Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | North West Cambodia | Siem Reap – Day 10 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I’m sitting in an Internet cafe on one of the main drags here in Siem Reap basking in the luxury of an air-conditioned room and listening to the warblings of a Cambodian crooner, live — the attendant here who fancies himself a bit of a Bing Crosby although perhaps without quite the same mellifluous tones…wait, now he’s doing his best Karen Carpenter, Every Sha-la-la-la…
The last 2.5 days have been full-on temple-tramp days. The air has been body temperature and done its best to approximate the humidity of my armpits. But this jungle-sphere has added to the exotic as I have finally explored the incredible temple complexes of Angkor Wat and environs.
Two days ago at early o’clock I jumped on the back of Bein’s blue, gauge-less motorbike. Bein (pronoune it nasally) is one of the dozen or so adolescents who seem to constantly aggregate in the courtyard of the (you guessed it) Angkor Wat Guest House where I’m staying. Any time I enter or leave the building any number of them will ask if I’m going to the temples today or tomorrow, where I’m from, or, in the evening, ‘you want night-club, massah (massage), boom-boom!?’, the latter followed by the universal teen-age guffaw any time something sexual is intimated about someone else. Bein is actually quite mellow by these standards although he has a sneaky smile which curls up under semi-lidded questioning eyes.
Off we bounced into the heart of Siem Reap, first on the dirt road that runs past the guest house and which could be converted into an alpine mogul course if it only had some slope. And then onto Highway 6, an asphalt strip through town which is anywhere from two to 12 lanes wide depending upon how many bicycles, motorbikes, cars, and trucks are trying to slide past each other at any given spot. Then we leaned left and headed north, past the natty, spotless 5-star behemoths. Siem Reap is in flux right now and it’s a tough town to slot. Those 5-star palaces are just a chip-shot away from areas of raised wooden houses with thatched roofs. Meanwhile, there seems to be something of a relative middle-class, two-moto families with larger houses roofed with clay tiles. Siem Reap and the tourist dollar have married and they are building a solid relationship.
We buzzed past the town limits and the route was lined with open fields and the tremendous bowl of sky which this part of the country, a flat seemingly endless level plain, gives rice to — er, gives rise to.
I got my official photo-laminated Angkor Wat three-day pass ($40US) at a roadside station which resembles a free-way toll booth area.
The Commencement: tackling the temples was upon me, the realization of another travel dream was upon me. I asked Bein to take me to Angkor Thom first, both because it faces east and might look better in the morning light (whereas Angkor Wat faces west) and also because I wanted to save Angkor Wat for last.
Angkor Thom however is no weak link in the chain of god-king glorification temples built during the reign of the Khmer empire over south-east Asia. Its perimeter wall is some 12 kilometres long and 8m high. The gate, which swallowed us up as we motored through it, is 20m high and topped by four enigmatically smiling faces of the bodhisattva Avilokiteshvara, facing the cardinal compass directions. (Picture a male, Asian-featured version of the Mona Lisa, rendered on a gargantuan stone canvas in bas-relief — ok, it’s a stretch I admit.)
Angkor Thom itself is contained within these walls and consists of several temple complexes. The most striking of these is called the Bayon, a pyramid- shaped structure whose base must be at least 100 metres on each side and whose summit is marked by five narrow, soaring towers. The flat morning light gave the temple a sinister air, its dark silhouette looking like massive mangled fingers jabbing at the air. Closer inspection revealed just how phenomenal this structure is, despite its somewhat dilapidated state. Beautiful and massive bas reliefs lined the lower courtyard walls. According to my guide book there are 1100 metres of reliefs populated by 11,000 figures. Each figure was carved in the finest detail, still visible these many hundreds of years later.
Individual faces expressed different emotions while fine jewellery adorned necks, wrists and hands; individual fingers were caught in varying positions. Soldiers raised swords and spears over soon-to-be-vanquished enemies while armored elephants carried officers and kings. Apsaras, represented as nubile and nimble young females, hung in the air in mid-leap, bent legs suspended under them, joy etched (literally) on their faces. Entire armies were depicted, engaged in land and naval battles; scenes of daily life in empire times, and even a depiction of a Khmer circus watched by members of the royal court.
Interestingly, one of the panels shows a battle in which the Khmers were defeated by the Chams. I can’t recall many instances in history in which an empire glorifies and immortalizes one of its greatest military defeats. A maze of narrow hallways, broad courtyards and steep stone stairways lead me ’round the temple, level upon level, ever ascending. In the upper levels several of the towers — from all of which stared the ever-looming presence of Avilokiteshvara with his ‘I know something you don’t’ smile — contained Buddha statues. Each Buddha was attended by a frail old man or woman who offered forth incense sticks to the faithful, many of whom accepted, ‘wei’- ing in prayer, hands together, pointing straight up, held in front of the forehead. Incense laden smoke curled coyly in the dark, close quarters, ember tips glowing. The air hung heavy, still and perfumed.
The Ta Prohm temple was remarkable for two things: its myriad narrow passageways, many of which were impassable due to the jumble of massive stones which had tumbled into them over time; and also because of the gargantuan trees and their sea-monster tentacled roots which have slithered over, through and around the temple’s walls and towers. The corridors were dark and mossy, echoing my steps and the drops of water which now plinked into puddles, the result of a light rain which was descending. Overhead, the hundred-foot trees spread their canopies like fantastic leafy umbrellas. Somewhere in Ta Prohm was an idea of what these temple complexes must have looked like when initial attempts were made at clearing the jungle from them. And somewhere in the overgrown gigantic roots and trees, whispered among the piles of stone lying in heaps was the reminder of what ultimately holds sway, no matter how grand, eloquent and astonishing is human design.
And now, Angkor Wat itself. Several hundred years before Versailles or the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat’s vast yet profoundly moving temple complex, rose on the vision of a god-king and the arms and legs of what must have been tens of thousands of workers. The approach to the site is guarded by a mote which yawns across some 200m, its perimeter length over 5km, in the form of a square. Angkor Wat extends a long arm across the moat to welcome you, while the broad and ornate western portico is an arresting expanse of shoulder. Once through the portico and inside the main courtyard, which is itself almost one square kilometre in size, an elegant, 500m long neck — fancied with naga (serpent head) balustrades on both sides — leads you toward the head and crown of Angkor Wat and of Khmer glory: the central temple.
From straight on, the main temple building appears to consist of three tall, feathered towers, the centre tower reaching highest. In fact there are five towers in the upper levels of the temple but the two to the rear are hidden behind those in front, until you walk out to the side to view it all from an angle. Stairs continually beckon upwards, closer to the inner sanctum. Arched doorways and long promenades, spindle-like columns, and vestibules open to the heavens give hide-and-seek views of the interior and the towers. Bas reliefs everywhere, some faded, grace almost every surface.
When I reached the base of the upper level I was confronted with one final precipitous set of high-stepping stone stairs, some 15 – 20 metres up, almost vertically pitched. Above that loomed the central tower. I clambered, sucked moist air, wiped sweat as it trickled, turned around and beheld what felt like my kingdom. The lower towers, the courtyards, the pools, the causeway, the outer wall of the complex; all lay before me in magnificent service. Like most of the temple complexes in the area, Angkor wat was built to honour Vishnu, the Hindu god-king with whom the human Khmer god-king indentified. Its pyramidal structure represents the mythical Mount Meru where Vishnu was said to live. Built around the end of the 12th century, it is a place to be marvelled at by the kilometre and digested up close by the millimetre. Both scales reveal an incredible scope, vision and power.