Apasara Dancers at Angkor Wat Temple
We spent one whole day at the magnificent Angkor Wat temple, built by Khmer king Suryavarman II. The challenges the architects and builders might have faced during the construction of this massive temple complex is explained in detail in multiple National Geographic documentaries, and it looks unbelievable that such a construction was completed within the span of a few decades in 12th century, when the workers had access to only limited tool sets. The makers of the temple have paid attention to the scale as well as details - The four outer walls of the main temple complex have elaborate decorative carvings of several scenes from Hindu mythology. The wars of Mahabharata and Ramayana feature on the western wall, on both sides of the main entrance, each spanning more than 150 feet in length, over 10 feet in height. The eastern walls have carvings of similar size depicting the Churning of the Ocean, and Vishnu's war with Asuras. The northern wall has carvings on Krishna's wars with Asuras like Bana, while the south-western gallery has a massive 280+ feet long portrayal of the possession of King Suryavarman. The south-eastern gallery is over 200 feet long, and it shows images from the swarga and from different types of narakas as described in Hindu mythology. The last section has beautifully carved stone tiles fixed on the roof. The level of preservation of all these carvings is excellent, and I haven't seen such detailed carvings on these Hindu mythological stories anywhere in temples of India. Interestingly, today's Khmer people don't seem to be very familiar with any of these stories except for the names of some of the Gods, even though the name "Angkor" features on almost everything in Siem Reap - starting from Angkor Beer to Angkor Restaurant and Angkor Pharmacy.
Dronacharya at Mahabharatha War, Angkor Wat Temple
Karna's Death, Mahabharatha War, Angkor Wat Temple
Ravana Trying to Lift Kailasa, Angkor Wat Temple
The second day was spent at Angkor Thom complex, the walled city constructed by Jayavarman VII, another great Khmer king, in late 12th century. The city today is mostly covered by forests, and in the center of it stands the enigmatic temple of Bayon. Bayon would look like a crumbled pile of stones from far, but when we come closer, its famous "face towers" become distinguishable. Most of the constructions in Angkor area don't make use of any material to connect or fix individual stones; Instead, the stones are just interconnected and stacked, with "corbel arch" method used for the curved roofs of the corridors as well as main temple complexes. It is a great experience standing on the topmost storey of Bayon, feeling awe at the engineering marvel, and at the same time observing those meditative smiling faces in almost every direction we look at.
Other than Bayon, Angkor Thom complex also contains several other buildings and the key among them are the "temple mountain" of Bapuon, the Royal Palace Complex, and the terraces of Elephants.
One of the Face Towers at Bayon Temple
Corbel Arch Corridors at Bapuon Temple
On the third day, we went to the "tree temple" of Ta Prohm, which is probably the key representative image of Angkor region after Angkor Wat and Bayon. The restoration and maintenance of the temple complex is sponsored by Government of India, and the work done there deserves appreciation. Centuries of abandonment had resulted in massive 100+ meter tall trees growing inside, and "over" the temples at Ta Prohm, some of them making the buildings crumble under them while some enveloping the structures with their roots and providing support to them. The vision of the restoration work at this temple is too keep the ruined look of the temple as it is, but to carefully support the trees and structures to ensure that both of them survive. Ta Prohm provides some unique views because of presence of so many trees, many of which have become inseparable parts of the buildings. The adjacent Banteay Kdei temple complex is also maintained with a similar principle.
Roots of a Massive Tree at Angkor Thom
On forth day, we decided to travel for an hour from Siem Reap to reach Kbal Spean, on the slopes of a hill which is part of the Kulen Mountains. A short 1 hour trek through the forests took us to a small river, the rock bed of which has carvings from Hindu mythology, and representations of numerous Shiva Lingas. On the way to Kbal Spean, we also stopped at the Banteay Srei temple, which has probably the most delicate and intricate carving works among all temples in the Angkor region. The small temple made of red sandstone has unique looks, and the carvings are so detailed that we would assume they are made on wood. This short trip also gave us some views of the countryside of Cambodia, with traditional wooden homes, people relaxing in hammocks, cooking in the open areas, and dining on concrete or wooden benches fixed just in front of the house.
The Khmer people we met were all friendly and well-mannered. The country obviously is still in the process of rising after the genocide under Khmer Rouge - there are organizations supporting self-sustenance among youngsters by training them on craft works and showcasing and selling their products, taking care of orphaned children, etc. In front of most of the temples, we could see a tent under which landmine victims would be sitting and playing traditional Cambodian instrumental music, which is a very touching sight. Just like in India, there would be several vendors approaching us trying to sell things at every tourist places, but unlike here, they are very polite, and we would never hear any curse words if we don't buy things from them. Though there are boards at many places asking not to buy things from children (as that would encourage them not to go to school), there are many children probably just around 5 years old, who try to earn a few dollars every day by selling small things like bamboo whistles. We met one small girl who was very insistent on selling a whistle to us. "One for one dolaaar", she said, and pointing at my son, added that it would be good for him. As our tuk-tuk (Cambodia's version of auto-rickshaw) started moving, the girl started making her offer more and more attractive, as she kept on saying "two for one dolaaar.. three for one dolaaar... four for one dolaaar..." and so on, and I felt she was just practicing counting of numbers which she might have learned recently. It overall looked like a pitiable state of affairs.
We covered a few more temples in the remaining days - Preah Khan temple just outside Angkor Thom, has several inner sanctums with Shiva Lingas, with all their doors (around 30 of them from east to west as well as north to south) aligned in straight line, providing some unique views, Ta Som, a small but beautiful temple which looks like a smaller version of Ta Prohm, Prasat Kravan, an old temple made of bricks, which has some beautiful bas-relief works, Neak Pean, a sort of island temple located in scenic surroundings, and Bakong, one of the oldest temples in the region, were the key among them. We could also manage to see a live performance of Apsara dance (though the whole event was kind of commercialized, set as part of a buffet dinner at a restaurant), and I liked the combination of beautiful costumes and graceful movements of the performers, accompanied with very unique instrumental music.