Much is made of Angkor Wat being one of the modern wonders of the ancient world. Personally, I think the Bayon at Angkor Thom is more impressive, but I may be slightly biased after a 4:15am wake-up to visit the place for the much lauded sunrise. Whilst undoubtedly pretty, it wasn’t the blaze of colour and revelation I had been led to believe the experience would provide. Instead, it was just a nice sunrise with a fairly pretty backdrop. I say fairly, as unfortunately some repair work was going on at one of the 3 iconic cone towers, resulting not just in scaffolding but sheets of green tarpaulin which pretty much ruined any photograph you wanted to take of the towers. Still, it’s better than them falling into disrepair.
Cursing our luck, we instead explored the temple proper, including the seriously impressive bas-reliefs spanning the walls of the first enclosure. Each wall told a different story, from fights between gods and asuras, scenes from the Ramanya and Maharabhata, the striking “churning of the sea of milk” which we’d seen at Preah Khan but this time engraved in a wall, and the Heavens and Hells gallery which has shows a stark contrast between the two with some hells depicting people having their heads caved in, being sawn in half, having nails hammered into every inch of their body, and so on. One of the guides said that the nails were due to people lying about taxes. Harsh. Most of the bas-reliefs were 60-90 metres in length, and are worthy of all the plaudits mentioned in the guidebooks. Again though, it is worth investing in a book to fully appreciate the stories they tell.
The grounds of Angkor Wat are also large with a decent-sized pond (from where we watched the sunrise) and a number of other buildings dotted around it. We spent about 5 hours there in total, which was more than enough.
We moved from here to Phnom Bakheng, where we’d tried and failed to get to the top for sunset a few days ago. It was much quieter, as if people didn’t fancy a trek up the fairly winding hill in the daytime. Pleasant enough, with a good view of Angkor Wat’s conical towers, but definitely one for evening time.
The next item on the itinerary was Angkor Thom, which translates to “great city”. On approach to Angkor Thom, you’ll travel through the impressive south gate which has a causeway leading up to it, on either side of which is a sculpted version of the “churning of the sea of milk” (the imagery certainly gets around) which is more impressive than Pre Rup’s version.
If you’ve seen any examples of ancient Cambodian architecture, you’ll no doubt have come across the enigmatic smiling stone faces which the Bayon is famous for. Face towers abound in the temples around the Angkor park, with one face pointing in the four cardinal directions representing kindness, compassion, equanimity and wisdom. The South Gate is your first encounter with one of these, and grandiose it is too. On the ceiling inside the gate live hundreds of bats.
Angkor Wat is dwarfed in comparison to the huge complex of Angkor Thom which houses about 8 temples of its own. The most impressive of these is the Bayon, which doesn’t look like much on approach, but once you delve deeper inside you realise how much work went into creating it.
The Bayon has literally hundreds of stone faces within its walls, possibly thousands: no-one has yet been able to come up with an accurate figure that can be agreed on. They are everywhere, and the result is a spectacularly huge maze of corridors, steps and doors which will have you coming face-to-face, literally, with new examples around each corner. There are also a number of bas-reliefs on the inner walls, but these are pale comparisons of the ones in Angkor Wat.
The sun was relentless from 11pm until 1pm and by then we were ready to get some shade, food and fluids. On the way to one of the large restaurant clusters towards the bottom of the main road on which the Angkor Thom temples straddle, we stopped at the Terrace of the Elephants: a huge bas-relief of hundreds of elephants engaged in various activities, as well as a bizarre five-headed horse:
We had a decent dish of spicy chicken with lemongrass and a plate of fresh fruit. Bearing in mind we’d been up for 8 hours at that point, we were doing pretty well.
In the afternoon we explored the rest of the bigger temples dotted around Angkor Thom – the place is too big to cover everything in a day, probably not even two if you took your time. First up was Preah Palilay:
This was a small Buddhist sanctuary with a chimney-like tower. You would think that given the SE Asian location, the temples of Angkor would be Buddhist in nature. Not so, as the majority of them were built by Hinduist kings, and only a few of the buildings housed Buddhist imagery. Vishnu and Shiva feature predominantly as statues, in bas-reliefs, and in lintel carvings. Buddhism did feature towards the end of the 12th century but only briefly, and some temples contain a mix of religious symbolism which you are unlikely to see in many other places.
We wandered back up the road, stopping at the Terrace of the Leper Kings. This was a cool place to walk around in both senses of the word, as it was nicely shaded:
A little further on was Phimeanakas
Last on the trip was Bapuon, a triumph of restoration after some shoddy original workmanship caused the entire place to collapse. Bizarrely, the builders removed blocks from one level of the temple and attempted to use them to create a reclining Buddha in another part. It was never completed, as the sheer weight of the stone coupled with an unsafe base on a hill and some slapdash masonry meant the thing fell to pieces. Even the restoration (still ongoing) with modern building techniques has had its share of collapses, so goodness knows what the original architects were thinking.
And with that, the Angkor tour was finished. We trudged back to the tuk-tuk to enjoy a cool ride to the Angkor Wonder, a shower, and some well-deserved Anchor beer courtesy of Mr. Why Not. We said farewell to our new friends and the staff, including Sam and Mean Mach:
and packed up for a 7:45am trip to Battembang the next day.