Cambodia: Siem Reap

banteykdei

Angkor, is the former capital of the Khmer empire during 802-1431 AD. Between 27-40 kings were said to have ruled what is now Cambodia, parts of Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Five of these rulers are credited for the building the best of about 50 monuments that are spread over 40 kilometers of the modern town of Siem Reap, some 190 km from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

This was our first trip together outside the US. Tonette was on her first year as a Business-Computer teacher in Thailand and Brian was traveling out of the United States for the first time to visit her in December 2001. We flew to Siem Reap after spending Christmas in Thailand’s Koh Samed island.

Here are some notes from Tonette’s journals:

I use the word “modern” loosely here because Siem Reap is your typical “3rd world” village, marked by dirt roads and the absence of ATM. It does have an international airport that permitted us the convenience of flying from Bangkok with a 40-minute stopover in Phnom Penh. We were met by two young men who became our motorcycle taxi drivers for the next six days.

Sophea and Chamroeun are both 24 years old. They were both very friendly and spoke good English. Of the two, Chamroeun was the gregarious and assertive type who promptly claimed Brian and our big backpack. This is just as well because I was taken by Sophea’s sweet smile when he presented a disfigured hand that was missing a couple of fingers to shake our hands. We chatted merrily as we rode past rice fields towards the town, 7 km away, riding closely next to each other while I held Brian’s hand.

Moon Rise, our two-storey guesthouse, was situated in a very dusty road off the main highway. I quickly dismissed the notion that we could stroll to any store, eateries, etc. At the guesthouse Sophea took over as our genial host, showing us a nice clean room, signing us up, and explaining the rates and terms of payment (separate) for the accommodation ($6/night) and their driving services ($10/day). After agreeing to those terms we next discussed our schedule.

I showed them our guide book, the 4th edition of Dawn Rooney’s Angkor, and a 3-day itinerary from a travel agent, explaining that we wanted to follow the same schedule. They earned our trust by advising us that we could get free entrance to one of the temples at sunset if we buy a 3-day pass starting the next day after 4 pm. This information saved us $20. It also permitted us to relax for an afternoon siesta to make up for getting up at 3:00 am earlier for our flight.

Phnom Bakeng

Our tour of the Angkor temples officially began with the visit to the hill temple of Phnom Bakeng. It is one of the few temples that stand high on a natural stone mountain, and thus it is a very popular site for watching the sunset. We were among the first visitors to get there, gingerly making our way up the steep hill after Brian dismissed the idea to ride an elephant up for $15 though he has not seen a real elephant before. We had enough time to kill with me taking pictures as we paused every now and then to mount the steepest, narrowest steps I’ve ever seen — about a foot high and only 6 inches wide — everybody had to go up sideways, almost crawling, using hands for balance and extra support.

The view from the top made it all worthwhile. We picked a good spot that overlooked the jungle and majestic Angkor Wat temple. Brian took out the guide book and explained to me how the temple was a perfect symmetry of terraces on a 4x4km square. This was our introduction to the precise construction of the Angkor temples which are stone replicas of the universe on earth dedicated to the Hindu gods. Every single detail — from the cruciform lay-out, the terraced steps leading to the towers, to the intricate carvings and sculptures — represent aspects of Hindu beliefs (although it was alternately used as Buddhist temples) told in mathematical and artistic manner. Phnom Bakeng, for example, like all the other pyramid temples of Angkor, represent the mythical Mount Meru. It was also designed so that when viewed from any angle one would see 33 structures representing the 33 Hindu gods.

Needless to say, our first sunset in Cambodia was spectacular, in spite of the fact that it got too crowded up there when hordes of tourists joined us. There must have been 500 people up there that afternoon, all holding their breath and clicking with their cameras as the flaming orange sun gracefully went over the verdant jungle, descending behind Angkor Wat, then sinking beyond a great valley of golden rice fields. There was a two-second pause then everybody started applauding. It was funny, it felt like we just witnessed a great performance, you’d think the sun would reappear and bow. Not to be outdone, a silvery full moon rose behind us.

Ramayana

On our first evening in Cambodia we had dinner at Koulen Restaurant, where for $11 guests can partake in tasty Khmer and Thai dishes on buffet then enjoy a one-hour show featuring Khmer music and dances. Actually, the reason why we went was because our Chamroeun told us that drivers get to eat for free if they bring customers there for dinner.

No, we don’t mind because Brian and I had a wonderful time through it all. In a way, the show enhanced our interest in Cambodian culture. Khmer food is similar to Thai, but with variations in the portions of spices and vegetables used. At least they’re not as spicy hot as most Thai food are.

The beautiful and graceful dancers gave flesh to the stone representations of the voluptuous apsaras that are found in every doorway and exterior walls of all Angkor temples. We also saw dancers perform a story from the Hindu epic Ramayana about the battle between Prince Rama (the incarnation of the great god Vishnu) against Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka). Ravana abducted Rama’s beautiful wife Sita, and to rescue her Rama enlisted the help of his brother Laksamana and Hanuman, the monkey king.

The Ramayana is a 50,000-line Sanskrit poem that originated in India and has spread to Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. It was recorded in 200-400 BC though it has been around for several hundred years, embellished by many poets. To this day India has produced many films based on this epic. It is also considered among the most important literary and oral texts of South Asia. Various versions flourish in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Prince Rama’s adventures are depicted not only in the Hall of Bas Relief in Angkor Wat and other Angkor temples, but are also narrated in shadow puppet shows in Bali, or wood carvings in Thailand.

Many years back the Philippines also staged its version called Ramahari as a ballet. The dance troupe performed at my hometown in Surigao and some stayed at my parents’ home.

Angkor Wat

We left Moon Rise guesthouse at 7:30 am hoping to beat the hot tropical sun as well as the expected tourist crowd. Angkor Wat is only a few kilometers from town and the trees that lined both sides of the paved road made it a cool, comfortable ride. We passed more golden rice fields where several young men and women were busy harvesting.

As we approached the 190-m wide moat that ringed the temple Sophea started giving me a rundown of Angkor Wat’s impressive dimensions: a land area spanning 2 sq.km including the 5.5km long moat, with the temple itself covering 1500x1300m and spreading over 3 levels, surrounded by four protective walls.

A young boy of 12 approached us and in scripted English asked Brian where he’s from. The kid offered to give us a tour for a dollar, and we turned him down waving the guide book we brought with us.

At least the kid was right that the temple was built by King Suryavaman II during the first half of the 12th century as a funeral pyre dedicated to the god Vishnu. We crossed the moat through a 200m long sandstone alley that was lined by sculptures of multi-headed serpents called Nagas. These were crossed by paths leading to the jungles and guarded by stone lions. We entered the temple through a succession of three doorways, each with richly adorned lintels above it. On both sides of the porch stood two chapels, and further down were two gates named Entrance of the Elephants. Here I took several shots of the balustered windows, apsara carvings, and graceful columns. Brian checked the lay-out remarked, “do you realize we’re still in the entrance?”

Another 350-m long alley stood before us, flanked at both sides by two libraries, ponds, and a cross-shaped terrace. The temple itself was a breath-taking sight. When viewed sideways from the pond we could see all the five towers at once.

We continued walking until we reached the first level of the temple, where the King’s throne is located so he could hold court and observe parades. Back then the temple was home to 20,000 people although the ordinary folks were not allowed beyond the first wall. The Hall of Bas Relief is situated in this level. In addition to a battle scene from Ramayana, the galleries featured other bas reliefs of the other great deeds of Vishnu.

We took the stone stairs up the second level which is reserved for priests. Now as it was then, there were monks lighting incense sticks and meditating in almost every corner before an image of Buddha. Never mind that the images are broken pieces of sculpture, and most of which have missing heads and hands lost to looters and vandals. Many are still draped with the bright orange cloth of the monks. All Angkor temples remain sacred and alive with shrines in several nooks and crannies. The fragrant scent of incense is usually the first thing that will greet you when you walk in a dark room.

I did notice with growing annoyance that within these temples the locals, including the employees guarding and the tourists from Phnom Penh, talk too much. They talked and laughed at the top of their voices and the sounds reverberated within the hallways. Cambodians, we quickly found out, are a happy and talkative people.

The third level is almost twice as high as the second and I was very thankful that at least the steps were not as steep as Phnom Bakeng’s. Since not everybody is willing to climb, those who did were rewarded not only by a great view but also by quiet solitude. We savored this wonderful moment to marvel at the jungle that surrounds Angkor Wat and the entrances that we just traversed while the cool breeze caressed our cheeks.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is a city of temples. The enclosure is 3km-long on both sides and is surrounded by a moat 100m-wide. King Jayavarman VII built the complex over the ruins of an ancient city ruled by another king. Nowadays visitors who enter the city usually take the South Entrance where they are greeted by a giant gate (ala Jurassic Park) surrounded by a 12km-long wall. Standing guard at each gate are giant-size sculptures. Unfortunately, most of the heads have been cut off, though restoration efforts have replaced some of the heads with replicas.

My favorite site is the Bayon temple which stands at the heart of the city. Built at the end of the 12th century, this 3-storey high mountain temple is made of sandstone and laterite. It’s outstanding feature are the enormous sculpted faces looking at all four directions. These faces are believed to represent Jayavarman VII, with different expressions ranging from smiling to somber, but all mystifying. There are at least a dozen set of these giant faces, some are 5 ft high from the chin to the forehead.

Before I set foot in Cambodia, in my mind’s eye I see the Angkor in three ways: the palatial Angkor Wat with its five towers in a wide shot, the colossal smiling face in close-up, and a jungle temple entangled by giant roots and vines. How was I to know that Angkor consists of 50 different temples?

There were other temples within walking distance from Bayon. Baphuon was closed for a major restoration project by the French who have been working on it since 1908! This one was built earlier in 1060 by King Udayadityavarman in honor of Shiva. It looked like a giant 3-D puzzle because the French are attempting to rebuild it from the ground up and have moved the stones around, though they are meticulous in numbering each so it will be put back where it came from. The restoration was briefly (25 years) interrupted during the civil war with the Khmer Rouge.

We also visited the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King (Jayavarman VII), Phimeneakas and the Royal Palace. Another kid followed us around offering to guide us around for a buck and he was harder to get rid of. There were other temples such as the Baksei Chamkrong, and Tep Pranan, to see but fatigue and darkness caught up with us. We ambled back to Bayon to look for our drivers. Sophea told us that Chamroeun went to town and has not returned yet. We waited and waited while the tourists dwindled and the vendors packed up, until we were only the ones left.

On our second day in Cambodia the sunset found us staring at the enigmatic stone faces of Bayon that loomed as dusk set in. It got eerie when the silver full moon appeared and a thin mist spread across the big green lawn in front of the Khleangs (tower-like storehouses).

Ta Phrom (The Jungle Temple)

The Angkor Guide magazine recommended that if you can visit only one other temple it should be Ta Phrom. I couldn”t agree more. It was built in the thirteenth century by Jayavarma VII. While other monuments in the Angkor region have been cleared of the encroaching jungle, Ta Phrom has been left as it was found by French explorers who rediscovered it in the nineteenth century, at the mercy of the jungle.
Today the ruins of this temple is now covered with moss and the giant roots of Banyan trees. This is the temple where we had the most fun exploring, unafraid to run our hands over the wall carvings or to get on the piles of fallen blocks and enter the dark chambers, some of which have become roosting sites for bats. This is one of the few areas that Brian and I dared not encroach.
Even without the bats I find the atmosphere in Ta Phrom to be different than in other temples. There was something primeval and yet mysteriously romantic about the ruins. This is the only place where Brian and I took separate paths as if we both wanted to be alone, to imbibe the quiet force of the jungle that was at once destroying and supporting the remaining blocks and columns that hold up the temple. There is both beauty and life in its quiet destruction.

Bantey Srey

La citadelle des femmes. … Le petit temple … Also called the Citadel of Women, Bantey Srey is a bit farther than the other temples but truly worth the special trip. Its uniqueness makes it stand out from the rest as the pictures here indicate. While the majestic pyramid temples of Angkor Wat or Bayon evoke sublime reverence, Bantey Srey elicits sheer delight. While most of the Angkor temples are made of grey sandstone, looking somber with age, the reddish tint of Bantey Srey’s pink sandstone make it appear alive, specially when the bright rays of midday sun are upon it. At other times of the day the walls glow like amber, and still on other times the hues change to rose pink. Here and there are patches of moss like green velvet.
Visitors are quick to start snapping as soon as they reach its lovely arched entrance. The cameras continue to click once they’re in. bantey Srey seemed to be designed for women and children. Everything is scaled down and minituarized, from the doorways that are smaller than the windows of Bantey Kdei to the 3-foot replicas of Angkor towers in every corner of four layers of the main structure. Even more amazing are the fine and rich detail of the carvings and ornaments. Perhaps the quality of the pink sandstone makes it easier to make such deep and sharp cuts, and no space was left unadorned. It is no wonder that previous visitors described it as a Andersen’s fairyland-come-true. If Banteay Kdei was all white it would be a beautiful wedding cake that nobody would dare slice.

Word of advice: Dawn Rooney cited this gem as her favorite and thus its number of visitors have been increasing, aided by the newly finished road. When we got there at past 10:00 the parking lot was littered with tour buses and vans. Getting past the souvenir vendors that swarm around every tourist was more taxing than usual. It was nearly impossible to get a good shot let alone an unimpeded view of the temple and its carvings because of the number of tourists in a relatively small enclosure. We waited until the place was nearly empty of visitors on group tours. Finally, at 12:00 noon our patience was rewarded and I was able to take most of these photos.

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