With a hearty breakfast in our tummies and about 2 hrs of sleep, we set out for the day.
Cambodia has a rich cultural heritage dating back many centuries. The center point of this heritage is Angkor region in Siem Reap, which was the site of the capital city of the powerful Khmer empire. The magnificence of the bygone empire can be seen in the thousands of temples dotting Siem Reap. Most notable are Angkor Wat and Bayon for their sheer size, carvings and complexity. Its good to research beforehand about the temples otherwise the experience can be overwhelming. The following picture should tell why:
As the history of this country is diverse and complex, hotels usually provide tourists with an English speaking guide and a tuk tuk. There is an option to hire cycles as well but that heat!
We had quite some fun with our tuk tuk driver.
His first name was Ben and he introduced himself as Mr Ben. Somehow, the name stuck and for the remainder of the trip, Ben became Mr Ben. Later he referred to himself as Tiger Woods. Yes, The Tiger Woods. We almost laughed it off, but a closer look at him and he did have an uncanny resemblance to the golfer. Evidently, some American tourists had noticed the similarity and named him such. Since then Mr Ben became Tiger Woods.
For the temple visit, a one time pass can be purchased. These passes differ in duration and we took a three day pass which allows access to all the temples.
With all formalities taken care of, we headed off to our first destination. The idea was to cover the city of Angkor Thom, which houses many important temples, and then proceed further.
A background on the temples of Cambodia. A temple is known as a Wat, the most famous, grandest and probably world’s largest religious monument being Angkor Wat. Angkor is derived from Sanskrit and means ‘city’. These temples are testimony to the grand Khmer architecture which has many distinct styles which can be observed in the ruins scattered across Cambodia.
This was one of the largest cities of the Angkor times. As Thom means Big/Great, Angkor Thom literally meant Great City. This city has many popular temples such as Bayon & Bapuon. This city had four entrance gates, one for each of the cardinal directions. We entered the city from the South gate (usually the entrance which tourists take). Just before entering the South gate, there is a temple on the left named Baksei Chamkrong which means ‘city of birds’. Since it was the first one I set foot on, it gets a picture below
The Khmer empire was established when king Jayavaraman II declared himself king. This led to a spread of Hinduism which dominated till 12th – 13th century after which Buddhism took over (whatever I am stating is what was told by the guide). The impact of these two religions can be seen in the temples which are adorned with images and idols from both religions.The South Gate is flanked on both sides by rows of gods and asuras (devil); To the left are gods, to the right are asuras. “Since the gods are on the left side, people here walk on the left side of the road” said Mr Ben. The rows carry a large serpent and are supposed to be depicting the Churning of the Milk event in Hindu mythology.
The south gate entrance is carved with four smiling Buddha faces pointing in the four cardinal directions.
The first temple on entering Angkor Thom is Bayon. This temple has quite a dramatic impact on the viewer. With the boundary walls missing on most sides, the temple interiors, which consist of rows and rows of corridors, are immediately visible. Also, the entire temple is mirrored in the pools of water outside adding to the drama.
Bayon has approx 54 pillars each sporting 4 Buddha faces. So in total there are 216 faces of Gods. Taking a 360 degree spin within the temple complex, you will always find a face staring back.
It became quite apparent why Bayon is so popular. It creates quite an enchanting effect with its sheer number of columns, pillars and Buddha faces that stare back at you. I was beaming from end to end when I reached the other end of Bayon. If this is what was in store, I could not wait to reach the other ruins. I was already falling for Cambodia.
Every temple visit is exhausting in the heat and we were pleasantly surprised when presented with cold water and wet towels by Mr Ben as we stumbled back into the tuk-tuk for the next site (Apparently all guides are armed with these). An even better refresher was the toothy grin on his face!
The next stop was Baphuon, another temple calls for attention because of its elevation and extreme symmetry which can be observed even in a state of ruin. Its a three storeyed temple laid out in the form of a mountain and dedicated to Hindu God Shiva.
During the later centuries, this temples was converted to a Buddhist temple. At the other side of Baphuon is the statue of the Reclining Buddha.
This was followed by a quick visit to the Elephant terrace, Leper King terrace and the Royal Palace as they are all in the surrounding area. The Elephant terrace was used as a viewing gallery, and if I remember correctly, the Leper King terrace was used as a crematorium. The Royal Palace’s state of ruin is actually worse than others and while climbing to the top I realized that a few stones were wobbly. But hey! gotta see where the king slept.
The ruins are away from any civilization and completely surrounded by thick trees and overgrown shrubs. Broken boundary walls and moss covered boulders lay carelessly strewn within the overgrowth, adding to the atmosphere of the ruins. The wilderness truly gives the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.
But I had not yet seen what nature could do to a temple site. I was yet to see Ta Prohm
Cambodia diaries: Race to Siem Reap
Cambodia diaries: Ta Prohm and Phnom Bekhang
Cambodia diaries: Chilling in Pub Street
Cambodia diaries: Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Cambodia diaries: Bantaey Srei and Landmine museum
Cambodia diaries: Floating Village