In the 12th Century, the Khmer Kingdom was powerful and extensive. Its capital was Angkor Thom. Unlike Angkor Wat which was built to be the King’s mausoleum, Angkor Thom was itself a walled city with a population, at one time, of around one million people. The Bayan Temple, which we visited this morning, was situated in the centre of this ancient city and was covered in jungle, and unknown, until the early 1900’s when the French found it and began to restore it. Restoration continued until the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge took over.
The Bayon temple was constructed by King Jayavarman VII. It was a Buddhist temple and is regarded as the second most important monumental temple in the area after Angkor Wat. It is located exactly in the centre of the area Angkor Thom – 1.5 km inside each if the city gates that are still standing and through which hundreds of cars, buses and Tuk Tuks carry tourists every day.
I found this temple to be fascinating, like many other people. Its layout is quite complex and it has a real air of mystery. There are many nooks and crannies, blind alleys and dark rooms that create this feeling.
There are dozens of towers, each of which is decorated by sculpted faces which look towards each of the major points of the compass. These symbolise each of the four sublime states of Buddhism – Charity , Compassion, Sympathy and Equanimity.
The inner wall of the temple is decorated with rich carvings that seem surprisingly clear considering that they were originally carved in around the year 1200. One set that we found fascinating described the battle between the Chams and the Khmers. The upper level showed the fighting that took place between their ships and the bottom level showed scenes of every day life of the time. We could see people cooking, a scene showing women giving birth and whole variety of other interesting community activities. These bas relief carvings must have been a godsend to the archeologists.
In the middle of the day, we returned to our hotel for lunch. We had a good long break so I filled in some time by paying a Tuk Tuk driver $5 to take me downtown for an hour to see the sights. These vehicles have a motorcycle pulling a compartment in which two, or three, people can travel. A few nears ago they would have been powered by bicycle. Our tour schedule is so busy that otherwise I wouldn’t have had time to see Siem Reap( which interestingly translates to Siam Conquered). I must say that nothing wonderful stood out in the town. It just looks like any other town in a poor SE Asian country. It seems to me to have much the same appearance as Vietnam two decades ago.
This afternoon, we spent our time a little further out of town at Ta Prohm. This temple there had been taken over by jungle and now nature and this man-made structure have become intertwined. In many places the structures are held together by large banyan trees and strangler figs. It would be impossible to destroy the trees without destroying many parts of the temple. There is a lot of restoration work being conducted by the Indian government as part of a UNESCO project. I think that their interest is because the temple was a monastery built by Jayavarman VII as a residence for his mother. and it served as a Hindu Shrine. It is now one of the oldest Hindu relics in the world.
As you climb through the rather dilapidated stone structures you can see many giant trees growing out of the top of the temple itself. At almost every turn you expect to see Indiana Jones step out from behind a fallen pillar. Another good thing about visiting here is that the forest canopy gives plenty of shade and it was much cooler than being at Angkor Wat yesterday.
The design of Ta Prohm is typical of a “flat” Khmer temple, unlike Angkor Wat which has five levels and the Bayan which has three. Here, five rectangular walls enclose and surround the central sanctuary. The outer wall of 1000 by 650 metres encloses a total area of 650,000 square metres. At one time this would have been the site of a substantial town but that has now largely reverted to bush.
We were back at our hotel by 5.00 pm and I was felling much less stuffed than yesterday. Today was also a few degrees cooler – 32C instead of the 34C that we had yesterday. I used some time to recharge my camera batteries, wash out some clothes, shower and then have a nice dinner before having to be away at 7:30 am tomorrow for a bus to take us to the second part of this trip – our cruse down the Mekong.