The Temples of Angkor: Part II
Catching only glimpses of Angkor Thom yesterday, we decided to follow a trek that would take us on a journey to get a fuller picture of this ancient city on our second day in Cambodia. Angkor Thom is quite large. Its inner temples and structures are contained within an eight meter high wall that stretches thirteen kilometers. And that wall is still surrounded by a 100 meter-wide moat which at one time likely held crocodiles.
The trek we decided on as detailed in our “Lonely Planet: Angkor Wat & Siem Reap” guide included nine stops in Angkor Thom, at a distance of seven km. Noting it would take around five hours to complete, and desiring to see Bayon in late afternoon light (as opposed to morning light as we saw it yesterday), we started our hike around noon.
Before we could enter through the south gate, our trek took us over the still flowing moat on a bridge framed by fifty-four gods on our left and the same amount of demons on the right. It’s a scene depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an epic spiritual tug-of-war for the elixir of immortality (Lonely Planet: Angkor Wat & Siem Reap, p. 66).
Once through the twenty-meter tall gate (a popular hang-out for the local monkeys), we climbed onto the massive outer wall and began hiking west. It was nice to leave the noisy road behind as we walked atop the wall, never once seeing another tourist until we came down from our elevated position later on.
Reaching the southwestern corner of Angkor Thom, we stopped to admire Prasat Chrung, one of four identical temples on each corner of the city standing guard over the moat directly below.
Turning north, we followed the wall for about thirty minutes until we reached the only gate in the western wall. This passage, like the south gate, is topped with four massive faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara which are twenty meters from the ground. Unlike the southern passage, there are few tourists who venture this far from Angkor Thom’s main attractions. Instead, we were greeted by the friendly faces of local children playing.
After taking in this quietly romantic site, we walked due east on the red dirt road into the heart of Angkor Thom. When we reached the center marked by the temple of Bayon, we resisted the urge to enter and instead veered north to see Baphuon.
“A pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt. Meru (ibid p. 74),” Baphuon is still a highly religious site. Only I could climb the steep stairs to the top because my shorts came to my knees. While I explored, Jill gladly relaxed in the shade with the others who were not permitted to enter due to improper dress code (note: if traveling in other countries to see religious sites, it’s always good to have a shirt that covers your shoulders, and shorts that go at least to the knees).
Looking down from on top of this pyramid, I could see the 200m elevated walkway that the king and other officials would have traversed on their arrival here.
Meeting back up with Jill, we walked a little north and a bit west to pass by Phimeanakas. It was awesome to see what is translated as “Celestial Palace,” but the light was poor, and the steep steps plagued with travelers, so we didn’t stay long. As a photographer, I’m obsessive about harmony in composition, and seeing none of the key elements I look for in a picture, I didn’t take any shots of this site. I do regret it slightly, but the light and harmony were not there at the moment.
Instead we headed on towards Preah Palilay, just north of the walls of Phimeanakas. Upon reaching the northern wall where we could exit, we stumbled on the kind of harmony I was referring to earlier. A perfect photographic composition: a large white stone gateway bathed in four o’ clock light and framed by characteristic trees. We had to stop to capture such a great atmospheric opportunity. Jill is such a great travel partner. She never complains when I stop for thirty minutes to shoot what many would pass by without looking twice. She sat on a large boulder in the shade and munched on the assorted nuts we brought for snacks. I took my time to try out as many good angles as I could with this white door as my subject.
Once we finally passed through the door I was obsessing over, we shortly came to Preah Palilay, a petite temple comparatively. It would have been especially cool to photograph if the three gargantuan trees clinging to its crumbling roof hadn’t been cut down mid-trunk. I suppose the weight was crushing Preah Palilay, and whoever is in charge decided to preserve the temple as long as possible.
Moving on, we trekked back to the main road running north and south through Angkor Thom. Taking it south, we walked along the Terrace of the Leper King, and as planned made it to the heart of the city around five pm. We were just in time to watch the golden light cast warm side light across the many stone faces looking down on us. Bayon was great to see in yesterday’s morning light, but even better for the photographer’s golden hour.
After seven kilometers and six hours of exploring in the hot jungle climate of northern Cambodia , we were exhausted. Mr Tong met us on the west side of Bayon and we rode the tuk tuk into the sunset (cue cheesy music here).
Dinner at our hotel was delicious. Afterwards we took advantage of their massage services. We each received sixty minutes of Khmer pampering for only seven USD! I took the risky route and tried the full body version and loved it, while Jill reclined on the bed next to mine and enjoyed the foot and leg massage.
Fully relaxed, we hit the sack so we could be ready for our third day of temple hopping in the morning.
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Thanks for reading!