The first complex of temples that we visited outside Siem Reap was Angkor Thom, a huge “city” with several incredible temples built around the 12th and 13th century. I have to admit, I didn’t listen too closely to the private guide who at some point, while incredibly well-meaning, was droning on and on and on. But the reality was this. Nearly 1,000 years ago, in the middle of the Indochinese peninsula, an incredible set of temples were being built. A city with hundreds of thousands of citizens lived nearby. The stones for these incredibly intricate and humongous structures were brought in from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, probably transported mostly by elephant power. Imagine the scale of the projects, the weight of the construction materials, the food and poop of the elephants, the broken toes of construction workers. The sheer amount of money or resources spent to create these marvels. That is what is awe-inspiring. That is what you couldn’t get away from, regardless of the detailed stories of which buddhist did what to which Hindu. That the Chinese and Indians were at odds in this crossroads between two great empires. I cannot be more detailed, but the temples and their photos should almost speak for themselves. They were magnificent. Simply magnificent.
We started out at the South gate of the complex, one of five gates. The surrounding man-made moat was HUGE and meant to protect the complex from invaders. I cannot imagine digging more than 3 holes to plant medium sized trees, imagine managing the excavation of river like proportions for several dozens of miles around the temple complex?
The south gate was very narrow, in order to keep the complex sealed off and protected. I like to think of it as being as wide as an elephant. Every bit of it had some carving of some sort, with far too much meaning and significance for my brain to absorb in one short visit.
From the gate we drove by dozens of monkeys, begging tourists for dole outs, and onto the Terrace of the Elephants, an area where royalty would sit and view down at the grounds below, where sports or other games would be played.
I can tell you that the scale of it all was the most impressive fact. These guys were serious ego-maniacal-builders!!! But like with a MAJOR inferiority complex. Can’t imagine what building they saw elsewhere that compelled them to go so wickedly over the top on this complex of temples. I sure hope they ended up in their equivalent of heaven for leaving such a long-lasting stone structure on this planet.
Don’t be fooled by the lack of people in the photos so far, the place was crawling with tourists. And despite our guide taking us places at off-hours, one had to go into zen mode to understand the serenity of the place unmarred by us and thousands like us brandishing cameras and referring to guides and guidebooks. Excavation work was still on-going and when asked what they might be looking for, they said gold, gems, artifacts…
A very steep set of stairs (they all seemed incredibly steep) at the Phimeanakas temple, currently under-going renovation work with the help of the Czech government. With my fear of heights, I let the Teen climb up by herself and she reported a nice view of the surrounding tree tops.
My brother-in-law had the opportunity to visit Siem Reap and the temples in the early 1960’s, after the French had began to restore in earnest and then the war broke out and the place went unvisited/unattended to for decades, and in some cases was damaged by the fighting and looting and hundreds of statues went missing. He recently returned to Siem Reap and lamented that it was a shadow of its former charming self. But I have to say, the temples are still very impressive, even in their current raped and pillaged state… Thousands of pieces to what is possibly the world’s largest temple jigsaw puzzle lay strewn everywhere. And I hate to think how many pieces of these temples are in chic apartments and homes around the globe.
Smaller and simpler gateways from one temple area to another, in this case, on the way to Baphoun, provided ample moments to reflect and of course, photo opportunities galore.
The huge trees that are everywhere in the temple complexes were incredibly impressive, but in many ways were damaging the structures as well. I can see why the temples were quickly overgrown and hidden by thick jungle for several hundred years before they were “re-discovered” a century or more ago.
I am not much of an explorer in the vein of hacking through jungle to find some lost temple, but I can imagine what the first explorers into this area must have felt when they came across this incredible set of structures in the midst of a tropical rainforest.
We made our way to Bayon, the piece de resistance for Angkor Thom, and our jaws were agape at the beautiful and well preserved temple, smiling faces all around… Huge reliefs were hand carved on the sides of the temple and detailed stories of war, aggression, everyday life and what not, painstakingly recorded by artisans of the most amazing sort.
In the end, the best way to sum it all up wasn’t some long explanation of the enormity of the experience, but rather, this stunning smile on the face carved into stone, a smile that had withstood nearly 900 years of time and the ravages of both man and nature.