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…..

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Siem Reap (2) Angkor Thom and Other Temples: Part 8 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Next morning I left Lynne to have a quiet, restful and sleepy day and set off on my own with S to see more temples.

Our main objective was Angkor Thom, but the itinerary threatened three outlying temples first and we started at East Mebon some 7km northeast of Angkor Wat. Dedicated to Shiva, it was erected in 953 by King Rajindravarman as a temple for his parents; any king worth his salt first built a temple for his parents, then a state temple and only then one for himself.

Like West Mebon, which we had seen in the distance from Phnom Bakheng, it was intended to be an island temple set in an artificial lake, however the East Mebon Lake has long gone and the temple now stands becalmed in a sea of paddy fields.

Almost life size stone elephants guard the inner enclosure….
Stone elephant, East Mebon

… along with some cheeky bottomed lions like those we had seen at Sambor Prei Kuk.

Cheeky bottomed lion, East Mebon
The sanctuary towers are precursors of the huge corn cobs on the Angkor Wat sanctuary, and were once covered in stucco, though only vestiges remain.

Sanctuary towers, East Mebon
The carving round the sanctuary tower doors is high quality, though much restored, if not actually new.

Carved doorway, East Mebon
A kilometer to the north is Neak Pean (literally 'entwined serpents'). This is another island temple, but in this case the surrounding lake still exists – just.

The lake round Neak Pean
On the causeway across the lake was a bandstand of sorts where a group of amputees were playing traditional instruments - and we met similar bands at the entrance of other temples. Cambodia’s prolonged civil war led to large areas of the country being covered in unmapped minefields. There are believed to be between 4 and 6 million unexploded mines and although the Cambodian government, the UN and several very worthy NGOs are busily employed in mine clearance - all the well-trodden paths and places tourists might go are safe - there are still many areas where mine sweeping is left to the feet of local farmers. As a result there are some 40,000 amputees in Cambodia and these bands are a way of helping them fend for themselves. CDs are for sale - I did not buy one as I doubt I would ever listen to it - but I did drop in a small contribution whenever we passed a band

Amputee band, Neak Pean
At the centre of the island is a pond, and the small temple sits on an island in the pond, the central tower encircled by two stone snakes, their tails entwined (on the right hand side of the photograph). The pond is thought to represent Anavatapta, the mythical Himalayan lake which is the source of all the rivers of Northern India and whose waters cure all illness. Four more pools surround the central pool, set at the cardinal points of the compass and representing the four elements.

Entwined snakes, Neak Pean
Neak Pean was built in the second half of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII. Its purpose may been medical – bathing in the pools would be expected to cure most ills – and perhaps it was one of the many ‘hospitals’ Jayavarman built around his empire.

A horse with stone figures clinging to his mane faces the serpent’s heads. The statue represents the bodhisattva Lokesvara, who turned himself into a horse to rescue drowning merchants off Sri Lanka, which seems an eccentric way to rescue the shipwrecked – even for a god.

Loekesvara, with shipwrecked clinging to his mane, Neak Pean

Preah Khan is a couple of kilometers further east and is just a little north of Angkor Thom. Also built by Jayarvarman VII, it occupies the site of his victory over the Cham in 1191. It is in the care of the World Monuments Fund which takes a conservative approach, maintaining the fabric as it is and resisting the temptation to over-restore or even rebuild.

Outer wall, Preah Khan

That said, as we approached the entrance we encountered a group of restoration workers. The foreman measured several stones before finding one the right size. The chosen stone was raised by means of a lever so that a sling could be passed underneath it.
The chosen stone is raised with a lever, Preah Khan
 A metal tripod supporting a block and tackle was set over the stone and the sling hooked up to it. The stone was raised by one man with no great effort,.....
The stone is raised by one man with no great effort, Preah Khan
 and when it was at the right height the cart was pushed underneath, ....
The cart is pushed under the stone, Preah Khan
....the sling removed and the stone pushed away. The job took less than 10 minutes, human muscles provided the necessary power, and all the equipment, except the rubber pneumatic tyres on the cart, would have been available to the original builders – though they would probably not have had the hard hats, steel toe-capped boots or protective gloves.

The stone is pushed away, Preah Khan
With a central Buddhist temple and outlying Hindu temples, Preah Khan has been a palace, a monastery and university. Its current state of semi-collapse may be due to frequent extensions with the new halls being built on top of inadequate foundations, but its cause has not been helped by the encroaching jungle, particularly the giant kapok trees.
Kapok tree, Preah Khan

Preah Khan has a pleasingly rough and raw feel, like it has just been hacked out of the jungle.

Unrestored carving, Preah Khan
Leaving Preah Khan we entered Angkor Thom by the north gate which is impressive but no match for the south gate (see yesterday) and parked on the grassy area facing Jayarvarman VII’s elephant terrace, along with dozens of buses, hundreds of taxis and thousands of tuk-tuks.

The elephant terrace is 300 metres long and covered with a bas-relief frieze of near life size elephants. Most have mahouts riding on them and they are engaged in hunting, though some of them seem to be struggling with tigers.
The Elephant Terrace, Angkor Thom
We climbed up the end of the terrace….

The end of the Elephant Terrace, Ankgor Thom
 …. and walked towards Baphuon, with the causeway, the original approach over an artificial lake, to our left. The temple is surrounded by towering trees, and the jungle, with the chatter of tropical wildlife in the canopy, is as impressive as the building . I wish I could have put names to more of the birds, but no one could mistake the racket-tailed drongo that flew in front of us, like a blackbird trailing a couple of miniature badminton racquets.

Approaching Baphuon, Angkor Thom
 Eleventh century Baphuon has recently reopened after a restoration which started in 1959. The later temples were built on a platform, but Baphuon was not and, according to the photos inside, had disintegrated into a pile of rubble giving the restorers a huge 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

‘You may climb up’, S told me, ‘but I will wait here. There are no views because the trees are higher than the temple.’ And he was right, but despite that I did not feel I had wasted my time slogging up three steep wooden staircases...
The steps up to the third level, Baphuon, Angkor Thom
 ... and working round the enclosures at each level.
On the second level, Baphuon, Angkor Thom
 From the top there was an excellent view back down over the causeway towards the Elephant Terrace.

Looking back down the causeway to the Elephant Terrace, Baphuon, Angkor Thom
I missed the most interesting feature of the temple, a brickwork reclining Buddha, which I must have walked past without seeing. To be fair the outline is more easily seen from a distance, but as the photo shows it was none too clear even then.
There really is a reclining Buddha in the brickwork, honest
Baphuon, Angkor Thom

What little remains of Baphuon's outer wall is held up by tree roots....
Surrounding wall, Baphuon, Angkor Thom
 .... and we walked through one of the many gaps and emerged in the royal palace of Suryavarman I. The king's palace, the queen's palace and the house of the nobles were wooden and no trace remains. All that is left is Phimeankas, Suryavarman's state temple. It is a simple three tier temple built of laterite with elephants guarding the corners and lions guarding the stairs.
Phimeankas, Angkor Thom

From Phimeankas we made our way to the last part of Jayarvarman VII's great surrounding wall, the Terrace of the Leper King.

Two walls run parallel. The carvings on the outer wall are heavily restored, but those on the inner wall are originals, though some are in poor repair.

Terrace of the Leper King, inner wall, Angkor Thom
On top of the terrace is a replica of the statute of Jayavarman VII, the original of which is in the national museum on Phnom Penh. He is known as the Leper King as tradition states he contracted the disease, though there is no hard evidence for this. Behind the statue is the site used for royal cremations.

Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom
We left Angkor Thom by the Victory Gate, the more northerly of the two eastern gates, and drove a couple of kilometres to Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm

Dating from 1186, Ta Prohm is another of Jayavarman VII's monuments. Once a Buddhist monastery, it is a vast rambling complex much of it reduced to ruins by encroaching vegetation, most notably the huge kapok trees whose roots embrace many walls and galleries.
Ta Prohm, the 'Jungle Temple'
 This is the so-called 'jungle temple' which features in Lara Croft : Tomb Raider.

Ta Prohm, the 'Jungle Temple'
S was very keen to point out one particular small carving, which appears to be of a stegosaurus. Either there were dinosaurs in 12th century Cambodia, or this is a carving of something else, or it is a whimsical modern insert.

Stegosaurus? Ta Prohm
The Indian government funds much of the restoration and parts of it look suspiciously like reconstruction. Using local stonemasons to replicate the deteriorated carvings is fine provided it is always clear what is original and what is modern and whether the modern is replica, guesswork or whimsy.

Restorers hard at work, Ta Prohm
I now felt I had seen enough temples for the day, and this one never seemed to end, whenever we reached what appeared to be the final courtyard, there was always a doorway or gap in the wall leading to yet another section. I do have to admit, though that some of it was quite spectacular.
Ta Prohm, the 'Jungle Temple'
(That Lara Croft seems to have let her self go!)
S intended me to eat at one of the string of foreigner orientated restaurants that line the road to Ta Prohm. They look attractive but most are merely an opportunity to charge high prices for food calculated to offend no palate regardless of how fussy it is or on which continent it originated. When we found S's chosen restaurant was full, I interpreted it as a message from fate telling me I had been neglecting Lynne for too long and insisted we return to Siem Reap.

I found her somewhat perked and she accompanied me to the next-door restaurant to drink a lime juice and watch me eat fried rice with chicken - it is always good to watch a master at work.

Later she felt strong enough to make the short walk to the old market where we bought a few presents.

Outside the old market, Siem Reap
In 1935, traveller and anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer described Siem Reap as a 'charming little village, hardly touched by European influence, built along a winding river, the native houses are insignificant little structures in wood hidden behind the vegetation which grows so lushly along the river banks.’ Siem Reap has changed, the river no longer winds, the buildings are hardly insignificant, but the vegetation is still lush; it remains a small town and has retained some of that charm amid its party town atmosphere.

Crossing the Siem Reap River, Siem Reap
We walked back via the lively 'Pub Street' where draught beer cost US$0.50. Perhaps S was right about it being watered and/or adulterated. Mekong whisky and coke was also on offer at US$1.25, which sounded a good offer - if you ignore my long held opinion that people who put coke in whisky also strangle kittens and bite the heads off budgies. I later found Mekong Whisky - bottled in Cambodia but made God knows where - in a shop, priced at US$2 for the bottle. When offers look too good to be true they usually are, so I left the Mekong Whisky on the shelf and splashed out 5 dollars on a bottle of 'Crown 99' produced by the Red Bull Distillery in Thailand using 'finest imported malt from Scotland carefully blended with Thai pure alcohol.' It turned out to be all right, though I would not seek it out again.

I first heard of fish foot massage a few years ago from someone who had encountered it in Thailand. It has since spread across the world (though Lynne asserts it is bad for your feet and bad for the fish.) Siem Reap is the sort of place with a fish foot massage on every corner - some of them actually on the street.

Fish pedicure, Siem Reap
Later Lynne felt like eating, but only comfort food so we searched the area around the hotel for a restaurant selling western and Khmer food. We found a rather strange place clearly aiming for the 'slightly odd' market - seats on old baths cut in half, rustic wooden tables and a cinema sized screen showing cartoons to a sound track of doom laden music.

Beef and red ants, Siem Reap
For a very reasonable price they provided a pitcher of Cambodia beer, a pulled pork sandwich with French fries for Lynne and a dish of beef with red ants for me. I had seen this on several menus and as no other insects or arachnids were on offer in restaurants aimed at foreigners (i.e. those with written menus) it promised a painless start to my insect eating career.

Get those ants down you, they'll do you good
It was disappointing, it could just have been stir fried beef. I could see few ants - there was subdued lighting and anyway they are small - and they had no discernible flavour. When I had finished Lynne captured this pleasing image of an ant clinging to a grain of rice like it was a life belt. For me it was the highlight of the meal, but Lynne got better value from her sandwich and chips.

It's all over for this ant

Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

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