Thursday 10th Oct 2019
Tony arrives down to breakfast and Shane grins, he says he is in for a surprise this morning. There is no buffet breakfast, instead we have to choose from the menu. Tony gets the American omelette, and Shane laughs. The feed turns up looking like of those degustation meals. Tony is also wary of the “cold” meat on the plate, a couple of rubbery looking triangles. Shane said his were ok, Joanne didn’t touch hers. Cynthea arrives and orders an Asian style breakfast, and that is much more substantial, no fancy pants plating up with that one.
Our driver picks the four of us up around 8.30, we are going to Angkor Wat, but the first stop is at the more substantial, and lesser known Angkor Thom (none of us had heard of it).
On the way through town we have to stop so a herd of water buffalo can pass by, must have been nearly 20 of the beasts, all tended by a young girl of around 12 years old.
Angkor Thom, (means Great City), became the Khmer capital in the late 12th century, remaining the capital throughout the decline of the Khmer empire, and was probably fully abandoned by the 16th century.. It is about 7km north of Siem Reap, and about 2km north of Angkor Wat. 8m high walls surround the city, each 3km long (9 sq km), and are surrounded by a 100m wide moat that serviced the inner city. It is an impressive sight as we cross the moat. There are elephant rides available, US$20 per person, to take us into the temple area, but we have doubts about their welfare, so don’t do this, as much as we dearly wanted to.
The first temple we visit is Bayon, built in the 12th or 13th century as the office state temple of the Buddhist king, and it is not until we are inside that we see the true extent of the place. We are in awe of the intricate carvings, and how detailed these are. On one set of panels we also see the humour of the artists, detailing a cheeky monkey stealing from baskets carried on the heads of the locals, to the turtle that has latched on to the bum of a worker. There are many more examples if you look close. Bayon has around 54 towers, with 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara peering down at you. It is a fantastic temple to explore – with mazes of tunnels, blocked doorways and tumble-down rocks, oh and you can tell that a few bats live here too, phew. Many of the Buddha statues have large covers (like a giant lamp shade) covering them, to prevent bat shit dropping on to them. We can see changes to carvings in the pillars, where a Hindu carving has been subtly altered to reflect the Buddhist.
Baphuon was marked as the centre of the city when the whole of Angkor Thom was fully complete. A representation of Mount Meru, at the time it was probably one of the most impressive of the Angkor temples. A 200m elevated walkway leads to the temple which has a central tower 43m high. Tony is offered time to “run” up the steep steps if he wants a couple of photos from there, but it is bloody hot, and we do not really have the time. We settle for watching the antics of the monkeys that are following us. They are reasonably well behaved, compared with some we have seen. Staff keep them pretty much under control, taking food off them if they manage to steal any.
The terrace of the Elephants is a 350m long terrace, supposedly used as a platform from which Jayavarman VII viewed his victorious returning army. The stairs are decorated with lions and garudas and life-sized images of elephants and their guardians are displayed along the length of the terrace walls.
The east gate of Angkor Thom made an appearance in Tomb Raider, as well as Ta Prohm a couple of kilometres away. Tomb Raider (2001) pretty much pushed Cambodia into the tourist limelight. Now, millions of visitors come to Siem Reap to be photographed with “that tree”. That includes us. Angelina Jolie is long gone though. Throughout Ta Prohm we are amazed at how the fig trees are extending massive root systems down from the tops of walls and buildings, to cover the stonework, and it is hard to know if they are conserving or destroying the structures. Other sites have had the jungle cleared from taking over, here they have been left for us to wonder at the tenacity of nature in reclaiming the land.
On one of the pillars is a carving of what “might” be a stegosaurus, there is some debate over this. Is it a hoax, or did the Khmer have some knowledge of dinosaurs? No one really knows…
As we leave the temple we see the huge jigsaw puzzle that is the Third Enclosure Gallery, on the South wing, has been completed. When found, this was a pile of rubble, totally collapsed and ruined, when Khmer Rouge destroyed the city. All the stones were then individually documented, and a computer was used to determine the placement of stones. You cannot help but be impressed by the massive effort required to achieve this.
Angkor Wat was built circa 1113 – 1150, and consists of some 200 hectares. Originally Hindu, it was converted to Buddhist in the 14th century. Here too, we can see changes to carvings in the pillars, where a Hindu carving has been altered to reflect the Buddhist culture. As with most other ancient temples in Cambodia, Angkor Wat has faced extensive damage and deterioration by a combination of plant overgrowth, fungi, ground movements, war damage and theft. The war damage to Angkor Wat's temples however has been very limited, compared to the rest of Cambodia's temple ruins, and it has also received the most attentive restoration.
Its 65 metre central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, the legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and is the home of the gods.
The city where the temple was built, Angkor, was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, containing hundreds of temples. The population may well have been over 1 million people. It was easily the largest city in the world until the Industrial Revolution.
Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a 200m wide moat that encompasses a perimeter of more than 5km. The moat is 4m deep and would have helped stabilize the temple's foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.
There are wooden steps built to allow us to climb to the top of the central tower, and they are just as scary to climb as the original ones. It is as bad going up as it is coming back down.
Building Angkor Wat was an enormous undertaking that involved quarrying, careful artistic work and lots of digging. Just to create the moat around the temple, 1.5 million cubic metres of sand and silt were moved, a task that would have required thousands of people working at one time.
The buildings at Angkor Wat posed their own challenges. To support them a tough material called laterite was used, which in turn was encased with softer sandstone that was used for carving the reliefs. These sandstone blocks were quarried at the Kulen Hills, about 30 km to the north. Research shows a series of canals were used to transport the blocks to Angkor Wat.
Our last stop is at the lake for photo opportunities, we have had a long day, a good 10km walking. We are back at the hotel around 4pm, and it doesn’t take us long to get down to the pool for cocktails. We don’t have long to wait for happy hour either, drinks at half price, but still no beers on tap. Bottles are available though, but we end up getting a few cocktails. We are surprised that when we go to pay the bill, they have also taken taken the 20% room discount off. A cheap round indeed!
We had not decided where to go for tea tonight. And the hotel staff desperately wanted us to eat there (the chef was twiddling his thumbs). We decided to head down to the local place at the end of the street again. Shane gets his meal first, and we tell him not to wait. He tells us he had no intention of doing so, haha. He is well finished before the next one comes out, and still two of us are waiting. We find out later that the locals just order lots of dishes to go into the centre to share, so meals come out one at a time. But Shane isn’t sharing, haha. We go to pay, and Shane tries to leave an out of date (in Cambodia) US$20 note, they run after us and insist we swap it over. They tell us to go to the money changer in the morning, but we don’t have the time. Anyway, why can they not do that? They insist their boss will take the money out of their wages if we don’t give them a better note. We go for a short walk, but it has been a long day, so we head back to the hotel to pack for our flights tomorrow.