January 19, 2015
After we left Angkor Wat our tuk tuk driver took us to some food stalls where we could eat breakfast. It was a little bit of a tourist trap. The prices were inflated, and our driver probably got a little cut for taking us there. Sometimes you just can’t avoid it. So we ate a little something and were then dropped off at Angkor Thom.
Angkor Thom was the final capital of the Khmer empire. It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. Jayavarman VII is still revered as one of the greatest Khmer kings – perhaps the greatest. He defeated the Cham (a kingdom in modern-day central Vietnam) invaders and built up the empire with hospitals, roads, and waterways. Then he built temples and the capital of Angkor Thom. He also expanded the empire into parts of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Angkor Thom was a gigantic walled city surrounded by a 100m-wide moat supposedly filled with vicious crocodiles. It is believed that the “Great City” supported a population of 1 million people in the surrounding region – quite a population for that time. We entered through the more popular South Gate and began at Bayon.
Bayon has 54 towers each adorned with the face of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva (enlightened being) who embodies the compassion of all buddhas. However, the face is said to also resemble Jayavarman VII. Each tower has 4 faces so that no matter where you look you are confronted by one. From afar, Bayon doesn’t look like much but once you get to the third level you are face to face with the smiling bodhisattvas. It was a little bit crowded since there were several tour groups there but it was easy enough to avoid them. Once we left Bayon we left the crowds behind for the rest of our time at Angkor Thom. We walked over to Baphuon next. Baphuon is a representation of Mt. Meru, the mythical mountain held as the center of all things physical, metaphysical, and spiritual in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. (There are many different representations of Mt. Meru all over Angkor.) Baphuon was the center of the capital that existed before Angkor Thom and was absorbed into Angkor Thom during Jayavarman VII’s reign.
Baphuon was undergoing extensive renovation when the Cambodian civil war began. The École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) had been taking the temple apart piece by piece in their effort to restore it. The EFEO halted work for the next 20 years, and when they began again in 1995, they discovered that all of their records had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign, leaving them with over 300,000 stones to put back in place. So, restoration is still in process.
Baphuon was practically deserted compared to Bayon so it was very pleasant to wander around freely and admire the grand scale of everything. We climbed all the way to the top by way of incredibly steep staircases, which felt rather perilous, and admired the view.
We followed a dirt path through a wooded area and walked through a crumbling gate into the Royal Enclosure. This walled area housed the royal palace. However, since stone structures were reserved only for the gods, the palace would have been made out of wood, and did not survive to see today’s tourists. There is a small temple, Phimeanakas, that stands at the center, and we were able to climb to the top – which again was rather perilous. Phimeanakas has only one staircase which made it difficult for those wanting to get down.
We wandered on a dirt path inside the enclosure which led us to another crumbling gate. This one took us out of the Royal Enclosure and toward Preah Palilay. Preah Palilay was built during Jayavarman VII’s reign. According to our guidebook, the temple was previously more atmospheric due to the giant trees that surrounded it. They cut the trees down in order to protect the temple thereby eliminating the atmosphere. But since we hadn’t seen the temple with the trees we weren’t impacted. I still felt the temple to be very atmospheric. It was quite isolated. We were the only people wandering around it and it was still shaded by the encroaching forest.
We left Preah Palilay and walked back to the road where we somehow found our tuk tuk driver in a sea of tuk tuks. I’m not sure how they keep up with their riders! Then we were whisked away toward our final temple – Ta Prohm.