CAMBODIA TALES 1998
In and Around Angkor Thom
A dawn visit to see an Angkor Wat sunrise had been a tasty appetizer for my first full day of exploration at the Angkor site, some seven kilometres north of Siem Reap town. Returning to the site after breakfast at my hotel, the Stung Siem Reap, Soydy moto'd past the causeway leading to Angkor Wat and on towards the impressive South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom, one of five spectacular gateways into the Royal City founded by Jayavarman VII in the twelfth century and covering an area of nine square kilometres.
In the distance, a minibus had just dropped its passengers at the causeway leading to the gate, so I tapped Soydy on the shoulder and pointed in the direction of the smaller and rarely-visited temples of Baksei Chamkrong and Prasat Bei as our first stop. Both temples are set back amongst the trees and sandwiched between Phnom Bakheng and the moat surrounding the Royal City. Baksei Chamkrong is a tall four-tiered brick temple lacking decoration, while Prasat Bei comprises three ruined brick shrines on a raised platform. I walked the 100 metres or so to the South Gate (above & left) whilst Soydy collected his moto. Devoid of tourists and bathed in glorious sunlight, its causeway is bordered by 54 stone gods and demons, each pulling on a giant naga serpent in a representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk (depicted in more detail in the reliefs at Angkor Wat) and leading to a monumental gateway.
Some of the heads of the stone figures are concrete copies as the originals have either been stolen or whisked away to the Angkor Conservatory for safekeeping. At the top of the twenty metre high gateway, four giant faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara smile benignly down upon more reliefs and Indra sat on a three-headed elephant. One of the most photographed areas of the whole Angkor temple site, I was approached by a temple official while snapping away and asked to produce my ticket stub, whereupon he was profoundly apologetic for disturbing me. Through the gate, we continued along a paved road, lined with tall trees, until the road forked and directly before us lay the extraordinary Bayon. Soydy dropped me off on the southern side and we agreed to reunite at the northern exit point an hour later. From a distance, the Bayon resembles a chaotic jumble of stone, lacking the classical shape and detail of other temples. However, up close, it takes on another form altogether and is a maze of galleries, towers and passageways on three levels, with huge smiling faces, identical to those at the South Gate, appearing from every angle. It is quite simply a fascinating, awe-inspiring and incredible example of Khmer architecture.
The bas-reliefs, carved at the beginning of the 13th century, present in glorious detail, battle scenes between the Khmer and their arch enemy, the Cham as well as focusing on everyday life, military parades and religious ritual. They run along both the outside and inner walls of the whole temple, measuring 1,200 metres in length and totalling 11,000 separate figures. Normally viewed in a clockwise direction, the reliefs are on three tiers and are remarkable in their detail and variety. A handful of other tourists were listening to their guide's explanation of the scenes on display but fortunately, the rest of the temple was peaceful and empty. At the eastern entrance, I walked through the gopura to view the reliefs on the inner gallery, exposed to the elements like those on the outer wall, before ascending the steep steps to the second and third levels of the temple. On each level, I was confronted at every turn by huge faces, four metres in height; with four faces on each of the 54 towers at the Bayon, there are over 200 in all. Each face has an individual serene expression with closed eyelids and thick, slightly curled lips. On the top level a number of small shrines with Buddha statues were policed by laypersons offering incense to visitors. All the while, tinkling music filled the air, provided by a couple of disabled musicians seated under a huge Bayon face.
Next to the reliefs at ground level are sculptured apsaras and temple guardians, where I came across a group of seven children (right), albeit shabbily dressed but full of fun and mischief and well pleased with the balloons and knick-knacks I handed them. In one corner, a team of Japanese restorers were hard at work, renovating one of the Bayon's libraries. In another part of the city's Central Square, they had also roped off some of the twelve towers of Prasat Suor Prat, the North Kleang and the small Preah Pithu group to undertake extensive restoration work. Soydy was waiting at the northern exit as agreed and I suggested we move onto the Terrace of the Leper King before seeing anything else. This was my fourth visit to Angkor Thom and I was champing at the bit to see the twelfth century terrace up close, as a complete renovation of the site by a team from the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO) had recently been finished.
I blessed my luck that the terrace was empty of other visitors, although there was lots of activity closeby as the EFEO had now turned their restoration talents onto the northern tip of the Terrace of the Elephants a few metres away. The five-tiered apsara carvings on the front wall of the Leper King terrace were weather worn and paled into insignificance when compared to a series of restored carvings found in a previously hidden passageway just behind the facade. Walking between two reinforced concrete walls, multi-tiered friezes of royalty, courtiers, apsaras and nagas occupy the seven metre high wall face and were in a pristine condition. The sun streaming in from overhead created pockets of light and shade which only served to enhance their beauty. On the terrace platform above, a headless replica statue of the so-called Leper King kneels in splendid isolation (the original is housed safely in the National Museum in Phnom Penh).
The heat of the overhead sun demanded some respite and Soydy suggested we view a couple of small temples nearby, located in the shade of a group of trees. A sandy path led initially to Tep Pranam, 100 metres north west of the Leper King terrace. Formerly a ninth century monastery, all that's left are stone lions, a naga balustrade and a large reconstructed Buddha statue, wrapped in an orange sash. A little further on, Preah Palilay's naga and cruciform terrace leads onto a gopura with attractive lintels and a crumbling central tower shaped like a chimney and surrounded by tall silk trees. We took a brief detour across the open spaces of the Central Square to a line of food stalls for an ice-cold pepsi and some playful banter with the female stall-holders and their children. This preceded an equally brief visit to the temple-mountain of the Baphuon, which retains little of its former glory as much of the central sanctuary has collapsed over time. The site was roped off and access denied due to major reconstruction work taking place under the auspices of the EFEO, who are using the latest computer technology to rebuild the temple to its original state.
The eleventh century pyramid-temple of Phimeanakas was next as I walked around the area of the former Royal Palace, now long gone and past two ceremonial Royal bathing pools, before pausing at the Elephant terrace on our way back to the hotel for lunch. Although the northern section is undergoing renovation, the life-size elephant friezes are interspersed with carved garudas, lions and small secret galleries along its 350 metre length. It was approaching midday when Soydy and myself climbed aboard his moto and headed back for Siem Reap. Between the ticket booth on the main road and the town, we took a detour to a newly-constructed temple named Wat Thmey ('new temple'; correct name is Wat Ateh Smaw Sann), a few hundred metres to the right, which I'd visited before. In the grounds of the wat is a white-washed stupa (right) containing the remains of Khmer Rouge victims found in a mass grave site nearby. This is just one of many memorials to the victims of Pol Pot's genocidal regime dotted around the countryside and a sober reminder that amongst the grandeur that is Angkor, Cambodia's recent tragic past is never far away.
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