Seeing is Believing – Touring the Temples of Angkor – Angkor Wat

On our second day of touring the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park , we began our day at Angkor Wat.  First, one crosses the broad moat surrounding the former city.  The temple towers are in the distance.  The bridge here is a temporary, floating structure, while the nearby bridge is being repaired.    20181226_094833.jpg

Our guide, Thearith Moeun, aka ‘John’, escorted us across, and instead of entering the interior via the imposing main gate,20181226_095320

we entered through this lovely side gate.20181226_095543

We stopped inside the outer enclosure for what is an obligatory photo with the towers in the background.  I look at it now, and feel the sense of wonder return.

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The wonder is somewhat tempered by the sad muck at the edge of the pond.  Before going further, I will note that despite the park management’s efforts at controlling litter, it is everywhere.  While it is certainly the responsibility of the park to provide places to put garbage, I also think it is the responsibility of visitors to pick up after themselves, particularly in a place which is still an active religious shrine.   It just struck me as sad and rude, that people would be so careless in this of all places.

We moved on, and the towers of the central level of the three-tiered pyramid that is Angkor Wat came into clearer focus.

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It is surrounded by a large courtyard, and an interior enclosure of four colonnades, containing bas-relief carvings of great Hindu tales.  The exterior walkway of the colonnade, all by itself, was just perfection, a symphony of balance and grace with its’ beautifully ornamented columns and lintels. 20181226_101658

There were 600 meters (over 656 yards) of bas-relief carvings, along the interior walls of the four sides of the enclosure, telling the ancient Hindu legends.  I will be content to simply show a couple of my favorite examples.

Here, we have a king and I’m guessing his general, on a great elephant, leading his armies, surrounded by trees and umbrellas.  This was a time before sunscreen.  I think the spiky adornments atop their respective helmets are amazing.  Those are serious hats.  I love the ornamentation everywhere – in their battle gear, the elephant’s saddle, necklace and headdress, even the delicately lovely, if seemingly silly, umbrellas.  All this beauty, in the service of depicting war.20181226_103018

Here, what I found most striking was the different faces.  The artist made sure that the soldiers he depicted were not just faceless minions, but individual people.  Even the ornaments atop the helmets are each slightly different.

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We gloried in the carvings through the south and east sides of the enclosure, and then John led us inside.  And there was a temple of Angkor Wat, rising above me towards a perfect blue sky.  I admired the steep stairs leading up to the grand, second level entrance.  I loved the layers of stone, striped by the weather through the ages.

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I paused for a few moments, in the stone-lined inner courtyard, just to take it all in.  I don’t know that I have words to describe how happy I am at this moment, just being awed by what I see.  I think the nice Roger captured that feeling perfectly.CAM_0185

You can’t rest long, though, because there is so much more to see.  There are devas.  Once again, please note the glory of their headpieces.  Not to mention the tininess of their waists.20181226_110705

There were intricately carved lintels.  This one appears to depict a human pyramid, surrounded by a snake with three heads at both ends.  Note the fierceness of the warriors’ expressions and the flexed arms of those on the lower levels.  20181226_110859

This is one of the stairs of Angkor Wat.  They’re very steep and the steps are tiny.   There are no handrails.  My thought was, you really have to want to go up, to use those stairs.

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While thankfully we did not have to negotiate these stairs, the ones we did climb, while modern, were still impressively steep.  The railings were handy if you needed to pull yourself up.

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Once on the second level, along with a limited number of our fellow tourists, we wandered through.  We found delicately beautiful carvings.

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The views from this vantage point were spectacular.

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There were monks, going about their business, once again providing evidence that Angkor Wat’s life as a temple is not past, it is ongoing.  I found it both moving and reassuring, that Angkor remains as vibrantly alive as the jungle surrounding it.

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I took a few moments myself, in one of the four cruciform areas, to once again, sit, and take in my surroundings.  And while the yoga assan may be just a pose for a photo, the desire to contemplate, to be in the moment as much as possible, was both strong and quite real.  I mean, look at that stunning structure, and envision, as I was, a king of old, coming out to sit and contemplate affairs of state, while sitting beside his private pool.  I felt glorious.

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As we left Angkor Wat, John directed us where to stand, so we could take the same photographs that countless tourists have taken before us, of Angkor Wat, reflected in the pool before it.   Its’ beauty cannot be overstated.   I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

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Seeing is Believing – Touring the Temples of Angkor – Day 1

I had done what I thought was a fair amount of research, prior to getting on a plane to Cambodia.  I knew the temples contained in the Angkor Archaeological Park were architectural wonders of the ancient world.  I knew I would see beautiful works of art in the carvings and sculptures still remaining.  What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, when faced with the reality of what was, to my eyes, a place of wonder and glory, concentrated in a few square miles carved out of the Cambodian jungle, centuries ago.  I was absolutely overwhelmed. I found myself regularly moved to tears. I stood gape-mouthed in front of beauty I had never imagined.  I was absolutely joyous at the marvels before me.  I experienced moments of profound peace.  In the course of three days of touring Angkor’s grandeur, I felt so many emotions, it is almost impossible to convey.  This is my best effort at doing so, with some of my favorite pictures of the temples we visited, taken by both myself and the nice Roger.

I am not accustomed to having staff, but we thought it a good idea for touring an area of Angkor’s size and had arranged for both guides and a driver through our hotel.  Our guide for the first two days was Thearith Moeun, a chatty and quite cheerful gentleman, who asked us to call him ‘John’ (left, with me at Ta Prohm), and regaled us with detailed historical background or told us the legends illustrated on many of the beautiful carvings. Our guide for the last day was a soft-spoken former monk named Hem Sothea (with me at Banteay Srei), who was also deeply knowledgeable.  Both guides were university-educated and government-certified.  Having Cambodian professionals take us through the park gave us an invaluable perspective, and they were appreciative of our obvious enthusiasm and eagerness to see as much as possible.

Our driver for all three days was a quietly competent gentleman named Polin Polin, who went by ‘Pin’.  The glimpse we had of Siem Reap’s roads and traffic upon arrival made me grateful that we had employed his services. Additionally, Pin’s apparently bottomless cooler in the trunk kept us supplied with both water and cool clothes to wipe our sweaty faces after each temple.  This small courtesy was incredibly appreciated.

Our first stop was Ta Prohm, of Hollywood movie fame.  We parked, then walked a short distance down a red dirt road to the temple.  It is beautiful, mysterious, an altogether glorious wreck.  It is also crowded. 20181225_102822

There were people everywhere, with everyone seeking to get the best shot of whatever they were told was in the movie, ‘Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’.  There was even a bridal party taking wedding pictures.  And that’s ok.  Everyone was pretty congenial, and the ruins of this late 12th century temple are beautiful.  But what I found most wonderful was seeing how nature takes back her own, with the trees enshrouding the temple over the course of the centuries.  Even Buddha seems bemused by his confinement.

Our next stop was far less crowded, as we drove over to Ta Keo, a gorgeous late 10th-century structure.   Roger captured my glee.She CAM_0073

This was our first encounter with the stairs of Angkor.20181225_134200

But the views were beautiful.  20181225_135745

And the nice Roger and I had fun photographing each other taking photographs.

 

There was much to admire here, but we moved on, to Chau Say Tevoda, where I was entranced by the ornamentation.20181225_124803

Across the road was Thommanon temple, from the early 12th century.  Most of the exterior wall has disappeared, so the interior temple and other buildings, while standing together, seem separate.  I was simply awed, gazing up at the temple mountains.20181225_130108

However, I had also realized by this point, as we went from one sublime temple to another, that sometimes, it’s good to just sit for a minute, and take it all in.CAM_0089

 

We had seen a great deal, and decided to break for lunch.  While it appeared to not be the usual practice, both John and Pin graciously accepted our invitation to lunch, at one of a number of restaurants along the roads leading to the main temples. The food was excellent, with a wide variety of choices and terrific service.  We ate very well at nearby restaurants all three days of temple-touring.

 

 

Our next stop was the south gate of Angkor Thom, once a great city, surrounded by a broad moat.  There are four gates to Angkor Thom, but the south gate has had the most restoration work.  The artistry of the elephant carvers is evident, and this was one aspect of touring these masterworks that fascinated me.  The temples and other structures are attributed to the great kings who built them, but they were, in fact, designed by ancient architects and built by both skilled artisans and artists, as well as laborers.  These glorious sculptures are their lasting legacy, even if their individual names are lost in time.  When I looked into these elephants’ eyes, I felt I was gazing into times long past.  20181225_131607

After the south gate, there was the Terrace of the Elephants.

Met one of the locals.  I was ignored. CAM_0107

We walked a short way, through a quiet area.  I was struck by how peaceful it was, and that this was once the middle of a bustling city, a millenia ago.  Then we were in sight of another glorious ruin, settling into the earth,  Phimeanakas.   And once again, I photographed the temple,20181225_133556

and Roger photographed me.CAM_0117

On our way from Phimeanakas to Baphuon, we stopped a moment to rest. 20181225_135043

The trees were just extraordinary.  Spung trees, strangler figs, banyans, in fantastical shapes and convoluted structures, embraced and enfolded everything they came into contact with.20181225_134808

I think it may be this aspect of Angkor as a whole that seemed the most marvelous to me. How, as many of these magnificent structures diminished and decayed, some magical alchemy occurred.  With nature playing a large role, they became something else, something more.  A union, perhaps, of structure and nature.

The last temple we visited the first day was Baphuon, also in Angkor Thom.  I was awestruck by the reclining Buddha which comprises the entire west side of the temple. 20181225_142740

It was late afternoon, and our first day was all I had hoped for, and more.  My eyes were full.  Rest was needed.  Reflection was also necessary.  As I scrolled through my photos on my phone, I had a sense of disbelief, as if I hadn’t actually seen what I had seen.  Even now, six weeks later, I am still experiencing a little bit of that, but what I’m mostly feeling now is wonder, that this place had come into being in the first place, and gratitude, that I was able to see it.  With my own eyes.