Extreme Templing, Day 2 - The big three
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
80Trip End Apr 08, 2006
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The Bayon, 5:45am
Day two began at what is widely regarded as the second most popular temple at Siem Reap after Angkor Wat, The Bayon. I knew little about this complex before I got there, apart from the fact it had a lot of faces and bas-reliefs. I read that although it wasn't a good place to watch the sunrise, it was good early morning to see the changing light on the towers.
I turned my head as we sped past Angkor Wat, and was pretty excited once we entered the south gate of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The Bayon was at the centre of this. First impressions weren't anything too memorable, just a big pile of rubble next to the road. I figured there was plenty more too it, however I couldn't imagine just how much!
The place was deserted when I arrived, and the security guard who checks tickets was fast asleep, so I didn't bother waking him. I didn't even bother checking my guidebook, and just went straight up the stairs to the centre tower. The place seemed a little claustrophic at first, but what greeted me on the third level is something I'll never forget. There were maybe fifty towers, each with the smiling face of Avalokiteshvara (some Hindu god) adorning the four sides. Wherever you went, she (?) was peering at you, or down on you. As the sun inched further into the sky, the colour of the towers changed, and the atmosphere is something I can only describe as magical. I felt like I was in a Tim Burton film! In the first 45 minutes I was there, I didn't move from the third level, and I only saw two other people. It really was incredible, and at this point it was easily my favourite temple.
I then decided it was time to hunt down the bas-reliefs I remember quickly skimming through in my guidebook. They adorned the outer section of the four walls of the ground level, depicting centuries of history from the ancient Khmer empire. I spent about an hour slowly walking around, with my Angkor guidebook, reading about each one, and finding the carvings. Some people would find this totally boring, but I really enjoyed hunting down the pictures that were described. The carvings were so intricate, it really was hard to believe that they were carved by man so long ago. It must have taken so long, and I could only imagine what the temple must have been like in its day. I slowly worked my way back to the third level of the temple, before departing, only because I needed some food and a coffee. It was difficult for me to leave this place.
Angkor Thom, 9:00am
After some breakfast, my moto driver Chorng sped me up to the northern part of Angkor Thom. He said I could spend a few hours working my way back to the plastic chair restaurants near the Bayon, and it sounded like a good plan. First stop was The Terrace of the Leper King. A huge wall here was covered in hundreds, maybe thousands of finely carved apsaras. A small entrance also led the way into a trench like maze where there were many more. Next to this was The Terrace of the Elephants, an aptly named 300m wall with hundreds of elephants (and Garuda's, the mythical Hindu half bird half man creature). This terrace also marked the entrance to the Royal Enclosure and Phimeanakas, which was a reasonably interesting pyramid, although a little uninspiring after the Bayon. It was a steep scramble to the the top, where there was a decent view of the jungle canopy.
After a brief rest, I doubled back behind the Leper King terrace to the temple of Preah Paliley, before walking back south to The Baphuon, a huge crumbling pyramid that was closed to the public because of restorations. All in all I spent around two hours walking around these sites, which were reasonably interesting, although they didn't grab me like The Bayon.
Thommanon and Ta Keo, 12:00pm
I grabbed an early bai cha bun lai for lunch, before making my way out to Ta Prohm, the famous temple completely consumed by the jungle. En route I passed two interesting temples. Thommanon was small but quite well preserved, whereas Ta Keo was a quite large multi-layered temple, not dissimilar from the one I'd seen the previous day at Pre Rup. It was a steep scramble to the top of Ta Keo, but again the view over the jungle canopy was interesting.
Ta Prohm, 12:30pm
I didn't linger at Ta Keo for too long, as my plan was to hit Ta Prohm before everyone arrived after lunch. Ta Prohm is very famous in Angkor, because no restoration has been done, and the entire complex has been consumed by the jungle. It was also the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, so it was kinda cool knowing I'd be following the footsteps of Angelina Jolie!
I asked Chorng to drive to me to the eastern entrance of the temple, so I could take my time wandering back to the western side, where he would meet me. It was a 500m walk to the entrance, and I knew what was awaiting me once I passed through the gate! I walked through, and slowly turned my head to the left, where I saw a huge, centuries old silk-cotton tree completely engulfing the temple. It was absolutely amazing! To think that all it took was one seed and a bit of dirt. I sat for a while, just looking at it letting the scene sink in, before moving on.
Past some crumbling ruins and huge trees, I saw a man I recognised immediately, the old Khmer gracing the front cover of the Cambodia Lonely Planet guide! However he wasn't walking out of a temple with a broom, he was sitting next to a copy of the lonely planet guide and a few souvenirs, hoping he could make a few bucks off the tourists. Well done Lonely planet, you've made this man a celebrity in this country! If he's making more money now than he was before, it can only be a good thing though. He certainly looked very poor in his ragged clothes.
I continued on into the central enclosure, and here I saw another huge silk-cotton tree, growing over a beautifully carved doorway. This place was amazing, and again, I could only sit and look at it! I remember driving to Ta Prohm, trying to imagine how Angkor Wat could possible be more spectacular than the Bayon, without even thinking about Ta Prohm! But this place was really fascinating. And it was to get better! In all my excitement, I didn't even notice the sky turning blacker and blacker, and no more than three minutes after the first drops of rain, it was absolutely hammering down. I sat in a doorway, watching the moss and leaves on the temple walls getting greener and greener. It was a site I'd never seen before, and yet again, there was only a handful of people around. It rained heavily for around 40 minutes, until it stopped as quickly as it started, in typical monsoon style! Walking around the central enclosure after the downpour was even more incredible. Despite dripping with sweat from the intense humidity, the trees covering the temples looked even more amazing.
I spent another hour or so exploring this site, until I'd visited every silk-cotton tree covered temple on at least two occassions! By sheer coincidence, by the time I was ready to move on, and started walking out the western entrance, three oversized air-conditioned coaches full of Japanese tourists rocked up. Perfect timing yet again! However I was now excited about seeing something even bigger, Angkor Wat!
Angkor Wat, 3:45pm
This time, as we retraced our route, I didn't look away from the towers of Angkor Wat. Instead I couldn't peel my eyes away from them. They weren't in full view however, beside the road was a wide moat, and then a huge wall, behind which was Angkor Wat. Chorng dropped me off at the bridge over the moat, and I took my time crossing it and passing through the gate, eager for that first glimpse of the 300m causeway leading to Angkor Wat.
I wasn't disappointed. I'd lost count of the number of temples I'd seen in Cambodia to this point, but my plan of leaving the biggest until last certainly proved to be a great plan. I can't really describe the feeling you get when you first see Angkor Wat. It's something you will only know if you have been there. The scene is just so beautiful and envigorating that you swear you are looking at a postcard, before you blink your eyes and realise it is real. I took my time slowly ambling down the causeway, amazed at how big the temple was. The closer you got, the higher the towers were. As with The Bayon, I decided to skip the bas-reliefs for later on, and instead went to the top. Although instead of climbing a few stairs like at The Bayon, you climb a few stairs, walk through a giant corridor, past some pools (now empty of water), up some more stairs, down another corridor, and then up some more stairs before reaching just the second level!
I'm running out of words to describe this place. It was just huge. I found a little corner away from the hundreds of tourists, and sat there for about half an hour just looking up at the massive towers. There were steps to climb, to the top level, but I savoured the scene here before clambering up.
The view from the top was amazing. Back over the second level of the temple, past the causeway and ponds to the outer wall, behind which the sun was beginning to set. I didn't even bother with my guidebook. I decided to leave reading about the temple until the following morning. Instead I found my own little corner, and just sat. There hundreds of tourists around, and I figure it must have been the busiest part of the day, but in no way did it diminish the experience of being there. People told me that the thing that strikes you about Angkor Wat is the sheer size of it, and despite being aware of this, I couldn't have comprehended just how massive it really was. It completely dwarfed the people below, and in fact, I think the excitement and colour of the people below added a little more to the atmosphere.
I wanted to stay at the top to watch the sunset, but security guards started asking people to leave at around 5:15pm, nearly an hour before the sun was due to set. I was told on six occassions to leave, but on every occassion I simply moved to another spot. In the end, I was the last tourist to climb down, and it was about 5:40pm. The light shining east onto the towers at this time was as amazing as the light shining on the towers at The Bayon exactly 12 hours earlier. I continued dragging my feet for nearly an hour, and it was dark by the time I crossed the moat to find Chorng. It had been a totally incredible day. My favourite of the three? Impossible to say. The magical atmosphere of the deserted Bayon at the crack of dawn, the unbelievable downpour which accentuated the impact of the jungle at Ta Prohm, or the humbling experience of seeing the larget religious monument in the world? Who needs a favourite!