|A lone monk at Angkor Wat.|
Once again, Gary served as the faculty liaison for one of the Field Programs we had signed up for: Temples of Angkor. After the good experience we had in China, he took the responsibility in stride. His big concern, however, was that I not fall behind the group (and embarrass him…) or worse, get lost and left behind in my quest for “just one more” photograph.
Our group of 28 included the Academic Dean, the ship’s doctor and a nice mix of faculty, students and a family of four who were life long learners. Because our preparation for Ho Chi Minh City did not encompass Cambodia, the only words I had been able to hurriedly take write down (from a Cambodian interport student's brief talk) were: Sus dai (hello!) and A kun (thank you!). That would do, I thought, and more to the point, that was about all I'd be able to remember, anyway.
The airport in Ho Chi Minh City was quick and easy to get to, and in just an hour and half, we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was hot and dry, but the skies were blue. As we climbed on the bus to head to our first temple visit, we were handed a sort of bento box made of soft bamboo strips which contained our lunch. It had a sampling of Cambodian dishes and was delicious.
|Gary is happy to be in Siem Reap, Cambodia, once again in the countryside|
and out of the congestion of Ho Chi Minh City.
With the exception of Angkor Wat, most of the structures we visited on our trip were all built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, a one time Khmer prince who came to power in 1181 CE. In the period before his ascendency, the neighboring Cham had taken advantage of in-fighting among the Khmer to attack, sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and killing the reigning monarch. Jayavarman VII was able to gather his troops to defeat the Cham and reassert the Khmer rule. Fueled by his conversion to Buddhism, Jayavarman VII undertook a massive campaign to build hundreds of temples and hospitals. His new city was Angkor Thom (“Great City”), and in the Bayon, his state temple, his image is replicated, typically facing every cardinal point with a slightly different expression, on each of the 37 towers that are still standing today.
|Guardians on the Bridge, on the way to Bayon.|
|Subtle details at Bayon.|
|Monumental representations of King Jayavarman VII loom over ordinary men and women at Bayon.|
|Every image of Jayavarman VII has a slightly different expression.|
|Hardly any inch of stone is left uncarved.|
|Intricate bas-relief throughout Bayon tells the story of King Jayavarman VII's battles and ultimate defeat of the Cham.|
|Bayon from a distance - the monumentality of the whole complex is difficult to capture.|
The Khmer civilization flourished in what is now Cambodia between the 8th and 13th centuries. Their trade with India brought with it the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism (at roughly the same time), and the temples of Siem Reap we see today were constructed by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kings. Temples could very well start out as Hindu, be transformed to Buddhist, and then go back and forth. Some temples, like Ta Keo (late 10th – early 11th centuries) would be started but never completed, while others, like the Bayon, because of its location within the well-fortified Angkor Thom, would continue to be modified.
Though we hear so much about Angkor Wat, perhaps because it is the largest and most well preserved, my favorite site is actually Ta Prohm (also built by Jayavarman VII), which sits in Eastern Angkor and served as the exotic setting for the movie Tomb Raider (Lara Croft). This is the only site that has been purposely preserved in its partially collapsed state, the land reclaimed by silk cotton trees and strangler figs growing sinuously on and through the slowly eroding stone structures. Visiting it today, it is difficult to imagine it as a fully inhabited city with over 79,000 people living within its outer walls and over 12,500 within the inner walls.
|Silk Cotton Trees gaining a foothold amid the hard stone and surviving - even thriving - as Ta Prohm collapses.|
|An outer section of enclosing wall at Ta Prohm.|
|By preserving Ta Prohm in its collapsed state, a story of how fleeting civilization's triumph over nature really is, unfolds.|
Next on my list would be Preah Khan, because we visited it near sunset and we had it almost all to ourselves to explore. One of Jayavarman VII’s largest projects (and subsequently altered by Jayavarman VIII), Preah Khan is in Northeastern Angkor as a temple and Buddhist university and it once had over one thousand teachers. Still in the midst of reconstruction, I enjoyed its maze-like ruins that I could hop in and out of, while still keeping in earshot of our tour group.
|The main axis of approach in Preah Khan.|
|Off the main axis at Preah Khan, to both the left and right, are courtyards, and more "rooms".|
|Another view off the main circulation axis, in Preah Khan.|
Despite the crowds – in addition to European and American, there were many Korean and Japanese tour groups – which rose to an unbearable level on our last visit to Angkor Wat at sunset, our three days amid the temples of Siem Reap were for me, full of transcendent moments of pure delight. Sure, I could have hoped for that solitary walk through time where I could soak in the history and free my imagination (and I could almost do that in many locations), but all in all, I was, and am, content (though I would come back in a heartbeat!).
|Tourists stream through the outer doors of Angkor Wat in as sunset approaches.|
|View looking the left, as we move between the outer and inner enclosure of Angkor Wat. In the foreground is the representation of a seven-headed Naga (serpent diety).|
|One of the many colonnaded corridors of Angkor Wat. The much loved Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, unfolds through the bas-relief on the left of this corridor, as it stretches on and on.Other corridors tell the story of another Hindu epic, the Ramayana.|
|Detail at the uppermost section of Angkor Wat.|
|The open doorway beckons...so much more of Angkor to explore!|