Welcome to Khmerland
Siem Reap...

Thursday 25th November 2004

On today's itinerary we had originally planned another excursion up Angkor's premier holy mountain, Phnom Kulen. The waterfall and riverbed carvings are said to be bigger and better than Kbal Spean but after yesterday's exertion we decided to take things easier today. We had arranged a later start this morning so that we could enjoy a more leisurely breakfast.

It was gone 9am by the time we drove through the huge South gate of Angkor Thom and straight back out again through the North Gate. We had decided, on Veasna's advice, to postpone our Angkor Thom exploration until this afternoon. He believed that it would be much quieter after lunch. It certainly seemed very busy as we drove through this morning.

Our first stop was to visit Prah Khan. Veasna taught us that Prah Khan in Kmher meant sacred sword and this temple was built by the same ruler who commissioned Ta Phrom, the mighty King Jayavarman VII.

They were very similar, down to the limpet Banyan trees.

Whilst the latter was dedicated to his mother this was dedicated to his father.

We thought that we had arrived a moment too late as a coach load of Chinese tourists funnelled their way inside ahead of us.

Veasna chose his moment well to tell us that Cambodian's believe that people who talk too much will be reborn with a small mouth!

It was strange how the temple could absorb such a crowd. By the time we entered they had already disappeared into the vast network of corridors.

 

I really liked this temple. The entrance had a cathedral feel with almost gothic arches shaping the ceiling. I hadn't noticed this in any other temple before.

The best feature however were the perfectly aligned corridors that ran from North to South and East to West.

It looked very similar to the framing of the traditional dancers on the front cover of Dawn Rooney's Angkor Guide.

I did try to capture the whole length of the corridor without someone getting in the way and spent ages waiting paitiently. It was almost impossible although I eventually snapped a photo with minimal spoilers.

It was now getting much busier and there were noticeably much more Cambodians in the mix of visitors. I suppose the Bon Om Tuk festival is a national holiday so most people may not have to work today.

We popped out at the other end of the temple to see another great example of Banyan tree roots gripping to the building. Both destroying and supporting the structure.

It was a popular view for a photo opportunity.

We returned to the van and travelled a little further up the road to Neak Poan, a holy pond representing the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.

During the rainy season it would be full of water but by now the level had reduced to a little more than a paddling pool.

We walked around the edge and then sat down for a while, watching kids pulling up weeds from the steps that formed the pond, unsure whether they were doing a spot of gardening or picking up green leaves for supper tonight.

On the outer side of the pond wall, in the centre of each side, were four enclosures that were a symbolic altar to the four elements.

The heads of a human (earth), horse (wind), lion (fire) and elephant (water) were chosen to pay homage to nature.

As we left Neak Poan we walked back down the path to the road past many traders selling palm sugar sweets and fried banana crisps.

They were calling out in Khmer instead of the usual chorus of "You buy from me mister?" which was refreshing to hear.

When we sat down in the van Julie said she wasn't feeling very well but admitted that perhaps the five glasses of pineapple juice for breakfast didn't help! I also felt quite dehydrated so we were glad to return to town for lunch.

We ate at a restaurant called Borey Savaan which was just what the body ordered.

Julie actually had pork chops with chips which again failed to compare to what she would have at home. My Pak Choi with Mushrooms however was perfectly tasty.

Exhausted we returned to the hotel for a siesta where Julie fell straight into the deep state of hibernation. We were so thankful that we had not gone to Phmon Kulen because we just wouldn't have survived! Two hours later I had to drag Julie back to the land of the living for our final afternoon of 'templing' around the astonishing sites contained within the boundaries of Angkor Thom, the 'Great City'.

We left the hotel at 2:30pm, drove past Angkor Wat, and continued going until we reached the South Gate.

We bailed from the van and walked over the causeway that led to the gate. It was flanked by fifty four Gods and fifty four Demons in another naga tug of war.

 

We chose to walk on the good side not the wild side! As we strolled beneath the gate, admiring the four Buddha heads, I just couldn't wait to get in amongst the crowded stone faces of the Bayon temple.

Fortunately I didn't have long to wait. Once inside the city walls of Angkor Thom we jumped back in the van and drove straight there.

From a distance the Bayon just looked like a pile of rubble, but with fifty four towers with four heads, somewhere in that pile were two hundred and sixteen enigmatic smiles.

The closer we got, the more my jaw dropped.

There were eyes looking at me from all angles. I was stunned by the sheer scale of this mountain of faces.

This was awesome; truly inspiring.

Each face was similar (but not always identical). They all followed the same template, a broad forehead, wide nostrils, meditative almond shaped eyes, and full lips that curl up a slight smile.

Veasna said that it's now generally believed that the face was probably the image of the King Jayavarman VII rather than being representative of Buddha.

Wow, now what an ego trip!

The temple was built in the exact centre of the Angkor Thom's vast square border which was completed some hundred years after Angkor Wat.

The temple is dedicated to Buddha yet is built in the Mount Neru style of a Hindu temple, which is why it's believed to have been built on the site of an earlier 10th century temple.

We entered from the east and turned left onto the first level where we saw some exceptional bas relief that depicted daily lives, people, fishing, cooking, and farming.

The quality was fantastic; and despite being over a thousand years old it was still representative of rural life today.

We climbed up to the upper level and stood face to face with the King. I was shocked at the size of the faces. A head, from chin to brow, was about six feet tall. What an incredible sight.

We walked about for a while before descending down the north side and looked back towards the great panoramic view. Then the further away we got, the more like a pile of rubble it began to look once more.

From one pile of rubble to another, we walked past the Bauphon, only this actually was just a mound of rocks!

It was closed to the public and was in total ruin, although restoration had begun. An image of what the reconstructed temple should look like suggested that it will rival the Bayon in stature. The heap of stones that lay ahead of us didn't hint at its potential but it certainly will be a reason to return once it's completed.

They say that it should be finished by 2008 but apparently the date keeps on being pushed further and further away.

Alongside Bauphon was the Royal Enclosure which as the name suggests used to be the King's private quarters. His residence would have been made of wood and so no longer exists, but the temple within the walls still stands. Unlike most of what we've seen today this was attributed to the earlier King Jayavarman V.

The temple is called Phimeanakas which means 'gold tower'. Obviously none of the gold remains having been plundered. It's another Hindu mountain temple that rises from the ground. Veasna and I decided to climb to the top whilst Julie sat in the shade, recuperating, fanning herself down with a battery hand held propeller and an aerosol coolant. Today was much hotter and more humid than the previous days.

I was also feeling the pace as my calf muscle started to cramp before reaching the temple's summit. I was glad when the cramp came and went without any incident. I wouldn't like to have keeled over in agony on those deceivingly steep steps or I could have ended up doing a spot of recuperating myself; in a Phnom Penh hospital!

As we stood at the top, Veasna told me that this would be where the King would sleep with the Naga. I wasn't too sure what he meant by that?

Did he literally mean the mystical multi-headed snake in a mythological tale of worship or did he mean that the king brought up his chosen concubine for servicing?

The cheeky glint in his eye made me think the latter!

Later on I read about the temple where legend has it the nine headed serpent, the Naga, lived in a golden tower.

The spirit would appear to the King disguised as a woman and he would have to sleep with her every night in the tower before he joined his wife and concubines.

If the king missed even one night of Naga sex it was believed that he would die. What intolerable pressure to perform. The poor ruler must have been knackered!

I wonder if he was 'one king' alone in the golden tower.

Whilst up here Veasna noticed a visitor talking Spanish so he grabbed the opportunity to try out his linguistic skills. According to those in the know it's the next big thing in terms of the tourist industry.

A Spanish speaking guide would be much in demand. He was even squeezing in Spanish lessons in between being showing us around.

He also talked about a friend of his who spent a month in Madrid and that it was a dream of his to one day do the same. I found it quite sweet that whilst talking to the other visitor Veasna pointed at me and said 'Mi Amigo'.

From the Royal Enclosure we stepped out onto a terrace known as the Elephant terrace. The stone elephants were larger than I had imagined from photographs in books.

In fact they were probably almost life size.

Veasna was insistent on getting Julie in on the photographs and eventually wore her down enough to persuade her to pose at the base of the elephant trunks.

Along the same terrace was a statue of who they call the Leper King. In truth nobody really knows why it has this name. It was carved during the reign of Jayavarman VII and some believe that he developed leprosy.

Others theories abound are that it may be King Yasovaraman I or even Kubera a Javanese god of wealth, as both died of leprosy, or maybe he's Yama the god of death and this was actually the royal crematorium but it is all guess work.

What is fact was the one here is a replica with the original proudly displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The statue had some unique qualities that made it different to the norm. It portrays the King as naked, and his smiling mouth is open showing the teeth. Apparently its Javanese in style.

Also above his lip, is that a carefully crafted moustache or just a leprosy leesion?

As we were about to leave Angkor Thom quite a few trucks laden with festival goers drove at speed with music blaring, and horns a-tooting! They were undoubtedly on their way to party in the town.

We noticed by now that it was a beautiful clear day and that the sunset may turn out to be the best of our stay.

 

Phnom Bakeng is a popular destination for the sunset with a great view down towards Angkor Wat but when we drove by the bottom of the hill it was extremely busy. We decided not to walk up as the sun would have been long gone by the time we conquered the summit, and in any case we were physically incapable! Despite having the offer of an elephant ride to the top; I decided that one last visit to Angkor Wat was what I wanted.

As we arrived it seemed that I literally only had moments left before the sun dropped from the sky. Angkor Wat was a beautiful warm glow bathed by the dying rays of the sunset. My goal was to reach the Kodak sponsored pool of reflection before the light was lost.

Veasna decided that he and Julie would only slow me down and suggested that I went off ahead alone and that he would escort her to the library where we could rendezvous.

As I stepped inside the enclosure the temple was still a beautiful orange wash but the amount of people cluttering the causeway made me realise that I may not make it in time.

I walked as quickly as possible without running but it I found it difficult to go against the flow. I seemed to be the only desperate soul swimming upstream.

Sadly by the time I had reached the pool the sunset had dropped from view leaving the stark dark grey sandstone in shadow.

I was far from disappointed though as I was simply glad to have had a final opportunity to be here. I slowly trundled my way reluctantly back towards the library to rejoin Julie and Veasna, then we joined the flow up the causeway.

When I reached the gate I stopped and turned to capture one last gaze for the sake of my memory and I actually said "Goodbye" out loud. What was all that about?

It was like parting with a dear friend. I only wished we had more time together!

On our way back to our hotel we were caught up in the festival traffic. This was far busier than yesterday. We crawled our way through Siem Reap as a multitude of mopeds weaved their way between the procession of Toyota 4x4s and rural 'taxi' trucks.

One thing that caught our eye and made us laugh was how one guy was transporting a pig on the back of his moped! Tied up, and placed on its back the pig had no choice but to ride pillion!

A quick shower and a change of clothes and we ventured out for supper. Our guide had booked us into Angkor Meass, the restaurant we ate in on Tuesday, and our least favourite so far. When we arrived we were the only diners, and this was in the middle of the Bon Om Tuk. Was it perhaps a sign of a poor reputation? What was sweet however was the waitress who served us last time recognised us and was quite excited at the prospect of serving us again!

We asked to choose our own dishes and I had Pak Choi with Black Mushrooms, Julie chose Chicken with chilli and basil, and we shared Veg Fried rice and some Morning Glory. Julie's dish was a big hit but my choices failed to hit the mark. They were all quite bland. The worst however were the 'black' mushrooms. They were far from bland. In fact they were hard to swallow because they tasted as if they had been fermenting in a dark cupboard for weeks. They were quite slimy and had an exceptionally potent flavour. There was one particular nasty looking fungi that quite literally frightened me and I was not man enough to eat. It looked hideous, like it had a growth defect and I bet it tasted like shit. I decided not to find out. The Angkor beer was fine though and I needed quite a few to wash away the nasty flavour!

We returned to our hotel wondering where we had packed the Imodium because I may need to use some tomorrow! We followed with a few more drinks in the lobby.

Tonight I had been wearing a vest top that revealed the tattoos on my arms and as I went to the reception desk to collect our room key the staff member on duty, after prostrating himself in handing the key over ceremonially, said quite shyly "You look like a rock star"!

"Oh really, I used to play guitar in a band" my ego replied. Then another young lad added "You look also like David Beckham"! I thanked him and then strutted my way back to the bar.

When we eventually returned to our room the heaven's opened and down came such a torrential downpour. If cats and dogs were drops of rain then it was raining lions and bears! The skies lit up in the distance but we heard not one rumble of thunder. I opened our patio doors and rushed outside, stood arms outstretched like a lightning conductor, getting soaked to the skin. The air was warm but the raindrops were cold. It felt so refreshing! Julie's disaster movie mind saw a bolt and a frazzled husband so she begged me to come inside as quickly as possible.

Our three days of temples had taken a lot of energy out of us and from the moment our heads touched the pillows our bodies slipped immediately into sleep mode. Perhaps it was also slightly alcohol induced.

Zzzzzzzzz.

Friday 26th Nov 04 >>  
ęCopyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk