Monday, May 20, 2013

Siem Reap, Cambodia (part 2)

Tourists flock to Angkor Wat by the the thousands, and it is a glorious and impressive sight, of course. But for me, the real magic of Siem Reap lies in many of the other sites. There is nothing quite like the feeling of having a thousand-year-old ruin nearly to yourself, early in the morning. There is no incessant chatter of other tourists and their guides, no crowds to navigate past, no other people appearing in your photographs, just massive stones rising from the jungle that has been slowly reclaiming them for a thousand years, their intricate carvings worn by time but still astonishingly stark and beautiful. The heat and humidity of the day is not yet oppressive, just on the edge of stifling, and you can close your eyes and imagine what these temples might have looked like when they were first built, when they rose out of the jungle as a sign of power and wealth.

This is Angkor Thom, the ancient Khmer city.

The South Gate of Angkor Thom is impressive, and one can only imagine what it must have looked like a thousand years ago, what a show of wealth it must have been. This is not a river; it's a moat that surrounds the city.

These statues line both sides of the bridge over the massive moat. many of the heads are original and others are not, but the figures are larger than life, a long line of strong men holding the seven-headed snake Naga.

The gate itself is a tall tower and features the faces that are the most salient feature of Bayon Temple (below).

Bayon is the most famous temple in the city complex, and it's known for the massive stone faces that stare serenely down at you from every possible angle. It's not in the shape Angkor Wat is, but it's in the process of being reconstructed.

The large faces are carved on all four sides of every tower in the temple complex. There must be hundreds of them, all identical. 

Nearly every surface is covered with intricate carvings, all done by hand, of course. It's astonishing to think about how much work was involved in building this temple.

We had the temple nearly to ourselves for almost half an hour before tour groups began to arrive.

Like Angkor Wat, Bayon was originally built as a Hindu temple. It is now a Buddhist temple and so there are many shrines within.

In this picture you can see many stones on the ground. The restoration is ongoing, but it's clear that the complex was even larger in its original form.

From Bayon we walked on to Baphoun Temple, which was closed for restoration. We walked around the impressive exterior.

Carter loved running down this long bridge that led from the main road to the temple. 

That little orange dot is Carter, which gives you a sense of how large this temple is.

Here is the view from the other end of the bridge. No guardrails, of course!

Next time we visit, I'll look forward to climbing up to the top of this temple.

From there we followed the path heading towards the Royal Palace and Phimeanakas Temple. At this point, I felt like I was walking through a movie set. Gigantic trees grow out of and around the ruins, snaking their way over walls and through windows. I regret that I didn't get a picture of Carter standing in front of this tree so that the sheer size of it could be shown.

We stepped down into the ruins of a palace, nearly consumed by the jungle. I stood in the middle for a long time and listened to the sounds of the forest and felt sweat trickle down the sides of my face, and tried to imagine what it would have been like for the people who lived here so many centuries ago.

The wall around the palace still stands, though I think it has been restored.

We walked on through the forest, until we reached the Phimeanakus Temple. Its shape reminded me of a central American pyramid in many ways. The climb up the side was very steep and, with a five-year-old child, a bit nerve-wracking. 

This large pallet of carved stones was along the side of the path. There were pieces of statues there, disjointed heads and torsos, the sorts of pieces you might imagine belong in a museum, and they were just lying on the ground beneath a tree.

From there we emerged from the jungle and walked along a long stone terrace.

There were more intricate stone carvings around the base of a temple, ones that were stunning in their detail.

By this time, we'd been out for a couple of hours and the heat was becoming oppressive, so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and a day of relaxing and staying cool. At this point, it was already clear to us that Siem Reap was a place we want to visit again, at a cooler time of year when we can stay out longer and see even more. In the next post, I'll share pictures of what was, for me, one of the most spectacular and beautiful temples I've ever seen.

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