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Cambodia, part 9f – Angkor: Ta Prohm

This is the sixth and final part of the story of our visit to the Angkor area, although there will be a similar post on our visit to Beng Mealea. (More on that when we get to it.) The first Angkor-related post had maps of the places we visited and references for additional information.


Our final stop in the Angkor area was Ta Prohm – “Ancestor Brahma”. This temple/monastery/university was built during the reign Jayavarman VII in honor of his family. After the fall of the Khmer empire, the temple was neglected until the 20th century. During that time, nature encroached on the temple, but didn’t completely engulf it. When restoration began, a decision was made to stabilize the temple, but not to actively remove the large trees that were present.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Ten years ago when our family visited Angkor, there were very few people at Ta Prohm. We could thoroughly explore it. Since then, the temple has been featured in a movie and is much more popular as a result. Certain paths are now delineated in order to minimize the wear of traffic.

The charm of Ta Prohm – at least as I’ve experienced it – is the struggle of nature and temple…

Ta Prohm, 1

Ta Prohm, 2

Ta Prohm, 3

Ta Prohm, 4

Ta Prohm, 5

Middle and Youngest Daughters

Ta Prohm, 6

The Adventurous In-Laws


Before we left for Cambodia, my daughters had read Mysteries of Angkor Wat, a children’s book by photographer Richard Sobol. On his website, he describes the process of writing the book…

Although I read many tour books and hired my own local guide to take me through the 1000 year old city of the vanished Khmer Empire, it was the local children who showed me the best surprise of all. The ancient temples are their playgrounds, dance studios, and history classroom so they were my best guides of all. I photographed for three weeks and on my very last day I got to see their most special secret place.

My girls really loved this book and wanted to find the “secret place”, which was…

Continue reading “Cambodia, part 9f – Angkor: Ta Prohm”

Cambodia, part 9e – Angkor: Angkor Wat

This is part 5 in my story about our family’s visit to Angkor with my brother- and sister-in-law. Part 1 has the maps and references.


On November 20th and 21st, my family visited the Angkor area north of Siem Reap. On the second day, we started out at Angkor Thom and then returned to Angkor Wat in the second half of the morning.

Now that I’ve visited Angkor and some of the outlying ruins twice, I have some that I consider to be favorites. However, none of the others can match Angkor Wat for sheer “Oh, wow…” factor. I might regard some temples as more beautiful or intricate or compelling or mysterious or romantic – however you want to define all of those terms in relation to stone ruins. But that initial emotion of amazement and anticipation when the towers of Angkor Wat come into sight is pretty much incomparable.

Youngest Daughter looks toward Angkor Wat
Youngest Daughter looks toward Angkor Wat
Approaching Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat from a distance

Angkor Wat means ‘the city that is a temple’; it is likely the largest religious structure in world. Unlike the other temples at Angkor, the main approach is from the west – the direction of the  setting sun, which is associated with death.  In addition, the bas-reliefs are viewed from left to right – a layout that in Hinduism is used for tombs. For these reasons, Angkor Wat is believed to have been used as both a temple and a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II. It was constructed during his reign in the first half of the twelfth century (between 1113 and 1150 C.E.).

There is a fairly long walk as one approaches the main part of the temple – time to take in the magnitude of this structure, but also time to feel the heat from the tropical sun. One crosses the causeway (that can be see on the left in the pictures above) and then passes through an entry gate on the main wall. After that there is another long walkway before reaching the main part of the temple…

The walkway to the towers of Angkor Wat

The walkway to the towers of Angkor Wat. The towers are shaped like buds of lotus blossoms. Note the restoration work in progress.

As we approached the central towers, Mr. Guest Complacent took us on a slight detour to see one of the libraries. These are intriguing little structures to the sides of the walkway and also found at other temples. (That they provide some shade and a photo opportunity is also a plus!)

The northwest library
The northwest library

Looking around the southwest library

My father-in-law and I looking at the architectural intricacies of the southwest library. Ordinary Spouse looking at us.

Exiting the library
Exiting the library. Ready to explore the central towers.
My in-laws and I leaving the library
My in-laws and I leaving the library
The view from the library
The view from the library
The central towers of Angkor Wat, viewed from the southwest library
The central towers of Angkor Wat, viewed from the southwest library

After our visit to the library, the fun really started. We entered to the right and enjoyed the south and east galleries.

Shade and a drink in the Angkor Wat galleries

Oldest and Middle Daughters are glad for a respite from the heat in the Angkor Wat galleries.

In the south gallery, the bas-reliefs depict the army of King Suryavarman II:

These are some of the important people in the army (including the king). The more umbrellas you have, the more important you are.

And in the east gallery, we saw the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (also depicted at the south gate of Angkor Thom).

We also played peek-a-boo for a picture…

Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-boo silliness in the gallery

Then we went further in and up into the central part of the temple:

Ten years ago, we climbed these stairs to the top of the temple:

The steep ascent to the top
The steep ascent to the top

This particular approach is now closed in the interest of conservation. Visitors can still ascend to the top, but there is now a new wooden staircase that has been built for that purpose.

During this visit, we didn’t go all the way to the top of the temple, since there were tired feet among us. Instead, we did some trekking around the inner courtyard…

Trekking around the interior of Angkor Wat
Trekking around the interior of Angkor Wat

We teased the Daughters that they had been carved in stone…

Apsaras
The Daughters depicted in stone as apsaras

Listened to the acoustics in the Hall of Echoes…

Hall of Echoes
Beating our chests in the Hall of Echoes

And marveled at things in general…

Interior pool
Pool for bathing

By this time, we had explored both Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Looking back, I’m not sure how we managed to do both in one morning. Youngest Daughter was reminding us that we needed to stop for lunch. So we made our way back to the van…

Looking out from the central area of Angkor Wat

The view from the central portion of Angkor Wat as we made our exit. The entry gate is the taller structure to the left in the background. From there, the walkway approaches (moving out of the photo on the left edge). In the center of the photo, one can see one of the two “libraries”.

For lunch, we visited a place that The Guests Complacent had been before. The last time they were there, they told the owner that they’d return, and the owner was thrilled when we pulled up.

We enjoyed one of our typical meals where we shared a number of dishes among our whole group…

Finally, we were ready for our final stop of the day: Ta Prohm. This temple received a lot of attention after the movie Tomb Raider came out. If you didn’t know that, just as well.


Next up: Ta Prohm

Cambodia, part 9d – Angkor: Other sights from Angkor Thom

This is the fourth blog post describing our visit to the Angkor area on November 20th and 21st. The first post has two maps of the area which indicate the locations that we visited. It also lists the references that I’ve used to supplement my knowledge of the area, which is extremely limited.


After our group finished going through Bayon, we were ready to retrace our route back to Angkor Wat. Nevertheless, we took some time to look at a few things as we walked back toward our van.

Baphuon

Some of us walked past Baphuon. This temple, though located within the walls of Angkor Thom, was built roughly 150 years earlier than the ‘Great City’. (Jayavarman VII oversaw the construction of Bayon around 1200 CE. Baphuon was built during the reign of Udayadityavarman II at around 1060 CE.) When Ordinary Spouse and I visited ten years ago, the temple was not in good condition and was in the midst of restoration. Today, much of that restoration has been completed. We didn’t take the time to look at the temple up close, but I took two pictures of the entire structure:

Baphuon (image 1)

Baphuon (image 2)

Baphuon. I like these two pictures.

Buddha

Meanwhile, two of my daughters wanted to see the contemporary statue of the Buddha that was located nearby. Youngest Daughter was a bit upset when Ordinary Spouse told she that she couldn’t walk all the way up to the statue, especially since there were supplicants present at the time. (Note YD’s face in the photo.)

Youngest and Middle Daughters with the Buddha
Are we enlightened yet?

It probably didn’t help that the day was getting hot, even though it was only mid-morning. All of my daughters did wonderfully with the walking and hiking that we did, although we had to be sensitive to YD’s energy levels.

Terrace of the Elephants

After those two stops, we walked for a ways along the Terrace of the Elephants. This 300-meter-long platform may have served as a viewing platform for the king to review his troops or to watch other parades.

My daughters with the elephants at the south stairway (#1)

My daughters with the elephants at the south stairway (#2)

The terrace has three main platforms and two smaller ones. Here, my daughters stand at the south stairway that leads up to the terrace. The elephants hold lotus flowers in their trunks, which form the pillars.

Oldest Daughter sits on the terrace

Oldest Daughter sits on the terrace.

Youngest Daughter views an elephant of war

Youngest Daughter views a carving of an elephant  in the midst of battle. Note how it is picking up some animal with its trunk.

Garudas support the terrace

Garudas support the terrace as if it were the heavens (and in the process, suggests something about King Jayavarman as he stands on the terrace).

Prasat Suor Prat

Prasat Suor Prat

After walking along the terrace, we all gathered again at our van, ready to continue our day at Angkor Wat. There are a series of towers across from the parking area known as ‘Prasat Suor Prat’. I remembered them from our last visit, and although I haven’t explored them, I find them to be visually compelling. Their use is unclear. There is a legend that ropes stretched among the towers allowed acrobats to perform. Another idea suggests that they held the jewels and other treasures of the king. They may have provided lodging for visiting dignitaries, or provided altars for people swearing loyalty oaths to the king.

Perhaps the most interesting explanation for their use is that they provided a means for divine judgement. Two people in a dispute would be forced to sit in a tower for a few days. When they emerged, one person would be in perfect health, while the other would be suffering from some malady. In this way, the gods indicate guilt or innocence.


From here, we all piled into the van for the short trip over to Angkor Wat.

Next up: Angkor Wat

Cambodia, part 9c – Angkor: Bayon

This is the third post describing our visit to the Angkor area. The first post provides a map and a list of references that I’m using to supplement my descriptions.


After entering the ancient city of Angkor Thom through the south gate, we proceeded north 1.5 km to Bayon, the temple that sits at the very center of the city. Here is the approach to the temple from the east, a direction associated with life…

Bayon
Bayon

In my mind (and probably in the minds of most visitors), the outstanding feature of this temple is the 216 smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII looking down at you from 54 towers. (Alternatively, the faces may be of a figure who represents the compassion of Buddha. Quite likely, it’s both: a blurring of lines that is meant to reinforce the god-like status of the king.)

Faces 1
Faces

(And more faces.)

The other feature of the temple that sticks in my mind is the bas-reliefs. Mr. Guest Complacent pointed these out to us. Apparently, the total length of these reliefs is over 1.2 km, with over 11000 figures depicted. On the outer wall, the carvings depict scenes from every day life. This wall would have been accessible to the general populace.

Battles
Battles
Battles and business transactions
Battles and business transactions
Aquatic life
Aquatic life
Crocodile and prey
Crocodile and prey
Monkeys
Monkeys
Birds
Birds
Libations
Libations?

The inner wall would have been in a more restricted portion of the temple. The carvings depict scenes from Hindu mythology. I don’t have pictures of those reliefs.

We passed a spot where restoration work was under way…

Restoration:preparing the ground
Restoration: preparing the ground
Resoration: building the walls
Restoration: building the walls

Even though it was still in the early part of the morning, the temperature and humidity were already getting high. At some point as we trekked up and down temple steps, Youngest Daughter lamented,

I wish there was a slide!

Finally, a few other random photos from our exploration of Bayon:

From Bayon, we split up. Some of us walked past Baphuon, and others went to visit a large contemporary statue of the Buddha. We met up again at the Terrace of the Elephants.

Coming up: The conclusion of our visit to Angkor Thom

Cambodia, part 9b – Angkor: The South Gate of Angkor Thom

This is my second post describing our visit to Angkor. I had planned to write one really long post, but quickly decided (for my own sake) that I’d break it up into pieces. The first post contains maps and references.


On Monday, November 21st, we tried to get to the temples early in order to avoid some of the crowds. We bypassed Angkor Wat (since many people start there) and proceeded to the ‘Great City’, Angkor Thom.

Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer empire, constructed during the reign of Jayavarman VII around 1200 CE (although some portions were built earlier). The city is in the shape of a square and surrounded by a 100-meter wide moat. Each side is about 3 kilometers long and has one gate (or gopura) in the middle. (The east side has an extra gate for the king.) At the top of each gate are four sandstone heads – one facing each of the cardinal directions. These heads may represent the Buddha, the king, or both. The southern gate is the most popular with tourists because of the carvings on the causeway leading up to the gate. It is also oriented toward Siem Reap.

Visitors usually walk through the southern gate and meet their ride on the other side. We did the same.

The south gate of Angkor Thom
The south gate of Angkor Thom. Notice the carving on either side of the causeway.

Most historians believe that the carvings along the causeway depict the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk“, a well-known Hindu story. The asuras (demons) are on the right side as you enter, and the devas (demigods) are on the left. They tug back and forth on Naga (the guardian of Buddha; note the mingling of Hinduism and Buddhism) which rotates the holy mountain, represented by Bayon, the temple at the center of Angkor Thom. This back and forth motion churns the Ocean of Milk to provide the Nectar of Immortality.

(At least, I think that’s sort of how it goes.)

For tourists like us, the churning of the Ocean of Milk provides opportunity for taking pictures…

Asuras (demons)
Asuras (demons)
More asuras
More asuras
Devas (demigods) and the moat
Devas (demigods) and the moat
The girls with the asuras
The girls with the asuras
Middle Daughter helps the asuras to churn the Ocean of Milk
Middle Daughter helps the asuras to churn the Ocean of Milk

Once we completed our picture taking, we continued through the gopura…

The south gate gopura
The south gate gopura

…to meet our ride on the other side. We chose the van over the elephants.

Elephants at the south gate
Elephants at the south gate

 Up next: Bayon

Cambodia, part 9a – Angkor: Phnom Bakheng

This is my first post describing our visits to the temples and other ruins at the Angkor area. My information about the various structures is derived from a number of different places:


Map of Angkor
Map of the Angkor area by Holger Behr. (Click for an enlarged view.)
The locations that we visited
The locations that we visited on November 20th and 21st.

We arrived in Siem Reap on Sunday, November 20th in the late afternoon. Our plan was to spend Monday exploring various temples of Angkor. However, if you purchase your entrance pass for the next day after 5 p.m., you can enter the site in the evening and get a few extra hours of touring time. So on Sunday, after quickly checking into our hotel, we dashed off to get our passes for Monday. Cambodian citizens and children under the age of twelve don’t have an admission fee. The one day passes for the rest of us cost $20…

Angkor visitor pass
I was in a much better mood than this picture might indicate.

Phnom Bakheng

After getting our passes, we quickly continued to Phnom Bakheng. This hill rises about 200 feet above the surrounding area, which is relatively flat. The oldest major temple in the Angkor area is located right at the top and provides a good view of the surrounding area. The temple was carved from the pre-existing stone of the hill and then faced with sandstone. It was built around the year 900 CE during the reign of Yasovarman I and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.

Because of the view (which includes a clear view of Angkor Wat about 1.5 km to the southeast), this is a very popular destination at sunset. Unfortunately, this popularity also threatens the long-term health of the temple. We observed that access is much more regulated than it was ten years ago. (Also, the elephant rides up and down the hill are much more expensive. We skipped those.)

Because of the more stringent access controls, we were late in getting to the top of the temple. Only a few of us got to see the last moments of sunset, but there was still enough light to explore the ruins and take some pictures. We could have taken pictures with some Buddhist monks, but we passed on that opportunity.*

* At Angkor there is an interesting mix of contemporary Buddhism (nominally 95% of Cambodians are Buddhist) with ancient artifacts and ruins that derive from both Hinduism and Buddhism. Ancient Khmer society followed the religious preferences of the kings, who themselves were often viewed as divine. Occasionally, the fervor that accompanied changes in the prevailing religion resulted in the purging of evidence of other religions from the temples. As a result, visitors to Angkor may notice empty spaces where once there were depictions of gods carved in stone. In that regard, the history repeats itself. Multiple times.

Climbing to the top of the temple at sundown
Here is a view from the bottom as we wait to climb the temple.
Just after sunset
I missed the sunset by a minute or two.
The structure at the top of Phnom Bakheng
The structure at the top of Phnom Bakheng
Some other structures near the top of Phnom Bakheng
Some other structures near the top of Phnom Bakheng
The ordinary family at sunset
The ordinary family at sunset

By the time we made it back down the hill to our van, it was nearly dark. We returned to the hotel, ordered some pizza (marketed to Americans!), and prepared for an early start the next morning and a full day at Angkor.

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