Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Siem Reap

Siem Riep is a very touristy town, but it has every reason to be since it’s just about as close as you can get to the temples of Angkor without a time machine. It certainly came in handy that it had one of those ubiquitous Irish pubs, since it was St. Patrick’s day and we were in serious need of some green beer. We also appreciated the profusion of air conditioning given the 100 degree heat, so we really can’t complain about these conveniences of home.

In reality, you would need weeks, maybe years, to properly explore the temples of Angkor and all of their winding caverns and passageways. We had only three days, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to make the most of our time. We started out visiting the temples around Angkor Wat and then travelled further afield.

Not surprisingly, Angkor Wat was a highlight. It is the largest religious structure in the world and represents the pinnacle of Khmer architectural design. The carved bas-relief murals that line the halls are intricate and evocative and the five central towers reaching skyward are truly magnificent, especially at dawn or dusk when they light up like shimmering gold. But, Angkor is so much more than Angkor Wat. The story that unravels as you visit different sites gives you a much greater appreciation for the complexity and resilience of the Khmers than any single structure could.
The first thing that struck us was the sheer magnitude of the ruins. Each consecutive king wanted to honor the gods anew and commissioned a state temple to be built, thus moving the center of the kingdom over and over again. Our awe for the scope and power of the civilization was compounded when we contemplated the fact that while only religious structures remain, thousands of people lived in impermanent wooden settlements radiating out from the main temples at one point in time.

The temples exhibit an amazing diversity of styles. You can see the progression through the ages of different building techniques, materials and decorative themes, with each generation bringing something innovative to the traditional design. Another transformation you notice is a shift in religious beliefs. The Khmer’s were heavily influenced by their contact with Indian traders who came through the area and originally adopted a mix of Hindu and local deities, but later were converted by Buddhist teachings. In the end, sentiments swung back to Hinduism, evidenced by the thousands of Buddah images that were defaced or altered into less controversial figures.

Some of the temples were impressive due to their size or stature, such as the pyramid-shaped “mountain temples” of Pre Rup and Ta Keo, which were intended to emulate the sacred Mount Meru. Others were notable because of the uniqueness of the decoration. Two of our favorite structures, the Bayon and Banteay Srei, were actually quite modest in size.

The Bayon was built out of a cluster of towers carved with faces on all four sides. The faces evoke a strange sense of mystery and wonder, especially when navigating the maze-like inner chambers. The Bayon also has some fine bas-relief carvings portraying great battles and other historical events, as well as more obscure images from Hindu mythology.

Twenty-some kilometers from Angkor Wat is Banteay Srei, which has the most exquisite reliefs of all the temples we visited. It was not built by a king, but rather a counselor, and appears almost miniature in scale compared to other temples. Its beauty lies in the fact that nearly all of its surfaces are carved with rich and enigmatic images – the lion god Narasimha clawing at an enemy, a multi-headed demon shaking Mount Kailasa, Krishna and his brother firing arrows to stop the rain. It is truly a creative and artistic masterpiece.

Complimenting the splendor of the temples themselves are the dramatic landscapes in which they were built. Many temples were built on hills to provide sweeping views of the surrounding area, and most contained some element of water for dramatic effect, such as a moat or lake. The environment continues to shape them into the present day, with trees having invaded many of the structures, winding and wrapping their way around the stonework. While some of the temples have been restored, others have been left in this state of decay, providing a fantastical backdrop for movies like Tomb Raider.

We absolutely loved our time in Angkor and would definitely put it in our list of “must-see” places in the world.

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