  I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The temples of Angkor filled my dreams.

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