The hotel had secured the services of an English-language guide, I thought for our entire time in Siem Reap. I had read that the light is best at Angkor Wat in the afternoon, and at Bayon and Ta Prohm in the morning. I has also liked the idea of going to some of the “lesser” temples first and building up to Angkor Wat as the grandest of all; and I was thinking of a two- or three-day touring plan. But our guide said that the crowds get worse and worse at Angkor Wat as the day wears on, so that we should go there first (only when the day was over did I learn that our guide had no incentive to schedule based on a two-day schedule, because he had a commitment the following day anyway and so could be with us for only one day). Thus, we went to Angkor Wat first.
In the end, I am not so sure that I agree with the premises of the second reason for postponing Angkor Wat. Although Angkor Wat is the biggest and the most famous of the temples in the Angkor Architectural Group – when I told people I was going to Cambodia I just said I was going to see Angkor Wat, and that is the name that everyone recognized. I confess I had not appreciated that Angkor Wat was just one of several related buildings near Siem Reap. And after having seen several ruins over the past few days, I am not ready to agree that it is the best: I rather liked a couple of the other temples we visited, Bayon and Banteay Srei, a bit more.
Anyway, we arrived at Angkor Wat by tuk-tuk and had to park outside the grounds. As we walked in, our guide reminded us that this wat was built in the middle of the 12th Century (dedicated in 1150) by Suryavarman II, a king whose religious was Hindu, and as a tribute to Vishnu. We followed a a path through the forest until the trees opened up to reveal this awesome sight:
Angkor Wat rises from a set of galleries and enclosures toward the outside of the wat, leading to an inner pyramid that culminates in tall towers at the wat's center. We entered the temple and walked along some of the galleries running along the sides of the wat.
In the first gallery, we gazed at bas-relief carvings from the 16th century along the walls, including this portrayal of Garuda and of flames
In the gallery along the next side of the wat, carved in the 12th century we looked as these carvings of Vishnu riding Garuda and of the Demon King
The corners throughout the areas where we walked were adorned with reliefs of apsaras,
dancing female spirits
We then progressed through some of the rings of the temple until we could see the inner towers looming above us.
There were crowds up there, and we could see that there was a line to get into them. I would have liked to have climbed up for a look over the whole temple, but our guide estimated that there would be a 40 minute wait to get to top; we decided that we would rather move on to other sights.
After walking around further inside Angkor Wat’s inner galleries (our guide had no more intricate reliefs to show us, although I noticed later that there was considerably more to be seen), we walked out the back side of the wat. There was a large field spread out before us, with several buildings and other people hanging out. But instead of walking through this area (which, it turned out, we would visit the following morning), we walked back to the front of Angkor Wat to meet up with our tuk-tuk drivers. Looking backward we could see this view of the gallery.
On the way to the other wats, we stopped for lunch at the Triple K Restaurant in Rohal Village : We dined upstairs on the open balcony:
We next visited the wat at Ta Prohm, built in 1186 by Jayavarman VII. Apparently, the foundation was not done nearly so well as at Angkor Wat, because many of the walls have crumbled; in fact, it is the crumbling quality for which Ta Prohm is best known. The guide paused to note that the kings lived in wooden palaces, which have all rotted away; but the wats were built of stone which is why so many of them remain
There were detailed carvings to be seen in various walls
but the most striking aspect of Ta Prohm is the way that the forest has come to reclaim the spaces, with ficus tree roots and vines overwhelming the walls and stones of the temple
As we were leaving this area, Nafisa bought a mango from a local vendor. It came seasoned with salt and chili, She offered me a slice. It was totally delicious, evoking for me a passage from Madhur Jaffrey’s memoir of how, as a child, she would eat mangos this way. I told her I’d live to have another – I meant another slice but she assumed that I meant a whole mango for myself. I was surprised to be presented with this – but it was so delicious that I couldn’t help devouring the whole thing.
Next we drove into Angkor Thom, the old royal city built by Jayavarmamn VII. It was a 9 square kilometer city, surrounded by walls 3 kilometers long on each side (the walls having been added after the defeat of the Cham invaders from what is now Vietnam). We were aiming for Bayon, but we passed by an interesting structure that I wanted to stop to see.
It was a long flat surface
with sets of three-headed elephants at intervals along the way
The carvings on the walls depicted Garudas holding up the platform
Our guide said that these represented Garudas holding up the world
There was a stairway up to the platform, guarded by lions
Our guide told us that this was an ancient stadium, located in front of the now-disintegrated royal palace; he did not explain very well what sports had been
Across from the platform were twelve towers representing the 12 years of the Chinese lunar calenda
played in the stadium although he said that it was also used for large meetings. Research after the four was over tells me that this surface was used by Angkor's king Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to view his victorious returning army, and that the terrace was aligned with the west wall of Bayon.
It was to Bayon that we headed next -- the subject of my next blog post