There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Siem Reap (1) Angkor Wat: Part 7 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

We came to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and that was what we did on the very first morning. But first a couple of paragraphs of history

The Angkorian period started in 802 when Jayavarman II moved his court north from Sambor Prei Kuk (see yesterday’s post) and built the first temples. Suryavarman II (1113 - 1150), the builder of Angkor Wat, kicked off the golden period which ended in 1219 with the death of Jayavarman VII, the so-called Leper King (there is no hard evidence that he ever contracted leprosy). Jayavarman VII was a prolific builder but after his reign no further stone temples were built; perhaps the switch from Hinduism to Buddhism discouraged temple building or maybe local resources were exhausted.
Jayavarman VII

The temples and palaces remained in use until 1431 when they were sacked by the Thais and the Khmer empire was forced to move its capital south. From 1570 to 1594 there was a short lived royal rediscovery of Angkor and an even shorter burst of interest in the seventeenth century, then it was left to the jungle. It was rediscovered by French missionary Charles-Emille Bouillevaux in 1858.

At its greatest the Khmer empire extended from southern Burma to the Malay Peninsula. Their greatest rivals were the Cham whose ruins we saw at My Son two years ago and whose descendants we met a few days ago in Chau Doc. They were defeated by Jayavarman VII in a decisive naval battle on Tonle Sap Lake and today live as an often impoverished minority in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Cambodian flag with the outline of Angkor Wat

Some 12km outside Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and the rest of the vast Angkor complex, sits in a national park surrounded by tropical foliage. Guided by UNESCO the Cambodian government has resisted the temptation to allow hotel building round the park and they would even like to remove the few local inhabitants. Buying them out would cost money and UNESCO frowns on strong-arm tactics, so they are still there. They are doing no harm, so why not to leave them where they want to be?

As we parked, our car was surrounded by the usual swarm of kids selling postcards. They wanted $1 for ten, compared with 50¢ each at the National Museum, so we bought some. Lynne also fulfilled her need for yet another fridge magnet. We may soon need a bigger fridge.

Lynne outside the perimeter wall, Angkor Wat

Originally a Hindu temple to the god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is by far the largest of the Angkorian temples. Building started in 1120 and took 30 years.
Through the perimeter wall, Angkor Wat

We approached from the east where the ground is higher so you do not have to look up to see the classic outline of the five corn cob towers (of which three are visible from most angles).

Approaching Angkor Wat from the east
Originally surrounded by a moat the temple is built on a stone platform, with three concentric enclosing walls.
Angkor Wat, surrounded by a moat and sitting on a stone platform

On top of the first wall is a series of galleries with carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics. This is a blog not a guide book, so I will not describe them all, but I will mention the Churning of the Ocean of milk on the east gallery partly because I like the story, but also because of the quality of the carvings. 88 gods hold one end of a monstrous snake, while 92 demons grip the other. The snake is wrapped round the holy Mount Mandara which rises from the Ocean of Milk. By pulling alternately they are attempting to twist the mountain and thus churn the Ocean of Milk into amrita, the elixir of everlasting life.
Gods heaving on a giant snake
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat
Apsaras dance above the Ocean, while the ‘waters’ teem with marine life.

Dancing Apsaras
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat
After overcoming various difficulties they succeed and the Ocean gives birth to Airavata, the three headed elephant god and Lakshmi the goddess of beauty who becomes the wife of Vishnu. The demons abscond with the amrita but Vishnu intervenes to ensure that eternal life is reserved for the gods. Some carving is damaged, some has been restored, but in the most sheltered sites the original is in excellent condition.

We reached the second enclosure by way of the Gallery of a Hundred Buddhas, the statues collected here during the temple's later incarnation as a Buddhist monastery. Some were moved to Angkor conservation in 1970, the rest were destroyed along with much else, by the Khmer Rouge.
Second level gallery from the top of the first enclosure
Angkor Wat
1300 apsaras, each one unique, filled the gallery enclosing the second level.

Second level gallery, Angkor Wat

The stone stairs to the third level are steep, narrow and uneven. In the past they were sometimes open to visitor and sometimes closed depending on how many accidents there had been recently. Now, a set of wooden steps, still steep but no longer narrow and uneven, allow anybody of modest fitness to reach the top - though some need rather more help and reassurance on the way down.

The old stone steps to the upper level, Angkor Wat

From the top the views over the complex.....

Looking east over Angkor Wat from the third level

.... and surrounding woods are breath-taking.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest
We made our way slowly down and out through the western entrance, before walking along the edge of the more southerly of the two pools flanking the central causeway. We turned to face the classic view of Angkor Wat, complete with reflection in the pool.

Looking back at Angkor Wat from the west
It was nearly lunchtime and we drove back into town where the company had laid on a meal in one of the upmarket restaurants near our hotel. We sat in a pleasant shady courtyard, but the place was seriously short of atmosphere, indeed there were only four people, including us, in the restaurant.

We ate a set Khmer menu carefully calibrated to upset nobody. S returned as we finished. 'Wasn't that better than yesterday,' he said. We disagreed. The restaurant in Kompong Thom may have been large and noisy and not, at least outwardly, as clean, but the vast majority of lunchers were locals, it felt real and the food was as good - if not better - and half the price. He found our point difficult to grasp.

Lynne was flagging. After conquering the cold she had picked up on the plane she was now struggling with a stomach problem and it seemed a good idea to have a little down time during the hottest part of the day.
The central section of Angkor Wat
The photo is a bit out of place, but so what?

We set off for Angkor Thom at about 3.30. A little north of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was once a city, surrounded by a moat and protected by an earth embankment. Sacked by the Cham in 1177, it owes its later fortification to King Jayavarman VII.

An 8m laterite wall sits on the embankment. The city, which covers 3km², is rectangular, the walls aligned north-south and east-west and there are five gates, one on each side with an extra one, the Victory Gate, on the east.

We entered through the south gate, which is the grandest of the five and is surmounted by a gopura, like an Indian temple gate. The causeway across the moat is flanked by 54 gods on one side and the same number of demons on the other, all hauling on a stone snake, as in the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Sadly, most of the heads are replicas.

South Gate, Angkor Thom
Inside, a wide grassy glade leads down to the Bayon, the only temple we would see today, leaving the rest of Angkor Thom for tomorrow. The grass by the roadside was covered with monkeys. Some chased each other round squealing loudly, while others sat in dignified silence picking fleas from each other's fur.

Bayon, Angkor Thom
Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by Jayavarman VII, Bayon was the last state temple to be constructed and the only one intended as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine. Later the central statue of Buddha was replaced by one of Vishnu and, when Theravada Buddhism became the state religion, Vishnu was supplanted by a stupa. It is now a jumble of stones on several levels and it is difficult to pick out what was what.

Inside Bayon, Angkor Thom

The most notable features of the Bayon are towers bearing four large, enigmatically smiling faces, possibly Jayavarman VII, one pointing in each of the cardinal directions. There are dozens of them, and the image is repeated on a million post cards.
Stone faces, Bayon, Angkor Thom

Some of the carvings are in excellent condition including those of the naval battle on Tonle Sap Lake in 1177 when Jayavarman VII decisively defeated the Cham.

Jayavarman VII's naval battle against the Cham, Bayon, Angkor Thom

Leaving Angkor Thom by the same gate as we arrived, we parked just outside at the foot of Phom Bakheng.

Lynne felt unwell so decided to stay on the car with the driver, the helpful and solicitous Gung (other spellings may be available), while S and I climbed Phom Bakheng to watch the sunset.
Stalls at the foot Phom Bakheng

Steep and badly eroded stone steps lead straight up the side but we – like everybody else - followed a well-made and gently graded track winding upwards round the hill. The path was further improved by the makers of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider who needed to haul their filmmaking equipment to the top.

On the summit, wooden steps lead up to a temple platform where all the peoples of the world were gathering to watch the sunset.

The steps to the summit platform, Phom Bakheng

S stayed at the bottom as numbers on the platform are limited, people being allowed up in small batches. Realizing I would be up there for forty minutes or more, I phoned Lynne to check she was happy with the idea before climbing the steps.
On the temple platform, Phom Bakheng
Being on the platform was like standing on the Tower of Babel; English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Korean, Italian and Chinese were the languages I recognized with more or less confidence, but I am sure there were many more. There were Buddhist monks, too, their vow of poverty not apparently affecting access to digital media.

Buddhist monk, Phom Bakheng
The views were spectacular. To the north was jungle, while to the northwest the artificial lake of West Baray was surrounded by paddy fields. The lake was constructed in Angkorian times and there is a temple on an artificial island. To the southeast was the distinctive outline of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat from Phom Bakheng
We watched the sun descend in hope but with little expectation. With a little finger's length still to go it lost its glare, turned into a fiery red ball and vanished into the bank of scuzzy haze blanketing the horizon. The assembled multitude shrugged its collective shoulders and headed downwards.

The sun disappears into the haze, Phom Bakheng
Lynne was awake when we returned but went to sleep as soon as we were back at the hotel. Later she was in no fit state to venture any further than the next door restaurant where she watched me drink some draught beer (not, as far as I could tell either adulterated or watered down) and eat a Thai red curry - or was it a Khmer curry? I am not sure there is much difference. The chicken came in a rich coconut sauce which was good, though a hint of chilli would have been appreciated; the Khmer, if not actually chilliphobic seem happy enough to leave them alone.
Starting down from Phom Bakheng

Working on a kill or cure basis Lynne had a gin and tonic and a plate of chips. At the time she pronounced it 'good' but it all reappeared later, so perhaps it was more kill than cure.

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