Scotsabroad's Weblog

February 22, 2015

Jayavarman 7

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 12:36 pm

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A God-king. His creative ambition and spiritual devotion – along with a wee bit of self-defense against the Vietnamese Chams – resulted in the magnificent temples and fortifications around Angkor Wat. Surayavarman the second may have built the most famous. The legendary Angkor Wat Temple. But, Jayavarman the seventh built the magnificent city of Angkor Thom – the capital of the Khmer Empire. This city boasted a population of one million when London was a small town of 50,000. He also built the incredible temple of Bayon. After his death in 1219 the empire went into steady decline. Angkor Wat was restored in the 16th century by the Khmer royalty as a Buddhist shrine. The rest of the area was left to the jungle for many centuries. 

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We tried hard to read up on the Buddhist myths and legends and identify the motifs, symbols and characters carved within the temples. What is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk all about? We were all too familiar with Lingas.

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On our first afternoon in Siem Reap we visited the Angkor National Museum. The galleries were okay. The gallery of a thousand Buddha’s was okay – although some were a bit on the small side. But, we learnt later that when the state religion reverted to Hinduism a lot of Buddhist sculpture was vandalized or altered. Certainly, there were numerous headless Buddhas scattered around the Angkor Wat site. We also thought that many of the treasures in the museum would have looked better back in situ. But, then we found out that there is an attempted theft of an artifact from Angkor Wat on a daily basis. Big artefacts too. Also, over time sandstone tends to dissolve when in contact with dampness.

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Our greatest pleasure was just cycling round the monumental site that includes Angkor Wat. We hired bikes and bought a three-day ticket. Exercise, fresh air and culture ticked all our boxes.

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The first bridge at the South gate to Angkor Thom is just wonderful. A balustrade of warriors on each side taking part in a monumental tug-o-war. Each guardian with a different dour expression of determination. We crossed this bridge every day on our way into the archaeological site.

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On the first day we cycled to the furthest away sites. Neak Pean was a large square pool used for ritual purification rites. We reached it by walking across a long wooden pontoon over partially flooded ground.

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Then we clambered over the ruins of Preah Khan. Piles of sandstone blocks lie piled against lichen-clad walls and blocking corridors. 

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The next day we visited Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei and another pool of ablutions, Sra Srang. Then it was on to Ta Prohm. Film set for Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm had literally been swallowed by the jungle – but now only the biggest and most photogenic trees and root systems remain. Many corridors are impassable, too many tourists and clogged with piles of stone churned up by the roots of ancient trees. An army of labourers rested under a crane or on the roofs of damaged galleries. Others stood around a stone block probably guessing where it could go. You can’t imagine how they get the pieces back together. 

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Then we decided to walk round the outside of Bayon. We marveled at the 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara. 

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Everyone was trying to take a picture that would capture this mesmerising temple. But we just sat and watched a massive swarm of bees clustered above an entrance. Every so often a ripple moved across the body of the swarm – making it look as if the stones themselves were moving. Angkor Wat looks good from a distance. Up close, Bayon can’t be surpassed.

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While Lucas took a catnap at the shaded entrance to Baphuon Temple, we walked the 200m elevated causeway, held up by hundreds of pillars. Baphuon was a pyramidal representation of the mythical Mount Meru. It certainly was a steep ascent to the top.

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We found it hard to believe that this temple had lain in 300,000 pieces for about 25 years. Restoration had halted during the Khmer Rouge years. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the records and cataloged details of how to put it back together.

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On our last day we stopped at Baksei Chamkrong, a small temple from the 10th century. It was a challenging climb. Inside Lucas was rewarded with another good luck blessing.

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We then headed on towards Angkor Thom. We stashed our bikes across from the Terrace of the Leper King. We walked the Elephant Terrace. A viewing stand for public ceremonies in the central square. The walls were decorated with parading elephants, trunks holding tails and carrying their mahouts. We walked back on the terrace and entered the royal enclosure. There is little left of the actual palace but the palace temple of Phimeanakas is still there. In need of some TLC. We climbed to the top – as you do.

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We then headed for Bayon with the intention of going inside.   We were not disappointed. We followed the bizarre directions through stooped corridors, avoiding descending tourists while passing precipitous flights of stairs. Eventually, we were allowed to ascend a flight towards the towers. It was incredibly busy up top but we still took in the wonder of the place – our progress monitored by the coldly smiling enormous faces. 

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We then headed for lunch and a final visit to Angkor Wat. I read it took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to build. But, they still didn’t finish it. It’s hard to predict how many elephants you need. It was an exciting walk towards the temple. It was mobbed with Cambodians and tourists of all nationalities. The temple is massive, believed to be the world’s largest religious building. We walked around the sides and back looking at the outer wall bas-reliefs. We decided not to queue for access to the third level.

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We sadly headed out of Angkor Wat for the last time. But, grateful to have been so lucky to experience the place. I now have a brass head of the great king on my bookshelf.

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