Since the reason Siem Reap exists is the temples, we were obviously going to do some. There are dozens in reality though, and each have their own charms, so we thought rather than trying to see them all, we’d try to get a feel for them, and then see a few that showed you a cross-section. First we went to the Angkor National Museum, to get an overview and see (the presumably precious and delicate) relics they’ve removed from the temples for safekeeping. But actually, there were only a small section of items on display, you weren’t allowed to take photos of them, and it was $12. I wished i hadn’t bothered to be honest, although there was one room with hundreds of Buddha’s they’d removed from Angkor Wat, and that was pretty cool.
Then we went to check out the Roulos complex, which is the earliest temple complex in the area, with the temples dating from the 8th and 9th Century. Sadly, this was as far as we got. As soon as we stepped through the gate, a guy asked for our tickets, so we asked him where we could buy one, and he said at the ticket office near Angkor Wat, 15kms away…
After that we pretty much just gave up the day as a bad job, went and got drunk, and resolved to get on with the big temples, starting with the biggest, Angkor Wat…
At sunrise… Which was pretty amazing, but at the same time, i couldn’t help but feel it probably looks 90% as amazing all the time, and i wouldn’t have had to get out of bed at 4.30am.
The idiots who got up at 4.30am. From right to left, Paul, Rhys, James, Me, Nicole and Pasquale. After this, everyone with any sense went back to bed. I went to look at the carvings, which were frankly amazing.
Someone’s popular… This is an Apsara, a kind of goddess figure, usually dancing and doing their hair and getting their norks out a lot. The Cambodians do have a breast obsession, which clearly dates from about the 12th Century. There are paintings of women with their bristols out in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, everywhere. But its not like actual Cambodians regularly get them out or anything. Its just a bit odd.
The carvings of battles and scenes from the Hindu epics cover all 4 sides of the exterior of the temple walls, amazingly detailed for hundreds of feet, and clearly a massive undertaking for them alone.
This depicts the massive battle in Hindu mythology, the start of which provides the setup for one of my favorite philosophical works, the Bhagavad Gita. I was really looking forward to seeing the depiction of Arjuna, one of the generals, and Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, as his 4 armed charioteer. But actually that section was a bit damaged, so i have a pic, but its rubbish. Enjoy this pic of people fighting an elephant instead.
Even the “ordinary” bits of the temple are covered in beautiful scrollwork carvings, like this pillar, with gods and goddesses, and at the bases, bramins sitting in contemplation.
But enough of that. Have another fight scene instead, this time depicting Hanuman’s monkey army fighting a load of demons, with the monkeys overwhelmingly favoring the “just keep biting till you hit something soft” fighting style.
Inside the temple walls. The entrance to which, the pillars are covered in writing in a mix of Khmer and Sanskrit, and relate to dedications and services performed by people during the early life of the temple.
Looking up at the top level, where only the King and the high priest could originally enter. Entrance these days requires queuing up with many Japanese people and climbing the incredibly steep steps to the one open entranceway.
Where you’re greeted by even more Apsaras.
The central tower, a representation of Mt. Meru, the mountain at the centre of the universe in Hindu Mythology. Sadly, you cant climb it, not for health and safety reasons, but because it doesn’t have any steps inside. And the doors into it are closed anyway, they were blocked when it was converted to a Buddhist temple (rather than one dedicated to Vishnu) in the 15th Century, and now 4 Buddha’s stand in the entranceways.
View over the complex from the top level, out to where we watched the sunrise. In all honesty, even though its supposed to be a masterpiece of architecture, i found myself strangely underwhelmed with the temple itself. Its massive, and the bas-reliefs are truly astounding, and the Buddhas and lions with their heads knocked off by the Khmer Rouge saddening, but the actual building structure itself failed to blow me away.
I was much more impressed with Ta Prohm, even at first sight. Ta Prohm is the archetypal jungle temple, ruined, covered in trees and vines, and left to the elements. Of course, its being looked after now, but they’ve got a difficult job on their hands, maintaining and preserving it without destroying its essential character.
Even the gateway is ruined and leans drunkenly.
View of the relatively intact main buildings.
The trees are literally growing on and through the buildings, an amazing unplanned fusion of nature and architecture.
The beauty of this temple is formed by its ruin. The carvings that cover the walls are also strewn on the floor in huge piles.
In trying to maintain it as it standing now, they’ve had to install steel structures in many of the buildings to keep them upright. And they have a throughly unatmospheric crane.
But they ultimately have an unresolved problem. The trees provide much of the beauty and contrast that makes this temple truly special, but they are also slowly and inexorably levering the buildings apart. You can see the measuring devices they are using to measure the progress on the wall in this pic. But what are they going to do? They either have to remove the tree, or accept that its going to fall down. They could use stronger and stronger steel structures to hold it up i suppose, but that will end up spoiling the character anyway i think.
The last temple was Bayon, known amongst the backpacking crowd as “the one with all the faces”. Its in the middle of the ancient city/temple of Angkor Thom, which is full of small temples and carvings, but Bayon itself is the centrepiece.
Entrance to Angkor Thom is through one of the 5 gates, guarded by demons and angels either side of the causeway, and by Airavata, Indra’s three headed elephant, on the gates themselves.
Bayon itself, which looks like a bit of mess from here, and is incredibly higgledy-piggledy inside, with small passageways and stairs and terraces on multiple levels all mixed together like an MC Escher drawing.
Apsara’s getting jiggy. I later found out that the curved fingers depicted in this bas-relief are formed by binding back the fingers with elephant grass for longer and longer periods until they stay that way permanently. Sounds painful.
The outer walls, like Angkor Wat, are covered in carvings. These though are notable for depicting ordinary Khmer people, not only in battle, but in scenes of daily life and celebration too. As you get further into the temple though, ordinary people appear less and less.
And the faces depicted on all 4 sides of the 37 remaining towers come more and more to the fore. Everywhere you look inside the temple, multiple faces look down on you. They’re thought to resemble the face of the temple’s builder, Jayavarman VII, in a remarkably narcissistic move, which even now Aled is probably planning to emulate.
I cant decide if the faces look compassionate and beneficent, smug, or just plain constipated.
The central tower, showing the carvings, gallerys and general madness. After this we headed back to get ready for New Years Eve!