January 17, 2017:
Today was an early start, as we had lots of antiquities to cover, and many tourists to dodge. Our first stop of the day was at the temple of Ta Prohm, best known from scenes in the movie, Tomb Raider. This is the ancient temple covered by tree vines. Why, you might ask, is this temple falling down and covered by vines and roots, when the temple we visited yesterday, appears to be lovingly cared-for?!
Although the capital of Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea) is now located in Phnom Penh, for six centuries (between about 800 and 1400 A.D.), the ancient Khmer people called Angkor Wat the capital. The original temple complex, which we saw yesterday, is the largest temple complex in the world. There are a total of about 70 temples, tombs and other ruins making up the former Khmer Empire center in the area around Siem Reap. However, after the last self-styled god-king of that empire lost power, the temple complexes and the whole center of the Empire fell into ruin, and were re-captured by the jungle. It remained undiscovered until the 19th century, when European explorers rediscovered it, and set about restoring it. Cambodia was claimed as a French protectorate in 1863. The French archeologists who worked on the restoration decided that Ta Prohm should remain more or less as it was found to demonstrate the extent of decay that had fallen upon the ruins.
The site of Ta Prohm used to be a very powerful monastery, and it was attended by over 80,000 attendants. Today, it is just a very cool site with trees growing over the temple walls. It is a very moody and mysterious site, and we were fortunate to reach it very early in the morning before it was too overrun with visitors.
Leaving Ta Prohm, I am struck again by what a flower rich country Cambodia is! Not only are there gorgeous plumeria trees everywhere, including the lovely pink ones, but growing wild outside the public bathroom were these lovelies.
We then entered through the east gate of Angkor Thom, which was the last great temple complex, constructed by King Jayavarman VII in 1181. The entry gates alone are stunning.
Then we visited the Terrace of the Elephants which is a raised viewing complex from which the king and his nobles used to watch exhibitions. The elephant carvings are magnificent!
Finally, we entered the temple complex for Angkor Thom (“Great City”), which is considered the most evolved of the Khmer temple architectural styles, incorporating many of the best of the earlier styles. Even here i this revered site, gibbons frolic with abandon.
One of the most immediately noticeable architectural features is the multitude of towers, with four sided faces of Buddha. These top the 54 towers in the central complex, which is called the Bayon. Each side faces \the four cardinal points. You might think all these faces are the same, but it is not so. Some are joyful, others are serene, and still others appear mischievous.
Also of note at this complex are the complex bas-relief carvings of all facets of Khmer life from those depicting childbirth to a whole series showing the Khmer military campaigns (and defeat of) the Champa people. The level of detail still showing 800 years later is stunning!
Our final activity of the day (after lunch) was a jaunt out to Tonle Sap, which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The lake is rimmed by houses built on stilts which are moved frequently when the water rises. Candidly, there is not much to see here, and some of the smells were hard to take, so I was just as happy to return to the relative luxury of our quarters at Raffles.
Tomorrow, we move on to Thailand, and start our visit in the northern town of Chiang Mai.