The Siem Reap Province in Cambodia is home to more than 50 temples, almost all of which are found within the boundaries of the Angkor Archaeological Park just outside the city of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. In 1992 this Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited by more than 2.5 million people every year. Encompassing about 155 square miles, the Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th through the 15th centuries.
Among this collection of temples, the group known as Angkor Wat (literally “Temple City”), is the best known and most frequently visited. It is a large complex, and it is the best preserved. Since I wrote about Angkor Wat in April of 2019, this time I will focus upon Angkor Thom, the second largest group of temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Angkor Thom (literally “Great City”) is an enclosed area of about 360 acres. It is a perfect square that measures about two miles on each of its four sides. The entire area is surrounded by a wall that stands about 26 feet high with a mote surrounding its outer extremity.
When my son, Michael, and I arrived at the Siem Reap airport two years ago, our e-visas were waiting so clearing immigration was a snap. Soon an air-conditioned taxi sped us along the winding, crowded streets of this small Cambodian city. We had barely settled into our room to rest from the stress of airline travel when the telephone rang and a gentle voice on the other end informed me that the “tuk-tuk” we had requested had arrived. So we scurried down and found the contraption parked in the hotel’s forecourt. A young and enthusiastic driver welcomed us aboard.
The tuk-tuk is known by many different names throughout the world but “rickshaw” is perhaps the best known. The modern-day tuk-tuk, however, is not pulled along by animal or human force as in centuries past. Rather, today the compartment for passengers is affixed to motorcycle. In fact the tuk-tuk earned its name from the sound the motorcycle’s engine makes as it chugs along. Tuk-tuks are especially advantageous (and inexpensive) in a city like Siem Reap where they provide a quick and comfortable means of travel from the city to the magnificent ruins of Angkor Thom. We had requested the tuk-tuk for the late afternoon so that we could pick up our passes for the Angkor temples. If you purchase your ticket after 5 p.m. for the next day(s) you are allowed into the park until closing for free! We wanted to take advantage of this free “sneak preview” and also to witness a sunset over Angkor Thom. The sites close at 5:30, so we did not have much time. We hopped aboard our tuk-tuk and sped past the concession area as elephants and their passengers were returning. The driver assured us that he knew exactly where we needed to be to witness a “breathtaking” sunset. He explained that the area known as Pre Rup provided an incredible view and could be easily reached within our limited time frame. My tour book explained that the main temple here was built in 961 AD and its five towers rise majestically over a pyramidal structure representing the sacred Mount Meru. That description turned out to be correct, if understated. The Temple did exhibit the ravages of time but yet retained much of its original beauty. The architecture and carving were absolutely stunning. The natural lighting on the structure was quite exquisite as it reflected the rays of an ever-diminishing sun. What a sunset it was!
The next morning we again ordered up a tuk-tuk for the short ride to Angkor Thom. There are five entry gates into Angkor Thom, one bisecting each side of the wall, except on the east side where there are two entrances. We entered through the south gate which is on the main road from Angkor Wat. The first time I came here, I must say, it was the approach to these gates that really grabbed my attention. Taking in all of the grandeur of the gate itself, as well as the ornate figures that lined the bridge leading up to it, I found it difficult to escape the illusion that I was really Indiana Jones about to unearth some heretofore unknown, monumental treasure hidden within.
The south gate is approached by via a causeway that extends about 150 feet across the moat. On each side are “railings” composed of 54 stone figures engaged in the performance of the famous myth of the “Churning of the Ocean.” On the left side are 54 “guardian” gods who pull at the head of a snake, while on the right side 54 “demon” gods who pull at the snake’s tail in the opposite direction. According to this myth this kind of tug of war with the snake “churns” the oceans. By alternating back and forth, the ocean was literally “milked,” thus forming the earth and the cosmos.
The central tower of the stone gate is capped by three towers that face the four directions (the central tower faces both out and in). Below them at the base of the gate are two sets of elephant statues that flank the entrance. Sitting on each elephant is a figure of the god Indra carrying his usual weapon, the lightning bolt. The gate itself is shaped like an upside-down “U.”
Bayon has long been known as one of the most impressive, unique, and mysterious temples in all of Cambodia. It was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. This great citadel sits at the heart of Angkor Thom – the last capital of the Khmer empire. But its location at the center of the Angkor Thom complex was unknown for many years because the area was for centuries a dense jungle. After the decline of the Khmer empire, Angkor populations were left, and the Bayon temple was also abandoned among the trees and undergrowth. After centuries of abandonment, the Bayon Temple was restored in 1995. Further research revealed that every roadway from the gates of Angkor Thom ran directly to Bayon.
The Bayon Temple is easily the most iconic and recognizable temple in Angkor Thom. This large and imposing structure is a richly decorated Khmer Buddhist temple that has many impressive features. The downstairs corridor has 11,000 reliefs carved along a 3800 foot long stone wall. The temple consists of three floors with the first and second floors built in the shape of a square. The third floor is circular with many towers and stone faces. These stone faces appear to smile serenely as they peer down from their perch atop the gothic towers that rise from this upper terrace. Because these faces bear a striking resemblance to Jayavarman VII, some scholars have concluded that the king considered himself a “god-king” within the context of Buddhism.
As I walked around this temple snapping photos, I noticed that no matter my vantage point, at least a dozen stone heads were in view at any given moment. Some appeared as poised profiles contrasted with others that featured full faces with slightly curved lips and almond-shaped eyes. These faces are placed at varying heights on the towers and their faces glare down at you from every angle inspiring a feeling of awe if not fear. As a result of its eastward orientation, Bayon is best viewed in the early morning when the soft, emerging light of a new sun slowly illuminates one face after another. Late afternoon is good too because the same thing happens in reverse on the west side when each face gradually fades into the evening shadows.
All of this said, the simple fact is that the Angkor Archaeological Park is a very far away from Georgia. The journey there requires long flights and a high degree of patience and perseverance. Cambodia’s infrastructure is sub-standard when compared to the West and even to China. Generally, Cambodia reflects the toll that years of war takes upon a country. It is incredibly hot and its cities are dirty and often littered with trash. Poverty is rampant, and there are more than enough scam artists who prey upon tourists lying in wait. So a visit here requires careful planning and an extraordinary amount of determination. But the rewards are great and the sights are unforgettable.
It was Saint Augustine who said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Another wise traveler proclaimed, “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” And you won’t be either. So, if you have the chance, why not go?
Next time: “The Ancient City of Ephesus”