Archaeological Discovery

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia

We met up with James St Julian, Jonno's former history teacher, a little after 8 am. He made some suggestions of temples to visit today and also for the rest of the week, largely based on chronological order, so we now had an itinerary to work to. Even before we had left, he had us spellbound with his stories of the history of the temples and we knew that we were in for a great day of discovery.

We picked up two tuk tuks and set of for our first stop which was the Rolous temples, about 13 km east of Siem Reap. These are amongst the earliest of the temples built by the Khmers that remain in existence today.

We started with Lolei which had four brick towers and had been built on an island in the centre of a reservoir by Yasovarman I, the founder of the first city of Angkor. We saw the carvings of the guards of the temples and the carvings in the doorways, now largely lost. There were four temples dedicated to his mother, father and maternal grandparents in 890s.

We then saw Preah Ko, the bull temple, erected by Indravarman I in the late 9th century. It had 6 stone towers, the largest being in the centre of the front row. The front towers related to male ancestors or gods, whilst the back ones related to female ancestors or gods.

The final temple of the Rolous group was Bakong which was built by Indravarman I and dedicated to Shiva. It is a representation of Mt Meru, the abode of ancient gods, and built in a pyramid style, with five tiers. Mt Meru was a mythical place that is represented in the design of many temples including Angkor Wat. The temple is built on a hill, man made if necessary, and the mountain is represented by a tower mounted on a tiered base. At the summit was a central sanctuary, usually with an open door to the east and three false doors at the other points of the compass.

We enjoyed exploring these temples and James provided a lot of detailed information about the carvings and design of the temples.

Then it was onto Angkor Wat. It was apparent as we approached that we were in the midst of a tourist explosion. There were masses of buses, tuk tuks, motorcyles, cars and bikes. Quite a contrast to the Rolous temples where if you waited a few minutes you could take photos with barely a tourist in sight

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a wide moat and you cross a causeway to get to the entrance of the temple. It is huge. The outer wall is intact and massive. We went through to one side, where James showed us square holes that had been cut into the outer wall, indicating that it may once have been fortified.

Ankgor Wat is literally heaven on earth and the earthly representation of Mt Meru. It is well preserved and has been in continuous use since it was built in the twelfth century.

We passed two libraries and up an avenue to the central temple and its interlinked galleries. The main entrance was shrouded in scaffolding, so we entered from the side. Around the outside of the central temple galleries was a series of intricate carvings that had extraordinary detail. We examined these, with James pointing out particular points of interest. These bas-reliefs covered around 800 metres and depicted epic events including the Battle of Kurukshetra, the battle march of Suryavarman II, Heaven and Hell and the fascinating Churning of the Ocean of Milk which depicts a tug of war between the demons, holding the head of the serpent Vasuki, and the gods holding its tail. Vishnu stands on a turtle in the centre as the demons and gods fight to extract the elixir of immortality.

From there we headed to the central temple which you could climb up to. Given the queues, and the time, we decided to leave that for another day and headed back out to our waiting tuk tuks.

Back at the hotel we said goodbye to James and settled down for a late lunch of bread and cheese and wi-fi time, before heading down for a swim. We went into the city for dinner and ice creams and then returned to get ready for an early start tomorrow as we visit Banteay Srei.