Tourists flock en masse to the Angkor complex all year round yet even amongst the madness, the millennium-old carvings whisper messages of peace
The blazing sun is almost right overhead, our eyes are burning from the sweat constantly running into them, our shirts are soaked and we are not even close to entering the Bayon, the richly decorated temple at the centre of Angkor Thom and part of Angkor Archaeological Park. The site is just five minutes from the spot where we alighted from the bus but apparently a headcount has to be completed before we enter the site.
“Millions of tourists visit the Angkor complex every year,” our guide tells us.
“Do not leave any valuables like mobile phones and cameras in the bus and always be careful of your belongings or they’ll disappear. We have to enter the sites in a group so do not wander around. And don’t touch any carvings or bas reliefs or you’ll be fined,” he instructs before leading us to two officers sitting under a big tree. They finish counting us but the conversation between our guide and the officers continues and we scatter, desperate to find respite from the sun.
Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Angkor, it was all a lot less complicated. We bought our tickets, went through one check-point and then we were free to explore the 400-square-kilometres of Angkor, which encompasses Angkor Wat temple, the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and other archaeological sites boasting the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Wat and the Bayon have always been the highlights of Siem Reap but in the old days, there were plenty of quiet corners where the visitor could silently contemplate the exquisite ruins.
Now when we enter the Bayon, it is almost impossible to stick to our group or even walk at our own pace. Tourists are flocking in with their guides, who explain the symbolic meaning and history of each highlight in a babble of Chinese, French, Japanese, English, Thai, German and Korean. After a while, the sounds merge, harmonising into a multi-lingual chant to the giant smiling faces of Bayon,
The Bayon, built by King Jayavarman VII, was the last and only Angkorian state temple to be constructed primarily as a Buddhist shrine at Angkor. The similarity of the 216 gigantic faces on the temple’s 54 towers to other statues of the king has led many scholars to agree that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII though others argue that the faces belong to Avalokitesvara, as the bodhisattva of compassion is known. It is however generally agreed that the faces represent four elements that the Khmers see as virtues for a wise ruler: Metta (compassion), Karuna (the representation of pity), Mutita (the virtue of rejoicing at other people’s happiness) and Oupekha (impartiality).
Leaving the wild guesses and theories behind, I squeeze myself into a small corner of the temple to escape the endless flow of tourists and stare at the gigantic stone faces.
The towering faces, reaching up to four metres in height, seem identical at first glance. As I examine them more carefully though, each of the four faces on the individual towers seems to a slightly different expression; some smile broadly, some peacefully, others almost forlornly. Watching the gigantic faces, the babble fades away and I feel at peace.
One kilometre to the east of Angkor Thom is Ta Prohm, one of the most photographed of all the ancient temples, and a site that became internationally famous when it was used as a location in the 2001 film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie.
Originally known as Rajavihara or Monastery of the King, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s mother. Unlike most of the other temples in the complex, Ta Prohm has been largely left to Mother Nature. The enormous roots of banyan, fig and kapok trees have intruded into the ruins, their coiled roots weaving their own patterns in the stone. Trees trunks twist amongst sandstone pillars, their branches hugging each other to form a roof over the structures. Some areas of the temple are closed while others are accessible only via narrow and dark passages.
Only a few visitors stop to admire the bas reliefs and the Apsaras, celestial nymphs, in the corridor. Many of them are badly eroded and have been overcome by the gigantic tree root formation in the easternmost entrance pavilion and at the “Tomb Raider tree” in the central sanctuary.
The long hours in the sun have taken their toll and we decide to head back to our hotel, Anantara Angkor Resort and Spa, for a generous buffet lunch and a short rest before heading for Angkor Wat.
Once there, we choose to enter from the back of the temple to avoid both the heat and hordes of tourists.
Built by King Suryavarman II early in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology and its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat is the oceans beyond.
Wooden staircases add a strange look to the tower of Angkor Wat, but are vital for the survival of the ancient temple because the soft sandstone stairs are eroding with every step taken by every visitor.
The mysterious smiles of the Apsaras are mesmerising. I carefully take their photos, moving in for close ups to capture the details of their hair decorations, rings, attire and facial expressions. My reverie is interrupted by the line of tourists behind me trying to take the same shots, so I move off and hurry to catch up with the group. It is only then that I realise just how hot and tired I really feel.
After a full day’s walk around three vast archaeological sites, the resort’s serene spa is like manna from heaven and I sleep soundly that night, my dreams full of wondrous faces, each looking at me with a different smile.
If you go
_ If you are visiting temples or pagodas, knee-length shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts are acceptable. To visit the highest level of Angkor Wat, guests are requested to cover their knees and shoulders.
_ Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are growing with the number of tourists so be careful of your belongings and your travel documents at all times.
_ Bangkok Airways operates five flights daily from/to Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia. While waiting for their flights, passengers of Bangkok Airways travelling via this route can enjoy snacks, drinks and free Wi-Fi Internet at Bangkok Airways’ Boutique Lounges at Suvarnabhumi airport and at Siem Reap International Airport.
_ Log on to www.BangkokAir.com for the best fare and all-inclusive holida