Monday, November 17, 2008

Phnom Bakheng and Baksei Chamkrong

On Friday we flew up to Siem Reap for our second go at temple hopping in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Saturday morning we were up early and after filling up at the amazing ‘something for everyone including sushi and wasabi’ Victoria breakfast buffet we waved down a tuk tuk outside the hotel and again we were off.

(M pondering the morning)
We decided to start at Phnom Bakheng, the only hill in the park and a popular sunrise /sunset spot with an amazing view across the basically flat land as far as the eye can see. Then the nearby Baksei Chamkrong and Bei Prasat before exploring the twin Khleangs and the twelve Prasat Suor Prat, opposite the two terraces (see previous post) inside Angkor Thom, before scooting through the north gate to the beautifully preserved carvings of Preah Khan, the ancient pools of Neak Pean and finally the mysterious overgrown Ta Som. Our poor tuk tuk driver looked a bit confused at our list devoid of any of the ‘big three’ (Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom) but nodded confidently.

“We have already seen Angkor Wat”, we assured him, “last time.”
It was an encouragingly cool morning as we entered the park and bought our tickets and reassured our tuk tuk driver we HAD seen Angkor Wat as he drove past. Bakheng looked optimistically devoid of tour buses which meant hopefully not too many people still lurking, very post sunrise, at the top. The number of people using the site as a vantage point for a picturesque sunrise or sunset over Angkor Wat is having a serious impact on its preservation.

(Taking a photo of the photographer! Me at the top of Bakheng)

There are three paths up to Bakheng, the original path, begun between two guardian lions, now deemed too eroded, too slippery and therefore too dangerous, one for those who paid the princely sum of 20USD (yep that’s the same amount it costs to spend the whole day exploring the entire Angkor Archaeological Park) for an elephant ride up the ‘Elephant Path’ and finally one for those who chose to get to the top under their own steam. It took less than 10 minutes to walk up the phnom to the large walled Hindu ‘temple mountain’. Dedicated to Shiva, Bakheng was built at the end of the 9th century, during the last part of the reign of King Yasovarman, more than two centuries before Angkor Wat. A sanskrit inscription at Sdok Kak Thom temple in Thailand is thought to describe Bakheng as the main temple in Yasovarman’s new capital Yasodharapura, although this has yet to be archeologically proven. (There is an interesting article on this here:
Translated it says "When Sri Yasovardhana became king under the name of Yasovarman, the able Vamasiva continued as his guru. By the king's order, he set up a linga on Sri Yasodharagiri, a mountain equal in beauty to the king of mountains." In any case Bakheng was the first example of the temple- mountain style representative of Mt Meru, the home of the Hindu Gods, during Yasovarman’s reign hence it’s omnipresent location at the top of a steep hill. The climb up the steps is not as precipitous as Ta Keo and the steps are wider and less worn. The climb is broken into six tiers some have prasats (towers) in various stages of crumble. The upper most platform, which is wide and flat like a stage, set to take in the incredible 360 degree views, has five sandstone prasats stand in a quincunx pattern, one in the middle and the four around it hold the corners of the square. It must have been a spectacular site with its original 108 prasats arranged around the pyramid shaped temple.

(M at the top of Baksei Chamkrong)
Nextdoor to Bakheng, just before the south gate of Angkor Thom, is Baksei Chamkrong a small often overlooked Hindu temple. Originally dedicated to Shiva, like its larger neighbour, it apparently used to hold his golden image. Now, once you get to the top (and we all did) of an unreasonably vertical don’t look down staircase of steps much too small for ‘Keen’ size 7 feet (mine -the boys feet are at least a size or two bigger), lichen covered for extra instability, still lined with a layer of morning dew but with some very handy for the downward journey finger holds, you will find a reclining...wait for it....Buddha! The name Baksei Chamkrong literally means ‘the bird who shelters under its wings’ and comes from the story of a king who was sheltered from his mortal enemies by a huge bird with an enormous wing span.

Then it was back in the tuktuk.

‘The Bayon?’, he said.

‘No the Elephant Terrace please’, we said. ‘We have seen Bayon already.’

He smiled doubtfully but started his bike and drove through the gate into Angkor Thom. On the approach to Bayon he slowed and looked over his shoulder at us.

‘Bayon’, he said, nodding in the direction of the magnetic, smiling temple.

‘Elephant terrace’, we chorused grateful we didn’t have to fight with the mass of humanity that had just spilled out of the 5 buses in the carpark in front of The Bayon.He dropped us off right beside one of the triple headed elephants guarding the terrace steps and we picked our way through the mud and puddles in the Royal Square until we got to one of the Khleangs.

The picturesque twin buildings called Khleang, meaning storehouse (although they could have just as easily been used to house illustrious guests as supplies), were built at different times and are part of a large area of ruins of prasat, temple and pool.

I love the idea that the prasats, in front, are thought to have been used for tightrope walkers who walked on ropes stretched between or as observation points for guests watching grand parades and theatrics on the Royal Square. It’s much nicer than the other option; that they may have been used to hold litigants in disputes until one succumbed to illness or death thereby indicating their guilt.

We walked down ‘Victory Avenue’ between two pools towards the Buddha terrace and then cut across the grass towards the skeleton of the Preah Pithu complex which is mostly a jumble of large blocks now.

We found our waiting tuk tuk driver in the shade.
‘You been before!’ he grinned. The penny had dropped. ‘Where now?!’ he said.


Simple Answer said...

You've really made Cambodia come alive with your pictures!

Connie said...

I love your photos. It makes me want to pack up my family and come tour!