Eight years ago on the last day of our China trip we had a free evening in Beijing. We were still not quite au fait with going around the city on our own but wanted to eat some authentic Chinese food. Alan, our Chinese tour guide, took us out for dinner to one of the Hutongs that evening and treated us to a lovely meal. We had been eating Chinese food served during our trip but it was catered more towards the European palate. The menus were in Chinese and no one spoke English and so without Alan’s help that evening we would not have had the experience. I asked Alan what his chosen holiday destination would be if he could choose anywhere in the world. “Cambodia”, he said. I wondered what was special about Cambodia. ‘’Angkor Wat’’he replied. It piqued my curiosity and here we are in Cambodia and today we are visiting the Angkor group of temples.
The tickets for the group were all collected the day before. Photos had to be taken at the ticket office before the photo ID tickets could be issued. Buthy sorted everything for us. We just had to follow him. The coach picks us up at 5 in the morning and at the checkpoint the security lady comes to check us out. When we get to the site, Buthy points out the towers of Angkor Wat. It is dark, we can’t see a thing. He is joking but pointing out in the right direction. We leave the coach and follow him along the path. There are no street lights and we can just see the path. There are lots of tourists further ahead of us and behind us. He leads us to a quiet spot on the low wall which marks the outer perimeter. It surrounds the moat in which dark pink lotus buds can be seen slowly lifting their heads.
We sit patiently waiting for the magic to begin. As darkness slowly lifts, the silhouette of the towers start to appear. We can only see three of the five towers from this position. They are designed in the shape of lotus buds, with the central tower being the tallest. The sky takes on a crimson hue and the anticipation increases. We can hear monks chanting in the far distance. It is a special day for the monks and their prayers are broadcast through a speaker. The peaceful atmosphere is broken by some people chatting behind me. Slight movements in the moat probably by fish makes frequent ripples and it spreads. The crimson glow turns lighter and the magic moment passes. There is no glorious sunrise today. The thick clouds made sure of that.
We show our tickets and walk over the temporary bridge to the main entrance. From here we walk along the causeway to the temple complex. Angkor Wat translated as City of temples was built by King Suryavarman II during the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple for God Vishnu. It later became a Buddhist temple. There are different theories as to why it was built facing the west when temples here were built facing the opposite direction. Pillars were carved from single stones each weighing a few tonnes. Buthy explains how the heavy sandstones were brought to the site from quarries which were situated 50-70 kilometres away by land and over 100 kilometres by water way. Angkor Wat is the only temple in the group which is well preserved. According to the Cambodia tourism website Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. Buthy takes us around the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs before going in to the temple. The inner wall of the gallery which surrounds the four walls of the temple is covered in carvings. These depict the battle scene from Mahabharata, another the churning of the ocean of milk along with other themes.
We walk in and see the towers at close range. Monks are busy blessing people and the chantings ring out. Buthy explains everything as we walk along and points out the intricate artworks and designs on the pillars and walls.
It is starting to get warm and we haven’t had our breakfast. We return to the hotel for breakfast, a short break and we are off again. The next stop is the Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom.
Each king who reigned over the country built their own temples. Most were left unfinished when their reign ended and the next king who took over never completed the ones before them even if it was built by their ancestors but instead opted to build their own. Thus around 200 temples can be found in Cambodia and nearby countries which split from them over the years. After the fall of the Khmer empire the temples were abandoned and neglected. Only 91 of the 200 temples remain standing, for the rest only the foundations are left. All of these are in various stages of disrepair and badly in need of restoration. Various governments from around the world are helping them achieve this. India is helping with the restoration of the next temple we are visiting.
Our coach and bigger vehicles are not allowed beyond a certain point and we had to get into two smaller vans which takes us through the jungle to Ta Prohm. Built during the regime of King Jayavarman VII around the late twelfth century in honour of his family, it was abandoned in the fifteenth century. The forest had taken over the temple when it was discovered. Trees were growing through the structures. Giant roots can be seen curving around the towers looking like boa constrictors, some draping the doorways and another looking like an elephant foot stomping the structure.
The Archeological survey of India has cleverly helped restore and conserve the temple in a way to keep the dilapidated look intact to give it an eerie feeling and it is the most popular tourist temple here. Listening to the happy whoops from the Chinese group each time they take a photo at this picturesque venue, I think they wholeheartedly agree. Scenes for ‘Tomb Raider’ were filmed here. The inside temples were covered in jewels which has all been looted during the various wars and now only the empty holes remain in their places.
From here we drive to the next temple in the same small van. Along the way we see another temple which looks intact but with no carvings on the walls. Ta Keo was struck by lightning during it’s construction. This was considered to be unlucky and the project was stopped and abandoned.
We drive through the East gate of Angkor Thom, park and walk in. The ticket for all the Angkor group of temples is the same photo ID. Constructed by King Jayavarman VII the Bayon temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Angkor complex and occupies the heart of Angkor Thom. Of the imposing 54 towers only approximately 30 remain. Each has four heads carved facing the four directions. Each head is said to incorporate the images of Buddha, the King and Brahma and the four heads represent charity, compassion, equanimity and sympathy. Buthy takes us around the bas-reliefs and explains the artwork. A bride and groom are having their pre-wedding photos taken. She, looking very pretty in a resplendent bright pink ankle length dress and him in a matching suit. The photos will certainly look amazing in this wonderful setting and in the midst of their gods. We leave the temple through the South Gate. It is lined by statues of ‘Asuras’ on one side and ‘Devas’ on the other and tell the story of the ‘Churning of the sea of milk’. In fact all the gates are lined by the gods and the demons but their heads are missing, but along this gate it has been restored.
It has been a long, hot and sweaty morning. It is now time for a leisurely lunch and some rest before Buthy takes us out for a Cambodian dinner at a local restaurant this evening.