Avelokitesvara head, the Bayon
Sunday Morning, November 9
Arrival at Angkor
4:45am, and it's black as pitch outside, yet we've got no choice but to get out of bed. Our morning flight to Siem Reap had been changed from 7:30 to 6:30, which meant we'd have to ride through the streets of Phnom Penh before sunrise. Just a day or two before, I was nervous about the prospects of a pre-dawn drive through Phnom Penh. Bandits, corrupt cops, hottentots, we'd inevitably be kidnapped and sold for scrap. Now, of course, I realized that this was an absurd overreaction on my part. At 5:30am, the streets of Phnom Penh seemed safer than Washington DC would have been at the same time. Just don't let the cabby take any short cuts down some hidden alleyways, I grimaced.
We rode along the quiet treelined boulevards and reached the airport in about 15 minutes. Susanne and I picked up our boarding passes, paid the $10 departure tax and waited for boarding as two large groups of German and Japanese tourists crowded the departure lounge. They looked well traveled, sporting Saigon and Luang Prabang t-shirts. Susanne talked with a woman from Manchester, England who had spent two months alone wandering the South Pacific, Burma and Vietnam before coming to Cambodia. Meanwhile I worried we'd get hassled because of the size of our backpacks - there was a 10 kilogram per passenger limit on baggage, and I'm sure our packs exceeded the limited, but no one asked us anything except "carry-on bags?"
The sun rose at 6am, not long before we boarded the flight. Before the July coup there were seven flights a day to Siem Reap. Now there were only three, and until the end of the rains last week, they were largely empty. Our flight had about 40 people on board, more than half full. We munched on angel cake muffins and coffee during the brief 35 minute flight. I had hoped for a stunning view of Angkor on the way down, but instead had to settle for rice paddies, stilt houses and the occasional humble wat.
Siem Reap is perhaps the smallest airport I've ever seen, even beating Connecticut's New Haven airport. A few steps inside and we were already at the exit, as two dozen or so frenzied taxi drivers waited outside ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. We too would have to choose a driver from amongst this crowd, so we paused for a second, put on our game faces and then opened the door to face the music. All 20 cabbies charged us, shouting "Siem Reap! Siem Reap! Angkor! I will drive!" About six or seven of them pressed into me and pawed at my hands and shirt. It was time to choose, so I decided to grab the smallest guy I could find - that way, if he proved to be a difficult person, I'd look all the more intimidating to him. Maybe. I looked at a small, smiling young man to my left and said, "You! Golden Apsara Guesthouse." He charged forward, as did the other drivers - apparently they could all get a commission from this particular hotel. I asked him how much the ride would cost, to which he responded, "Free ride - courtesy service to Golden Apsara." I suppose his commission would surpass the price of the cab ride. "OK, let's go." We pushed through the crowd, caught a breath of fresh Cambodian country air, and climbed into the little man's Camry. Another young Khmer, this one grinning even more than the first man, closed our doors and got into the driver's seat. We started the short ride into Siem Reap, the only major town around Angkor.
The driver didn't talk much, but the first man told us a bit about the area. The town had about 70,000 residents but it felt much smaller to me, like a pleasant country village where everyone knew everyone else and exchanged gossip over Tiger beer and Mild Sevens cigarettes at the local garden cafe. The only traffic was the occasional motorscooter or young boy herding the family cattle down the road. The first man asked if we wanted a driver for our stay. "He will drive you - his name is Rang," he said, pointing to the driver, who repeated "Rang," smiling cheerfully. "20 dollars a day." This was the going rate in town, so we agreed to use him as our escort for our stay. We arrived at the hotel, a quaint villa in need of a fresh whitewash, but quite nice by our flexible accommodation standards. The owner, an older gentleman who spoke fluent French but no English, showed us a large room with three beds, ceiling fan, a refrigerator, bathroom and a spotless floor, $20 dollars a day. Fair enough. We gladly dropped our backpacks to the beds.
Rang, our driver and guide to Angkor
Interested in hiring Rang next time you're at Angkor?
Susanne and I changed clothes and prepared our film supply for the day while Rang arranged our two day passes to Angkor for $40 each (the passes would have been good for a third day if we'd had the time). $40 may seem rather steep compared to practically every other entrance fee in Asia, but considering that here were the greatest archeological ruins on earth and one of the few steady sources of hard currency for this poor country, $40 seemed a small price to pay. Rang returned about 20 minutes later. He still had that large grin on his face, as if her were excited for us, this being our first visit to the famed ruins of Angkor.
From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the Khmer kingdom at Angkor was the most powerful and architecturally prodigious culture in southeast Asia. The Khmers had lived for centuries in this region, which had earlier been known as Funan and Chenla, but they were often dominated by the regional superpowers of the time, namely China to the north and Java to the south. In 802 a Khmer official in the Javanese court returned to his homeland, declared himself the god-king Jayavarman II and decried full independence from Java. Jayavarman II became the first of many god-kings of the Khmer court at Angkor. As god-kings, Jayavarman and his successors commissioned stone temples to themselves as well as to the Hindu god Shiva, often patterning the structures into a three-tiered representation of Mt. Meru, the mythical centerpoint of time and space. By around 880 CE, the monarch Indravarman became the first god-king to construct massive irrigation works that allowed Angkor to expand in size and population.
The next three centuries would see a series of political waves fluctuating between growth and decline. Angkor reached its first peak with the ascension of Suryavarman II in 1112, who expanded the kingdom into Vietnam and Thailand and built the famed Shiva temple of Angkor Wat. Yet the southern Vietnamese state of Champa would not be subjugated. In 1177, the Chams initiated a covert counterattack, quietly sailing up the great lake of central Cambodia, the Tonle Sap. Within a few years, the Chams sacked Angkor and executed the king, but the Khmers immediately regrouped for an attempt to take back Angkor. A cousin of the former king led the charge, retaking Angkor around 1180. He was eventually crowned as Jayavarman VII. For the next four decades, this Jayavarman would reign through Angkor's greatest period.
Jayavarman VII is best known for constructing Angkor Thom, the nine-square-kilometer walled city that would serve as the royal capital for 400 years. Jayavarman VII commissioned the Baphuon Palace as well as the Bayon, famous for its scores of smirking stone faces. On the cultural front, Jayavarman VII officially converted the state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism, though the conversion process had been going on in Khmer communities for some time. Instead of constructing monuments to Shiva and Vishnu, Jayavarman VII glorified images of the Buddha and his incarnation as Avelokitesvara. Jayavarman VII's reign was the pinnacle of Khmer culture, and after his death things began to slip away. By the 15th and 16th centuries the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya was in ascendance, and after several half-hearted attempts at destroying the Khmers they sacked Angkor in 1431 and 1594, eventually ending its term as Khmer capital. The Khmers eventually regrouped in their new capital at Phnom Penh, many miles away to the south of the Tonle Sap, but the glory period of Khmer history was over.
Angkor was not known in the west until it was "discovered" by French explorers in the mid 19th century. They brought home tales of adventure - as well as unbelievable etchings of Angkor itself - back to an eager French public. Through the turn of the century to the 1960's Angkor was a popular spot for globetrotting European Asiaphiles, but civil war in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 made Angkor and surrounding Siem Reap province a rebel hotspot. Khmer Rouge cadre buried thousands of landmines in and around Angkor, occasionally kidnapping and killing tourists as well. As recent as 1995, Dr. Susan Hadden of the Alliance for Public Technology was killed in a bandit ambush near the grand ruins of Banteay Srei, just north of Angkor. I didn't know Dr. Hadden well, but we had emailed each other on numerous occasions in the summer of 1994 while I was constructing my EdWeb website. Her death at Banteay Srei was a chilling reminder that even with the end of the fighting and a strong UN presence, Siem Reap province was still a dangerous place.
With this long history of glory, intrigue and murder in my mind, we were now in a car passing the entry checkpoint into Angkor. The checkpoint consisted of a small roadside kiosk where several bored policemen sat around while a smiling woman checked visitor passes. We drove north until reaching a T in the road. We turned left and continued along a wide body of water that Rang pointed out to us to be the moat of Angkor Wat. The moat was over a mile long on this side and at least 500 feet wide. But on the other side of the water, all I could see was forest, dense and lush from the recent monsoon rains. Somewhere within this verdant island fortress was Angkor Wat. I eagerly awaited my first sight of it.
We hooked a right and hugged the left-hand side of the moat, again heading north. As we approached the moat's western causeway I finally saw the five stupa-like towers of Angkor Wat. Even with this passing glimpse I was awestruck, perhaps less with what I saw and rather because I was so amazed that I was even here in the first place. But before I could have any sort of metaphysical epiphany, we whizzed by Angkor Wat, heading north towards the walled city of Angkor Thom. The greatest temple on earth would have to wait, and I would have to settle with only a teasing taste of it. Angkor Wat vanished behind us, again shrouded by its dense forest cape. I had always envisioned Angkor to be a massive open expanse of monuments, like the pyramids of Giza or the central plain of Chichen Itza in Mexico, but much of Angkor was separated by miles of trees and swamp land. Angkor wasn't a single archeological site - it was an entire city preserved by centuries of outside ignorance of its existence.
|Angkor Thom south gate|
Soon we reached the south gate of Angkor Thom. A stone causeway took us over a statue-lined moat. At the end of the causeway stood an intimidating stone arch topped with the face of the Avelokitesvara. We paused for a few snapshots but clouds obscured much of the sunlight. We'd have to return for some better pictures later. About a kilometer further down the road the forest turned swampy as the dry earth metamorphosed into frog-infested wetlands. It was in these damp marshes that stood the Bayon, the jewel of Angkor Thom. No one is really sure if the Bayon was a temple or something entirely different, and only recently did archeologists conclude that it was built by Jayavarman VII. Mysteries are the Bayon's specialty, for it is best known for its 54 stone towers topped with over 200 faces of the Avelokitesvara, each visage bearing an enigmatic, patently Buddhist smirk.
From a distance the Bayon looked like a jumbled mess - a bunch of ruined towers surrounded by heaps of stone rubble. We exited the taxi on the Bayon's east side and headed up its crumbling causeway. We were hounded by kids and young woman selling flutes, knives, statuettes, drums, water, film and many other things we simply didn't need. They pestered us for about 50 feet and then retreated for the next round of tourists - standard operating procedure for the touts of Angkor. We climbed the steps to the first tier of the Bayon. In each direction were long shadowy pathways decorated with bas reliefs in surprisingly good condition. An old monk manned a small Buddha shrine in one of these corridors and he tried to get visitors to light incense and candles for a small donation. I lit some incense for good luck and left him a few hundred riels - small change but nonetheless appreciated. He smiled and said something like "Sok sabai," which I took for meaning "be well," based on its similarity to Thai.
Khmer children swimming in front of the Bayon
Maneuvering through an obstacle course of tumbled stone Susanne and I climbed a staircase to the second tier, home to the many faces of Avelokitesvara. It was from here that we got our first sense of the magnitude of these faces. Everywhere you looked - in every direction, at every possible angle, it seemed - was this huge, peaceful grin, its eyes closed as if in a state of meditation. Most of the faces were 10 to 20 feet above us, some even higher, so we wandered the Bayon's many passages for a closer look. Around one corner, not far from the steps leading to the central third tier tower, sat a one-footed amputee playing a two-stringed folk instrument held like a cello. His haunting melody echoed through the central Bayon and the quality of his playing seemed to increase with the approach of each visiting tourist. I paused to record some of his performance, as well as to take pictures of a marvelous stone face not far above eye level, adjacent to where the musician sat.
Listen to the fiddler play!
Susanne and I spent the next hour or so climbing each level of the Bayon, marveling its many enigmatic faces. The sun dipped in and out of the clouds, so getting those perfect photos became quite a challenge. We'd have to return here when the sun was bright and warm, we concluded. I purchased a large bottle of water for two dollars (ten times the going price in Bangkok - that's supply and demand for you) and got a few more pictures from the far end of the Bayon's eastern causeway. Susanne and I met Rang at the car and he took us what turned out to be only a few hundred yards to the southern end of a large open field. On the left, just ahead of us, I could see a series of raised terraces decorated with elephant bas reliefs and lion statues. To the right there was a row of eight thin towers similar to the Mayan pyramids at Tikal. We started with the terraces on the left. The first platform, the Baphuon, was once Angkor Thom's city center but was now an empty space save a pyramid in the distance, surrounded by scaffolding and flooding from the recent monsoon.
Further afield stood Phimeanakas, the walled palace of Jayavarman VII, now a series of grass covered terraces. We climbed the wall of the eastern terrace, careful not to sink too deeply in its mud. On the other side of the wall, a long bas relief of an elephant procession stretched for over 100 feet. Susanne had joked before the trip of hoping to see an elephant parade somewhere on the trip - here was her lucky chance. We then reached the Terrace of the Leper King, so known because it is believed that some of the Angkor kings suffered from the disease, though there is no hard proof of this claim. We climbed the top of the terrace to find a nude, sexless statue that has also been a mystery to archaeologists. It's a replica of the real statue, now displayed away from the elements in Phnom Penh. We descended the terrace steps to admire more bas reliefs and then returned to find Rang. He told us we still hadn't really seen Phimeanakas, so we should go back and look. What had we missed?
Statue of the Leper King
We cut west through the small temple complex of Tep Pernan, now closed for renovation. Amidst the trees and cows we found a long wall with several children playing on it. There was an arched gate further along the wall, so we cut through and walked up the grassy hill where more children played. Past the hill we saw what we had earlier missed - a tall, three-tiered temple that served as the center of Jayavarman VII's palace.
We admired it for a while before cutting back through the archway. Three young girls, maybe 8 to 12 years old, followed us and tried to sell us flutes. We told them we weren't interested, but apparently they were interested in us. So they stopped trying to sell things to us and instead followed us around just to see where we'd go next. We headed back to the main field past the terraces and crossed the street to check out some of the stone towers we had noticed earlier. These towers, known as Prasat Suor Prat, are part of the Kleang group of ruins. There wasn't much to do here apart from walk around the towers because they were too steep to climb. Those little girls with the flutes continued to follow us, keeping a safe distance so they could giggle and point without retribution. We could hear traditional Cambodian music blaring from speakers behind a thicket of trees, but the closest path to take us around the trees was too far removed for a quick inspection.
Detail of bas-relief, Terrace of the Leper King
We returned to Rang and drove back to town for lunch at the Bayon Restaurant, a quaint garden cafe regarded as the best place to dine in Siem Reap. We ordered fried rice and green chicken curry in baby coconut, literally served inside a baby coconut. The English lady from Manchester whom we had met at the airport was there as well, so we invited her to join us. We swapped traveler's tales and I sampled her fish curry in coconut (better than my chicken curry - more peanuts) as well as a pineapple plate for dessert. Rang took us back to the hotel for a 90-minute break. Earlier that morning when he suggested this afternoon siesta, I thought it would be a waste of precious time. In retrospect, it was the best advice we could have followed. Climbing ruins is exhausting work and results in amount of sweat too graphic to acknowledge in writing, so a hours and a half of air conditioning and a cool shower was welcomed relief. Susanne and I found ourselves with some extra time to check out Siem Reap's central market. There wasn't much action there, but we managed to find a shop that sold postcards at six for a dollar. We bought 12 of them and returned to the hotel to relax and meet up with Rang for the afternoon.