Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and the gates of an ancient empire
On our third and final day of temple visiting we decided to complete what is known as the “short circuit”, a 17km loop, in reverse of the suggested order to try and avoid the crowds. Although we didn’t quite manage our 4:00am wake up this time, we still managed (with a little bit of running) to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise.
Apart from the iconic shape of the towers Angkor Wat is known for the stunning bas reliefs that ring the inner and outer walls of the temple. Each side is composed of a single story, often from the Indian Ramayana sagas, sculpted by masterful artists from another century. The tale of the Churning of the Sea of Milk on the east wall of the temple is particularly interesting. It is the Hindu tale of how 13 precious things including the elixir of immortality were lost in the churning of the cosmic sea. The bas relief depicts the co-operation of the demons and the gods as they struggle to retrieve these lost things. A giant serpent, Vasuki, offers to be wound around the churning stick and in the sculptures you can see the 91 demons on one side and the 88 gods on the other pulling on this giant snake. This causes the cosmic sea to churn into foam and spit the treasures back out. Each of the four walls has similarly epic depictions, such as demons fighting monkey armies led by the Hindu god/general Hanuman or the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology. The craftsmanship is remarkable considering the bas reliefs were carved directly into the temple walls with zero margin of error possible.
After several hours exploring the intricacies of Angkor Wat, we rode around the moat to come to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple. When early explorers stumbled upon these temples they had been overrun by nature. Rain had eroded the top layers of stone creating pockets of soil where trees had taken root and grown over the walls and sculptures. In most of the temples the jungle has been cleared to return them to their former glory but in Ta Prohm, the well-established trees have been left – ostensibly to give tourist the feeling of the first explorers but more likely because they were too hard to disengage without destroying the remaining walls. Unfortunately, this being the most popular temple, there were still tour groups milling around but, with a little bit of patience, we were able to wait them out and have sections of the temple to ourselves.
On our way from Ta Prohm to the Bayon, we passed through the Victory gate, a phenomenal structure topped with four Buddha heads facing each direction of the compass. Unlike all the people who passed by in tuk-tuks and buses trying to lean out the window to get a drive-by picture, we were able to park our bikes and marvel. On either side of the gate there were stone steps overgrown with grass that led up to the top of the tower, possibly where guards stood protecting the entrance to the city 800 years ago. We climbed these steps to get a perspective shot of how big the Buddha heads actually were.
Our final stop of the day was to return to our favourite temple, the Bayon for sunset.