This was the last capital of the Khmer empire, and was a huge city with several impressive structures remaining inside it. Among the most famous are below:
I’d heard about Bayon, seen the photos, had a really good idea of what I was walking into. Still, when Rin pulled up in front of the temple, I was still a little surprised.
First, there were the crowds. The last few days, we hadn’t encountered too many people. Of course, we were in smaller temples, more out of the way, usually these spots were secondary. If you had only a day, you wouldn’t travel 20km to Bantay Srei or bother with East Mebon — you’d be hitting the big stuff. But this is exactly, precisely why I hate tour groups. Everyone clusters together, trying to hear the guide, and blocking the path for other people who either have to wait, or attempt to get around. There is a prescribed path to follow and so there’s not much chance to roam on your own without the risk of being left behind. But on this day, my greatest problem with tour groups was that they are so frickin LOUD. I’m not being racist when I say that the tons of Asian tour groups we came across were the worst. Yelling at each other across the temple, laughing uproariously, blocking the way, taking forever fiddling with their DSLR’s getting their photos taken despite the crowd of people also waiting for photos or just wanting to get past. Really just behaving with such lack of consideration, a general disregard of everyone else’s presence. But I’ve long come to believe that common courtesy has gone the way of common sense, and is actually pretty rare. So when traveling, whether on your own or in a tour group: please, please be courteous and considerate!
Bayon is pretty huge, though, and our guide book started us on an exploration of the bas reliefs on the outer wall. These galleries are impressive — the walls are over 20 feet high and covered in depictions of armies, battles, parades, animals… There’s a lot of detail and the walls are pretty long.
After we made our circuit of the galleries, we went in. Bayon is pretty large and covers quite a lot of space. Even from outside we could see many of the faces (there are about 200) for which it is famous. As we went in and meandered through the corridors, we eventually found our way up to the third level, where the “face towers” are located.
Despite all the photos I’d seen, being there was a different experience. The faces are huge, and there are so many — no matter where we stood, we could see at least four of them. They face all directions, and expressions may even be perceived on some, although none of them appear angry (at least to me). Supposedly the faces resemble Jayavarman VII, who was responsible for the construction of this temple and many others. Whatever the faces are supposed to represent, they lend a uniqueness to this temple.
Other structures in Angkor Thom
When Rin dropped us off, we weren’t sure exactly where we’d meet him afterward. Usually it was “on the other side” or “back here when you’re done”. But this time, before he left us at the front of the Bayon, he said, “I’ll be over there” and gestured vaguely in one direction. I understood it once we followed the path from Bayon — we ended up winding our way through temples and buildings.
We came through Baphuon, which looked almost like a flatter ziggurat, a smaller and less elaborate version of Pre Rup. Its most unusual feature is a wall that looks like a reclining Buddha, which, according to archeologists, was most likely added later on.
We also passed through Phimeanakas (a royal palace structure), the Terrace of Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King.
Famous now because of a scene in Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm shows the ongoing battle between nature and man. The structures of Ta Prohm are often obscured by giant trees growing in, on, and through them. It was pretty impressive to see, and only reminded me of how long these sites had been abandoned — long enough for something to grow so massively around it. It is a relief that these temples were rediscovered before they became completely lost to us.
Because of its popularity, Ta Prohm was overrun not just by trees but by tour groups. We found ourselves often sitting and waiting so that we could enjoy it on our own time and with a little more serenity.
After Ta Prohm, we had a quick lunch at one of the small restaurant-type spots in front of Angkor Wat.
This was it, the big one, the reason we were here. Throughout the last few days we had passed it often; there is not really a way to go through the Angkor Archeological Park without glimpsing Angkor Wat itself. The sheer size of it is awesome (in the traditional meaning of that word): you cross a moat as wide as some rivers, and Angkor Wat fills the horizon.
You can’t go through directly through the front, so we followed the path on the left. We found a massive statue of Vishnu. Then there was yet another long path across two pools, passing a couple of libraries (I can get behind a ruler who builds libraries!) to the central structure.
Here again we found a gallery of bas reliefs all around the temple complex. These are more protected, and are much more polished than Bayon’s outdoor one. The scenes were of particular events in the Ramayana. We learned a lot about Hinduism as we walked along the gallery, and I found myself wishing I had studied more about it before coming so I could understand better. (Or, that I had internet access on my phone so I could look things up — how spoiled we have become with information always at our fingertips!)
Then it was time to explore inside. There was always another corridor, another set of steps, another hallway, another recess that must have been some courtyard or pool… the vastness of it was almost exhausting. We made it out to the second level, and were saddened to discover that we couldn’t go all the way up to top tower; it was closed that day. So we focused on studying the many apsaras, with their different headdresses and varying poses.
And then it rained.
When I lived in the Philippines, I loved rain. In the wet season I would often play in the streets and splash in puddles as a child. As I grew older, I would come to hate the traffic and flooding that rain would cause, but being in the rain itself remained enjoyable. My college boarding house had a rooftop at which my roommate and I would hang out and talk during downpours.
In most of the US, however, rain is not fun. Seattle is known for rain, despite the fact that we don’t actually get a lot of rainfall. What we do get in Seattle is a constant cloudiness, and sometimes, a drizzle that goes on for hours. Everything is gloomy and damp.
So, when the skies opened up that afternoon, as we stood in the courtyard at the top of Angkor Wat, I could not have been happier. It was a strong, hard rain that drenched us in minutes. Everyone else scrambled for cover in the corridors, but we continued to walk around, enjoying the coolness that the rain brought, the break from the endless heat and humidity. And the towers looked beautiful. Everything looks softer in the rain.
It went on as we made our way out. Children tried to sell us rain ponchos, much to our amusement, since we had already achieved what David called “critical soak point”. Rin came to meet us and seemed concerned at our bedraggled state, but we laughed it off. And when the sun came out again, along the way back to the hotel, the world was cooler, cleaner, and I knew that this was the best way I could have experienced Angkor Wat.