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Published: January 21st 2010
If I had worried about seeing too many pictures of everyone else's trip to Angkor it was wasted concern. We finally got into the park yesterday and visited our first temples: the Bayon, which was the state temple of Jayavarman VII who ruled from around 1181 to 1220, Baphoun, whose 300,000 stones were carefully dismantled for reconstruction (it was in ruins) in the 1960s, each stone being carefully documented so that it could be reassembled...at least until the unspeakably rotten humans of the Khmer Rouge came along and burned all of the associated paperwork leaving restorers with a 300,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that now has no box cover; Terrace of the Leper King, a lovely bas relief hallway in the outer city wall, the foundation and well that were the King's palace (which was built from wood as were all of the other dwellings within the city of Angkor) and finally Angkor Wat itself, the world's largest religious monument built in 1113 and whose construction lasted 30 years.
We had a tour guide with us, Pum Sovann or 'Bao Pro' - little brother. He explained that in Cambodia people often don't use their given names and instead are called by
their relationship to each other in a family. His name, Pum Sovann is a backwards version of how we are named, with his family name, Pum, first and his given name, Sovann, second. But all day to us he was Bao Pro, Todd was Bong Pro (big brother) and I was Bong Srai. His english was very good but thick with a Cambodian accent and it was like exercise at times to translate what he was saying. But he was amazing, only speaking English since 2003 when he started learning on his own and he did very well. All day he taught us how to say things in Khmer and in return asked us to help refine his english.
The monuments we went to visit were within the walls of Angkor Thom, the ancient city itself that was once the state capital of Jayavarman VII and was home to over a million people back in the late 1100s. To enter the city one must cross a moat (which at one point was filled with crocodiles for good measure) over one of four bridges, all of which depict in statues the legend of the Churning of the Sea of milk.
Gods and demons face off in a massive tug of war that results in the creation of elixir that renders one immortal. Common folk never got to touch the stuff
Passing through the gate we saw the first of the Bayon faces, smiling passively at the hoardes of tourists. Bayon was an amazing temple to walk through, several layers of quiet stone hallways topped with 54 towers all adorned with what is presumed to be the smiling face of Jayavarman VII. With all of the people visiting you could still find places and moments when it felt like you were the only people there. It's a magical place.
Covering all of the temples are wall after wall of the most intricately carved bas relief depicting stories that are age old - battles, dancing aspara, divinity, heaven and hell...across all religions seem to come the same themes and I'll tell you what, the Hindu version of heaven and hell is very graphically described on one 300' long wall. Don't be a bad person. Trust me.
The Baphoun monument was something that Julie Bell would truly appreciate. What a mess. When fully constructed it was the tallest monument in
Angkor Thom. Restoration work was in full swing during the 1910s and 1920s; during the 1940s the restoration work was undone by heavy tropical rains and the monument crumbled once again. Another full-scale restoration was underway in the 1960s whereby the monument was disassembled stone by stone, painstakingly recorded and layed out on the flat ground below. As far as the eye can see are the stones, each about 2'x4'x4' ready for reassembly if only someone knew how to put them back together. It made my jaw drop. A three dimensional puzzle that a crane is used to put back together. 300,000 pieces. On top of killing a quarter of the country's population, the Khmer Rouge has a special place in hell for their sacking of all things intellectual including the box cover for this puzzle. What a bunch of assholes.
As we went from temple to temple we were able to walk through the young jungle that is growing within the walls of Angkor Thom. The leaves are off some of the trees now and it's lovely to wander under what looked like fig and eucalyptus. Tropical fall.
Speaking of tropical we are the happy recipients of
a tropical depression in the middle of the dry season. So sure are the people that their dry season is dry, when it was very cloudy two nights ago I asked one of the guys working in the lobby if he thought it would rain (as the forecast had predicted). He said without hesitation. NO. Dry season. No rain. And I believed him. He was wrong. It stared raining last night and appears to be going at it again this morning. We are up for our 6am visit to Ta Phrom, the most mystical of the temples here, draped with the roots of giant trees (the picture on the cover of the July 2009 National Geographic is from Ta Phrom) but our tuk tuk driver said that if it was raining, a sunrise visit to Ta Phrom could wait till later. Kind of a bummer but that's ok. I love it here. Give me a bowl of amok, an Angkor beer and a comfy seat under the huge woven grass patio and I can get over many disappointments.
There is no way in a short amount of time that I can give good history and overview of Angkor and
its many intricate pieces. If you are interested in more (and more accurate) details use wikipedia to search on any of the temple names or Angkor in general. Use Google earth to get a wonderful overhead view of how these temples are layed out and the vast and intricate reservoir system that sustained a million people through bone dry (usually) dry seasons. It's a fascinating place full of unimaginably hard work on a scale of the Egyptian pyramids (each stone was hauled in from 45km away and they're big suckers). I can't wait to get out in the rain today to see more.
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