THREE decades of friendship! Now that’s something to celebrate. And to mark the milestone, my friend Mathini Raman and I decided to embark on an adventure together, one that we’ll never forget.
Cambodia was our eventual pick. While Mathini did all the research and made the necessary arrangements, I sat back and counted the days. Time passed quickly enough.
We soon find ourselves at the bustling airport surrounded by our luggage and happy to be travelling together. Cambodia, the land of enchanting archeological sites and ancient temples, beckons.
LAND OF THE WATS
The dry hot climate hits us as soon as we land in Siem Reap. Our first stop is West Baray (Baray Teuk Thla), a reservoir built in the 11th century during the reign of King Suryavarman and later completed under King Udayadityavarman II.
The baray is an artificial body of water, a common architectural style of the Khmer Empire of Southeast Asia. The West Baray, measuring 7.8 by 2.1 kilometres, is the largest baray at Angkor and irrigates all the famous Wats (temples) nearby.
The Wats are the main attraction here. However, it requires quite a bit of walking as the temple complex is very vast. A lot of places and sights are relatively far apart from each other. Be prepared to climb up steep stairs that are at more than a 45-degree incline! We opt for a private
tour with a guide, but you can rent bicycles and join a cycling tour of the Angkor temples.
Our tour begins with the famous Ta Prohm temple, undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor. Made famous by films like Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, it’s a sight to behold, its ruins interlocked by the vast root systems of long decayed trees.
Our guide tells us that Ta Prohm was built during the last few decades of the 12th century and is dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), it was a Buddhist temple, as the King was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism.
Some of the structures have collapsed, with some areas cordoned off to visitors. There are works being carried out to safeguard the crumbling temple. Ta Prohm is presently being stabilised and restored by an Indian team of archaeologists working with their Cambodian counterparts.
As we leave the temple, my ears catch the sounds of traditional Cambodian music in the air; the ensemble, comprising a group of men with missing limbs, is a stark reminder of the war and hard times this country has endured.
After a quick lunch, we enter Central Angkor Thom. From any map that you pick up, you’ll see that Angkor Thom, which translates as Great City, resembles a square city surrounded by an eight metre wall that’s just a little over 12 kilometres long. This wall has five impressive gopura gates, which provide access in and out of the city.
In the centre of the walled enclosure are the city’s most important monuments including Bayon, Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas and Terrace of Elephants. Visitors should set aside at least half a day to explore Angkor Thom in depth.
Along the moat to the entrance, there are a row of devas (a deity in Hinduism) on the left and asuras (life of the spiritual world or departed spirits) on the right, each holding one end of the naga (giant snake) in a celestial tug-of-war.
TERRACE OF ELEPHANTS
After a short drive from the gopura gates, we reach the vast 350-m-long Terrace of Elephants. The terrace, built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century, was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall.
The terrace is named after the sculptures of elephants protruding out of the main structure’s wall, their long trunks forming pillars that extend to the ground. Although the terraces comprise inner and outer sections, the inner sections, built earlier, were mostly buried under the soil during construction of the outer sections.
What’s left of the preserved inner sections are carvings of Apsaras (heavenly nymphs from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies), warriors, multi headed horses, Garudas (large legendary bird-like creatures that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology) and depictions of Buddha.
TERRACE OF LEPER KING
Just north of the Terrace of Elephants is Terrace of the Leper King. Built also by King Jayavarman VII, the terrace is named after the statue standing above a 7m-high platform. According to the locals, the statue was a depiction of King Yasovarman I, also known as the Leper King, as he suffered from leprosy. However, the statue displayed is a replica while the original is in a museum in Phnom Penh.
Along the 25m-long terrace, you’ll see rows of finely carved figures, mainly of multi-headed Naga snakes, armed warriors and female celestial beings. The walkway through these carvings can only fit one person at a time and after a while I get claustrophobic. Quickening my pace, I leave the representation of Mount Meru, the centre of the universe, according to Buddhist and Hindu cosmology behind me.
A 50me walk from the terrace leads us to the Royal Palace area. However what’s left of the once majestic palace is just the entrance. Walking towards the end of the grounds, you’ll find Phimeanakas, which means Celestial Palace, and most believe was once topped by a golden spire.
Our affable guide Jackie regales us with the legend surrounding the Phimeanakas. According to him, the king would spend every night with a woman thought to represent a naga or a nine-headed snake. If the naga, believed to be the supreme land owner of Khmer land, didn’t appear for a night, the king’s days would be numbered. If the king didn’t show up, disaster would strike his kingdom.
Eventually Phimeanakas was used as a crematorium for the royal family. It’s still considered sacred and no one is allowed to climb up to the tower.
A massive structure greets us, striking us with awe. We’re at Baphuon and the 200m elevated walkway leading to its central structure looks rather intimidating. “Do you want to go up? The view is worth the climb,” Jackie asks.
We look at each other. The only question running through my mind is whether my knees would survive the onslaught? Mathini looks at me and as if reading my mind, says: “Let’s do this. I wore my knee guards!”
Baphuon, a sandstone monument dedicated to Shiva, is shaped like a steppe pyramid. As you ascend the steep climb, you have to be careful. There are signs reminding you of this. The staircase we climb is built on top of the original stone stairs. There are three sets of stairs that you have to climb before you can reach the top. The stairs are also called Stairs to Heaven and many make a wish when they reach the peak. The Cambodians believe that karma happens very fast here.
When we finally reach the peak and after a short prayer, Mathini turns to me with a smile: “Lina, did you make a wish?” I close my eyes and do so. I’m glad that I made the climb with her while I still can. My knees are a bit wobbly as we both take in the sights and surroundings of the monument.
The temple was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 15th century. Part of the Baphuon was demolished then and the stones were used to build an image of Buddha on the temple’s west end.
The very large reclining Buddha whose shape is difficult to make out was never completed.
Forging on, we reach the Bayon Temple, believed to represent the intersection of heaven and earth. According to history, the temple was originally built as a Buddhist temple. A seated Buddha image discovered under the hoods of the snake Mucalinda in a pit under the main shrine is proof of this.
Unfortunately, decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the temple was converted into a Hindu temple when King Jayavarman VIII reverted the official Khmer religion back to Hinduism. Images of the Buddhas were destroyed or turned into Hindu images.
The Bayon temple is known for the over 200 gigantic stone faces dubbed the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia. They come in sets of four, each pointing to a cardinal direction. According to Jackie, there are around 49 smaller towers surrounding Bayon, each with faces of its own.
Despite a full day of history lessons, re-telling of legends, climbing steep stairs and visiting mesmerising monuments, we’re still enthralled just looking at the Angkor Wat built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. It’s already late evening when we arrive and conferring with Jackie, this is indeed the best time to take a picture of the symmetrical Angkor Wat with the lake in front of it.
Angkor Wat, which means “temple city”, is the largest and best preserved temple at the site and the only one to have remained a significant religious centre — first Hindu, then Buddhist — since its foundation. Generally, it combines two basic Khmer architectures — the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. It’s designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.
A visit to Cambodia’s World Heritage Temples of Angkor complex is a tick off our bucket list. The history lessons, the fabled temples of Angkor monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur, and of course the memories shared between two friends capping off three decades of friendship, is worth remembering and writing home about.