Cambodia Chronicles (Part 2)

Author’s Note: We are still on day 1 of Angkor Wat. Previous post covering Angkor Wat is here.

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Stop 2: Bayon

The tuk-tuk ride to Bayon meant some much needed air and cushioning. And how can one’s heart not be happy passing underneath a green canopy. Bayon is the centre of Angor Thom (meaning Great City) established by Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century. Angkor Thom was modelled, renovated and still important to his successors till the 17th Century. So here we were approaching Angkor Thom. It stood out because the bridge leading up to it, laid across the moat is a line of gods or ‘devas’ on one side  and ‘asuras’ or demons each in beautiful detail, pulling multi-headed serpents ‘nagas’ possibly alluding to the cosmic tug-of-war called the ‘sagar-manthan’ or “The churning of the sea-of milk” we had witnessed at Angkor Wat already. Everywhere in Angkor and in dances in Cambodia, this imagery is often invoked. This churning is also what apparently gave rise to the beautiful celestial dancers- the Apsaras. And this bridge-style is the case for all 5 entrance gates of Angkor Thom though the South Gate is the best preserved. After an obvious photograph or two, we passed underneath the arch or ‘gopuram’ (towering gate) with four faces looking in 4 cardinal directions.

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Image : Entering Angkor Thom. You have a moat, a bridge of Nagas as balluustrades with Asuras pulling on one side, devas on the other and a cool gopuram in the background

Unlike the builder of Angkor Wat, Jayavarman VII was a devout Buddhist and made sure everyone knew it as we were soon to find out. This idea of tapering towers with a Buddha-like stoic and calm faces (or Easter island heads-that’s what I was reminded of initially) on all 4 sides is stereotypical of the “Bayon”-style of architecture and we saw it repeated many a time after we saw the temple that give the architectural style its name.

It rose suddenly out of the wilderness as we drew near and the difference from Angkor Wat was immediately apparent. These face-filled towers laid out, so many of them all made up of bricks and may have more than 4 on one. So many of these had lost to time and were just strewn about in apparent dereliction. From the outside, is when the religious symbolism and architectural beauty is most apparent. These 54 face-filled towers (there are 37 standing), thanks to being of different heights, seem akin to a mountain as a whole. This, like Angkor Wat was to symobolise Mt. Meru.

We were amused to see bas-reliefs from two different periods. One was historical, showing the Khmer victory of the Chams and another set was based on Hindu-Mythology from a period later on when Jayavarman VIII the devout Hindu decided to destroy or remodel all Buddhist structures to fit his Hindu ideology.

Both Ismail and I agreed that we somehow enjoyed Bayon more than Angkor Wat, probably because Angor Wat is too vast and too crowded while Bayon is much smaller and we were not famished and had gotten used to the heat. It dawned on us that we were pressed for time so we rushed ourselves a bit to get to place three- Ta Keo. Not before we had watched some long-tailed macaques obtain coconuts from fawning tourists of course (The two of us do work with their relatives- the bonnet macaque after all).

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Long-tail troop chillin’ with some tender coconut

Stop 3: Ta Keo

After the majesty of Angkor Wat and beauty of Bayon, Ta Keo seemed anti-climactic. Like most temples belonging to the Angkorian period, it was to be a representation of the abode of the Gods..Mount Meru with 5 sanctuary towers, each with the stereotypical Khmer architecture (the towers taper as they reach the top) in a quincunx arranged on a 5-tier pyramid with terraces that was obviously not a pleasure to climb with the sun beating down with a vengeance. Jayavarman V had become King officially at 10 but when he took the reigns from his guardians at 17 in 968 CE, I guess he wanted to make his mark. So he began with Ta Keo. A large part of the temple is sandstone, the first monument to do so using material sourced from the nearby Kulen mountains. Climbing all the way to the top isn’t as exhilarating when the towers themselves cannot be accessed. The towers are bare, no decoration, no reliefs and no wonder. The temple was incomplete, some inscriptions suggesting a bad-omen in the form of a lightning strike that spelled doom or perhaps the death of Jayavarman V.

Stop 4:Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm (‘Ancestor Brahma’) is the second most popular temple after Angkor Wat. It was built by the chronic builder of things himself- Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and Early 13th century dedicated to his mother. The temple’s main image was Prajnaparamita-the personification of wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism although it reminded me of Tara’s role in Nepal’s Buddhism as I remembered from our recent trip, or even Saraswati’s in Indian Hinduism. If my first impression on approaching Bayon was that it rose out of the wilderness, Ta Prohm has been swallowed by it, though that adds to its as most would attest. Trees like Ceiba pentandra (the smooth barked- silk-cotton tree) and Tetrameles nudiflora are abound, penetrating into the structures, mostly held up now with scaffolding. The strangler figs Ficus gibbosa after strangling their host plants have made their way into the walls tearing them apart over time and now are one with the temple.

The effect is pleasing and we spent a good hour just witnessing nature take-over this marvel of architecture. And for once, unlike the “Temple mountain” with their “stairways to heaven”, this is a ‘flat temple’ which means less stairs and I was down for that after the climb at other places. Of course I had let my guard down too soon because we were yet to witness Pre Rup

Stop 5: Pre Rup

The unrelenting sun was about to set in a while and our tuk-tuk driver rushed us to Pre Rup so we could catch a seat to watch the sun set. It was 4:45 when we reached and we saw why he had rushed us. Made of red brick and laterite in 962 CE or so during Rajendravarman’s time as a Shaivite temple. Well, we were back to the dreaded Mt. Meru symbolism again which meant a hell of a climb. The steps are steep and quite far apart from each other so it is easiest to use both hands and legs to climb. We were almost at the top when Ismail’s camera’s cap fell. It tumbled down, rolling down almost all the way and I heard a collective groan from all our fellow climbers. Empathy is strong in such situations. Ismail went down to retrieve his precious camera cap and I made my way to the final tier with the quincunx of towers similar to Ta Keo. Only this time, unlike Ta Keo…this terrace was thronged by the masses gathered to watch the sky turn golden, red, purple and melt into orange, bathing the structures around in its glorious light. That’s what everyone was expecting but the sun was hidden by massive clouds and Ismail and I were whining about the fact that we missed other temples from our day-tour. But we decided to enjoy the slightly gloomy view and bear with the crowd right now. Acceptance is key and every cloud does have a silver lining and as I thought that I saw the golden lining…the clouds were dispersing and since we didn’t have the best seats in the house, I saw the large orange orb behind a huge tree and it might have been the exhaustion and the end of the day excitement all mixed together but my mind went blank and all I could do was think about my view. It was amazing. I must admit I’ve seen better sunsets but each sunset is precious and I was adamant I wouldn’t judge this one too harshly. As we climbed down, I looked back at Pre Rup under the sky quickly turning purple-as if it was a healing bruise (That is a weird analogy…yes). I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow brought.

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Dusk over the ruins of Pre Rup’s lowest level
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