Big Heads

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of Cambodia  , Khétt Siĕm Réab,
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March 14, 2012

Siem Reap's Angkor Archeological Zone is one of legendary archeologist sites that congers up mysterious images of a lost civilization deep in the impenetrable jungle. It is the reason we put Cambodia on our radar. After all, we were in the neighborhood.  

After arriving in Siem Reap we learned there is a lot more to the Zone than Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the centerpiece to a vast civilization that existed from the ninth and fifteenth centuries.  The metropolis extended miles beyond the ruins within today's Angkor Archaeological Park. A recent study put the city well beyond the Zone boundary tallying 1,100 square miles and maps an elaborate irrigation system. That scope is way too big for our britches.

"Petite Circuit"

We quickly decided that one day on the so called “Petite Circuit” (17 kilometer loop) would saturate our curiosity and then some.  The manager of our hotel scheduled a driver to take us around in a tuk-tuk for the day ($12.) The manager gave us a map with enough information that we didn’t want to be burdened with a human guide. It was good that we had the written info because our driver barely knew how to say 'hello’. He was trying hard though. As the day went on, we discovered he would be looking at English study books while waiting for us to return from our exploration of each site.

Most people choose to see the sunrise or sunset in the park. We haven’t seen any particularly magnificent sets or risings this time of year and thus decided to get our beauty sleep. We started at 8AM with thousands of others who decided to sleep in too!

We drove the 7 kilometers from town, bought our tickets and continued past Angkor Wat, north to Angkor Thom’s south gate. We spotted some people going part way by elephant. $20 per hour seems to be the rate per elephant. And those big boys can move!

The congestion getting though the first stone gate gave us a chance to jump out and photograph, not only the big heads on the gate itself but also, the stone sentries lining the bridge over the moat’s water in the distance. Angkor Thom translates to ‘great city’ and the expansive grounds were surrounded by an 8 meter high stone wall. Like the Forbidden City, Angkor Thom was the cultural and administrative center accommodating the court and the dignitaries. Most the people of the time lived outside the walls.

Our driver took us around and let us off at the north entrance to Bayan Temple which is within Angkor Thom’s walls. This is where the giant stone carved heads that are printed on much of the Angkor advertising are located. We scrambled in. Climbing, well not encouraged, is not forbidden. Some of the steep handrail-less steps was enticing. One slip could easily lead to a trip to the emergency room. Much of the complex was fallen crumbling decay which was subsequently restored more than once. For one of the later projects (funded by the Japanese) a team took photographs, made drawings, mapped where each stone was, disassembled the structures, cleaned and restored each block, replaced missing pieces and reassembled the pieces to come up with what we see today. Bayon was built in the 12th century about 100 years after Angkor Wat.

A security guard stuck up a conversation with Michelle and had her pose nose-to- nose with a stone image of an ancient king.  He gave us a few other photo tips and told us if we come back at lunchtime, we’d able to get pictures without other people in them. All the group tours go to lunch at 11:30, he advised.

We walked north along the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300 meter long wall with carved figures of warriors on elephant back. We could see other structures in the distance across the plaza and realized we could spend all day exploring just Angkor Thom.  Bayan was the highlight of the whole day for me. The Terrace of the Elephants was memorable too.

Our driver was not where he had told us to meet him and we suspected he was BS’ing in a group of other tuk-tuk drivers down the road. We went looking for him a discovered we could not recognize him among the other Cambodian drivers. After a few minutes of searching, our driver popped out of the group of other drivers and we drove out the east gate or Victory Gate. The trees outside the walls provided great relief from the searing sun in the open complex. Many of the local workers had hung their hammocks in the shade and were keeping cool.

We went on to Ta Kao – a sandstone pyramid of undecorated block. This is an unfinished temple where the basic tower structure was completed but work was stopped before they got to adorn the blocks with detail carvings.

We went a kilometer on to Ta Prohm, another Bayon style temple. This site has been left the way it rediscovered with the encroaching jungle and tall trees that have massive sprawling roots that have crawled under, over and around the block walls over the past few hundred years.  This one was Michelle’s favorite.

We lunched at a restaurant on the north shore of the small reservoir.

Our 5th stop was Banteay Kdel Temple, a relatively small complex where one archeological trench recently was unearthed to reveal hundreds of damaged Buddha figures, broken off noses, arms and legs. According to the information board at the site, a Sofia Asia Center for Research and Human Development archeological team studied the site and determined the reason for vandalism of 80% of the figures. King Jayavarman VII built the temple in favor of Mahayana (Greater Wheel) Buddhism in the 12th century then, in the 13th century, Brahmanism (Hinduism) came to favor and the Buddhist relics suffered a violent Shivate reaction. This story seems to be in conflict with other outlines of events for Angkor unless both schools of Buddhism were allowed in this empire concurrently. But history is always more complicated than can fit on one sign board.  

This site had a peaceful atmosphere. There were few others at the shaded site when we visited. Walls that may have fallen over were just stacked up again. It doesn’t seem to have been as extensively restored. There were enough large suitcase size relics lying here and there, that it is easy to understand why priceless Angkor antiquities show up at hotel displays and private collections outside of Cambodia.  Parts of the walls had remnants of a faint orange patina to them. An explanation we found later said the complexes were at one time painted. And one controversial technique employed by an Indian archeological team cleaned much of the paint and removed the protection for the pieces leaving many carvings exposed to quickly weather and become pockmarked with erosion.

Our “Grand Finale” stop was Angkor Wat. I was surprised to discover my most vivid memories of images I had of Angkor Wat were not this Wat at all. They were of the general “Angkor” complex, and more specifically, Angkor Thom and its Bayan Temple, the one we visited earlier in the day. No giant stone faces were here at Angkor Wat.

This is currently the main religious complex that has been occupied and maintained continuously by Hindus then the Theravada Buddhist since they regained popularity. Therefore, it hasn’t needed the extensive 20th century reconstruction as Angkor Thom. There were boxes labeled ‘acrylic resin for stone consolidation’ stored on site. The big eyesore scaffolding outside was another subtle clue that restoration here is extensive too. The main points of interest here are the dominating beehive or melted wax shaped cones (said to resemble lotus buds) of the Khmer architecture and relief carvings on the outer walls depicting scenes from the two renown Indian (Hindu) epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and another walls depicting historical events from King Suryavarman II (the boss at the time of its construction). Don’t ask us which is what but there seemed to be lots of elephants, spears, smiling sword carriers in loin cloths and divas.
We had gotten to Angkor Wat just in time. Hoards of tourist were pouring in as we were finding our way out. We had to be nimble to avoid getting trampled! They were coming home like cows in need of milking. This is the place where all the tourist brochures tell people to come for the magnificent sunset.

Although the vision of Angkor Wat is quite amazing from afar, our visit was somewhat anti climatic. We were expecting more grandeur inside.  And instead, we found the place rather plain with few surprises. I am sure our ho hum attitudes are due to the 5 hours we spend at other great sites earlier in the day. Others try to ameliorate this kind of overload by visiting one or two per day and stretching their time here to a week.

Key Facts

Angkor was a vast inhabited landscape...larger than anything previously known.

…may have collapsed under self-induced environmental pressures related to overpopulation and deforestation.

How does Angkor Archeological Zone compare with other sites we have visited?

Our personal top three sites are: Pueblo Indian site at Mesa Verde (USA) 500 AD to 1200 AD, Machu Picchu the pre-Columbian 15th-century Inca site (Peru) and Ephesus an ancient Greek city, and later a major Roman city founded in the 10 century BC (Turkey),

Tikal (Mayan/Guatemala), Teotihuacán (Aztec/Mexico), Acropolis (Greece) and the Roman Coliseum are also very memorable. We’d  group Angkor with these.

Then others; Cappadocia (Turkey), Terracotta Warriors (Xian China), Dunhuang Caves (repository of Buddhist art in China) rank well but are further down the list.

And finally; The Great Wall, Forbidden City historical sites that are mildly interesting but more cultural sites than archeological sites….

Valley of the Pharos is one that will rocket to the top list once we have had an opportunity to visit!
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