Angkor and more wats than you can shake a stick at

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

er a five hour mini bus ride where the driver never stopped beeping his horn and I saw rain for the first time in months, we arrived at Siem Reap at dusk. My assigned tuk tuk driver picked me up and took me to the hotel recommended to me at a discount rate by Mr Diamond in Phnom Penh. My room was huge, comfortable and clean and after eating a quick diner I soon bedded in for the night for some much needed zzzs for the busy days ahead.

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland around 4kms from Siem Reap. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat - said to be the world's largest single religious monument . In order to visit the different temples you need to travel several kms between sites as the site is 400 square kms in size, so I hired a tuk tuk driver for each of the three days. Due to the intense heat this seemed wise as you could at least get some respite from the sun when under the shelter of the tuk tuk's roof. When I was out in the open sweat was literally pouring down my face continually from around 10am to the end of the day. You have to be careful to look after yourself and not get heat exhaustion in this place! Built from 802 to 1220 AD by the Khmer civilization, the temples at Angkor represent one of the most enduring and astonishing architectural achievements of humankind . The more than 100 stone structures that remain today are the surviving remnants of a grand administrative, religious, and social metropolis. The other buildings (public buildings, palaces, homes, etc.) were actually built from wood and do not exist anymore. However as a now fairly well travelled visitor with some understanding of the Khmer history I could close you eyes and imagine what this great city must have looked like when it was at its height over 700 years ago. I saw around twenty temples and sites over the next three days. There is so much to see and potentially write about that I struggled to figure how to do so. In the end I have decided to really focus on some of the key sites instead and write a general description of Angkor instead of a day by day description which could become pretty tedious to reader and writer alike . I have however included extensive photographs which cover all the sites and hope that together they will give a good flavour of this amazing site. It should be noted that I had borrowed pretty extensively from other sources to create this blog entry as I have neither the knowledge or the patience to do it all myself!

Anyway, back to Angkor itself, and Angkor Wat itself is a good place to start being that it is the center piece of Angkor. It was built early in 1100s by Suryavarman over an estimated 30 years and honors Vishnu, the Hindu god. The ruins are a symbolic structure of Hindu cosmology. This is actually the biggest monument in the group, as well as the best preserved. It consists of a huge temple that symbolizes Mt. Meru, a mythical mountain, and its five walls and moats are a representation of mountainous chains, as well as the cosmic ocean. This temple was a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman II and was intended to be his state temple and his city capital. The first religion of the temple was Hindu and it is now currently Buddhism. In the tradition of Khmer architecture, the temple is built out of sandstone. Most sandstone is made of the rock quartz, which is apparently the second most abundant rock on Earth. Due to the success of building the temple from sandstone, Khmer architecture is now called the Angkor Wat style . As you would expect you are immediately struck by the sublime beauty and grandeur of the site and marvelled by the architectural achievement of its construction, especially when you consider the quartz was mined around 60kms away and ferried down river to reach Angkor. The temple is most known for its extensive storytelling decoration. These decorations depict the epics of Hindu. Historic Hindu stories, mainly retelling battles which can be seen through pictures carved out on the walls. There are extensive bas-reliefs and numerous devatas (guardian spirits) as well. The outer wall, 1024 by 802 m and 4.5 m high, is surrounded by a 30m apron of open ground and a moat 19 m wide. Access to the temple is by an earth bank to the east and a sandstone causeway to the west. The outer wall encloses a space of 820,000 square meters (203 acres), which besides the temple proper was originally occupied by the city and, to the north of the temple, the royal palace. It really takes two visits to take this all in and one the second day I decided to do this and visit the site at dawn, thinking it would be nice and quiet . As I walked down the earth bank to the first entrance gate and stepped into the main compound I was greeted by a couple of thousand people who obviously had the same idea! Despite the crowds it was great to see the glorious temple at dawn when the red light casts a beautiful hue over the whole affair and Khmer music floats across the grounds.

The Bayon (Prasat Bayon) is probably the second key site of Angkor and it lies about 2kms from Angkor Wat. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the center of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom . Angkor Thom is a 3km two walled and moated royal city which was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham invaders in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire, constructing Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas and built a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and some of Angkor's greatest temples including his state-temple, Bayon as discussed already, set at the center of the city . There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Very impressive. Following Jayavarman's death Bayon itself was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences. The site is much more compact than Angkor Wat and very different in style being from the bayon style of architecture. The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. These giant stone faces of Bayon have apparently become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes, including on the southern wall real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham in the 12th century. Also on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. Even more interesting are extensive carvings of unique and revealing scenes of everyday life that are interspersed among the battle scenes, including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and childbirth. All in all the temple features 37 standing towers, most ,but not all, sporting these four giant carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. It appears to be, and is to some degree, an architectural muddle, in part because it was constructed in a somewhat piecemeal fashion for over a century.

Close by the Bayon there is a large open green space where you can take in the Grand Palace, the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of Leppers and the Phimeanakas. The area of the Angkor Thom Royal Palace used to house the royal palace built by Suryavarman I in the 11th century. It was remodeled several times, most notably by king Jayavarman VII, builder of the entire Angkor Thom compound . It is believed that the Royal Palace area was in use all the way until the end of the 16th century. The area of the palace was once surrounded by a five meters high wall but sadly only a few fragments of the wall remain today. Five gopuras (entrance gates) allowed for access to the royal palace with the main gate on the east and connected to the Terrace of the Elephants, while north and south wall had two gopuras each. After exploring the Royal Palace area, which is partly covered in jungle over growth, I exited through the gate on the northern wall, just west of Sras Srei pool. Sras Srei itself is a rectangular water pool within the Angkor Thom Royal Palace area, to the north of the Phimeanakas temples . The pond is 125 meters long and 45 meters wide and it is believed that near here there was a terrace which may have been used by the king and his company in order to watch water sports. The royal bath pools of Sras Srei are no longer used by the royalties to bathe in, but the waters of the basins offer much needed opportunities for local kids and monks to cool and wash in to do this day. Close by we also have the Terrace of the Elephants, which is located immediately to the north of Baphuon. This 300 meters long, 2.5 meters tall stone terrace represents the front of the Royal Palace area, including the Phimeanakas temple and the Sras Srei water reservoir. There are five stairways leading up to the terrace, with the central stairway being in line with the Victory Way – the road connecting the Royal Palace area with the Victory Gate. Two smaller stairways exist on either side of the central stairway and two more are at either end of the terrace. A 350 m long terrace of elephants. It was used as a giant viewing stand during public ceremonies, royal ceremonies and so on. Many lions decorate this enormous path and now it's surrounded by the green and is very relaxing. You can try and close your eyes and imagine thousands of peoples on it, then the army, the king, the music, the dance. The walls themselves are covered with carvings of elephants and side stairways are flanked by three-headed elephants with trunks pulling lotus flowers.

To the east side of the road and opposite the Royal Palace area on a stretch of land where nothing else resides (in contrast to the density of temples and terraces on the other side of the road) lye twelve stone towers, magnificent in their isolation . They are called Prasat Suor Prat, five of the Suor Prat Towers are on the left and five on the right side of the Victory Way (road connecting the Royal Palace with the Victory Gate) and face the Royal Palace, while additional two are placed further back and face each other. They are each square in plan and identical to one another. Their exact purpose is unknown and left for speculation. Their current name, when translated from Khmer language means "Towers of the Rope Dancers" suggesting that the towers may have been used by tightrope walkers as entertainment spectacle for the royals who’d be viewing it from the Terrace of the Elephants. However according to the account made by the Chinese emissary to Cambodia Zhou Daguan, the Prasat Suor Prat Towers were used as the celestial judgment halls used to solve disputes. If two persons were in a dispute, they would be put in one of the towers each and forced to stay there while their family watches . After a few days one of the persons would have caught bad illness (mostly a fever or ulcer) signifying that this is the person who’s in the wrong, whereas the person in the right would come out perfectly well. These towers don't seem to get much interest from visitors but I loved them because they were just so random and without explanation.

Further away and more into the jungle lies Ta Prohm. Now this is exactly what I had imagined Ankor to be like before I visited Asia and got the wanderlust to visit the sites. I was always attracted to Ankor by the idea of a hidden series of temples in the jungle and this site embodies this vision . Set in the jungle this quiet, sprawling monastic complex is only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth and was intentionally left partially unrestored. Massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors giving it a pure fantasy factor. Flocks of noisy parrots flit from tree to tree adding to the jungle atmosphere. THe site has many dark corridors and open plazas and you can really get inside all its noukes and crannys for a hands on experience. This temple was one of Jayavarman VII's first major temple projects and was dedicated to his mother. Originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery it was enormously wealthy in its time, boasting control of over 3000 villages, thousands of support staff and vast stores of jewels and gold . Walking around the site is great fun because the structures themselves are small and accessible so you can really have a good nose around. One minute you are walking under a crumbling outer wall and the next you turn into a little courtyard with a huge tree growing from a corner wall. All the while the jungle animals noisily go about their business and you really feel you have been plunged back into time. Similar in style to Ta Prohm is Phreah Khan, a huge, highly explorable monastic complex. Full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities. It originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks. For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII during the reconstruction of his permanent home in Angkor Thom. Preah Khan means 'sacred sword.’ In harmony with the architecturally similar Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's mother, Preah Khan is dedicated to his father. Unfortunately like most of Jayavarman VII's monuments, the Buddha images were vandalized in the later Hindu resurgence. Some Buddha carvings in the central corridor have been crudely carved over with Bodhisattvas, and in a couple of odd cases, a lotus flower and a linga . This is a sad feature of Angkor that you witness at many of the sites, statues with heads chopped off, bas reliefs and apsaras vandalised, and other such acts committed by ancient kings with different religious beliefs, the Burmese and modern day thiefs who then sold their hordes to buyers in Thailand.


On the final day I decided to visit several temples which are located away from Siem Reap but still form part of the Ankor experience. The furthest, Banteay Srei, was 36kms away and took over an hour to reach in the tuk tuk  . However the ride in itself was worth the effort as we cruised past a very scenic Cambodian countryside where to either side of the road were small communities set amidst a beautiful rural setting with palm trees swaying in the breeze. Consecrated in 967 AD during the reign of King Rajendravarman, Banteay Srei (meaning "Citadel of Women") was never a royal temple. It is thought to have been built by a guru of the king and it's believed that this lack of a royal go-ahead is one of the reasons why it is so small. What it may lack in size it more than makes up for in beauty. Some have suggested that the temple was built by women as no man could have created something so beautiful and with so fine a hand. The carvings cover an incredible amount of the temple's surface and the reliefs are often deep . As with many Khmer temples, the main sections of Banteay Srei were built of laterite, but instead of the carving being done into a plaster coating normally layered onto the stone, the temple was faced with pink sandstone and the carvings done into that. The results are breathtaking . Throughout the monument are lintels, door jambs and window columns all layered with amazingly well executed and preserved carvings. Another highlight was the East Mebon, a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers. Jayavarman IV, a usurper to the throne, moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker in 928AD. Sixteen years later Rajendravarman II returned the capital to Angkor and shortly thereafter constructed East Mebon on an island in the middle of the now dry Eastern Baray. The temple is dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents. As a Buddhist monastery, it was built on ground level as opposed to representation of Mt. Meru which are probably more common for Angkor area temples. The walled enclosure (built from reclaimed stone) contained a sanctuary, several galleries, as well as decorated courtyards and passageways between these. The East Mebon is especially noteworthy for its large elephant statues. These outward-facing elephants were placed to act as temple guardians. Finally I saw another artistically sublime temple-mountain in Pre Rup with its beautifully carved false doors on the upper level, as well as an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. It has richly detailed, well-preserved carvings as well 

When I got back to my hotel I was pretty shattered and was going to just have diner and go to bed. But then I realised I there was one more thing I had been meaning to see but hadn't yet - the Apsara. The Apsara is a traditional Khmer dance performance, often referred to as 'Apsara Dance' after one of the most popular Classical dance pieces. Classical dance is uniquely Khmer. It presents themes and stories inspired primarily by the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the Ramayana) and the Age of Angkor. The Apsara has a subtle and restrained yet ethereal appearance . Distinct in its ornate costuming, taut posture, arched back and feet, fingers flexed backwards, with codified facial expressions and slow but deliberate flowing movements. It is extremely graceful and moving at the same time. There was a performance at a restaurant in Siem Reap at 7.30pm and so I quickly took a tuk tuk there. Inside was a large stage with a huge restaurant cum theatre infont of it. Over a tasty buffet and some drinks I watched the show and loved it. I just love Khmer music and it took me back to sitting on the banks of the river with Aoy as she sang similar songs.  If you are interested I posted several videos of the performance so you can get a feel for the music, hopefully the sound quality and volume is sufficient.

Well this blog is finally wrapped! Without doubt the most difficult piece I have written and the most time consuming. If it wasn't for the fact that my hotel in Manila has a very good internet connection I don't know if I could have ever got the photos and videos uploaded. Well the next blog covers my trip to Bangkok to see Oi straight after Siem Reap and I hope to have that done over the next few days. Just to clarify the dates I visited Angkor Wat from March 22nd-24th and then flew to Bangkok and stayed with Oi from March 25th to April 10th, including a trip to Ayutthaya. So this blog is well overdue.

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M&D on

Thanks so much for this amazing blog, illustrated by a wealth of excellent photos. The videos of the Apsaras are spellbinding, and the sound very clear. The video of the landmine victims was a poignant reminder of a rather different and sadly recent history.

All the videos are great to watch as they give a real sense of being there which, from the perspective of we who live in the far north of the UK in a small cathedral city called Durham, is quite an experience! xxxx

Caroline on

What a great blog! I was transported :o) Particularly loved the sound of Ta Prohm - I could really imagine the noisy parrots! What beautiful temples - thank you for taking the time to upload all of the photos, it's wonderful to see all the beautiful sights that you're seeing!

Hope you're really well honey. Look forward to reading the next installment.

Loads of love xxx

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