Monday, June 21, 2004

Day 2: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon

June 11th
Unfortunately, our visit to Angkor Wat ended on a sour note. A particularly nasty tout harassed me all the way from the Western gopura across the causeway, alternately begging, pleading, and threatening me to buy a postcard from him. First I was a friend (and therefore obliged to buy a postcard from him), then I wasn't a friend (because I didn't buy a postcard from him), then he outright lied, claiming that I had promised to buy a postcard from him (which I hadn't) then finally ended off by threatening ominously that he would remember me. Unfortunately, it is I who will remember him - as will every other tourist who has misfortune to bump into this pest. There are plenty of people selling scarves, postcards, and other trinkets outside the temples of Angkor, and most know not to cross the line where even sympathy for their poverty runs into exasperation at their harassment. Most also have enough sense to know that while pleading and nagging will merely irritate, threatening will definitely not make someone feel inclined to buy a postcard.

Sour also, unfortunately, were the corner towers of the second enclosure of Angkor Wat. Bat piss. There's nothing like the smell of stale bat piss in a damp ruin, warmed gently by the wafting tropical winds, to take your mind off the beauty of Khmer architecture: I held my breath walking through everyone of them.

But, lest I give the impression that Angkor Wat was completely sour, let me hasten to add that the temple was everything it's been said to be. Angkor Wat is the largest, most well-preserved/restored temple complex in the Siem Reap area, and there's a sense of space and granduer about it. We took Dave's advice, and walked around the main complex after crossing the causeway from the west. This led us past the modern temple, and as we approached, a few enthusiastic monks shouted Hello Hello at us, and then switched to Goodbye Goodbye as we went past. I think that was the extent of their English.

We circled round the temple and approached the East gate from the inside. There, we found some children and their dog, one of whom shouted "One dollah, one dollah" at K when she took their photograph, switching to "One dollah more" after she paid them.

We saw a few of the famous bas-reliefs, but since our main interest was in photography (bas-reliefs, though challenging to photograph well, make for rather technical rather than inspiring photography), we moved up to the central sanctuary. Here we discovered that the ancient Khmers really tested the faith of believers - or rather, the legs, since the final steps to the central sanctuary were extremely steep. We didn't realise quite how steep they were until we tried to climb down. Both of us stood at the top of the steps for a long moment, pondering what seemed like an almost vertical drop. Eventually, we made it down, sideways and crab-like, clinging on to the stone like it was a ladder rather than a staircase. On the way down, we tried to warn a bunch of tourists who were starting to climb up. One lady started up the staircase a few steps, before deciding that it was probably a bad idea to attempt the climb in an ankle length skirt.

angkor-roll-2-001
Originally uploaded by Wahj.


Lunch was back at the guesthouse, after which we went to Angkor Thom, a far larger temple complex, containing a group of smaller sites. We stopped on the way in to photograph the south gate, with its impressive Naga bridge and our first sight of a face tower. We headed straight for the Bayon, which is the temple at the centre of Angkor Thom.

The Bayon is the most amazing temple. The initial impression of rubble and ruin gives way, as you reach the inner enclosures, to a forest of towers, each decorated with 4 faces, each smiling enigmatically off into the distance. It's like a labyrinth, where the only guide to direction is to keep going up until you reach the central tower. Perhaps this was the sense meant to be inspired in the believer who visited the temple - being lost in a familiar wilderness of faces with no hope of salvation except to reach the centre, and all the while surrounded by faces smiling down at you. The guide books offer alternate theories about the faces - some say they are of the bodhitsattva Lokesvara/Avalokistesvara, others suggest they are of Jayavarman VII, who apparently built half the temples in the Angkor Thom area, including the Bayon. If so, then there's a definite sense of Big Brother watching you at the Bayon.

b8-37
Originally uploaded by Wahj.


The heat of the day and the climbing took a lot out of us: after the Bayon, we skipped the neighbouring Baphuon (under reconstruction by the French, due for completion in 2003, according to the guidebooks. Ah) We briefly walked over the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, before heading to Phnom Bakhaeng to do the touristy thing and catch the sunset. Now, for those of you for whom this makes sense, Phnom Bakhaeng is a hill almost exactly the same height and gradient as Peng Kang hill, except that it offers a great sunset view of Angkor Wat. K and I slogged up the hill painfully, reaching the top just as it started the rain. Needless to say, that ruled out all possibility of a sunset panorama. The most touching thing was that just after we reached the top, now decked out in ponchos, we saw Mr Sang, our driver, reaching the top carrying two umbrellas. The nice man had run all the way up the hill to bring them to us, and without even bothering to open one for himself.

We took the easier route down the hill, a long broad track with switchbacks cut for the elephant rides up the hill. A ride back in the rain followed by dinner, and we settled in for the night.

3 comments:

Terz said...

Dude, I heard about the massive f*ck-up with your infra-red film at the developers. Hope it's not completely ruined.

Kay said...

whoa... how'd you hear about that one? =)

wahj said...

K just collected my IR film. Thankfully no fogging. In the wake of this, did some research, determined that I can develop IR myself - just have to work a bit to eliminate all IR light (i.e. work in the dead of the night). Got one more roll, and by happy coincidence, my office has "healthy lifestyle" walk at Botanic gardens tomorrow ... guess who'll be bringing a camera along. = )