Sunday, February 9, 2014

Angkor Wat - The Jewel in the Crown

Naga at the Bridge

The Central (Royal) Gate at the Entrance Wall
Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list since the mid 90's when we visited Thailand and first heard that the Angkor area was being opened to tourism.  The romantic vision of temples overgrown with vegetation, hidden from view for centuries, forbidden to the public by the Khymer Rouge, has stayed in my mind since that time.  The actual visit lived up to expectations.  Having seen the silhouette of the temple many times, I wasn't prepared for the size of the complex.  Originally a Hindu temple, the whole temple area is surrounded by a moat representing ocean.  To reach the main temple complex, you must pass over the moat and then through an entrance gate which spans at least two football fields.  There are three separate entrances based on the three main Hindu castes--one for the Royals and Brahmins, one for the middle classes, and one for the workers. 
Reflecting Pool at Angkor Wat Temple

After walking through the entrance gate, you walk at least another 3 football fields to the reflecting pool and finally to the temple itself.  Large outer corridors are covered with bas relief sculptures representing Hindu myths such as the Ramayana.  Beyond are a series of platforms leading to the main five towers, the central and tallest of which represents Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. The stairway to the top tier was closed on this particular occasion because of a Buddhist holiday, but maybe that was fortunate for our travel-weary group. 

A Buddhist blessing
Although the temple was originally Hindu, it was converted to Buddhist worship when Cambodia itself became principally Buddhist.  Many images of the Buddha were left in the temple by supplicants; a large number, however, were spirited away before the temple complex came under the protection of the current caretakers.  UNESCO has contributed much time and money to saving and preserving the site.  The site is worthy of much more time and attention than we were able to give during our short visit, but we had a flight to catch (and, of course, some shopping to do), so we headed back to our bus.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Time for Temples

The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, according to our guide, is what the Angkor Archeological Site has been called by UNESCO, and it’s true.  It is a site unique in its size, its architecture and its beauty.  Like the pyramids, Petra, and the Acropolis, it must be seen in person to be appreciated because the physical setting is as much a part of the whole as the buildings themselves.  The ruins are the remains of the Khymer civilization which ruled over the areas that are now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam between the 9th and 13th centuries.  Jayavarman II (r. 802-850 CE) is thought to have established the first Devaraj (god-king) state in the early 9th century.  A Hindu, Jayavarman II, was the first to start building a series of pyramid temples representing Mount Meru, centre of the universe and home of the gods.   His successors for the next four centuries would each build their own temples which, upon their deaths, could serve as the kings’ mausoleums.  We were only able to visit the three most well-known temples during our short stay:  Bayon, the Tomb Raider Temple, and Angkor Wat.  To enter the city area, you must first cross a wide moat; the bridge is protected by a 7-headed Naga, and statues on both balustrades represent the demons and gods who staged a tug of war for the earth. 

Bayon was our first stop.  The Japanese are currently in charge of restoring the site and we stopped at a small demonstration area showing us how the limestone blocks were prepared to be lifted into place on the temple buildings.  Bayon was pretty much in ruins, but the central spire towering 75 feet above the site was something to behold, along with the stone carvings telling the story of life in the Ancient Khymer kingdom and the extensive maze of fallen walls marking various chambers and shrine areas. 

We next moved to the temple known as Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple.  This site has been left almost as it was when first found covered with the roots of trees.  It’s called the Tomb Raider site because that was where the movie was filmed.  I’m constantly amazed by the film site trend in tourism.  Tourists are more excited about walking in the footsteps of movie stars than walking in the steps of kings and commoners from an ancient and mysterious civilization.  They can have it both way in Angkor. 

After visiting the Tomb Raider site, we returned to Raffles for a quiet interlude and lunch.   

…to be continued

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Raving about Raffles

Performers at the Raffles Barbeque
This visit to Angkor, unfortunately, has been rushed.  We left the ship about 3:00 p.m., drove to the beautiful “new” Bangkok Airport (7 years old), and finally arrived in Siem Reap and our hotel at around 7:45 p.m.  The route from the airport was lined with new, large hotels surrounded by tour buses.  Our guide explained that Angkor draws millions of tourists every year, but the bulk still come from Asia—South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand, in that order.  Western tourists are still a smaller group.  Raffles is an incredibly peaceful and elegant hotel with all the trappings of the 6 star prices it commands.  We had a barbeque poolside complete with a presentation from Cambodian entertainers.  And so to bed.

View from the Balcony of Room 2324, Raffles Hotel
The balcony of my room overlooks the pool/garden area of the hotel.  The breezes this morning were cool and refreshing and accompanied by the call of parrots which I could never locate.  We had a sumptuous breakfast and then piled into our buses.  Our group was divided up into groups of 15 which was not too large.  The first thing that strikes one about t1-he area is the incredible “busy-ness.” Tuk-tuks are buzzing around everywhere, joined by a mixture of tour buses and motorbikes.  I was expecting a peaceful and meditative spot.  Not so.  The first stop is the tourist office where one must buy passes (1, 2, and 5-day passes), complete with photos, to visit the temple sites.  The lines were what I’ve come to call Arab lines, which is to say very chaotic; they were not your standard British queue.  We struggled to stay up with our guide, and after having our photos taken, we couldn’t relocate our tour bus.  Finally all aboard, we ventured forth onto the site of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which held over 70,000 inhabitants during its prime.
     …to be continued