24 July 2014

Temple Hopping Around Angkor

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to Cambodia, this time to Siem Reap, thanks to friends who got married there and were kind enough to invite us to join them in their celebrations.  Whilst we were there primarily for the wedding and festivities we could not go to Siem Reap and not take the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat and a few of the other temples too.

We therefore managed to set aside one day in our short trip to do this.  Whilst we could definitely go back and spend more time there, for a limited time period I think we did pretty well with what we did manage to see.  If you are planning visiting Angkor and the temples you can get various ticket options including one day (which is what we went for) and three day passes.  A helpful tip we were told is that if you buy your three day pass after 5pm it can be used for sunset viewing that day as well.  Everyone being issued with a ticket has to have their photo taken which is then included on the ticket.  So don't assume one of your party can go and buy for everybody.  Everybody planning to view the temples will need to be present at the time of purchasing so their photo can be taken.

After getting tickets our day began at the fortified city of Angkor Thom.  This is one of the largest of all the Khmer cities covering some ten square km in size.  It was founded by Jayavarman VII and it's believed it remained the capital until the 17th century.  At its height, the city is said to have boasted a population of perhaps one million!  This was at a time when the population of London was a mere 50,000.  At its height the city had houses, public buildings and palaces all constructed of wood.  This was because dwelling in bricks or stone was reserved for the Gods.  Naturally these buildings all decayed a long time ago leaving behind just a skeleton of a city largely made up of religious structures.

The Bayon

We entered into Angkor Thom through one of the huge gates that still surround it.  We approached the gate by crossing a road over a huge moat (far far bigger than any moat round castles in the UK) which is lined with statues on both sides.  The gate is crowned by four huge faces carved into the stone on each side of the tower.  The faces are said to closely resemble the known statues of Jayavarman VII.  Just seeing this first little bit blew me away, I knew then that it was going to be a very special day!

The Bayon

From this exciting beginning we went on to see our first proper temple of the day, The Bayon.  We actually got a sighting of Angkor Wat on our way to Angkor Thom but this was the first one up close so to speak.  The Bayon continues with the theme of Jayavarman VII's presence being everywhere as the towers here are also decorated with many likenesses of him.  The faces are visible from every angle and exude power but also seemed to me to have an expression of kindness about them as well.  

The Baphuon

After exploring the Bayon we then meandered across the open expanse of grass to the nearby Baphuon.  The Baphuon is a pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt Meru which is the home of the devas in Hindu mythology.  It was the state temple of the Yasodharapura (the name of the city) of King Udayadityavarman II and marked the centre of the city that existed before the construction of Angkor Thom.  As we stood on the viewing platform and looked at the outer buildings (in my photos below) I was really struck by how magnificent this and the other temples must have looked when they were a part of the active bustling cities of Angkor and of just how vast and grand these cities were.

View from The Baphuon

View towards The Baphuon

Before heading off to our next stop we walked alongside the Terrace of the Elephants towards the Terrace of the Leper King.  The Terrace of the Elephants is 300 metres long (running from The Bayon to the Terrace of the Leper King) and decorated with parading elephants.  This was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and also served as a base for the king's grand audience hall.  The Terrace of the Leper King is a massive terrace with a statue of  a possibly leprous king on top from which it takes its name.

Ta Prohm

After leaving here we made our way to Ta Prohm which I think was my favourite temple but also the busiest of all we visited.  That said though it is quite small in comparison and its ruined state meant everybody was more compacted within a confined space.  What I liked about Ta Prohm though was exactly this ruinous state, the jungle and nature have reclaimed back parts of the temple and the tree roots etc. that have spread into the walls have simply been left.  Its natural look for me conjured up images of explorers and ancient mysteries still to be solved. 

Ta Prohm was built from 1186 by Jayavarman VII and was one of his major temples.  Ta Prohm's original name was Rajavihara or 'the royal monastery'.  This temple was deliberately chosen to be left in its 'natural state' as an example of how most of Angkor looked on its discovery in the 19th century.   

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Our last stop of the day was at Angkor Wat and just what can I say about this famous temple?  It was just as stunning as I imagined it would be and I was not disappointed.  It was built by Suryavarman II who reigned from 1113 - 1140 and who during his reign unified Cambodia and extended the Khmer influence across much of mainland South East Asia.  Angkor Wat was built at a similar time to many European Gothic cathedrals such as Notre-Dame and Chartres.  The temple was consecrated to the Hindu deity Vishnu and as well as being a temple it was also a city in its own right and originally included a royal palace and numerous other buildings.  

In case you did not know Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world and unlike the other Angkor temples etc. this one was never abandoned to the elements.  Again just like The Baphuon the central tower represents Mt. Meru with its surrounding smaller peaks.  This is in turn is surrounded by the continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat).  

Despite being pretty tired (and very hot and sweaty) by this point we climbed and explored Angkor Wat thoroughly, taking in all that it had to offer.  It was incredible to be there, somewhere I never could have imagined seeing for myself.  We had originally planned to visit another temple after this but by this point we were tired, but incredibly happy, after our day of exploring and instead decided to retire for the day back to our hotel.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Looking back at my day I still can't quite believe I actually got the chance to see what I did.  As I mentioned these were places I never imagined I'd ever be seeing in real life and I'm not sure I can ever really do them justice here.  There is always that little bit of worry when visiting somewhere that you've heard so much about and are seemingly so familiar with that it might be a little underwhelming in reality but this was definitely not the case with Angkor.  I'm still only now appreciating just how lucky I am and what I did see!  I hope that perhaps someday I'll get the chance to return to see the temples I've seen in greater detail and some of the many others too.  Even if I don't though I know I'll always look back on this trip with a just a little bit of awe and amazement.

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