Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Temples of Angkor

The Temples of Angkor. I'm not really sure how to begin. I'll start by saying they were the most stressful experience my camera has ever had. I ended up taking roughly 600 photos during my visits to the temples. If you consider I'd only taken 1100 in the 2 months leading up to this you'll realise that's a lot for my poor camera to handle in just 3 days.

My last blog entry left with me telling you about my grasshopper experience. I'd like to add that eating a grasshopper was one of my top 10 goals for my trip. I'm really glad I got to tick it off. But let's get back to the Temples.

There's a cheeky tactic for visiting the Temples of Angkor that I made full use of. If you buy your ticket after 5PM you're allowed in for the sunset and your ticket is still valid for the following day. I wanted to do more of the Temples so I bought a three day pass. The cheeky tactic still applied. Making use of this tactic, on my first day in Siem Reap, I went to the ticket office and bought my ticket. I then jumped back in the tuk-tuk and headed for Angkor Wat the largest religious structure ever built. The first view of anything is always the best. My first view of Angkor Wat was just a peek at the main spire jutting out above the trees. My breath was instantly taken away. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer size of Angkor Wat. I'd heard so many stories about it's size and grandeur, but that first sighting completely exceeded my expectations!

Angkor Wat catching the setting sun
We drove past Angkor Wat and headed to Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill) which has a temple on it's peak. From this temple the best view of the spires of Angkor Wat is afforded to the viewer. As the sun set Angkor Wat lit up with an orange glow and became more and more striking. If the climb up the hill hadn't been enough to take my breath away, the sunset over Angkor Wat did the trick. Thunder rumbled in the distance lightning struck far away and clouds started to roll over, but the brilliance of Angkor Wat was not diminished in the slightest. It stood there, almost taunting nature to do it's best to bring it down. It's been standing for 800 years, a testament to the strength of the empire that built it.

I left the hilltop buzzing with energy. I could hardly wait for the next day when I would actually go inside the famous temple.

Angkor Wat needs no adornment
I woke up early and joined the rest of the group which had been formed the previous day. Five of us in total. It's a lot cheaper to share tuk-tuks than to go it alone. We headed to Angkor Wat for a sunrise viewing. It was cloudy so the likelihood of actually seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat was slim. We didn't see the sun rise, yet it was perfect nonetheless. Angkor Wat needs no adornment. It is the most impressive structure ever built. Seeing the temple up close was much better than seeing it from afar. As you've probably gathered by now, it is huge, but what makes it more impressive is the amount of detail that it exudes. The walls surrounding the outer cloister are covered in bas-reliefs depicting scenes of the empire's history. Scenes of great battles and the crowning of god-kings are intricately carved into the walls and statues adorn each corner.

Bayon and one of it's many faces
After a couple of hours of wandering around Angkor Wat feeling completely awestruck we left to avoid the hoards of Chinese tourists descending on the temple from all sides. We jumped back in our tuk-tuks and went into the Angkor Thom enclosure. Angkor Thom was the walled city in which the ancient Khmer people lived at the height of the empire's power. It boasts some spectacular temples. The first one we stopped at was Bayon. I find it difficult to describe Bayon. My advice to most people visiting it would be to avoid taking any form of hallucinogenic drugs beforehand it's crazy enough already. Bayon, like most other temples, is enormous. But that is where the similarities end. Bayon is famous for the hundreds of faces which are carved into the spires and face the four cardinal directions. walking around it and looking up at the eerie, smiling faces is a surreal experience. An experience so surreal I ended up buying a T-shirt to remember it.

Baphuong temple was where we headed next. It was closed to tourists as it's undergoing a bit of reconstruction internally. I'm going to sound like a stuck record, but it was amazing. And gigantic. It was a pity we couldn't go inside, but seeing the temple from the outside was stunning enough. A little aside: Baphuong was a Hindu temple and Bayon was a Buddhist temple. The Khmer king at the time proclaimed that Buddhism and Hinduism can co-exist in harmony and so he allowed the temples to be built next to each other.

Looking at Baphuong down the main drag
After Baphoung we walked to the Terrace of the Elephants which sports statues of elephants and a number of intricate carvings of, you guessed it, elephants. The terrace looks out over an array of what I assumed were burial chambers for the god-kings. They were either that or just a field of (relatively) small temples. A short walk took us to the Terrace of the Leper King, which is believed to have been built for a possibly leprous king. Hence the name. Bet you didn't expect that.

Preah Khan doesn't look so big from the entrance
We finished Angkor Thom with a cold beverage then set off for the next temple. Preah Khan was that temple. We arrived at Preah Khan not really sure of what to expect. And what we saw was incredible. Preah Khan it turns out is the second largest temple built by the Khmer. It doesn't look it when you walk down the main drag as it lacks the height of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Baphuong. But as you walk through it unfolds around you and the scale is revealed. The architects were clever when building it. The centre chamber used to house a statue of the king's father. Each doorway leading to the interior is smaller than the previous one. The idea behind this is that the subjects would be forced to bow upon entering the main chamber and seeing the statue. Preah Khan also gave us a taste of what to expect from the next stop as it had a tree wrapped around one of the buildings. We took a break in the centre of Preah Khan, away from the now overbearing heat. WE rested and soaked up the grandeur of the place.

"To the tuk-tuks!" I cried.
A blend of nature and religious fervor
I didn't actually say that, but now I wish I did. Off we went, cruising in our tuk-tuks, to Ta Prohm, the sister temple to Preah Khan. Ta Prohm is the perfect blend of nature and architecture. Over the centuries trees have grown in and around the buildings of Ta Prohm. The buildings and massive trees intertwine and the power of both nature and the ancient Khmer empire is blatantly apparent. Ruins support trees and trees support ruins in a harmonious display of coexistence. Obviously the Khmer didn't build the temple with that in mind, but I think they would be proud to look upon it today and see what it has become. It is a beautiful temple and the forest surrounding it and becoming one with it truly makes it more astonishing. There were a lot of tourists visiting when we arrived so we waited for the masses to dissipate a little before really looking at the temple. This proved worthwhile as it quietened down and the sounds of the forest started creeping back. It made us feel as if we were the people discovering it for the first time.

The midday heat had set in by the time we left and we decided to have one last stop. Ta Keo was that stop. It is a lesser known temple but by no means less superb. It is a single building built somewhat like a Mayan pyramid. We climbed to the top and were gifted with a fantastic view of the surrounding forest. As always the carvings on the walls were very detailed and the building was monolithic. I keep having to thin of synonyms for massive to keep things spicy. After Ta Keo our day was done. I'd snapped roughly 400 photographs in 7 hours. My camera's batteries died.

The next day of temple viewing started at a more reasonable hour, but it was still early. The group of 5 had now been cropped to just 2. The rest of the people were heading off within the next couple of days and couldn't fit three days of temple viewing into their timescale. The further temples were on the cards this day and we started off with the furthest, Kbal Spean 60km away from Siem Reap.

The carvings in the river
I wouldn't call Kbal Spean a temple as such. It is, in actual fact, a river with hundreds of depictions of the Hindu gods carved into the rocks nearby. The riverbed is comprised of thousands of lingas (sacred objects for making water holy) which is why is is nicknamed The River of a Thousand Lingas. The walk up to Kbal Spean was a brilliant 1.5km hike through a dense jungle. At the bottom of the temple the river runs off a small cliff, forming a beautiful waterfall. The water was so cool and it was refreshing to splash over my face and feet. After cooling off a little bit we headed upriver and were greeted by the incredible sight of the riverbed adorned with thousands of linga. Around the river were carvings of animals and deities. We ventured further and found another small waterfall which cascaded over even more lingas. There were more carvings and more lingas further upstream. It felt good to dip my feet in holy water. I didn't burn like I thought I would, I'm obviously angering different gods.

The intricacy of Banteay Srei
A small temple followed Kbal Spean, the temple of Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is the most intricate of all the temples. The walls are all exquisitely carved to the finest detail. Depictions of gods and demons abound and the brickwork is very fine. The locals believe that the detail is too fine to have been carved by men thus the temple must have been made entirely by women. The belief is carried in the name which dedicated the temple to women. However, it turns out it could just be an ancient typo. Banteay Srei is actually dedicated to Shiva. We'd spent ten minutes walking around before the heavens opened. By the time we got back to our tuk-tuk we were soaked to the bone.

The nameless temple, understated yet brilliant
On the drive to the final temple of the day we dried out. This is testament to the Cambodian heat. I don't know the name of the final temple we visited, there are over 200 temples of Angkor I can't be expected to know each one. It was, however, one of my favourites. It seemed somewhat understated, yet it was as grand as any other temple. It wasn't the gargantuan structure that Angkor Wat is and it lacked the strangeness inherent to Bayon or the natural aspects of Ta Prohm. What it did offer was a fantastic view of the surrounding areas and it was from the top that I spotted rain coming. We saw the rain and crammed in as much of the temple as possible before we felt the first drops fall. We climbed down the stairs and headed to the tuk-tuk. Not 5 seconds had passed after climbing into the tuk-tuk before it rained like it had never rained before. Rain bucketed down in torrents and visibility dropped dramatically. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

Bakong, part of the Roluos group
Somehow the rain had stopped by the evening and the next morning I awoke to clear skies. It was to be my last day of temple visiting and the temples in the Roluos group were the ones we were headed to. These temples were among the first to be built by the Khmer and the difference in the architecture is apparent. We visited three temples in the Roluos group. Lolei - the baby, Bakong - the biggest and Preah Ko - a mixture of the others. Lolei was tiny in comparison to other Angkorian temples and only had four spires. If I hadn't seen the rest of the Temples of Angkor it would have been amazing to behold. Bakong had a lot in common with the temples built in subsequent years. It makes one think of it as a dry run for what was to come. The centre spire was large and the views from the top were beautiful. Preah Ko was the last temple we visited. It was a ground-level temple, which is to say it had spires rising from the ground (not from the top of a building). It had statues of lions along the main walkway and before the steps leading up to the spires. It was a good temple to end with as it had a blend of a lot of the aspects of other Angkorian temples.

You're probably really tired of hearing me ramble by now, but luck is on your side. My fingers are getting lazy and I'm about to finish typing this. I hope you enjoyed my ramble about the Temples of Angkor. I sincerely hope that you all get to see them one day. Nothing I say can do them justice.


1 comment:

  1. This is a mind blowing blog! I felt as if I was there, wandering around the amazing temples with you. Simply brilliant! I feel like leaving an out-of-office-message and heading to the airport. The Cambodian tourist guys should be reading this (and paying you handsomely!!).