Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cambodia: Temples and Palaces of Angkor

As a Christmas gift to ourselves and a nod to T's recent birthday, we decided to take about a week off and head down to Cambodia.  Seoul offers direct flights to both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (about 5 hrs each way), so we flew into the former and back to Seoul out of the latter with a quite a bit of time riding along the country's rather poor roads in between.  While H had visited the country about a decade ago, it was my first time.  Boy, what a place.  It is a fascinating melting pot of extreme poverty, pockets of wealth and 21st century technology, rickety infrastructure, picturesque rice fields and rainforests, amazing historical sites, a brutal recent history, French and Khmer culture, volatile and corrupt politics, and a lively and friendly population.  The poverty at times reminded me of the worst I've seen in Africa.  At the same time, foreign money, much of which seemed to be of Chinese and Korean origin, is flowing into the country like a river, and the country appears to have a great deal of economic potential.  Tourists were everywhere, particularly Chinese and Koreans, but also a considerable number of Europeans (mostly French and British Commonwealth) and a smattering of Americans.

We spent the first couple days in Siem Reap, although our time in the city itself was rather limited as the real draw are the amazing temples of Angkor just outside the city limits.  The temples and the ancient cities that surround them are some of the wonders of the world, and it is easy to see why.  They are easily comparable to the structures at such places as Rome, Petra (Jordan), Chichen Itza (Mexico), Athens, Istanbul, or the Great Wall of China for their grandeur, size, and significance.  Home to the largest religious structure on earth, Angkor Wat, these ancient capital cities and their magnificent temples (and it is mostly temples that are left) are tributes to the Cambodian "god-kings" of the Angkorian period, which lasted about 600 years beginning around 800 AD.  The Lonely Planet guide calls them "heaven on earth" and notes that they are a source of inspiration and national pride to the Cambodian people (90% of which are Khmers) and nearly all Cambodians will visit them.  From our experience, it seemed that a considerable number of Chinese and Koreans want to make the same pilgrimage.

Since we took nearly 1,000 photographs, we will devote several blogs to the trip using a small sampling of our photos.  We are certainly not professional photographers, but I think our photos will give you a good sense for what is to be seen in Cambodia.  The first couple blog entries will give you a tour of the major sites around Angkor.  Subsequent entries will focus on other parts of the trip, including the provincial city of Battambang, the capital Phnom Penh, and sites related to the horrifying rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Our hotel in Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom

The first place we visited was Angkor Thom, the last great capital of the Khmer empire.  It was constructed under the rule of Jayavarman VII (1181-1219) after the original city of Angkor was sacked by the rival Cham empire in 1177.  Encompassing around 10 square kilometers, surrounded by a massive wall and moat, and centered on the great temple of Bayon, it may have supported as many as one million people at its height.  There were lots of things to take pictures of, but we've included below just what we thought were some of the highlights of the complex.

South Gate to Angkor Thom.  Note the faces on the towers.

On the bridge approach to the South Gate.

Bayon Temple.  Lonely Planet describes it as "mesmerizing" and "mind-bending."  Agree with the former, not so much with the latter, unless perhaps you've been taking some mind-altering substances.  The massive temple is very unique and awe-inspiring with its 54 Gothic-style towers and 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the benevolent bodhisattva who postpones his state of enlightenment to remain on earth and assist mankind  (and coincidentally also resemble the king who built it), which look down upon visitors or stare out in the jungle.  The intricate carvings that adorn the walls are also quite detailed and rival those of the more famous Angkor Wat.  Our photo sampling is rather small, but the reliefs contain more than 11,000 figures and cover several battles, including the sacking of the original city of Angko in 1177, a civil war, and a naval battle, as well as a victory parade, a circus, and linga worship.

iPhones now offer a "pan" capability that we tried on a few occasions.  We thought this particular one of Bayon and its ancient moat turned out quite well.

Baphuon.  In its heyday, this vast pyramidal representation of a mythical mountain would have been one of the most spectacular of Angkor's temples.  It has been restored piece by piece.

Terrace of the Leper King.  It is not clear if the Terrace of the Leper King was built for a couple of kings who may have had leprosy or it housed the royal crematorium.  We were mostly interested in the detailed and fascinating reliefs on the interior corridors.


Ta Prohm

Also known as the Tomb Raider temple because it was the backdrop for one of the scenes in the movie, this fascinating and picturesque temple is famous because it is being swallowed by the jungle and appears much as it did back in the 1860s when a Frenchmen "discovered" the Angkor site.  The jungle has been largely beaten back over the years and only a few of the humongous trees and their tentacle-like roots remain, but the ruins still provide for some great photos and an appropriate place for Indiana Jones.


Angkor Wat

The largest and most famous of the temples around Angkor and an important symbol to the country and people of Cambodia.  It is even represented on their national flag.  A beautiful and awe-inspiring mix of symmetry and religious spirituality, it is the Khmer's representation of Mt. Meru, the Hindu version of Mt Olympus.  The complex is huge and has been used almost continuously since its construction in the 1100s by Suryavarman II.  Photos will never do it justice.

Outer wall, gate, and complex.
The temple.

We were very taken with the 800 meter-long bas-reliefs stretching along the outside walls of the central temple.  Incredible detail of armies, columns of soldiers, horses, chariots, close combat, and gods.

 All this in one day.  Stay tuned for another day exploring the ancient Angkor kingdom.

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