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Saturday, January 2, 2010

45 -- Scene in Cambodia (2) -- Roaming the Ruins

Note: this is an ongoing series about our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia in December, 2009. Part I of this account can be found here.

Big plans for our first full day in Siem Reap. My trusty guidebook* offered the following advice - Angkor temples generally have four entrances, one facing each cardinal point. The eastern entrance is the main one most of the time as it faces the rising sun, symbolizing birth and beginnings.

Not so Angkor Vat. Its main entrance faces West, the end of the path, death.

What does this mean to archeologists and historians? Controversy! What did it mean for us? It's better to visit Angkor Vat in the afternoon when the light is best for photography.

So, first thing in the morning, we engaged a Tuk Tuk driver to take us to Angkor Thom, instead.

First stop, the government ticket counter to acquire the necessary temple pass.

"Angkor" means "city" and "Thom" means "great" or "large." This was indeed the largest city of the Angkor period holding possibly up to a million inhabitants at its height.

As with most of the Angkor structures, it is surrounded by a vast moat. Crossing over the moat on elaborate causeways symbolizes the departure from the earthly and entrance into the heavenly. And these causeways sure make you believe it--they are that impressive.

At Ankgor Thom, the bridge is edged on one side by a line of devas (gods)

holding the body of a massive many-headed snake or naga.

The right is adorned with a similar row of asuras or demons.

The significance of these carvings is to be found in the tale of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a popular one around Angkor, and taken from Indian Hindu mythology.

The story goes that after fighting for a thousand years with the demons,

the gods

turned to Vishnu, the Preserver, for advice. He suggested that they cooperate with the demons instead of fighting them and work together to churn the ocean of milk for the pot of amrit or the nectar of immortality that lay within its depths.

This the gods did, using the enormous serpent, Vasuki, as the rope and Mount Mandara as the churning pole. However, when the mountain began to sink into the ocean, Vishnu, reincarnated as a tortoise, supported it on his back. Many treasures came out of the churning other than the nectar of immortality. Among the most popular in the Khmer culture are the Apsaras or celestial dancing nymphs.

You see these beautiful prancing women carved into stone everywhere,

and they are the inspiration for the current day "Apsara dancers."

At the Bayon, the temple smack dab at the center of Angkor Thom, we were introduced to the Khmer art of bas-relief which found its epitome at Angkor Vat. But that will remain a tale for another day.

Although scenes of war are the predominant theme for the most impressive carving at the Bayon,

I most enjoyed the depictions of city life.
Here, spectators gamble on the outcome of a cockfight.

And, here, they gamble on the outcome of a wild boar fight.

OK, enough gambling, this is my favorite carving of all --
a sanyasi (holy man) runs for his life from a tiger...up a tree!

The Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, built something like a hundred years after Angkor Vat, is one of the few Buddhist rather than Hindu Angkor temples. And, one of the most alluring aspects of the temple, is the depiction of smiling faces in the massive towers or "gopuras."

Angkor Thom encompasses an area of about three hundred and sixty acres. Walking and tuk tuks aren't the only way to get around.

And while some enjoy a leisurely stroll around the massive complex, others recline in style.

The sheer size of the place is emphasized by what remains of the royal palace--its entrance and base. These take the form of two terraces, with steps leading to the long gone wooden palace that was once adorned with masses of gold. These are The Terrace of the Elephants,

and the The Terrace of the Leper King.

Who was the leper king?

Again controversy abounds. Some think that King Jayavarman VII, builder of Angkor Thom, himself was a leper, one reason given for his interest in building hospitals. He built over a hundred hospitals around the country! Unfortunately, this theory is not historically supported.

At the base of this terrace, an older carved wall was unearthed. When the builders created the new grander terrace, they left the original in place behind it. Thank goodness they did! Now, a winding corridor between the two walls reveals its former glory.

Well, even though this was winter in Cambodia and the locals insisted it was the "cold" season, the sun was hot. These residents of Angkor Thom seemed to have boundless energy,

but we did not. It was time to call it a morning, return to the hotel for lunch and an early afternoon siesta before embarking on the journey to see what it was we had traveled all this way for -- Angkor Vat.

* Angkor Cambodia's Wondrous Khmer Temples by Dawn Rooney


Christopher Butt - Photographer said...


rilla jaggia said...

Hey Christopher Butt -- Photographer,

Thanks so much for leaving a comment! Of course, my photos are nothing like yours...even though you gave me the camera :) Some things don't seem to rub off.

Can't wait to see your blog when it's up and ready.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hey Rilla, I'm sure enjoying arm chair travel with you. What a fascinating place. I'm so glad you had the opportunity to go.

C.K. said...

Amazing photos! What an experience. The smiling face made me grin sitting here in front of my computer. Funny the power of a smile - even (maybe especially?) an ancient one.

Anonymous said...

Wowsers, Rilla! Thanks for the history lesson and the great pictures to go with it. Did you have to pinch yourself to be sure you weren't dreaming? What an amazing adventure you guys had. Again, wow! I'm looking forward to hearing the rest.

rilla jaggia said...

Tricia! Loving your company while virtually traveling.

I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to see this amazing place. Hold on to your chair, pour a nice long drink, coz I'm afraid I'm going to be hanging out in Cambodia for a while :)

rilla jaggia said...

Hey CK!

So good to see you again.

Yes, those smiling faces, both ancient and live, kept me smiling the whole trip. Such a warm, friendly, amazingly good-looking people. I'd love to go back.

Hope you had a wonderful New Year's.

rilla jaggia said...

Yes, Lynn,

I was pinching myself the whole time. Never really believed I'd make it to Angkor. But there I was, scrambling around the temples, taking in the sites, and when I still don't believe it really happened, well, I stare at all the photographs, goodness knows there's enough where they came from!

See you soon :)

Katia said...

Beautiful, Rilla. I had to laugh when I saw your visitor's pass. Being a broke backpacker, I used to get up at 4 am and sneak into Angkor Wat (3 sitting on a rented motorcycle) before they officially opened the gates :) Your pictures and comments are taking me years back. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to seeing more.

rilla jaggia said...

Hey Katia,

I'm afraid anything at 4 a.m. in the morning is NOT an option for me, unless I have to catch a flight to Mars at that ungodly hour.

Actually, they've really begun cracking down on ticket-holding. Can't tell you the number of times we had to whip the thing out and have someone stare at us and at our pictures and back at us, then flip it over and spend minutes checking whether the right hole for the right date had been punched.

People were walking around like delegates at a conference with tickets peering through plastic see-throughs dangling on lanyards from their necks!

But, I bet the broke backpacker is still sneaking in at 4 a.m. :)
Can't wait to see your pictures of Thailand.

Debbie said...

Wow, Rilla, this sounds like an amazing trip! Love the photos. Thanks so much for sharing.