Grand Tour of temples around Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Ty and I, sans guide, rolled out in a tuk-tuk headed towards the “Lady Temple”, a building which our driver enthused was a must-see. When we reached Banteay Srey, the hometown of our driver, we stopped for a bit to meet his family and drink a young coconut with them.

The driver’s sister pointed out the billboard across the street showing a man in a car handing a mosquito net to a young person and explained to me that her sister had gone up into the mountains without a net and was now very sick. Another billboard across from this one showed the old and new Cambodias; the old on the right had Khmer Rouge men with guns, blood, and corpses in the street, while the new showed a well-dressed happy family, complete with puppy, in front of a shiny new school.

We visited five temples in our Grand Circuit, so named because of the distance to be travelled between them.

Banteay Srey (late 10th c Hindu) “loosely translates as ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple” (Lonely Planet account). The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction, delicate almost filigree-like carving, and ornate design give it a surreal “fairyland” ambiance.

East Mebon (late 10th c Hindu) is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers, dedicated to Shiva.

It has beautiful, well-preserved elephants sculptures in each of the four corners, as well as two guardian lions at each of the four stair cases to the upper levels.

From the topmost level we had a beautiful view out over the green and lush countryside beyond, some of which is not yet dried out from the recent mega-floods.

Ta Som (late 12th c Hindu) is a small monastic complex with beautiful carvings, a large gate topped by a stone portrait head, and is much like a smaller version of Ta Prohm, the “Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider” temple (as all the guides and tuk tuk drivers call it).

Neak Pean (12th c Buddhist) is a small island temple, the central building of which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. Originally known as Rajasri, Neak Pean took its modern appellation, which means ‘coiled serpents,’ from the encoiled nagas that encircled the temple.

The area around this temple is still flooded; we accessed it along a wooden causeway over a swamp boiling with mosquitos. After snapping a few pictures, we quickly made our way out again, me covered up with a sarong to avoid getting bitten.

Finally, saving the best for last, we visited the magnificent Preah Khan (late 12th c Buddhist), a huge complex which originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks.

For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII. The name means “sacred sword” and the temple is dedicated to the King’s father. We approached the temple along a grand boulevard and bridge lined with gods and demons struggling, like the earlier bridge we’d seen into Angkor Thom. Here only one head remains; the rest had all been eroded away.

Once inside we were greeted with grey, green, and red walls sculpted with bas reliefs of apsara, warriors, firefly-Tinker Bell-like women along the top edges of inside walls, and huge fig and silk-cotton trees growing out of and into the building’s stones.

Each of the large temples in Angkor Thom is surrounded with a moat, signifying the oceans of the world. The bridge which crosses each moat, surmounted by nagas, represents the “rainbow bridge” connecting the underworld, earth, and paradise. Some of the bridges, as noted, are decorated with duelling gods and demons. All the temples have bas relief carvings of apsara dancers, each with a different headdress, and contain large open dancing halls in which the women would perform dances dedicated to the gods.

The pyramidal temple structures have five levels, representing the five “worlds” of Hinduism. Many of the towers are topped by gigantic stone lotus blossoms which originally would have been used as fire basins, lit when the apsara danced. Although most of the temples were originally Hindu, all were later converted to Buddhist with the addition of Buddha statues and sculptures to the extant Hindu decoration.

I loved my time in Cambodia; the weather was great – hot and dry – and the people are warm. Evidence of Cambodia’s dark past was everywhere in the form of land mine victims begging on the streets and playing music in small bands on Pub Street and at the temples. The country is not as wealthy as neighboring Thailand or Vietnam and most of the people in Siem Reap’s surrounding countryside still live a very traditional village life. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are incredible; I’m already thinking about my next trip! And next time, I’ll be able to take it slow – five temples in one day doesn’t make for optimum viewing conditions …

See more pics here.

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