Simply, the Angkor Wat complex is astounding. The architecture is beautiful and the carvings immensely detailed. It's almost inconceivable that all the temples were built between 500-1200 years ago. The huge rocks used to build the temples were either transported down the Mekong during the wet season or by dragged by elephants during the dry season. The mountains, from which the sandstone and laterite rocks were taken, are about 35 Km away: no simple task!
The temples were all built as places of worship either to the Hindu gods or Buddha or a mixture of the two. Most times the people who built the temples were not paid, nor given food by the king. Supposedly, the people were happy to contribute to the building of the temples. The rest of the villagers helped take care of the artisans and everyone chipped in some way.
It is said that it took 37 years to complete Angkor Wat and 3 years alone to complete the bas-relief that tells the story of the Ramayana. Many artisans worked on it simultaneously, carving different parts of the story into the different sections of the wall. There were scenes with monkeys and war with the Champas and scenes of the building of the temple itself. The main temple had several large towers, rooms and structures all connected with an elaborate complex of hallways, all covered wall-to-wall in unique carvings (though similar) of different figures, the most common of which were the Apsara dancers. This main complex of the temple was built in the 1200's and just the sheer magnitude of the project is remarkable. I do find it hard to believe that no slaves were used, but that's the official line from our tour guide, so who am I to say? The carvings, though, were clearly done by skilled artisans; the craftsmanship easily excels that found in Europe from the same time. The sense of proportion and perspective was way ahead of the Renaissance of the 1500's in Italy.
We also visited the Bayon Temple, which had its own unique offerings: huge smiling Buddha faces. The faces must've been 10 meters tall since it took several huge stones to form each face. The Buddha faces had this calm smiling look that was very pleasing. The temple itself wasn't in the greatest of shape and many of the faces were broken with the missing part scattered on the ground or just missing altogether. Again, we saw an enormous bas-relief that depicted more stories and scenes from everyday life and battles with the Champas, who were themselves a formidable empire at the time but would not end up comparing to the size of the Khmer empire during that time period. Again, we saw monkeys, Apsara dancers, men praying and meditating, men fighting, and even two men playing chess. I would've missed those two guys if Jen hadn't pointed it out; there were so many little scenes to see! The entire bas-relief was remarkable as a piece of art & work on its own. It could easily stand as the center piece of any carving exhibition.
What was so neat about this temple was that when we came upon it, we just saw many towers and what looked to be a former enormous structure. But as we got closer and could see the details of the towers, the Buddha faces just seemed to materialize out of the stones themselves. Interestingly, there was one face that stood out from the rest because it was smiling with much more fervor than the rest. It was a funny quirk and I'm not sure if anyone knows why that face was carved like that.
Phra Thom was the third well-known temple we explored. It also had its own unique feel, but that was because the French originally decided to leave it mostly as they found it, which was overgrown with huge Banyan trees. Literally, trees had been growing into, out of, and on top of different parts of the temple. And they were huge, huge trees, so you know they had been growing for hundreds of years. These trees were several people wide and easily 20 feet in circumference if one had to measure them. The French made a smart move leaving it like that because it's such a unique and incredible sight. It probably would've affected the eco-system too because of the size of the trees, but for some reason, I doubt that had any impact on their decision.
The temple also had elaborate carvings but the architecture and quality of the carvings did not match that of the Angkor complex, nor the Bayon Temple or even the artwork of this one corridor of another separate temple we walked through. Actually, it wasn't a corridor, it was just a wall built around the outside of a temple to protect it from any future damage. The faces in those carvings were also ridiculously detailed and even somewhat gruesome. That particular temple was reportedly turned into a leper colony by the king who, as it is rumored, himself suffered from leprosy later in his life.
There must've been some 50 temples that were all built during these 600+ years of the Khmer Empire. Since they reflected Hindu, Buddhist, and other religious ideas, they were used to show the king's allegiances and to tell the people a new era had arrived. Many of the temples incorporated several elements from each religion in order to show a transition from one religion to another. But most of all, I can't get over the detail, skill, and quality of the carvings, along with the sheer grandeur of each of the projects.
But the absolute best part of our Siem Reap trip, to me, was seeing the sun rise over the majestic Ankgor Wat towers. We had spoken to someone we met while traveling who had been to Angkor Wat a few years prior, and he told us that the best thing to do there was to show up for sunrise when there was nobody around and you have a little time before the tour buses show up at 8:15 on the dot. Of course, we were psyched to do this and we asked our tour guide to arrange it which wasn't difficult. So we got up around 5am and the hotel packed us a bag breakfast, which ended up being a feast we shared with some kids, and we left our hotel in the darkness of night. We arrived at the Angkor Wat complex and saw a few too many lights. I wondered what the lights were, and then as we got closer, we realized that we weren't the only ones with the genius idea....There were several buses and cars already there to see the sunrise too. Apparently, the idea has gotten around quite a bit already and maybe there were hundreds of people we were sharing the sunrise with. Better than thousands, but still, we thought we'd be nearly alone.
For the most part, the people all seemed to be respecting the scene and each other by staying quiet for the sights, except there were a few knucklehead Brits and French that were just yapping away. So we walked up to the pool in front of the temple and found some places to sit down. Dad walked right up to the pond with his tripod and took his angle for some good shots. Slowly the sky started turning purple and then dark blue and the stars were still visible. As the sky got lighter, the cameras started clicking away but the most remarkable soundtrack was the cicada symphony that started up all at the same moment. Near silence and then the cicadas' song for about a half hour or so and then, just as quickly as it started, it became quiet right as the sun was peaking through and over the towers of Angkor. Now, I don't really like how the cicadas' sound that much; it's not a very pleasing sound but it was so cool to hear them all start up at once. And then all of a sudden, after forgetting that they were even crooning away, they just stopped. And the only reason that I realized they had been continuing was because they had ceased. By then, the sky was lighting up and we got some amazing shots of the sun behind the huge temple and we were able to just watch it rise and the people started to move about with the rising sun as well. We stayed longer than most and it quieted down nicely and we were able to just sit quietly and take it all in. Eventually, though we got hungry for breakfast and our guide took us to a place where we could all eat together and this was the beginning of the day we walked around Bayon temple and Phra Thom.
What a way to end the Asia portion of our trip!!
Following our few days in Siem Reap, as the denouement of the Asia portion of our trip, we had to fly back to Bangkok to catch our flights back to the States. We weren't exceedingly fond of Bangkok the first time around, so we wondered what it would be like the second go-round. It still wasn't that great. A big, smelly, dirty city where people were trying to rip us off. We did get to stay in the famed Oriental, which was an experience in itself and boy did we ever make maximize that short time! We also hit up the night market for a few gifts and treats. And the next day we made sure to see a few sights that we missed the first time around. We wanted to see The Reclining Buddha, which is one of the most famous Buddha's in Asia. We saw it and it was huge! We also got to compare these temples again with what we had already seen throughout SE Asia, and they were still incredible. We thought maybe we had exaggerated the beauty of the temples since they were the first ones we had seen, but nope, they were extravagant and extraordinary in their architecture, art, and general quality. In summary, Bangkok, the sequel, was much like the first, except we were more comfortable with the characters and plot line yet still amazed by the temples and artifacts. Unfortunately, our camera was left in the taxi on the way to the airport, but we must've taken the most honest cab driver in the world because he returned our camera to the Oriental and the Concierge mailed it back to us. Perhaps we judged Bangkok to harshly; things like this can restore some faith in humanity, huh? Quite a first half we had on our honeymoon!!