Ah! Angkor Wat. Stunning Sunrise and Sublime Faces.
It’s a very, very early morning wake up call. Bundled up against the morning chill, I am at the west side of the famous Angkor Wat temple beside the manmade lake at the foreground. It’s still too dark to see much, but an indistinct silhouette of this temple. The crowds keep trailing in and soon this place is packed with people, jostling to get a good view ahead.
Soon, the sky slowly starts to lighten up as the sun begins to rise from behind this majestic temple illuminating its every historical nook and cranny, as if cleansing its soul to welcome another multitude of admirers. This is certainly a sight to behold. A hush falls upon the crowd and an occasional sigh can be heard as we all try to etch this sight into our minds. It is picture postcard perfect!
From here, I proceed to the South Gate of Angkor Thom, literally meaning the ‘Great City’. Established in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, this is by far one of the largest and most impressive temples I have ever seen. This fortified city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire, housing the residences of priests and palace officials, the military, and administrative buildings of the kingdom. This city is believed to have housed a population of 80,000 to 150,000 people.
I walk the causeway towards the entry tower. I am flanked on either side by 54 stone figures: grimacing demons on the right and serene-faced gods on the left, totaling 108 mythical beings that guard this city. The gods and demons engage in a tug-of-war with a fan-shaped nine-headed serpent, creating the railing, which is said to symbolize the rainbow uniting the worlds of man and gods.
This massive temple city is made up of a square with each side three kms (1.9 miles) long and enclosed by a wall that is 8 meters (26 feet) in height. A 100-meter (328 feet) width moat surrounds its outer wall. I envisage a lot of walking!
The five entry towers are absolutely grand, each rising 23 meters to the sky and crowned with four heads, one facing each cardinal direction. And, apparently these towers are the most photographed ruins in all of Cambodia.
I take my time and walk along long corridors that overlook vast jungle. Every column, crevice, doorway, wall, and ceiling has a story to tell. Each story is told through the most delicate and intricate carving. Each carving is precise and perfect and it is hard to remember so much history in such a short time.
I then proceed towards the Bayon temple, situated in the centre of Angkor Thom.
This is even more magnificent.
During the 12th century, the Khmer Empire was enjoying its Golden Age and extending its empire over much of South East Asia. In a show of prosperity and wealth, the Khmer kings built many temples, one of which was the Bayon temple.
Built by King Jayavarman VII, (known as one of the greatest kings of the Khmer Empire), the Bayon served as the state temple of his new capital, Angkor Thom. It was unique as it signified Mahayana Buddhism but was later altered by his successors with Hindu and Theravada elements.
Walking through this temple is an amazing experience. It has over 200 gigantic stone faces in sets of four, each identical and pointing to the cardinal direction.
According to some scholars, the statues depict the enigmatic face of the Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This is supported by the features of the face, in particular the closed eyes and mysterious smile, which represent the achievement of the state of Enlightenment. Others, however, have argued that the faces depicted Jayavarman himself, as they bear an uncanny resemblance to other images of the king. It is also possible that the statues were meant to depict Jayavarman and the Avalokitesvara simultaneously, thus allowing the king to take on the attributes of the bodhisattva. Needless to say, this is a photographer’s dream as there is a ‘perfect’ shot at every angle.
The bas-reliefs on the exterior walls of the upper and lower levels are intricate and outstanding. From a sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham to the scenes of everyday life, including religious rituals, market scenes, war on elephant back, childbirth, cockfighting and even games of chess are so beautifully and artistically recorded.
Despite the heat of the day, I am reluctant to leave this architectural wonderland.
My next stop is at the Ta Prohm temple, the location site of the film Tomb Raider where Angelina Jolie picked a jasmine flower and was sucked beneath the earth.
This 12th century Buddhist temple is outside the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom and is another creation of King Jayavarman VII. I walk through thick undergrowth and overgrown foliage that is reminiscent of a lost city. It’s an eerie feeling seeing thick snake-like vines and roots strangling the existence of this monastic temple. Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize observed, “On every side, in fantastic over-scale, the trunks of the silk-cotton trees soar skywards under a shadowy green canopy, their long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants.”
King Jayavarman VII dedicated this temple to his mother and it is estimated to have been a 600-room monastery with a population of over 70,000 people in the surrounding area. The temple is 145 metres by 125 metres, and home to high priests, monks, assistants, dancers and labourers, and was very wealthy with great stores of jewels and gold, and controlled an estimated 3,000 villages.
I wander through this maze, finding something special at every corner. In its eerie silence, people sit to gather their thoughts, as cameras gently click moments of memories. There is feeling of awe and respect all around me. It is as if I am caught in some time trap from an alien world.