After an easy trip via MRT from the Cruise Port to the Changi Airport, and a pleasant night at the Crowne Plaza, where we discovered we could check all the stuff we didn’t need to bring (souvenirs, formal wear, etc.) we lightened up our load and headed for Siem Reap, arriving bright and early yesterday morning. Formalities at the airport were minimal, with the major event being the purchase of a visa. If you come here, be aware that you need to bring copies of your passport picture (or possibly, an equivalent size photo) for your visa. I had read that somewhere and threw in a couple, fortunately. US dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia, and without the ‘new bills only’ emphasis that we found in Myanmar. We were picked up at the airport by our hostess Judy, and our driver for the duration of our stay Mr. Chang. It is HOT here, worse even than Myanmar and Malaysia, I think. We opted to get settled in at the hotel, the Borei Angkor Resort, and spend a couple of hours at the National Museum to get oriented for our several days of doing temple tours.
The National Museum is relatively new and quite well done, with excellent exhibits, ample English language signage, and a multi-lingual audio program with short film loops at various points in the museum where you can select the language you want for the audio. In addition to English, it is available in Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, French, and, I think, Korean, although I didn’t really quite recognize the script, as well as Thai and, again a guess, Vietnamese. Our two hours there provided a good grounding for our first day of temple exploration today.
After consulting with hostess Judy, we decided to start with the two temples built by King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to his mother, and Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple. Ta Phrom is also know as the Lara Croft Tomb Raider temple, and the dvd of the movie was available in our hotel room. We watched a bit of it, just to see the part that was filmed here. Also advised by Judy, we decided to start out at 6:30 AM both to avoid the crowds and to get our start before it became unbearably hot – both good ideas. We were met in the hotel lobby by our guide and set on off on our first day’s adventure promptly at 6:30, and were on the temple grounds by 7:00. It is an amazing site, which has had relatively little preservation and restoration work done, and serves as an example of what the French found in 1901 when the overall Angkor complex was rediscovered. Inscriptions (and our guide) indicated that some 80,000 people were engaged in the construction of the Ta Prohm temple in 1186 AD, and the complete site is enormous, with 39 original towers linked by galleries. Most of it is in ruins now, and it has been heavily looted over the year, most recently by the army of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, but there are still incredibly well preserved carvings and bas relief panels that provide a sense of how magnificent it must have been in its prime. Now it is wildly atmospheric with all the vines and tree roots and tumbled stones.
In both Ta Prohm and the Bayon Temple in the Angkor Thom complex, early conflicts between the Buddhist and Hindu kings resulted in many of the Buddha statues and carvings being defaced or repurposed and recarved as Hindu deities, although both temples were constructed during the time when animism and Hinduism were being replaced in Cambodia by Buddhism. Bayon was built a few years later, around 1190 AD by the same king, either in celebration of a great victory over his foes from Thailand, or in compensation for the great slaughter that took place during this conflict (opinions vary) The Bayon temple is also known as the Temple of the Smiling Buddha. Most of the monumental smiling faces, of which there are over 200, were left intact by the later conquering Hindus, because they are four sided and could also be representations of the four faces of Brahma. It is thought that the faces are modeled on the face of King Jayavarman VII, himself, and there is a great resemblance between the monumental images and the smaller relief portraits that are known to be representations of the king. Walls and galleries are intricately carved with images of the battles, both land and naval, as well as with scenes of daily life in Cambodia during this period, with people shown cooking, eating and drinking, training for sports and combat, dancing, and working at all manner of tasks and professions.
By the time we got to Bayon, it was around 8:30 or so, and the tour groups were starting to arrive so we didn’t have the site as much to ourselves as we did at Ta Prohm, and it was starting to get hot as well. Our guide was quite expert at moving us around the groups, though, for the most part and we were able to get a good perspective on the highlights of the temple, although we were quite ready to leave when it was time to go at about 9:30. Showers and breakfast were followed by a massage for Dennis and a nap for me.
Tomorrow, we will start early again and have Angkor Wat itself on the program. Since we have several more days here, we plan to just do that tomorrow morning, and perhaps visit the Artisan’s Village in the afternoon.