23 April 2012

Pre Rup - The temple I like the most

Pre Rup in the morning light
"The temple I like the most", is what my tour guide said when we came to Pre Rup in the morning of a tour and I asked him what his favourite temple in Angkor was. He liked it for the colours, he said. My second tour guide, which I enjoyed for two other tours, actually had a very different taste and I will mention it when I do that post later.

East Mebon temple in the distance
It was good that we came really early because the sunlight on the temple was just awesome, bringing out the temple's brick and laterite stones in a warm red-orange colour tone with a beautiful dark blue sky behind it. The lush green of all the trees around the temple added another flavour to it.

Pre Rup is the answer to all the craze and noise you will experience at the more touristy sites like Angkor Wat and the Bayon. It can get busy here too but it was quiet as we climbed up the steep stairs and we had this pyramid-temple all to ourselves. 

Steep staircase leading to the top

This tenth century Hindu temple is often passed-by by visitors on their way to other sites yet it is far too beautiful to be left behind on the travel itiniary. Especially the view from the top platform should not be missed. We saw distant temples hidden in the trees and it gets one the feeling of the sheer size of the Angkorean temple sites. 

There were a few lintels which we admired and the seated guardian lions overlooking the towers and walls below. And there are several Buddha images, old and new, in some of the towers, though this was initially a Hindu temple. 

Lintel above the doorway
My guide got a bit uneasy with a female tourist who climbed up to the top and into the central sanctuary being very lightly dressed and he explained to me how even Asians from other countries can be very insensitive towards proper clothing within a temple. She must have overheard our conversation, as she pulled a shawl out of her backpack and covered her shoulders and back with it...unless...the gods told her about it! 

Lions overlooking the lower levels

Tourism hit us hard on the way down from this heavenly platform with an entire bus load of Chinese tourists who were swarming over the lower level of the temple like an ants nest. But like in many of these places, it is like a storm which comes and goes quickly. Most of them were not even willing to climb up the steep stairs. They just took a quick group photo and were back on the bus within minutes. 

Shrine with Buddha images
Pre Rup is very close to the Royal Bath "Sra Srang" and other temples like the East Mebon and some of the hidden smaller temples which we visited on other days. 

11 April 2012

Bayon - temple of the smiling gods

The center of Angkor Thom
At the center of the city of Angkor Thom stands the magnificent Bayon, the temple of the smiling gods. It is as popular with visitors as Angkor Wat and masses of tourists are pushed through the huge structure with it's 54 towers containing over 200 large faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. 

Well, that is actually the big question here. There has been lots of studies on the meaning of the temple but it is still not fully understood. In my huge collection of Angkor books I have read many differing views and one of the best books on it is still waiting to be read in my bookshelf: "Bayon - New perspectives". Bought it as I departed from Siem Reap after it was suggested to my by some friendly people when visiting Angkor, and who have since become good friends who will be reading this blog!

Outer Gallery of bas-reliefs
But to be honest, the Bayon is also one of my favourite temples in Angkor because it is one of the Buddhist temples built by King Jayavarman VII. While there is a small shrine in the central tower where people pray and perform religious rites, there was a large Buddha statue located in the center of the temple which has since been removed and relocated to the side of the compound along the road. We did visit the image on the way out to pay our respect to the Buddha. As always in these temples, I ran into a group of older ladies who take care of the Buddha image and come here for merit making. They were all having their fun with me, the white guy and waited to be able to tie the red cotton wrist bands around my hand, all accompanied by lots of chatter and laughs!

Over 200 smiling faces in stone
54 towers with smiling faces
Wandering through the towers of the Bayon and enjoying the many faces smiling at you from every side is a great experience. My tour guide and I went separate ways here, so we could both enjoy and explore different angles and to see the faces in the different settings of the sunlight. He also had my second camera, so I got some of the best shots of myself "looking" at the temple (I have mentioned that he is a great photographer, have I?) But it is best to just take plenty of time and explore every niche and every tower of the temple and go into the central sanctuary and spend a few minutes in this serene setting with people praying and lighting joss sticks and candles. It can get quite crowded in here though. 

Inner sanctuary
Excellent workmanship of the reliefs
On my first visit to the Bayon, I did not really spend any time to study the amazing bas-reliefs. We did not have enough time on our 3 day visit, the driver was waiting and most importantly I did not understand what they meant. This time around was very different. After a brief overview of the temple and it's history, my guide spent a lot of time going over the bas-reliefs. He explained every scene we walked by, pointed out things which I would not have seen myself or which would have been meaningless to me. It suddenly all made sense to me and it became much more than just a long wall with carvings. The same thing happened to me when I visited and studied the bas-reliefs of the great Borobudur temple on Java and walking around them several times in the right order to be able to follow the different stories which were shown on those walls. A bit of background knowledge on Buddhism and Khmer history helps of course, otherwise it would leave too many questions. 

Large Buddha image outside of the temple
Visiting Bayon can be a stressful experience because of the sheer number of tourists present here at certain times. I got lucky again thanks to my guide, but we passed the temple on another day and time and I was shocked to see the number of people streaming onto the terrace and into the first Gopura (gateway). 

Military procession with the King, troops and elephants

04 April 2012

Angkor Thom - a city for the gods

South Gate of Angkor Thom
It is often overlooked by visitors that Angkor consists of more than just Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom is even larger and in my mind more impressive. It is undoubtedly the "Great City", which at its height is said to have had more than a million people living there. It extends to more than 10 square kilometers and is centered on the Bayon, which we picked as our blog name and image. 

The moat surrounding Angkor Thom
The ancient city's gates are immense and representative to a great nation. More than 20 meters high and crowned with four faces of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara they made us feel like entering another world. The south gate is the busiest one with most tourists coming through that way, but there can be moments of serenity even here, depending on the time of the day and the route of the group tourists. However, we also chose this gate since it is the most restored one. 

Standing at the huge 100 meter wide moat, which surrounds the ancient city, we can only imagine how stunned visitors in the past must have been when they looked at the crocodiles-filled water. Today it offers a quiet setting, nice views onto the moat, the 8 meter high and 13 kilometer long wall and the causeway over it. 

The god's side of the causeway
Giant statues of 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other side line the causeway, adding up to the sacred number of 108. 108 mythical beings, holding the huge body of the Naga, guarding the Great City. What a starting point to visit Angkor Thom! 

My tour guide gave me his brief introduction again as we walked past the huge heads of the gods and through the gate, being passed by elephants, tuk-tuks and bicycles. Luckily no cars or mini-buses, which provided a perfect atmosphere. I did come back again one evening and the light of the setting sun on the faces was just awesome. 

The Bayon temple is a major stop here and since it is so important I will focus on it in a separate blog. 

Impressive Baphoun temple
Though we had our own transportation, Angkor Thom is best experienced by foot, so we walked a lot and took an insane number of photos.

The Baphoun temple is a huge structure and is still being restored today. When I visited it the first time it looked even more incomplete, since restoration work had stopped here for 20 years during the Khmer Rouge years. 300.000 stones, which were taken apart before the civil war, were left untouched until after the war. While the structure is impressive, there is no such greatness to see as in Angkor Wat or in the Bayon. Back in the year 2000 we saw single stones lying around a huge area and a lot of them have been put back into this huge puzzle of stones forming one huge dome, but it is by far not living up to the grandeur it must have once had as a Hindu temple structure.

Terrace of the Elephants
After the Baphoun we visited the Terrace of the Elephants, a more than 300 meter long wall and platform decorated with life size lions and garudas as well as sections showing elephants with their trunks. This is where the remains of the former Royal Palace start, which we did not visit this time around. We have to leave some monuments for a future visit! 

The Terrace of the Leper King is the continuation of the platform to the north. There is so much detail and so many temples and monuments to see here in the heart of Angkor Thom, that we could easily spend a full day here alone. But most visitors just pay a brief visit to the Bayon and then go on to continue their tour, which leaves enough opportunity to explore the Great City almost undisturbed from other tourists. 

Lions and Garudas
Again, I cannot put enough emphasis on the need of a good tour guide, since we walked through all of Angkor Thom years ago with our book and map only and we had not the slightest understanding of what we were seeing. Most visitors probably do not even care. I had a guy with his bicycle hanging on to our tuk-tuk for a while when we approached Angkor Thom, asking me what was good to see here. He said, he had ONE day to visit all of Angkor! And here we were, spending a full day at Angkor Thom's monuments!