CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Angkor Wat In All Its Glory
It was 2pm when Soydy, my guide and I headed out from Siem Reap to spend the afternoon at Angkor Wat. We paid a brief visit to the ruined tower of Ta Prohm Kel before parking our moto opposite the steps to the first causeway that I'd gingerly negotiated in the darkness before dawn that same morning to watch the sunrise. A group of orange-robed monks sheltered from the sun under a large tree near the stairway guarded by crouching stone lions, as we stepped onto the 250 metre long causeway. From the landing platform at the mid-way point, squeals of laughter and delight came from a couple of semi-naked, deeply tanned young boys who were jumping off the lower step into the murky waters of the wide moat below.
Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the twelfth century by King Suryavarman II to honour the god Vishnu and is unique amongst the temples at Angkor for its west facing facade. It's an enormous complex of elevated towers, covered galleries, decorated frontons, courtyards, gopuras, stairways and of course, exquisite carvings. There is a large statue of Vishnu, a place of pilgrimage for locals and adorned with flowers and offerings, in the gopura of the outer entrance, alongwith the first of thousands of delicately carved sandstone apsaras found throughout the temple. Each of Angkor Wat's apsaras is unique. Elaborate headwear, jewellery, body posture and facial expressions define each one, whether they appear in twos or threes or on their own. Soydy and I continued along the second causeway, 350 metres in length and bordered by a naga balustrade, broken up by ceremonial stairs at regular intervals. We passed by a couple of blind musicians playing flutes and stopped at the two ruined libraries either side of the walkway. A large pool to the left presented us with a magnificent view of all five sanctuary towers reflected in the water and we stopped at a refreshment stand close by for a bottle of cold water before heading for the left-hand corner pavilion of the main temple complex to view the bas-reliefs.
The bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat are exceptional. They surround the first of the temple's three distinct levels and with each of the four galleries having two wings, there's a total of 800 metres of reliefs altogether. Epic events are displayed in graphic detail and the first section we encountered was the Battle of the Gods versus the Demons. The reliefs in the next two wings are believed to have been carved as late as the sixteenth century and are of inferior workmanship. The next section, at the rear of the temple, is a fifty metre long battle between good and evil for the elixir of immortality and is better known as The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. This is the most famous of the bas-reliefs and is a theme that is found elsewhere at Angkor and beyond. The carving is divided into three tiers and incarnations of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Hanuman, Ravana and Lakshmi all make appearances. Continuing clock-wise around the first level, we viewed the badly damaged Heaven & Hell section as well as the Historical Procession of Suryavarman's army and the Battle of Kurukshetra before arriving back at the front of the temple and the main west entrance hall. For much of the time we had been alone, although half a dozen monks and novices from a nearby pagoda in the temple grounds, and wielding yellow parasols, had passed us at the mid-way point.
Through the gopura, we tried out the acoustics in the Hall of Echoes by beating our chests and listening for the resultant echo. In the nearby Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, few of the original statues that remain are intact. Most have lost their heads but are still actively worshipped and were draped in traditional orange robes. Up the steps to the second level and through the covered gallery, we were confronted with the first of some 1,700 separate apsaras, lovingly carved on the temple walls (left). Many of the bare-chested celestial nymphs have a polished appearance where visitors throughout time have rubbed them with their hands for good luck. It was at the foot of the steep staircase leading to the third level that I met Noung. Resting from our exertions before climbing the stairs, Noung was a twelve year old souvenir seller who caught my attention with her infectious smile and bubbly personality. With Soydy's help, she told me a little of her life selling kramas, t-shirts and cold drinks as well as helping her mother on the family stall, where we had coincidentally bought a bottle of water on our arrival.
The enormity of the central sanctuary was particularly striking as we gazed up at the five massive pineapple-shaped towers looming large above us and the view from the top of the stairway was well worth the effort of the climb. Not only was the temple complex laid out below me but my bird's eye view extended across the moat to the jungle canopy pressing in on all sides and in the distance, the hills of Phnom Bakheng and Phnom Bok. With Soydy remaining on the lower level, I entered the covered galleries of the highest point alone, except for two Buddhist monks whose movement appeared effortless despite the heat and humidity that was taking its toll on me. A few statues of Buddha are worshipped by the faithful in shrines at the base of the central tower, which reaches up to a height of sixty-five metres. Returning to Soydy and Noung, I gave her some photos of my own family together with some other knick-knacks and agreed to see her again the following day. She was adamant that by way of exchange, she would give me a picture of herself. She was so sweet and adorable, how could I refuse.
It was just after 5pm and we'd spent three hours at Angkor Wat. Soydy suggested watching the sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng before heading back to town and I agreed. As we left the temple, we paid a fleeting visit to the only bas-relief on the first level that we hadn't seen earlier, the Battle of Langka, which was bathed in bright golden sunlight and also stopped off to meet Noung's mother, Soy Chhum, at her food and drink stall close by. The observation point, known as Phnom Bakheng, lies a kilometre north of Angkor Wat. It too reaches a height of sixty-five metres and is crowned with a pyramid-temple in a state of disrepair, built in the tenth century by Yasovarman I. A popular spot for tourists to watch the sun both rise and set, it has also been used by various army factions in recent years as a stategic camp and communications post.
As we parked our moto near a drinks stall opposite the foot of the hill, I spotted two teenage twin sisters whom we'd met earlier in the day at a food stall near the Bayon. They readily joined Soydy and I, introducing themselves as Anna and Ang, as we began our ascent of the steep hill, taking care with our footing on the treacherous slope. Although out of breath at the top, the view over the forest canopy to the exposed towers of Angkor Wat was sublime and we stopped for a few photos before continuing onto the summit. On reaching the top with our new friends (left), we found we were not alone. Already a handful of tourists had claimed their spot overlooking the western baray, where the sun would set around 6pm and where a few souvenir sellers had laid out their mats and were busy pitching their wares. As the twins kept me cool with a home-made fan and the tourist numbers increased, the sky turned a combination of deep blue, yellow, orange and red as the sun set quickly in the west to murmurs of appreciation from the assembled throng. It wasn't long before we made our way back down the slippery slope, ably assisted by our two companions to whom I gave a necklace and bracelet each by way of thanks. As it grew darker, Soydy and I hopped on the moto and made our way back into Siem Reap for supper at the Greenhouse Kitchen restaurant at the end of a long, exhausting but rewarding day.
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