I am lumping the four days at Siem Reap together as they were spent touring the various Angkor ruins. It has been said that one could spend seven, eight or even more days here but, unless one is a dedicated temple freak, I believe that Kuoni got it about right and we had plenty of time to visit the the important of the temples without too much rush. It is a fact that one can only assimilate so much knowledge in a given amount of time and as I have mentioned before the complex mix of Khmer, Buddhism and Hindu mythology which are found here leave the mind boggling.
We were back in 4 star luxury as far as accommodation went, the Tara Angkor Hotel,which could nearly have qualified as a 5 star which was the perfect place to recover after a hard days sightseeing. Air conditioned throughout, great spa, nice restaurants and free wi-fi in the lobby. Service also impeccable.
Our first day started with an elephant ride across the bidge and through theVictory Gate into Angkor Thom, (literally Great City) which was the Khmer capital founded in the late 12th century by king Jayavarman VII.
We were then deposited back onto solid ground and headed off toward the Leper King Terrace which is off the royal square and boasts a replica of the 15th century statue of the Hindu god of death, Yama. You really needed to know that!
The terrace is named because of the lichen and moss which grew on the original statue and was reminiscent of leprosy and this complemented a Khymer legend of a Angkorian king who suffered from the disease. This is a cheery way to start the day.
From here we moved on to Phimeanakas, a Hindu temple in the shape of a three tier pyramid with a tower on the top. According to another legend the king was supposed to spend the first watch of every night there with a woman who represented the snake diety, Naga. Not even the queen was allowed to intrude. He was able to return to her at the second watch. It was believed that if he did not show up each night disaster would strike the land. I do not think this ploy would work at home.
A short walk down the road and one comes to the Baphuon, another three tiered temple the original of which was built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva the destroyer. It was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th century and a reclining stone Buddha, 9metres tall and 70 metreslong was built on the second tier. Due to the inherent instability of the site much of the edifice has collaplsed and it is currently being restored with aid from the French.
Then on to the main attraction, the Bayon Temple, which sits in the exact centre of the city and represents the intersection of heaven and earth. It is a Buddhist temple but, believe it or not, has Hindu cosmological elements. It is famous for the huge stone faces of the Avalokiteshvara carved into the towers. One on each side facing the cardinal points of the compass. They really are amazing and there are vantage points which gives one differing perspectives. The smiling image is thought to be a portrait of King Jayavarman an has the attracted the dubious title of “the Mona Lisa of South East Asia”! There are 51 smaller towers surrounding the Bayon each with four faces. There are two long walls round the temple which carry bas relief scenes depicting legendary and historical events. In total there are about 11,000 carved figures. I cannot do justice to it here but i hope that the pictures on the page and the ones you will see on the links go some way to showing it attraction.
We were supposed to see the sunset over Angkor Wat but our guide, Srey Thy, suggested that we give it a miss as it would be difficult to get a vantage point due to the crowds and the weather was not the best for photographing sunsets. We were booked to see the sun rise over it (see the title photo) on the morrow and we were templed out by this time anyway. Like many other temples Angkor Wat started life as Hindu, dedicated to Vishnu the creator, and was later adapted to Buddhism. Not being a Khymer classicist I think Bayon has the edge but Angkor Wat is considered to be the epitome of Khmer architecture and is embodied in the national flag (so they must be right)! It is imposing and is a favourite place for wedding photographs. We came across this couple with their photographer on one of the collonades. Unlike in the west orientals have their photography done weeks or even months before the wedding and the photos are then displayed at the ceremony, often blown up to poster size, or larger in some cases. Angkor Wat also boast the famous bass relief depicting the “churning of the ocean of milk”, the Hindu creation myth.
The following two days were spent visiting various diferent Angkor city/temple complexes which were interesting in their own right and in various states of deterioration. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for some of the wanton destruction and lack of money and resources means that restoration many is unlikely to take place for years, if ever. There are acres of collapsed stone like huge jigsaw pieces that would take lifetime to put into place even if one had the picture to work from. Nature has also had quite an effect especially at Ta Prohm where huge strangler fig trees have engulfed the buildings. Our tour here was enlivened by a large group of Russians, who were probably the rudest and most obnoxious crowd that we have come across on our travels, climbing over barrier ropes to photograph each other hanging from porticos and completely ignoring the protestations of the guides.
As you may have realised Siem Reap is host to a myriad of complexes all of which have their own particular histories. The last place that we visited was the minature temple of Banteay Srei, Citadel of the Women. This is renowned for the detailed stone carvings and air of tranquility. Our final evening in Siem Reap was spent at the Apsara Theatre for dinner and a dancing display. The tables and benches are sunk into the floor so one is sitting with one head at roughly stage level. A somewhat different experience to western cabaret. This ended our time in this district of Cambodia and we prepared for the day journey to Kratie, a small town on the Mekong River and home to the Irrawadi dolphins.