JUNGLE TEMPLES OF CAMBODIA
By the 12th century Europe was in decline; the Roman Empire had long since collapsed and the continent was locked in the glum embrace of the Dark Ages. Around the same time things here in South East Asia were booming – life in the Khmer Empire had never been better! The empire had extended its borders to include most of what is now Thailand, as well Laos, and the Southern half of modern-day Vietnam. The prosperity and wealth of the empire allowed its God-Kings to indulge their passion for building temple/mausoleums. Of these temples, the most famous is undoubtedly Angkor Wat, which we saw yesterday. There are, however, many many more temples worth exploring in Angkor and today we went to see 2 more of these wondrous monuments: the jungly Ta Prohm and the many-faced temple of Bayon.
Our first stop, early in the morning, was Ta Prohm, a 13th century temple made famous by the movie “Tomb Raider” which was filmed on site. No doubt you’re familiar with its crumbling interior, held together by the roots of enormous fig, banyan, and kapok trees.
King Sayavarman VII constructed the Ta Prohm temple in honour of his mother and endowed it with many riches, including gold, pearls, and vast quantities of silk hangings. Unfortunately these have long since been pillaged or decomposed, but the stone temple still stands…. Barely.
Unlike most of the temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been largely left to the clutches of the living jungle*. The temple’s ramshackle appearance does not detract from its beauty at all, however; if anything, it adds to the allure of this small stone monument, making us feel like intrepid explorers as we clambered our way over the ruins. It must have been amazing for the early European explorers who “rediscovered” Angkor in the mid-19th century, to stumble across these ruins hidden in the jungle like this!
*To make way for tourism and to facilitate restoration works other temples within the ancient city have been stripped of vines, tress, and undergrowth and reclaimed from the encroaching forest.
We were at the site early enough* that there was no one else there and we had the freedom to explore every corner of this small but lovely temple. Great trees towered above us as we walked around Ta Prohm, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish light over the site.
*The Angkor archaeological site is open for 5:30am to 5:30pm. Our advice: get their as early or as late as you can to beat the crowds and the heat. Plus the lighting is just magical early in the morning and/or later in the afternoon.
In places the stone was covered in moss and lichen, and in others the jungle vines had split stones apart in their quest for a firm hold.
The most impressive parts of the temple were places where the 400 year old fig, banyan, and kapok trees had ripped walls apart with their gigantic roots, creating scenery reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie.
Ta Prohm is extensively ruined, but we were still able to explore a number of courtyards and narrow corridors, and marvel at the crumbling towers. It is easily our favourite temple at Angkor – seeing the jungle at work reclaiming what man has built was both inspiring and beautiful. Especially as we had the place virtually to ourselves!
No such luck at Bayon temple, however, which was jam-packed full of eager tourists by the time got there at 9:00am. Unsurprising really given that Bayon is the 2nd most popular temple, after Angkor Wat. Why is Bayon so famous? Well, it might have something to do with its benevolently smiling faces…
Bayon was the state temple and mausoleum of King Jayavarman VII, a powerful Khmer king in the late 13th century. The temple sits at the centre of the walled city of Angkor and is best known for the gigantic sculpted face that adorn its 37 surviving towers*.
*There were originally 51 towers within the temple grounds, each with 4 faces carved on them to project bountiful benevolence in every direction.
Facing in the 4 cardinal directions on each tower, the faces represent Lokeshvara, a Buddhist deity whose gaze is said to project peace, love, and kindness. Every face was carved in the same likeness, which some believe is based on Jayavarman himself.
The outer gallery of the temple was also interesting, featuring a series of bas reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the every-day life of the Angkorian Khmer people. There were depictions of a marching Khmer army, with musicians, horsemen, and officers mounted on elephants, followed by wagons of provisions. There were also scenes of people shopping at a market, open-air cooking, fishermen at work, and women tending to children. Like the hieroglyphics painted on the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs, these gave an interesting insight into the day-to-day life of the Khmer people.
By the time we finished sightseeing in and around Bayon it was around midday again and the sun was beating down on us mercilessly so we decided to once again call it a day* and headed back to our bus for the return journey to Siem Reap.
*We’re finding it much easier in the oppressive heat and humidity of Cambodia to get up early and do our sightseeing from 6:00am to midday. We sleep through the hottest part of the day and then re-emerge around 3:00pm when temperature start to cool. Mind you “cool” is a relative term as it doesn’t drop below 30C here at night! This is one SERIOUSLY hot little country!
Along the way we saw some tamed elephants, dressed in shiny red “outfits” and ready to be ridden. Many of the creatures looked quite old and their handlers didn’t seem to be very gentle with them. Like many animals used for “touristy” ventures, we have our doubts about how well treated the elephants really are and won’t ride them as a consequence. In our opinion the only good place for a wild animal is the WILD!
We also drove through a number of small villages on our way out of Angkor archaeological park, most of them simple rural hamlets sustained by rice cultivation (and no doubt some extra work on the side selling stuff to tourists). Many of these villagers claims to have ancestors that inhabited the original city of Angkor – they were the ones that stayed behind when everyone else abandoned the city.
Exactly why such a great city was abandoned remains the subject of some speculations. One theory is that the elaborate water system that maintained Angkor silted up and failed, making the city unsustainable. A long series of droughts over a 30 year period is also believed to have been a factor, as is localised deforestation, and in-fighting between various political factions. No doubt it was no single thing that caused the downfall of the Khmer Empire, but a combination of all these environmental and political factors. Whatever the cause(s), the invasion of Angkor by the Siamese in the 15th century sealed the fate if this once great empire, forcing the Khmer to move their capital to Phnom Penh and ensuring they never again gained the lofty heights they attained during the 12th and 13th centuries.
All great empires rise and fall, some leaving behind more than others. All we can say is thank goodness the Khmer left behind such wondrous temples for us to admire – Angkor really is one of the wonders of the ancient world!