A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Temples of Angkor

With a 7 day temple pass in hand we gallivanted around a half dozen or so other temples around Angkor. What follows are the highlights.

Angkor Thom is a massive temple complex covering nine square kilometers, built in the late 12th century as capital city of Jayavarman VII’s empire. The gates have long banisters with decorated ends sculpted into a naga, a multi-headed serpent depicted in an epic struggle called “churning the sea of milk”, which really creates a lovely visual in my imagination. The story is full of vengeful gods, long fought battles for immortality, and the eventual victory of good over evil. Quite a soap opera.

Bayon is one of the most widely recognized and photographed temples in the world, displaying an impressive array of 216 identical stone faces carved in rock. There are competing theories on the meaning of the faces. Some say that the king, Jayavarman VII, had them carved in his likeness or that they represent Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Since the humble, Jay the 7th thought himself a god-king, both of these theories could in fact coexist quite nicely. We came in the very early morning and had the temple almost to ourselves to explore.

Most tourists (upwards of several hundred) hit Phnom Bakeng, a hilltop temple for the sunset over Angkor Wat below. We opted to go at high noon, and although fully exposed to the angry sun, we were again alone with the ruins. We have successfully avoided the herds by visiting the temples extremely early or late or at off-times.

The real draw of Ta Keo is working up the nerve to climb it’s frightingly steep staircase for a view from the top. Or, more accurately, it’s climbing up and not worrying about the vertigo on the return trip down. With no handrail in sight, it is not a place for acrophobics. After a tentative start and second thoughts, Ron conquered his fears and scaled the stairs bravely like a little mountain goat.

Ta Prohm is the temple most known for a towering, gnarly rooted tree, made famous by Angelina Jolie and her ridiculously bad British accent in Tomb Raider. Everywhere nature crept in around the edges. Roots outstretched like alien tentacles rising towards the sky.

Beng Mealea is a real adventurers temple, some 77 km outside of Siem Reap, accessible by private hired car. Where Ta Prohm has tamed the encroaching wilds, Beng Melea has succumbed fully. Massive trees have upended walls, roots strangled windows and doorways in a suffocating embrace, like the entire temple is simultaneously being lifted into the air and devoured by the jaws of the jungle. Through the ravages of time, the roofs of galleries have collapsed into piles of hefty sugar cube-like stones, that you can clamber over and explore like a real tomb raider. The twists and turns through the rubble is not a clear path, so the provided guide (for a small donated tip) helps you around the temple. At one point we saw a sign warning about mines and although we were reassured that the area had been swept, we found ourselves walking in our guides every footprint from there on out.

Banteay Srei is known as the jewel of Khmer Art and is a small, elaborately decorated temple built out of red sandstone. Beautiful in the early sunrise, irresistibly charming, and one of our favorites.

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