Cambodia Part II: Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple & Ta Phrom

(Click to read Part 1 here)

Here it is, the part most people look forward to when I tell them I was in Cambodia HAHAHAHA. Yup yup, Angkor Wat and a few of their other temples! Angkor Wat in particular, is such big a part of the nation’s identity that its image is actually used on their national flag. I don’t think I have to say it out loud what their national monument and their number one tourist attraction is.

Believe it or not, there are close to 1,000 different temples in all of Cambodia. They have a temple for almost everything — an elephant temple, a monkey temple, even a women’s temple (which I thought was sweet haha) made out of a special pink stone.

Their biggest and most renowned, is Angkor Wat, the majestic 3km x 3km first Hindu, then Buddhist, temple built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Our tourguide says it was built in 1013 to be precise, so that made this year, 2013, its 900th year standing =O

A little trivia before we start off! Angkor Wat literally translates to mean “City of Temples” in Khmer; “Angkor” meaning “capital city” and “Wat” meaning “temple”. Cool eh? If only I paid this much attention back in History class during high school =P

We woke up nice and early on our second day of our trip so we’ll have as much time as possible to walk all the temples. Friends who have been before tell us that temple grounds can be unbelievably vast and may take more than a day to cover. They weren’t kidding. We spent an entire day just walking and stopping only occasionally for a photo or two yet we managed to cover only three of Cambodia’s main temples. They have many more that we didn’t have the energy for after the third.

Our first stop was Angkor Wat, because that was what we had come all this way here for, hehehe.

The place was crawling with tourists when we arrived at about 10am! Maybe it’s all the postcard photos I’ve been studying online of the place prior to finally seeing it with my own eyes, but I was expecting it to be quiet and somewhat deserted. For some reason, I felt a little disappointed because that meant I would have to share the place with all these other foreigners that morning. Hahaha, I know, who did I think I was right? But I really just wasn’t expecting so many people swimming all over the place!

We hired a tourguide to take us around the main temple and explain to us the history behind everything otherwise we figured we wouldn’t know what we were looking at anyway. It was a good thing we did because he imparted so much to us that was never mentioned in History textbooks or Wikipedia sites. He was quite the comedian too, spinning his own theories on why certain things were done a certain way ahhaha.

On top of everything else, he was also very eager to help us take photos, telling us where to stand and which direction to face for the best background lol. $10 well-spent I would say, he’s a tourguide and photographer all in one! ;]

A wedding photography session was on-going as we made our way up to the temple steps. Decked out in the their traditional clothes and hair arrangements, the bride and her bridesmaids set the perfect mood for the start of our tour. The whole time we went through the old temple corridors and ascended ancient temple steps, I envisioned the old inhabitants of the place who were dressed exactly like this, going about their daily routine some 900 years ago.

Here we go!

I was just crazy in awe with everything I saw within the temple grounds from the moment I stepped in to the moment I descended the final step to leave. Everything inside — the architecture, the layout, the wall designs — was so well thought out that it’s difficult to believe the place was erected in the early 12th century, when things such as cranes or even a lever pulley haven’t been invented yet.

What astounded me most was that it took only 36 years for the whole of Angkor Wat to be built when it took the Great Pyramids of Egypt a hundred something years. The people worked for free, believing that building this city of temples would appease the gods so it was for a good cause. With the help of elephants, they heaved and stacked sandstone that weighs easily a ton a block to build beautiful archways and temple wings that go up a few storeys high.

The temple columns alone looked like they took at least a few months to prepare — Buddhist sanskrit scriptures are painstakingly carved onto each side by hand. Check out the decorative piping along the roofs too! Not sure how true this is but according to our tourguide, there was no room for mistake because it is almost impossible to replace these boulders once installed. Whichever artist who accidentally carves wrongly gets beheaded to ensure they don’t anger the gods for desecrating the place.

This mural is actually an elaborate novel set in stone about the Monkey King defeating one the demon kings. You might be familiar with the legend of Sun Wu Kong from the Journey to the West tales? From what I could derive from our guide, they seem to be the same one, the one born of stone and who acquired supernatural powers later through Taoist and Buddhist practices. Fascinating isn’t it, how history seems to cross paths on so many different occasions and across so many different platforms.

Taking a walk down that corridor was seriously like reading a novel, only we had to have it translated for us by means of our very gracious guide who more than willingly did it for us xD

It was a very captivating tale, but one that was quite long at that so we had to take a break after a bit lol.

This big empty space above you see here, you’re not gonna believe what it was made for. It’s a big ass swimming pool. Yes, the King had asked for a private pool built in so he can take his royal bath within the temple. It was so sophisticatedly engineered that they had drain holes and everything so they could change the water too. I wouldn’t have believed this if I didn’t see the drain hole for myself.

And there wasn’t only one pool in Angkor Wat. There were four. FOUR!! Talk about resort living! Hahahaha. The irony was that he took that bath only once a year — on His Majesty’s birthday.

This soothsayer was offering some palm-reading and fortune-telling services but I read somewhere that it was bad luck to have your future foretold so I just took a quick picture. It would have been cool though to know what luck awaits me throughout the year hehehe.

Angkor Wat is the most well-preserved temple out of the thousands all over Cambodia so it remains an active worship ground for its people. Buddhist monks and other worshippers still come here daily to fulfill their prayers. It made a very enchanting sight, to have a slice of the past like this walking among the modern world of tourists carrying heavy DSLR cameras and fancy backpacks.

They had inner and outer gardens all planned out within the vicinity, with servant quarters separated from the royal bedrooms, etc. Some real thought had been put into the planning prior to building. They even had a special library from which historians were thankfully able to effectively salvage and curate a lot their ways of life back in the day.

The air inside was just one of a kind. It can be boiling out there but inside the cold stone walls, it’s the complete opposite. Cool drafts travel through the corridors freely in hushed whispers and if you breathe in deeply enough, you can just smell the rich earthy scent of the past.

We just fell so deeply in love with the whole of Angkor Wat!

More beauty awaited us at Bayon Temple. Quite unlike Angkor Wat, the majority of Bayon now lies in ruins, with crumbling walls and boulders that were once magnificent laying in piles around the perimetre.

I personally thought that just added more charm to the place. It really had the Indiana Jones vibe to the place, like if you stepped wrongly, booby traps would spring out of seemingly no where to protect an ancient secret or treasure buried at the temple’s innermost core hehehe.

The serenity of the surrounding woods juxtaposed against the chaos of the fallen structures made for a view worthy of a million dollar painting.

Out of the three we managed to visit, this was my favourite. It was quiet and deserted when we got there and we were able to explore the depths of the temples inside without thousands of other tourists getting in our way. With that kind of privacy, you just feel more connected to the history and the lives of the people who once lived in the place, know what I mean?

Hello, my favourite adventurer explorer person! =)

Alfred loved getting out of the bag and getting in the middle of all the action too hahaha.

The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The similarity of the 216 gigantic faces on the temple’s towers to other statues of King Jayavarman VII, the guy who built the place, has led many scholars to the conclusion that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII himself.

The place was no where near as big as Angkor Wat but because of the way it is built in the baroque style of Khmer architecture, we got lost trying to find our way about the place. Bayon has four different gates from which you can enter and leave the premises, simply named the North, South, East and West Gates. It took us a while to find our bearings and recognize which gate was which.

Balancing rocks!! I thought they were so cool when we discovered a bunch of them in a secluded corner of the West wing hahaha.They were really steady too, not even tethering the slightest bit when we huffed and puffed at it to test its stability lol.

I would have liked the spend the rest of the afternoon there just seated in a shaded spot and looking out into the rest of the temple grounds, marvelling in its natural beauty,  but the Ninja Rabbit was anxious to get to our next destination. Ta Phrom was next on our list, the temple made famous by Angeline Jolie and her film crew who chose it as the main setting for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Ta Phrom was a different kind of splendour by itself. Unlike the other two that was built in a proper perimeter fenced away from the forests of nature, this one seemed to be one with its surrounding trees. Grand trees hundreds of feet tall grow in and around the temple body, some through special cavities in the roof, some around the temple walls. It was a sight I’ve never seen before.

This, ladies and gentleman, was where Lara ran after that little girl in the first Tomb Raider movie. Recognize the way the roots of the trees grow on both sides the doorway like a curtain?

Major restoration works is being done to the place to preserve it. A big part of the place is already crumbling, the roofs caving in to the weight of the trees growing on them.

Vandalism has also taken its toll on the insides of the temple. Intricate carvings of the Lord Buddha have been hacked off walls and columns when different rulers took over over the centuries.

While we were just walking through one of the corridors, we noticed a group of tourists getting very excited over something. Curious, we asked one of them what was going on. She pointed it out to us.

Can you spy the little face  peeking out from between the tree roots? The little deity smiles serenely out at whoever manages to catch a glimpse of her through the harsh tests of time. What everyone was so excited about was the way the roots seem to grow around that face when it has roguely taken over everything else. It has since nicely framed the face carving like a purposeful wood and stone portrait.

I found a little door for little me! =D

This little boy was all sorts of talented. He sits in his small corner just painting the afternoon away. His works however, are the most beautiful watercolours of all things Cambodian — temples, sunsets, Buddhist monks on their way to fulfill their duty. He sells them for a living according to snippets of conversations I overheard between him and a previous tourist. This place just does not cease to amaze.

By the time we finished with Ta Phrom, late afternoon had arrived, bringing along with it an exhaustion we had no idea was chasing so close behind us. Dragging our feet step by step back to the Tuk Tuk where Ah-Mi was waiting for us took all the energy we could muster. I’ve only felt tiredness like this one other time, during the last few kilometres of my first ever half marathon lol.

If I can do it again, I’d opt for a three-day pass (we bought only the one-day pass, thinking we were superhumans and that we could squeeze in as much as possible before night fell). It would be nice to take your time over the span of a few days to really take in all the architecture and history of Angkor.

That’s it, part II of our travels haha. Blogging about it makes me want to go back to walking through those chambers all over again. It was so surreal, the entire experience. So surreal, and so, so beautiful.

Coming up next, part III: The Tonle Sap Lake!

Have a great rest of the week, everyone =)

(Click to read Part 3 here)

  1. Thanks for such an informative post :D Enjoy reading every bits of it, feeling that I was there too! And I never knew that it’s bad luck to have our future foretold :O

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