Angkor Thom was the first stop on my first day in the park, and it turned out to be my last stop of the day, because there’s so much to see and it’s too hot to move quickly from one site to the next. (Have I mentioned how hot it was in Southeast Asia yet? Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to dwell on that point for the next several weeks, because even summers spent in muggy Michigan swamplands and concrete-baked Chicago porches could not prepare me for the humid heat of this part of the world.) Anyway, heat aside, Angkor Thom was a great introduction to the wonders of the park at Angkor.
The South Gate
The south gate is the main entrance point for modern visitors, and it’s an impressive introduction to King Jayavarman VII’s city-temple. The bridge over the moat is flanked by two rows of figures–gods on the left, demons on the right–and each group of figures holds the body of the rainbow naga, a giant serpent, which is either meant to bridge the world of the gods and the world of humans, or to show the creation myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk, making the center of the city the created world. That’s a difference between Angkor Thom and most of the other temples in the area–there’s no moat or wall around the main temple inside, Bayon, so archaeologists theorize that the whole city is meant to represent Mount Meru, rather than just the temple, which would seem to bring up a lot of theological questions in terms of the inhabitants of the city, what activities were and weren’t holy in the city, etc.
Anyway, this is how I reacted to these interesting archaeological and theological questions:
The Bayon is a weird and wonderful temple. Its central portion is filled with face towers: large blocks of stone with a face carved in each of the four sides. The faces might resemble King Jayavarman VII or Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist tradition, or they might resemble Jayavarman as Lokesvara. There’s a long tradition of rulers around the world having their likeness dressed up as historical heroes or religious figures; it lends majesty. Apparently there are 216 faces in this one temple alone, but there used to be more, or maybe less. It’s hard to tell with all the renovations made over the centuries. So there may have been some significance to the number of faces found in the temple, but it’s hard to know what it would be.
The many face towers contribute to the crowded feeling of this temple, since there’s a tower cropping up just about everywhere you turn, unlike at other temples, where there were carefully planned distances between the considerably fewer towers. Apparently, the Bayon was just added to and added to over the years, and built up higher than it was originally intended to be, so we see more towers, and also narrower hallways, than at other temples.
The Bayon also has one of the most extensive collections of bas-relief friezes in the park. Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon does include friezes depicting mythological scenes from Hindusim, but there are also huge walls of bas-reliefs showing everyday life in the late 12th century in Angkor, as well as some historical events. There’s a wrestling match, a chess game, a cockfight, and a market scene, among many others.
There are also naval battles between the Khmer and their traditional enemies the Cham, and some processionals involving Khmer generals atop their elephants. I really enjoyed poring over all these scenes.
Here is where my guidebook’s last update (2003) came in sharp contrast with reality. The book shows photos of a grass-covered mound, and vaguely describes the massive temple as once more impressive than even the Bayon. Reality shows a completely restored, impressively massive temple, complete with ridiculously long bridge with a couple ponds on either side, and my first introduction to just how steep the steps of Angkor temples can be.
The Royal Palace and Phimeanakas
I tried to follow my guidebook’s plan to get to the Elephant Terrace after the Bapuon, but found myself going through a side entrance to the grounds of the Royal Palace. Tucked back here is the Phimeanakas, the temple of the king. It wasn’t in great condition and couldn’t be climbed on. A dusty path led away from the temple toward what was left of the gate of the palace.
In a small grove of trees to the right, I saw a group of Cambodians eating lunch and resting from the heat of midday, kids running around playing games and screeching as kids do. Pretty much everyone I saw touristing at Angkor was white or East Asian, so I guessed these families were working here, and were taking a break. Then I saw a couple of the women stand up and grab plastic bags and long poles and realized that they were part of the crew I’d seen picking up litter all along the roadways on the way here. They were why Angkor was so much cleaner than most tourist sites I’d visited in Thailand.
I left the palace and went across the road to find some refreshment. As soon as I started crossing that road, at least three women started screaming out for me to visit their stall. I headed across the field toward the large tree under which the snack stalls were set up, but the women literally ran toward me in order to be the one to get me to buy a $1 bottle of water. It was disconcerting to be the focus of such a ferocious sales pitch, and saddening to get to the shelter of the tree and buy my mango slices and bottled water from the 10-year-old daughter of one of the women who had run to greet me. Several girls vied for my attention and my dollars, and they all talked to me in good English. They’d all learned English by selling snacks to thirsty tourists, and none of them could be spared by their parents to go to school, or if they could be spared, they couldn’t afford the uniforms required to attend.
I swallowed my privileged American white lady guilt along with the mango slices and went back across the road to see the rest of the structures, but I’d lost the enthusiasm I’d had earlier.
I admired the Elephant Terrace (so named for the long-trunked animals carved into the side of the terrace) and smiled as kids chased each other through the narrow walkways of the Leper King Terrace (so named for the king of legend who had leprosy, whose likeness might be seen in one of the carvings–or who might be called to mind simply because the lichen has eaten away the carving of the king figure here).
Then it was time to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat and head back to the air-conditioned comfort of the guesthouse before another day in the splendid ruins.