On Sunday, in an effort to get ahead of the heat, we had organised to meet our tuk tuk driver at 7am after we had all had a decent go at the scrumptious Victoria buffet. He was there waiting with a wide grin and a map of the Angkor complex. The walled city of Angkor Thom and the incredible faces of Bayon first, he suggested, then head towards the dizzying heights of Ta Keo taking in some of the smaller temples and structures between before finishing at Angelina’s leafy and mysterious Ta Prohm and off we went.
The three levels of the temple are entered via a raised walkway. Each level can be reached by climbing ancient crumbling precipitous steps at each compass direction some with a bigger step than others! Once inside the wall you are constantly aware of the faces quietly watching from every angle but curiously it is not ominous but rather in a peaceful unruffled kind of way
The outside walls are covered with wonderfully detailed bas reliefs picturing daily life, chronicling wars and victories.
We walked down a dirt path past a huge saffron draped Buddha to Baphuon a pyramid shaped temple representing mount Meru which is largely closed off due to restoration work. We walked around the outside to the western side of the temple where a part of the wall that was fashioned into a reclining Buddha is currently being restored.
Opposite on a huge piece of grass we could see laterite towers known as Prasat Suor Prat which are believed to have once contained a linga. It is thought that performers may have performed on strung ropes between the towers and disconcertingly that they may have been used to publically settle disputes whereby the two parties would be made to sit in a tower each until one or other succumbed to disease which would prove his guilt. These would however have to be explored another day as the sun was rapidly climbing and we were slowly melting in the Cambodian heat and Ta Prohm was ahead.
(It's not the going up that takes courage it's the coming down!)
The steps of the temples were built intentionally steep to encourage those ascending to climb 'on all fours' and to encourage descent backwards as if you are bowing your way out of a room. The women's steps were less precipitous than the men's.
Ta Keo, unadorned and unfinished but magnificent all the same. It was built by Jayavarman V entirely out of sandstone and dedicated to Shiva. It's summit (which we all climbed) is 50 meters high and is reached by a couple of levels of steep steps. The view was worth the effort but the heart certainly stopped beating a few times during the descent.
(I took this photo of M from behind him ie I was up there too!!)
The entrance to Ta Prohm is along a wide dirt path flanked by jungle. The crowds seemed the worst here maybe because they were all concentrated along the wooden boardwalks that have been erected to try and preserve the fading temple that is delicately entwined with several huge fig trees. Built in 1186 as the Rajavihara, monastery for the king, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to Jayavarman’s mother and is one of the only temples in Angkor to have been found with an inscription providing information about it’s inhabitants.
Ta Prohm’s intimate size, it’s congested corridors and towers entangled with tree massive hugging roots and piles of moss greened rubble make give it an otherworldly fairytale appearance (perfect for a Hollywood movie perhaps?). Sadly the wooden boardwalks although provided for very good reason give it the feeling of a Hollywood set.
After 5 hours of temple hopping we decided our day was over and a nice cool soak in the salt water pool back at the Victoria was in order. Angkor could be explored again another day, we still hadn’t even scratched the surface of the many temples in the greater area of the park and beyond.
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk,
In Hindu mythology, 13 precious things including the elixir of immortality were lost in the churning of the cosmic sea. To find them required a joint operation between gods and demons with the aid of Vasuki the giant serpent who offered himself as a rope. The serpent was yanked back and forth over Mount Mandara, represented by a tower, in a giant ‘churning’ tug-of-war that lasted for a thousand years.
This story is also represented in a bas-relief panel at Angkor Wat. The front end of the serpent is being pulled by 91 truculent asuras or demons, who are anchored by the 21-headed demon king Ravana. Pulling the tail are 88 doe eyed devas (gods) who are, in turn, anchored by monkey-god Hanuman. Vasuki has wrapped himself around Mount Mandara, the churning stick which is represented by a tower. At one point Mount Mandara began to sink, and had to be bolstered by an incarnation of Vishnu characterised by a giant tortoise. The Sea of Milk, or the Ocean of Immortality, is represented by innumerable fish and aquatic creatures, torn to shreds as they swim close to powerful air currents near the churning stick. At the centre is four armed Vishnu (remember him from Angkor Wat?) with the smaller figure, above him, of Indra, god of the sky.
The gods and demons pull Vasuki causing the mountain in the middle to spin and churn the sea which eventually creates the elixor of life and essence of immortality called amrita. Beautiful and seductive Apsaras (Khmer celestial dancers) are also formed.