CAMBODIA TALES 1998
A Dozen Temples in One Day
With a busy day of temple touring ahead of us, Soydy was waiting outside the hotel doors at 7.30am sharp. The streets were already busy as he drove his Honda out past the Grand d'Angkor hotel, through the ticket checkpoint and alongside the moat surrounding Angkor Wat before reaching the tenth century, five-tower temple of Prasat Kravan. Two of the reconstructed towers contain unique and quite remarkable brick reliefs on their inside walls, of Vishnu and his consort, Lakshmi and the early morning sunlight made viewing them a little easier. Cattle lounging in front of the temple and a handful of young children demonstrating their flip-flop throwing prowess were our only companions. Three of the girls were playing 'lot antak', a version of high jump using rubber bands linked together and very popular throughout Cambodia.
A tower with four faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, a favourite design of its builder Jayavarman VII, signalled the entrance to our next stop, Banteay Kdei, where Soydy remained with his moto and I ventured down the grassy path to the main temple on my own. The temple is a semi-ruin with a limited amount of carving and I found myself almost completely alone throughout my twenty minute stay. The only other person I encountered was a very young girl, all on her own, aged no more than four or five years old, who was collecting small sticks. I gave her a necklace and took her picture but failed to elicit even a smile (left). Rejoining Soydy, we walked across the road to a large lake called Srah Srang, which Jayavarman VII established in the twelfth century amid a period of frantic temple construction. The stalls nearby were quiet and devoid of the expected souvenir sellers, although the ubiquitous group of naked children were, as usual, jumping off the landing stage and into the water. As we approached, the girls hurriedly slipped their clothes on although the young boys carried on regardless of our arrival. We took the opportunity to sit and rest on the platform with its naga balustrades and stone lions overlooking a tranquil scene, interrupted only by the occasional shout or scream of laughter from the boys below. The four girls meanwhile, still wet from their earlier swim, sat down next to us to play a game with small shells and rounded stones.
A favourite temple of many travellers to the Angkor complex including myself is Ta Prohm and that was our next destination. Constructed in the reign of Jayavarman VII, the French archaeologists of the last century, responsible for much of the repair work that makes Angkor what it is today, decided to leave the temple as they found it. The result is a fascinating, romantic and eerie experience rivalled only by the sheer enormity of Angkor Wat and the uniqueness of the Bayon. Soydy dropped me off at the eastern entrance gateway and we agreed to meet in an hour's time at the main western gate. A long path led to the central temple complex and its labyrinth of corridors, towers, halls and courtyards. The most striking feature of Ta Prohm are the giant banyan and fig trees that straddle and grip the walls and stonework of the temple and frame the doorways, windows and apsara carvings with their extended roots (right). Clambering over fallen debris, I encountered an aged gentleman sweeping leaves from the same path where I'd met him the year before. His beaming toothless grin as I handed him a photograph of himself was a moment to savour. The temple was in such a chaotic state that at one stage I became a little disorientated before finding my bearings again and finally heading for the exit to meet Soydy as arranged. The 400 metre walk to the western entrance with its Jayavarman trademark tower and four faces was interrupted by a tiny girl, insistent in her "one dollar, one dollar, one dollar..." drone for the small hand-drum which she grasped tightly and a small group of children dancing to the tinkling music provided by their grandfather.
Heading back towards the city walls of Angkor Thom, we took a narrow path to the rear entrance of the impressive five-tiered pyramid, Ta Keo, built in the tenth century by Jayavarman V but which remained unfinished and undecorated. A very steep climb to the top demanded a rest alongside a couple of Scandinavian travellers and two young girls who appeared from nowhere but appreciated the balloons I gave them. A short distance away, we stopped at the twin temples of Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, separated by the main road leading to the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom. Both temples were finished early in the twelfth century and are similar in style and decoration. Thommanon has the best preserved of the female divinities and carved lintels while Chau Say Tevoda was being prepared for a reconstruction project by a Chinese team who were measuring and placing numbered stickers on stone blocks lying on the floor. As we approached the massive Victory gate, identical to the better-known and oft-photographed South Gate but without the reconstructed causeway and stone figures, we stopped for a few pictures (above) before speeding off back towards Siem Reap for lunch at the Ang Krapeu restaurant, near the crocodile farm.
After a quick nap, Soydy reappeared and we returned to the temple complex, this time heading for the causeway leading to Angkor Wat. I'd promised Noung, a young souvenir seller that I'd met the day before, that I'd return to collect a photograph she'd offered me and I had every intention in keeping my promise. At the end of the causeway, we asked a few youngsters if they knew Noung and were directed to the refreshment stalls near one of the pools in front of the main complex. As we approached, Noung rushed forward to greet us and called for chairs to be brought for her guests. With Soydy's help, she introduced me to a long line of friends and with her mother, Soy Chhum, told us more of their life living and working in the Angkor area. As we said our final goodbyes, Noung touchingly gave me a silk krama as a gift, in addition to the prized photo that she'd handed me on our arrival. I felt very humble to be accorded such generosity of spirit. Leaving the causeway, a newly married bride and groom, who'd visited Angkor Wat for luck and pictures for the family album, posed for my camera, as well as some friendly monks (right). Soydy drove straight through Angkor Thom, stopping briefly at the North Gate for a picture or two, before continuing onto the western entrance of Preah Khan.
Another Jayavarman VII structure, Preah Khan's long walkway is flanked by stone boundary posts and head-less deities pulling a naga above a moat before passing through a massive entry tower. Nearby, a small World Monuments Fund hut explains the conservation work they've carried out at the site. The central temple area is a collection of halls, galleries and pavilions, with Ta Prohm-like trees in evidence, collapsed masonry and blocked passages as well as delicately carved apsara friezes, linga and bas-reliefs. A unique two-storey building, its purpose unknown, and a re-constructed 'dharmasala' (rest house) completed my visit as I headed for the eastern exit and its array of head-less stone guardians and carved boundary posts.
In a brief detour from the main road, we quickly viewed the rarely-visited temples of Banteay Prei and Prasat Prei, both in a sorry state of disrepair, before moving onto Neak Pean, a unique collection of five ponds built by Jayavarman VII. Accompanied by two young girls vying for my custom at their stall at the temple's entrance, I showed them a picture of a girl I'd photographed the year before. They instantly recognised it as their friend, Somaly and incredibly, she was sitting in exactly the same place as I'd seen her twelve months earlier (above & right). She was surprised but obviously pleased with the picture and the necklace I gave her. The pools at Neak Pean were dry and access to the central pond and tower was easy, as it was to the carved spouts that once fed water into the four adjacent ornamental pools. We stopped at the drinks stall as we left and quickly became the centre of attention with a large group of children as I handed out balloons and knick-knacks and took the opportunity to rest and gulp down a couple of ice-cold bottles of water. With the sun setting and our thirst quenched, we retraced our steps to the North Gate of Angkor Thom, where we chanced upon a small troop of monkeys scampering across the road and amongst the trees, who seemed as interested in us as we were in them. It was an unusual and unexpected way to round off another satisfactory day of exploration in and around the Angkor complex.
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